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TAMPA ― The nondescript flagstick on the 17th green at Babe Zaharias Golf Course may as well be a museum artifact.
On this warm, mildly breezy Tuesday morning, three players (two men pulling their bags with hand carts, a woman in a motorized cart) approach it, gaze at it, even kneel near it, but never touch it.
The man and woman following them also observe this peculiar precept of etiquette. Across town at Rogers Park, another of the trio of courses owned by the City of Tampa, two middle-aged men on the 18th hole also putt out with the stick still in place.
At any other surreal juncture mimicking science fiction, one might presume the sticks were made of kryptonite. But the fact they could convey something just as lethal warrants this hands-off edict, one of many precautions adopted universally by golf’s guardians in the coronavirus era.
“We’re always about safety, No. 1, for employees and golfers,” said John Reynaud, vice-president of hospitality and golf at Feather Sound Country Club in St. Petersburg. “We’ve taken every precaution for them to be safe so they’re okay on the golf course.”
Even a sport seemingly compatible with social distancing has been altered considerably as the current global pandemic continues its rampage. Initially, the tightened guidelines may seem subtle.
But the subtleties multiply over 18 holes.
On No. 1, you may be inclined to remove the flagstick for a putt, only to be reminded they’re not to be touched. On No. 3, no rake can be found to smooth out the bunker you failed to clear.
Meantime, the ball washers have vanished, and the beverage-cart attendants ― if any are roaming the course at all ― keep their distance.
“It was normal until it got weird,” said Josh Saunders, a Robinson High advanced-math teacher and flag football coach who had such an experience at Westchase Golf Club late last week.
“It was normal until you ran into something you’ve done 50 times on a golf course, that all of the sudden you couldn’t do, like rake or tip the (beverage) girl.”
For now, area courses remain open amid stay-at-home orders issued by officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The stipulation, of course, is that all must abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines.
The latest provisions for the city-owned courses in Tampa indicate carts no longer are available until an online pre-pay system is implemented. Those who wish to walk are asked to observe an honor system of payment, dropping their $20 green fee (cash only) in a box located at the pro shop’s front door.
All food and beverage service has been shut down (though players may bring their own drinks and snacks), and all water coolers have been removed from the course. Staffers are prohibited from interacting with the public, but the facilities are under 24-hour surveillance.
The miniature flags even have been removed from the practice greens.
At Feather Sound, carts are limited to one occupant only. If no more are available, players will be offered a hand cart or walking bag free of charge. While a limited food menu remains available, it’s for take-out only.
“We contemplated (closing) for sure,” said Reynaud, who acknowledges business has slowed as the pandemic has intensified.
“But golf is one of the last things that people can do outdoors, and as long as we can stay by the guidelines and keep a safe environment for people, then we don’t see any issue with that at all.”
Just prepare for a few divots in the routine.
“You went out there to kind of get away from everything, trying to enjoy the day and normalcy of it all,” Saunders said. “And then there were just little things that just reminded you, ‘We’re not normal. This is not a normal time.’”
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