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New Rules for Golf, Tennis and Pickleball During Coronavirus

The outbreak is a game changer, but players say they can mix fun and safety

Closeup image of a hand reaching for a golf ball on the ground with a golf club
graphixchon / getty images

Certain sports are made for social distancing; others, not so much. Golf offers acres of wide outdoor spaces. Tennis courts are 78 feet long, so players (especially in singles games) are usually well over 6 feet apart. Pickleball, meanwhile, is a bit more problematic in the COVID-19 era, with its smaller court.

Whichever of the three sports you favor, if you play during the outbreak you are likely to notice some changes. Here's an overview of new rules, meant to lower the risk of the coronavirus spreading among players, around the country.

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Golf

After weeks of staying at home because of COVID-19, golfers are hitting the links with gusto. Ninety-eight percent of the nation's golf courses have reopened, and demand for tee times is high: In a National Golf Foundation survey, 44 percent of golf course operators said that golfers played as many rounds in May as they normally would, while another 44 percent said golfers played more than usual. Only 12 percent reported a drop-off.

Many states and communities are following guidelines called Back2Golf, introduced in May by six golf organizations. The guidelines offer distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — such as requiring players to ride alone in golf carts — and reduce exposure to high-touch surfaces. At public courses in Los Angeles County, for example, bunker rakes, flagsticks, ball washers, benches, divot boxes and sand bottles have all been removed.

The Back2Golf guidelines also recommend adding barriers to prevent players from pulling their balls from the holes. To do that, some course operators have cut foam swimming pool noodles and stuffed them in the cups. Another option is to raise the cup about 2 inches above the turf so the ball can't enter.

Even with those guidelines, pandemic-related golf rules vary considerably depending on the state or local government, says Ronnie Miles, director of advocacy for the National Golf Course Owners Association, one of the organizations that contributed to the guidelines. In Massachusetts, for example, golfers are not allowed to use caddies — but caddies are just fine in states like South Carolina. Palm Beach, Florida, recently released rules allowing two riders in a cart, provided there's a divider. Rhode Island allows only single riders. Some courses have made similar decisions: The Maple Bluff Country Club in Madison, Wisconsin, only allows single riders in carts. To further help with distancing, the club added two minutes to the intervals between tee times.

No states require golfers to wear masks, and at least one state has lifted its coronavirus golf rules entirely. On June 10, New Jersey's governor issued an executive order removing all COVID-19 golf restrictions and empowering golf courses to make their own pandemic-related decisions.

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The safety measures at most golf courses are unobtrusive, but one change has been controversial: raising the liner to keep the ball out of the hole. In March, the United States Golf Association — another organization that helped develop the Back2Golf guidelines — amended its scoring rules: If a ball even skims the cup liner, the shot is considered in. That change has allowed some players to lower their scores and handicaps.

"I'm not sure why anyone would elect that type of setup,” says Miles, who's a recreational golfer in addition to working for a golf association. “Golf relies on honesty and respect for the game.”

Some golfers may grumble about the scoring changes, but most, like Miles, are simply thrilled to be playing again after a long hiatus.

"None of these changes have really hampered my ability to enjoy the experience,” he says. “I enjoy the game just as I did before."

Male hand holding tennis ball for disinfection of tennis balls close up
Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images