Nearly seven months after everything was thrown into uncertainty, life at Baltimore’s public golf courses has settled into a new normal.

The differences are noticeable. Gone are water coolers on the course and rakes in the bunkers. Masks are required inside clubhouses, and cut-up pool noodles lay in the cups. For longtime golfers, it can still feel strange. But with golf being an outdoor activity that allows for social distancing relatively easily, and thus a safe option for many seeking exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers have been up ever since Maryland allowed courses to reopen in May.

“We saw it from the first day we were back,” Classic Five executive director Tom Pierce said. “I remember I was at each of the golf courses the first day or two, that golfers were just so thankful to have this outdoor recreation activity back. … And we’ve seen that continue. We’ve seen people continue to play.”

Baltimore’s “Classic Five” municipal golf courses — Clifton Park, Forest Park, Mount Pleasant, Pine Ridge and nine-hole Carroll Park — are all more than 60 years old (Clifton Park is the oldest, built in 1915). They vary in length and layout, but all five have become staples in their surrounding communities. Since 1985, the courses have been jointly managed and operated by the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation (BMGC), a private nonprofit corporation.

Pierce, who joined BMGC as its director of marketing in 2008 and is in his first year as executive director, knows the five courses are all community assets. The four within city limits combine to make up 11 percent of Baltimore’s parkland, so it’s imperative they remain well-maintained. These courses also serve as an introduction to the game for people of all ages and backgrounds.

“All of my formative golf years were at Mount Pleasant, so it’s very near and dear to my heart,” said Calvert Hall boys’ golf coach Drew Forrester, who didn’t start playing until he was 25 but has become a competitive player himself. “I played regularly at Clifton on Saturday and Sunday mornings in the Slam Bang there for probably six years. I was just talking to a friend the other day, and I told him I felt the best golf I ever played in my life was when I was playing regularly at Clifton.”

There’s a natural competition between the courses themselves — which one receives the most rounds, who gets the best reputation for conditions, etc. Pine Ridge, a picturesque venue located on the Loch Raven Reservoir, is considered the flagship of the group, but each course provides players with different challenges. The Classic Five also faces competition from a slew of public courses in the area and across the state.

As community assets, these courses take their environmental responsibility seriously as well. The organization has been working with a committee the past few years to assess where on each course extra trees can be planted or water runoff can be better managed. Ed Miller, the head golf professional at Forest Park, has been at the forefront of this initiative.

“I’ve gotten somewhat educated through the USGA and the PGA with going with some naturalized areas, some of the benefits,” Miller said. “I just tried to expand that to not just trees, but natural grasses, areas where they’re kind of out of play. Growing natural areas has been good for some water runoff. … Just the overall blueprint, trying to keep it green, trying to keep the wildlife in the area and so forth.”

All these courses were in the early stages of their 2020 golf season when the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down in March. Events were canceled. Marketing strategies became moot. Public golf courses in Maryland were closed at the end of March along with other nonessential businesses, although dedicated customers could simply play in neighboring states where courses stayed open. Maintenance crews were deemed essential, though, and their continued work assured courses would be playable when they reopened.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced May 6 that golf courses in the state could reopen the following day. While those in the business had heard rumors of golf returning later that month, they were surprised by the immediacy, although ultimately they were ready for the traffic.

“We had been prepping for about seven weeks anticipating that we were going to be open … [but] I felt like we only got one day notice,” Miller said with a laugh. “I remember us going over the last couple things and then being in there the next day opening up the golf courses, and people were just coming out like crazy.

“The first couple weeks, it was definitely pretty wild to see so many people want to come out and play golf. I think it provided a good outlet, a little bit of exercise, some fresh air to the residents of Baltimore. So in that respect, I feel like we helped.”

There are still some challenges. Removing bunker rakes and similar tools adds some stress for the maintenance staff. Protocols in Maryland mandate one person per golf cart unless two players live in the same household, so courses have fewer available tee times due to cart shortages. It helps, though, that more golfers are choosing to walk than in the past.

“In previous years, about 20 percent of people walked when they played our courses. Now it’s well over 30 percent,” Pierce said. “Granted, some people, if they want to play at certain times and it’s a walking-only time, are doing it, but we’re hearing people saying, ‘I’m going to continue to walk.’ That’s positive on the health side, that people are coming out and utilizing the sport as much as they can.”

The shift toward remote work across much of the business world has also given avid golfers more opportunities to play — Pierce said some players have modified their now-virtual work schedules to start as early as 5 a.m. before heading to the course in the afternoon. But the sport has also attracted some new faces, perhaps most notably younger players, many of whom saw their other sports seasons evaporate this spring.

“I’m seeing a lot more interest at the high school and junior level, for sure,” Forrester said, referencing his experiences at private and public courses. “I’m guessing some of that is pandemic-driven, just in that they haven’t had a lot of other things to do and maybe they’ve been working on their golf games. I don’t know, but I’m definitely seeing more juniors play than ever before.”

Golf is seeing an uptick in rounds nationally this year, and while the numbers at Baltimore’s courses might not match that trend due to the six-week closure, business has been steady since reopening. Every course is always looking to improve going forward — Miller mentioned the possibility of soon adding a couple creeks to Forest Park to both help with water flow and add a challenge for the golfers. In a year that’s been negative in so many areas, those in the golf industry are optimistic for the game’s future.

“I think over the next year or two, at least I’m hoping that golf will continue to be on the [upswing],” Miller said. “I think based on what I’ve seen this year with some of the new amount of golfers that are getting into it because it is a safer hobby for people to do … I’m hoping the numbers will stay up and continue to maintain where we are now.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Classic Five Golf

Issue 265: October/November 2020

Originally published Oct. 14, 2020

Thomas Kendziora

See all posts by Thomas Kendziora. Follow Thomas Kendziora on Twitter at @TKendziora37