The game they were playing had been fundamentally altered, but Soldotna’s Kevin and Kay Downs didn’t seem too concerned as they breezed around Birch Ridge Golf Course on Saturday night in temperatures in the 50s and under a blue sky decorated with a half moon.
Golf was no longer about getting the ball in the hole. Instead, the Downs were aiming to hit yellow foam noodles stuck in the cup and wrapped around the flagstick.
Using the noodle allows Birch Ridge to spare golfers from having to touch the flagstick, and thus possibly spread the new coronavirus.
“It’s not real golf, but it’s pretty close,” said Kevin, who has been playing Birch Ridge since 2003. “This time of year, it’s all about going out, getting exercise and taking a few swings on a nice day.”
Those familiar rhythms are even more needed during a time when so much has been upended by a pandemic.
Kevin works for the Kenai Peninsula School District in the district office, and has been getting into the office for a few days a week, but is mostly working from home.
He’s also been having fun watching Kay teach by remote learning. She teaches prekindergarten for the school district.
“I’d never trade that for the classroom, ever, but it’s more fun than I thought it would be,” Kay said.
The golfing also was fun, as evidenced by a decent crowd out on a still-soggy course in early May.
“It was busy when we first got here, that’s why we moved to the third hole,” Kay said. “It’s nice to see people out.”
While Kay was playing her first round of the year, Kevin was on his third.
He said some have been tempted to try and straighten out curving putts by ramming the ball at the noodle at a rate normally too fast for plopping the ball in the hole. The problem with such a strategy is a miss goes way past the hole.
Lip-outs, though, are a thing of the past so far in this pandemic.
“I had a couple putts early on that I thought, ‘Eh, that might not have gone in,’” Kevin said.
Kevin also played a few rounds with his friends, and said they joked the finality of a hole could be missed when bets are on the line. “I ticked it! I ticked it!” arguments are no doubt forthcoming.
Something else was missed.
“There were no high-fives,” Kevin said of interactions with his friends. “It was a little strange because of that. It was good to see them out here and get back to a little bit of normalcy.”
Zac Cowan, who co-owns Birch Ridge with his wife, Anna, said the course has been popular since opening April 27. Cowan said it’s hard to compare with past years because Birch Ridge did not have its usual season-opening party.
“I’ve seen people I’ve never seen swing a club before decide to come out this week,” Cowan said. “They’re itching to get out of the house and still be in a safe place where they can exercise and be together.
“It’s been very positive so far. People are excited to be out of their houses.”
In a mandate that went into effect April 24, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said members of different households can engage in outdoor day recreation as long as the group doesn’t exceed 20 people, engages in social distancing protocols and practices sanitation measures.
Cowan said the lounge and pro shop are closed so employees don’t have to constantly wipe down after each customer. Golfers can still tell employees to get items out of the pro shop.
That also allows almost all interactions with customers to be outside and at a safe distance. Employees wash their hands after each transaction with a customer.
Carts are not yet available because the course is still soggy in areas. Once carts are available, only members of the same household will be able to ride in the same cart. Cowan said this means carts should go fast.
“We’re just trying to cover everyone’s butts and be very consistent with what each course in the state is doing,” Cowan said. “We’re closing the pro shop and treating interactions much like restaurants and keeping our distance to avoid, one, the spread of any potential outbreak, and two, avoid potentially having to shut down, which would cripple any golf course.”
Cowan said this week Birch Ridge will follow Palmer Golf Course in lowering the yellow noodle an inch into the hole. This will allow the ball to drop, but also allow the ball to be easily popped out with a putter without touching the flagstick.
“We’ll make the change this week, and golf will be a little more like it should be,” Cowan said.
Preseason rates will be in effect at Birch Ridge until Sunday, when the course will be playing to nine of its 10 greens. Cowan has also extended season pass discounts to the middle of May and made the discount 10% instead of 5% because golfers may be experiencing a hit to their incomes due to the new coronavirus.
At Kenai Golf Course, Mark Griffin, who owns the course with his wife, Lara, said May 15 is the target opening day due to a top layer of mud still hanging on at the course. Griffin said players can expect to see similar alterations to the holes and cart policy.
“We’re still finalizing some things,” Griffin said. “As we’ve seen, some of these things have been changing by the week.”