For the past five years, Mike Keane, Ron Hooper, Phil Jones and Sammy Kim have played golf together nearly every day. Keane, a 72-year-old Catonsville resident, calculated that he alone played 280 rounds last year.
So he knows exactly how long he and his foursome have gone without playing golf after his home course at Diamond Ridge was closed March 19 because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s been 50 days,” he said Thursday. “You’re getting out there, you’re getting some exercise, you’re getting some fresh air, you’re getting the camaraderie. So it’s almost necessary for us. We’ve been hurting.”
The pain endured by Keane and many other golfers in Maryland came to a merciful end Wednesday when Gov. Larry Hogan slightly lifted restrictions on outdoor recreation. The governor gave the green light for individual and small group sports such as tennis, horseback riding and recreational fishing and hunting to resume Thursday.
The impact of Hogan’s announcement was immediate. Tim Butler, the head golf professional at Diamond Ridge and The Woodlands Golf Courses, said that about a minute after Hogan publicized his decision about 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, the phones rang nonstop until 6 p.m.
“It was unbelievable,” he said, adding that Baltimore County’s public courses will not formally open until Saturday. “We had two of us here and three lines, and we couldn’t keep up with the phone calls.”
Piney Branch Golf Club, a private facility in Upperco in Carroll County, also reopened Thursday and saw plenty of play.
“We were booked solid from 10 to 6,” assistant professional Cory Love said. “Our members were eager to get back out there and I can’t blame them.”
The Timbers at Troy reopened its golf course and practice facilities at 10 a.m. and saw a full tee sheet until after 6 p.m. Players flocked to the course from all over, as many other facilities were unable to open back up right away.
“We were basically looking all over the place online for places that were advertising tee times you could book online right away. This was one of only a few that we could find,” said Connor Brady of Olney. “We got ourselves an 11:30 tee time and it worked out great.”
For its part, Timbers was well-prepared to handle guests while operating under the new safety guidelines.
Several signs preaching social distancing, safety for employees and adjusted protocols for golfers were posted all over the outside of the clubhouse and next to the cart paths. Individuals were not allowed to enter the clubhouse itself, with the back deck now being used for check-in and payment collection.
The practice greens were open but no longer have holes, while the number of driving range mats (11) has been cut in half to allow for social distancing.
Tennis courts were also filled to capacity most of the afternoon at Rockburn Park in Elkridge and at Centennial Park in Ellicott City.
For Bri Reese from Ellicott City, who said she comes to Rockburn Park on a weekly basis during a normal operating situation, the chance to get out and do something recreational like tennis was a welcome reprieve.
“I think it’s really important, especially for mental health, to get out," she said. "It’s been really hard being inside for the most part for over a month and for those living in apartment complexes or townhouse communities, you can only walk around your neighborhood so many times. So it’s nice to finally have something different to do.”
However, several areas of Howard County parks remain closed, including all basketball courts and playgrounds. The rims at Centennial Park, removed during the shutdown, have not been reinstalled, while the rims at Rockburn are blocked with rubber pads.
The Skills park for bicycles at Rockburn is also still closed, along with all of the baseball and softball diamonds around the county. Signage is inconsistent on the turf fields, however, and they were receiving consistent use during the afternoon hours Thursday.
In addition to golf and tennis, recreational boating was permitted to start again, and Thursday was like Christmas morning at Bert Jabin’s Yacht Yard located on Back Creek in Annapolis.
Jabin’s Yacht Yard has remained open throughout the coronavirus crisis because Hogan categorized such facilities as “essential business.” Owner Rod Jabin said that his employees, along with independent service contractors, have been prepping boats for launch throughout the past two months.
However, because of the governor’s stay-at-home order that specifically banned recreational boating, owners have not been coming to Jabin’s to launch and head out on the water.
Jabin said that the Department of Natural Resources issued a clarification stating that owners could pick up their boats from a winter location and transit them to their slip or mooring. However, owners concerned about violating the governor’s mandate elected to have the yacht yard deliver the boats or simply left them at the yard for the time being.
“We’ve already had a bunch of launches this morning and I expect it will continue throughout the day,” Jabin said. “Owners have been cooped up inside and are anxious to start the spring boating season.”
Andy Anderson has questioned the state’s ban on recreational boating ever since it was implemented. The Edgewater resident has taken to social media several times to ask how such an order made sense.
The owner-operator of Finest Kind Yacht Management, a company that performs all the services necessary to commission a boat, Anderson is a boat owner himself and launched his powerboat before Hogan issued the ban on recreational boating. He is looking forward to cruising to such destinations as St. Michael’s, Oxford and Tilghman Island in the coming weeks.
“Marinas that have space for transient boats are jumping for joy right now,” he said. “Now we need Governor Hogan to open the restaurants, so we have somewhere to eat and drink when we arrive in a port.”
Gregg Bortz, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said that many state parks had been open. Hogan’s announcement regarding the re-opening of beaches also meant that residents could once again visit the parks at Assateague, Sandy Point and Newtowne Neck.
According to department figures, more than 1 million people in March and 975,000 people in April visited state parks. Last year, more than 627,000 people in March and 994,000 people in April used state parks.
“Our parks have seen strong visitation these past several weeks and we expect that to continue at all parks,” he said via email. “We don’t have immediate attendance figures, which are updated monthly. Importantly, staff has reported that the vast majority of state park visitors have been enjoying passive, solitary activities and complying with the governor’s orders on social distancing and avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people.”
Similar limitations remain at golf courses. The grills and restaurants inside golf club houses are closed, and golfers are required to wear facemasks when interacting with golf course employees. Non-related players are restricted to their own golf carts, rakes have been removed from sand bunkers and cups on greens have been raised or covered.
But that hardly mattered according to Tom Pierce, the interim executive director of the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation which operates Carroll Park, Clifton Park, Forest Park, Mount Pleasant and Pine Ridge golf courses. He said that more than 500 golfers played Thursday at the five courses.
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“The golfers seemed so happy,” he said. “They just wanted to get out and recreate and enjoy the outside and have a couple hours to disconnect from the world and get away some mental stress and anguish. People were just telling us all day that they were so happy. After the rounds, people were saying, ‘It’s so nice just to have this back. It helps me rejuvenate.’”
Damian Cosby, Anne Arundel county’s chief of park maintenance and director of golf operations, attended Thursday’s noon opening at Compass Pointe Golf Course in Pasadena and said that only a handful of afternoon tee times were available.
“I think a lot of it is that folks were pent up for six or seven weeks and want to be able to get outside and get some exercise in,” he said. “If you know anything about golfers, they are creatures of habit, and when you take away our vice and then it opens again, we’re going to rush to go do it.”
Keane, the 72-year-old golfer from Catonsville, said that he and his friends understand the rationale behind Hogan’s decision to shut down courses to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re all up in age, and you don’t want to give anything to anybody,” he said. “You don’t want to give anything to your families either. I have three granddaughters, and I haven’t seen them. I’ve talked to them, but I haven’t seen them. Two of them are graduating on the 21st of this month. So it’s been hard. It’s really tough. You’re just hoping that everybody is well.”