T&D Region golf courses adjust to changes brought on by COVID-19
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T&D Region golf courses adjust to changes brought on by COVID-19

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Golf courses throughout The T&D Region have been adjusting to the challenges of safe operation during the coronavirus pandemic. 

With health and safety at the forefront, some locations — including Orangeburg Country Club, Santee National, Santee Cooper, Lake Marion and the Bamberg Golf Course — made changes in March and have continued to offer tee times on a regular basis. Most of these have links on their websites explaining their recent adjustments and rule changes for play.

However, municipal courses — including Calhoun Hills Golf Complex and Hillcrest Golf Course — shut down operation as soon as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced mid-March that parks and recreation areas should be closed. Those locations are opening back up now in May, since government regulations have been adjusted in recent days.

Most of the social distancing changes for golfers at courses across the state have been simple, including paying your green fees when you reserve a tee time, so one cart per golfer can be sanitized and ready with their name on the cart when they arrive. Rakes have been removed from most sand traps, as have ball washers along the cart path.

Hillcrest to reopen Thursday

Hillcrest Golf Course plans to reopen for play on Thursday, May 7.

Due to some employees considered to be high-risk individuals when it comes to COVID-19, golf pro/course manager Greg Funderburk will have a skeleton staff working the course and pro shop at least through this month. All employees will be pre-screened and tested if displaying any symptoms of the COVID-19 virus prior to returning to work at the course.

"We had a crew remove some storm-damaged trees on Friday, and we will have an all-out push Monday through Wednesday to get the course acceptable for play starting on Thursday," Funderburk said. "Greens and tee boxes will be priority, and then fairways. So, our fairways might be a little shaggy for a few days, as we take care of things.

"We are looking at limited hours and limited days, due to the crisis and our personnel."

Plans are for Hillcrest to offer play from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays, at least for the remainder of spring.

All of the course's 50 carts must be returned to an area that will be designated near the cart building by 7 p.m. nightly, for sanitation purposes. Golfers are asked to dispose of their own trash in supplied receptacles.

"All of our staff will be wearing masks and gloves, according to state and federal guidelines," Funderburk said. "That will mainly pertain to areas in and around the buildings and golfers.

"Of course, social distancing on 300 acres is really not a problem. We can do this and offer a great golfing environment."

The driving range and putting greens will be open, as range balls will be sanitized and placed in baskets for customers. Restrooms will be sanitized hourly.

As for restrictions in place, only one person will be allowed per golf cart, unless they are family, only 4 people will be allowed in the clubhouse/pro shop building at one time, and snacks for sale will only include bottled drinks and pre-packaged food items. All transactions in the pro shop must be made with a debit card, credit card or a personal check, with no cash accepted. And golfers are asked to pick up instead of putting out when their shot is close to a hole, to avoid touching flag sticks.

"For now, we encourage walkers to come and play, but to secure a golf cart it needs to be prepaid," Funderburk said. "By making a tee time in no way guarantees you cart access. When you pay in advance, we will have a cart ready. These guidelines come from the National Golf Course Association of America and the Carolinas Golf Association.

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"We thought, when we had to close, that it would be mid-May before we would be able to reopen. But since the state guidelines changed for parks and recreation, based on our governor's announcements, we can now reopen earlier. We ask that golfers leave the area once they are through playing, instead of congregating under the pavilion or in the parking lot. Hopefully, this won't be that long with the current set-up, but we do want to get people back on the course in a safe manner."

Funderburk pointed out that department heads from City of Orangeburg offices have wanted to get Hillcrest back open, as soon as it could do so safely and with state government's approval.

"I'm very excited, our golf course means a lot to our community," Funderburk said. "People want to come play, and not just our members. On Facebook, nearly 200 people have asked in recent weeks when we are going to reopen.

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"You want to provide a product that people can enjoy. I've tried to get conditions of play better and better the last two years. But the fairways will be a little challenging for a few days once we open back. We were able to maintain the tee boxes and greens in recent weeks, but had one piece of equipment go down while working on the fairways, so we are playing catch-up with a replacement piece of equipment."

One recent upgrade that members and frequent guests will notice is the green-side bunker renovations, closely resembling the original design when the course was constructed by Russell Breeden, prior to the course opening in September of 1973.

"We have front-to-back bunkers now, like they were designed, and it's not just to speed up play," Funderburk said. "We will continue moving forward in upgrading our facilities and our course, giving the citizens a product they'll be proud of, as one of the best municipal facilities around."

Golf again in St. Matthews

Calhoun Hills Golf Complex reopened its course on Friday, May 1 at 8 a.m., having been closed recently due to the coronavirus pandemic and temporary state regulations.

According to some local golfers who played the St. Matthews course just hours after the reopening, conditions of the course are favorable and the grass in most areas has been mowed recently.

OCC still open for business

While municipal courses at Hillcrest and Calhoun Hills have been closed in reaction to the COVID-19 impact on the country, other area golf courses have implemented safe changes and remained open.

"We have been very diligent with all of our procedures, so that we may both be safe and continue to operate during these challenging times," Orangeburg Country Club's PGA director of golf David Lackey said on Wednesday. "We've had an amazing number of people who've thanked us for staying open.

"I think part of it is they are holding up their part of the deal with keeping their hands clean and being cautious, so that we might continue our operation safely. We have been actively monitoring social distancing, especially in the parking lot and areas where people tend to congregate. The clubhouse has been closed and there has been no dining inside."

Lackey said the biggest challenge has been having carts available for golfers to ride one person per cart and avoid sharing equipment, per the governor's policy.

"We've had the foam swimming noodles at the base of flag sticks at the holes, all rakes are off the course, all points of contact are bleach cleaned, all ball washers have been removed, and coolers on the course are supplied with bottled water," Lackey said. "The changes took place pretty quickly, except that initially the no shared golf cart rule wasn't in place.

"One thing we do corporately is put people first, especially health and safety issues."

That type of focus and service has been noticed.

"We've seen many more folks from out of town — including Summerville, Charleston and Columbia — coming and following the rules, while our members are staying close to home and playing more spring rounds than usual," Lackey said. "The big thing with the golf industry has been the maintenance of courses. Losing a golf course to lack of maintenance is like losing upkeep on machines and computers in a factory."

Lackey pointed out that letting grass on greens grow too high can result in a need to slowly cut them back down, almost having to bale the clippings, like hay. So maintaining course conditions has been a priority, right along with safety precautions.

"People are coming out to play golf on weekends like it has been normal weekends," Lackey said. "You can tell folks are working from home.

"Fridays through Sundays we are busier, as people enjoy a normal day, with a round of golf out in the sunshine to take their mind off of things."

Lackey has considered that any return to normalcy could eliminate certain current precautionary measures on and around Orangeburg Country Club. But, he has considered the possibility that single-rider golf cart rules could be in place for months to come.

That could pose challenges for courses hosting tournaments with more golfers than carts. But, so far, golf courses are trying to adjust and offer continued exercise and recreation for those wanting to tee it up through trying times.

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