Governor's office clarifies situation with golf, and it's good news: Swing away!

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

If you got the clubs out, you can keep them out.

The state's golf industry on Monday was frantically trying to come to grips with what Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order means to its approximately 650 courses — some courses stayed open, others booted players from the course — and after a long day of confusion, there's now some good news for the players.

A spokesperson for Whitmer clarified Monday night that the executive order, as it pertains to golf, affects the clubhouse capacity limits and restaurant/bar restrictions, but not actual play.

The Golf Association of Michigan's legal counsel is advising the state's approximately 650 clubs and courses to stay closed during the life of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order issued Monday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Courses now are free to make their own decisions whether to open.

The Golf Association of Michigan had caused a bit of panic earlier Monday when it said its legal counsel had interpreted Whitmer's executive order to include closing of the state's 650 golf courses. The GAM later amended its statement to members, saying only that golf clubs were mentioned in the order, without recommending any action.

"It's still a developing situation," said Chris Whitten, executive director of the GAM.

There is some tricky language in the section that references golf, saying the order "also includes the facilities of private clubs, including country clubs, golf clubs." That could've been taken to mean the course's indoor buildings, such as restaurants, and would it only mean private clubs?

The GAM's legal counsel, after lengthy discussion with several state golf organizations, including the PGA of Michigan, Michigan Golf Course Superintendents Association and Michigan Golf Course Owners Association, determined the order would cover actual golf and said as much to its members.

"We're just trying to follow the guidelines," Whitten said.

Kevin Helm, executive director of the PGA of Michigan, said he had been trying to get clarification on the order from the attorney general's office, but hadn't received a call back as of Monday night.

In any event, the fact golf was included at all in the executive order caught him off guard.

"I think everyone expected the closing of restaurants and bars, but the executive order issued today appears to be far more extensive than that," Helm said. "While the wording is a little unclear, it appears to include golf courses but there is a lot of confusion about that among golf course owners and operators.

"These are certainly interesting and challenging times. I applaud the governor and her staff for making some very difficult decisions with the intent to help control the spread of the virus."

Whitmer's executive order, which began at 3 p.m. Monday and includes the shutdown of all in-house service at bars and restaurants among many other business restrictions, is scheduled to run through the end of the month, but could be extended.

Many courses had plenty of play Monday as golfers took advantage of some mild, late-winter weather. 

That included Rackham in Huntington Words. A clubhouse worker said play had been "moderate" as late as 4:30 p.m., and said they hadn't heard anything official from the state and wouldn't take official action until it does. Chandler Park in Detroit was open Monday afternoon, as was Rouge Park. All three are operated by the city, and opened this weekend. Their clubhouses are closed; all golfers can do is pay for golf and a cart.

Others courses, though, did in fact start to shut down because of Whitmer's order.

Workers at the Inn at St. John's at around 3:45 p.m. ordered golfers to finish their hole and then get a refund for the remainder of their round, said one of those golfers, Kiran Mangrulkar of Northville.

"The starter went to every golfer and told them that Whitmer's order applied to them," Mangrulkar said.

At Detroit Golf Club, which isn't yet open, members were calling all day to find out the status.

"They were wondering if we'd be able to use the golf course," said Derek Jacques, COO of Detroit Golf Club, who added that the private facility has curbed its restaurant and bar operations to comply with the order.

He also said he remains hopeful the club still will host the Rocket Mortgage Classic, set for late May. The PGA Tour has suspended operations through mid-April, and almost certainly will suspend even longer.

The Masters even has been postponed, and on Monday, Augusta National Golf Club shut down.

Golf courses had believed they would be among the businesses spared during this global pandemic, being outdoors, and with golfers typically spread out by hundreds of yards. The Detroit Zoo cited its vast outdoor space for staying open, though it later changed course and announced it was closing Monday.

Michigan's golf season usually perks up in April and hits full steam in May.

GAM officials said Sunday that it appeared courses would make individual decisions on whether to open, and that remained the case, after the confusion was sorted out, on Monday. Some have chosen to close, like Canton's Pheasant Run Golf Club and Fellows Creek Golf Club.

Golf is a $4 billion-plus industry in Michigan, home of the fourth-most courses in the nation. Estimates put the number of recreational players at a half-million, with tens of thousands of employees in the industry. A shutdown of any length would've been crippling for a Michigan golf season that already is so condensed.

GAM and the PGA of Michigan each also operate 30-plus tournaments throughout the year, starting in April. Early tournaments could be affected, though no decisions have yet been made. Each organization has said it would follow guidelines of the CDC, which said Sunday night it was recommending an eight-week ban on gatherings of 50 or more people. Whitmer on Monday extended the same 50-person ban.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984