Upper Valley golf courses wait for restrictions to ease as they keep prepping grounds

  • Watching from the pro shop in Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, April 10, 2020, Justin Bonnett, who is Lake Morey Country Club's director of golf, watches Gov. Phil Scott's news conference where Scott announced Vermont’s State of Emergency is to be extended through May 15. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jeff Avery, Lake Morey Country Club's superintendent removes a fallen tree along the golf course on Friday, April 10, 2020, in Fairlee, Vt. (Valley News -Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not bereprinted or used online without permission. Send requests topermission@vnews.com. Valley NEws photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/11/2020 9:26:40 PM
Modified: 4/11/2020 9:26:38 PM

Every day, after he gets done working on one of his construction projects, Nick Catsam heads out to his other job.

A general contractor by trade, Newport Golf Club’s general manager lost ownership of the 100-year-old course at a foreclosure auction last year, but he convinced the bank that bought it to keep him on to oversee maintenance. Once done on a job site, Catsam heads to the Newport clubhouse and spends a couple of afternoon hours sorting through mail and planning for the season.

And waiting. Like everyone else in the northern New England golf world.

“We’re just kind of limping along, like any other golf course,” Catsam confessed last week. “We are prepared to open in various combinations.”

Families are taking neighborhood walks, cyclists are riding the roads, hikers are hitting the trails, and fishermen are casting from the shoreline. Meanwhile, golfers are left to wonder why they aren’t being included as an essential recreational option amid the stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines.

Some have tried lobbying the powers that be. For the most part, however, Upper Valley golf courses are content to wait out the coronavirus pandemic, doing upkeep for whenever they get the OK to tee away.

“You can’t worry about something that you can’t control, right?” Lake Morey Country Club director of golf Justin Bonnett asked. As of Thursday, according to Golf Digest, 16 states have specifically ordered golf courses to stay closed. Nearly every state is permitting them to perform routine maintenance. Tees, fairways and greens all face the potential for damage if left unattended, especially now that growing season is at hand.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated a willingness to work with Granite State courses. Responding on his Twitter feed last week to a question about getting golf going, Sununu said conditions would have to apply.

“Understand that there has to be a regional approach, right?” Sununu said. “If (Massachusetts), Vermont, Maine don’t take the same approach, people from those states — with sometimes higher incidences of COVID and the pandemic — are going to be rushing into New Hampshire and making a run onto our system. If we can find a model that works, that other states can join into, there may be a possibility of opening them up.”

Of the six New England states, only the southernmost two are allowing golf to be played. Connecticut and Rhode Island have done so with strict guidelines geared toward minimizing virus spread. Restrictions include online or phone payment of fees, adjustments to flagsticks and cups to eliminate contact, no touching of sand trap rakes, one-person-per-cart rules (with post-round sanitation) and no caddies or club handlers.

Rhode Island went one step further, limiting its courses to residents only as the state ordered people entering for non-work purposes — as Vermont has — to self-quarantine for 14 days. Three Massachusetts men were recently charged with violating the quarantine in order to play a round of golf in Richmond, R.I.

Bonnett said he’s seen plenty of people out walking the roads orbiting his facility, but no one has tried to sneak on for a few swings of a club. Anyone who might attempt that “will be politely asked to stop,” he said.

Eastman Golf Links chief maintenance officer Mike Gornnert has kept social distancing guidelines in mind with his work crew. He’s thankful that his staff remains small, given it’s April; he’d have a hard time finding things for a full staff to do right now.

“We’re blowing leaves, repairing any drainage that needs it, doing tree work and the winter damage from that, basically monitoring things,” Gornnert said on Friday morning. “This freeze-thaw cycle and little bit of snow from last night can still damage the turf. We’re monitoring it day to day. You can’t have water sitting on the turf, so we make sure that when the sun is out, it’s melting and evaporating.”

A relatively kind winter has put some area courses ahead of their average debut schedules. Catsam considered opening Newport late last month before snow returned. Courses at higher elevations don’t normally start until early May, Eastman director of golf Mark Larrabee noted, so the pressure to open isn’t as great.

“It’s added a little nugget of frustration this year because once we got to early March or mid-March, people were saying, ‘The weather looks great; Massachusetts and New Hampshire are opening,’ ” he noted. “We all had the anticipation of going early until this hit the fan.”

Larrabee and Bonnett also have had to put delivery of merchandise for their pro shops on temporary hold. With no one able to play, there’s no need to have gear on hand.

“Some people think this (no-golf order) will be extended,” Larrabee said. “Who knows? We’re putting things off.”

The private Quechee Club has the added challenge of answering the questions of its many members who are second-home owners from beyond the Upper Valley. Those queries haven’t been overwhelming, interim general manager Ken Lallier said.

“Some of those daily-fee clubs, they’re all about getting the course open as soon as they can ring the cash register, regardless of whether the ground is ready for it,” Lallier noted. “We wait to make sure everything is ready before we go out there. We’ll play on temporary greens for some period of time. Every year, that’s different.”

But no year has been quite like this one. Even as the first swing of a club and the first arc of a ball toward a target remains out of focus, Upper Valley courses are trying to stay patient.

“I do understand it’s a much bigger picture than that. ... It’s the same for everybody,” Newport’s Catsam said. “We’re not being picked on.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.

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