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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

Playing golf in the garden. Sport and workout during work home.

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En español | 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.

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.

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."


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Disinfecting tennis balls

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Tennis

As with golf rules, safety measures for tennis can vary from state to state. Tennis courts are open in most of the country, though not necessarily every court: Some country clubs and parks are keeping roughly a third or half of their courts closed to increase spacing and limit the number of visitors. Others only allow singles play, though most now allow doubles (Connecticut, for example, allowed doubles matches to resume as of June 17). To reduce the length of matches — and the number of people waiting for a court — organizations such as the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association have instituted a 10-point tiebreaker for third sets.

The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has issued safety guidelines for players, which include the following:

  • Use two cans of balls: one for you when you're serving, one for when your opponent serves (you can mark the balls or use different brands to make clear whose balls are whose).
  • Open a new can of balls each time you play.
  • Routinely clean your racquet and water bottle during play.
  • Pick up balls with your racquet and foot — rather than with your hands — and hit them back to your opponent (although the USTA notes that there's no evidence that tennis ball can transmit COVID-19).

Most local governments and clubs are emphasizing commonsense safety steps. In Los Angeles, players are required to wear masks at all times except while they're playing. In Littleton, Colorado, the Ken-Caryl Ranch Master Association asks players to use hand sanitizer before entering the court, leave immediately once they're done playing, and stay at least 6 feet apart.

"Social distancing goes without saying — handshakes are out — and we encourage players to place their equipment bags far from each other,” says Robert Campbell, tennis supervisor for Ken-Caryl Ranch.

Other clubs are encouraging safety and social distancing, such as reminding players to walk on opposite sides of the net when they switch sides on the court and eliminating opportunities for people to congregate by taking away chairs and benches.

Players are fine with the changes, club staffers like Campbell say. “There has been little drama over the rules,” he notes. “If anything, the only issue has been with court space and so many people wanting to play.”

Pickleball

Social distancing is trickier for pickleball than for tennis. Pickleball is like a mix of badminton, ping-pong and tennis. The game is played with a paddle (about double the size of a ping-pong paddle), and the plastic ball has holes, much like a Whiffle ball (here's a good primer on the sport and its health benefits). Roughly 3.3 million Americans are “picklers,” and 64 percent of core players — those who play eight or more times a year — are age 55 or older, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

So why is social distancing an issue? The court is 20 by 44 feet — much smaller than a tennis court. And many picklers prefer playing doubles.

In its safety recommendations, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) suggests that players stick with singles. Most of its recommendations are similar to the USTA's tennis guidelines, including washing your hands before entering the court, wiping down your paddles during play, and kicking or picking up the ball with your racquet and foot rather than tossing it to an opponent.

In Massachusetts, Cape Cod's Yarmouth Pickleball Association worked with the board of health to develop coronavirus safety rules, such as requiring players to wear a mask as soon as they leave the court and having players use their own balls when serving. The association initially required gloves, but medical research shows that gloves can retain the virus, so the group changed its position. To help kill the virus, plastic balls are rinsed in a bucket filled with a bleach solution.

"When you come off the court each time, you dip your ball, you dry it off,” says Paul Cove, the association's chairperson. “Everybody brings their own towel, everybody brings their own hand sanitizer."

To reduce the number of players, the association has cut membership from 360 people in 2019 to 250 as of late June, though that will increase to 275 by early July. It's also not allowing walk-ins or pay-to-play guests. “We're trying to keep it as a small community,” says Cove. And as he explains to members, they all have a duty to respect and protect one another.

"In this divided country we have now, there's a lot of different opinions on this,” Cove says of the virus. “I just tell people, ‘Look, you have to be conscientious and understand someone else's feelings — not just your own.’ “

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