Is golf allowed? The answer in Shelby County is ‘maybe’

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 01, 2020 1:20 PM CT | Published: March 28, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Golf courses across Shelby County may need a rules interpretation on whether the game is in or out of bounds as a permitted activity during this era of social distancing and COVID-19.

All public and private courses inside Memphis remain closed after being labeled “nonessential businesses” by the City of Memphis.

COVID-19 pandemic closes city golf courses despite their wide-open spaces

But golfers played Friday at some sites outside Memphis, including the semi-private Mirimichi golf course in unincorporated Shelby County. And employees answering the phone at the private Ridgeway and Memphis National courses in Collierville said those courses were open as well, according to a spot check by The Daily Memphian.

Jessica and Mark Rippy drove with their children, Graceyn, 9, and Harper, 4, from their home in East Memphis on Friday afternoon to Mirimichi, which is a few miles north of Memphis. Renting two riding carts, Mark would play while his wife and children would ride along, enjoying the mild weather and Mirimichi’s 300 park-like acres.

“They have been inside for three weeks now,” Jessica said of the kids. “The weather is beautiful. It was an opportunity to get out where we haven’t been able to get out to the playground or the parks.”

Golf is a stress-reliever for Mark.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on in life, I come out here and the only thing I’m thinking about is getting that ball into the cup,” he said.

The golf industry is making its case that, by taking the necessary precautions, courses should be allowed to operate.

Some golf courses to reopen

The Golf Course Superintendents Association of American posted on its website, “The major golf organizations, including GCSAA, PGA Tour, PGA of America, LPGA, USGA, NGCOA and CMAA, have spearheaded an effort to reach Governors of all 50 states appealing to keep the outdoor space of the golf courses open.

“Golf courses have tremendous benefits to offer during times of crisis, including health, wellness and fresh air in open spaces for recreation and a break from stress. Golf courses are responding to health advisories and adjusting their operations by closing clubhouse amenities and restaurants and complying with CDC Social Distancing Guidelines…,” the organization said.

On Friday, Mirimichi’s staff seemed earnest about the precautions ordered and monitored by Mirimichi operations director Blake Rogers.

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Only one person was allowed per riding cart even if it meant Mirimichi would run out of carts. Only five of the 64 carts remained available at 2 p.m. Friday during relatively heavy play. About 60 vehicles were parked in the parking lot.

Only one guest at a time was allowed inside the clubhouse to use the restroom. Staff greeted golfers from a table outside the front door. Anyone wanting a hot dog or drink told an employee, who went inside, got the food and brought it outside to the guest. 

On the course, golf cups that normally are five inches deep were adjusted to just one-inch deep so that players could retrieve their balls without touching the lining. Golfers were told never to touch the flag sticks. Ball washers were removed. On-course restrooms were closed.

Rogers said Mirimichi reopened Friday after being removed from the “nonessential business” list. Pressed about the change, he said Mirimichi received informal approval from Shelby County government. 

The Daily Memphian’s attempts to reach and get confirmation from Shelby County officials on Friday were unsuccessful.

On the other side of Shelby County, a couple of private courses in Collierville were open on Friday.

“If the Health Department weighs in and says (golf courses) are closed, we’ll tell them to close,” Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner said late Friday afternoon.

Earlier in the week, town officials had interpreted the Health Department’s guidelines as permitting golf. Town Administrator James Lewellen had told the Memphis National and Ridgeway clubs they could operate as long as they self-imposed restrictions to promote social distancing.

“You can go out and play a round of golf without coming into as close a contact as you do going through a drive-thru to pick up food,” said Lewellen, a golfer himself.

But the situation may have changed on Friday, when the Health Department issued another directive about sheltering in place, Lewellen said. The directive did not list, as permitted or prohibited, outdoor activities including golf.

So, Lewellen said he would put the town’s two private golf clubs on notice Friday, and would invite them to seek a clarification over the weekend from the Health Department. The town will reconsider on Monday whether to require the courses to close, he said.

Meanwhile, the city of Memphis list of essential and nonessential businesses categorizes golf courses as “nonessential,” meaning they must close in the city.

COVID-19 in Memphis & Shelby County: March

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golf town of collierville Mirimichi COVID-19
Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey covers business news for The Daily Memphian. A Tupelo, Mississippi, native, he graduated from Mississippi State University. He's worked in journalism for 40 years and has lived in Midtown for 36 years.

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