State reps urging governor to reconsider shutdown of golf courses

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Two state lawmakers are hoping the governor takes a mulligan when it comes to golf courses.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's latest executive order ordered the shutdown of all "non-essential" businesses, and after several hours of confusion, it was clarified that golf courses were to be included.

That meant the shuttering of the state's approximately 650 golf courses, and an industry that generates billions a year in Michigan.

Sparty takes a swing at a junior golf clinic last summer in Detroit.

Now, two state representatives have sent a letter to Whitmer asking her to reconsider.

"I just think the golf industry is uniquely situated and golf courses are uniquely situated to keep people safe, socially distanced, and at the same time allow for individuals to get exercise and also spend some money and help small businesses," Graham Filler, a Republican who represents parts of Clinton and Gratiot counties in mid-Michigan, told The Detroit News on Saturday.

"We need to constantly be re-evaluating what is a safe activity and what is a safe business practice throughout this entire crisis."

Filler sent the letter to Whitmer on Friday night, saying "there are steps that can be taken" to make golf courses feasible during the spring and early summer months.

Ann Bollin, a Republican who represents Brighton and surrounding communities, also sent a letter.

A spokesperson for the governor didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from The News.

Most of the state's golf courses have shut down following the governor's latest order; the governor's initial order kept courses open, but with limited food and beverage service.

Some courses, though, decided to close early, including Canton's Fellows Creek and Pheasant Run.

"Our leaders on the Canton Township Board of Trustees felt that urgent action was required to protect the health and safety of residents, our staff and members," said Paul Simpson, general manager and PGA professional at Pheasant Run

"We closed early before the official executive order to do our part to help flatten the curve."

Rackham, River Rouge and Chandler Park, the three courses owned and operated by the city of Detroit, stayed open amid the initial order, but closed after the second.

Still, there were reports of several courses, mostly private clubs, continuing to allow play this past week, as the temperatures moved into the 50s.

Filler said with golf, several precautions can be taken for safety, including online tee times and payment, not allowing carts, keeping flag sticks in, removing rakes, and staying a safe distance from their playing partners. Multiple mini-tours continue to operate in Arizona — one ex-Michigan State golfer even won one of those tournaments — adhering to similar safety steps.

The governor's executive orders have urged state residents to get out and walk and exercise, and in Filler's estimation, golfing isn't taking that a whole lot further.

"We can't live in a concept where everyone needs to sit on their couch at home," he said.

That's not to say Filler is downplaying the coronavirus crisis, which has hit Michigan, and especially the city of Detroit, particularly hard. Filler's wife Alica is a physician at Lansing's Sparrow Hospital, and has been delivering babies "right in the thick of it on the front lines."

Filler also acknowledged that re-opening the golf courses won't salvage all or even the majority of the 60,000 or so jobs that are tied to the state's golf industry, given courses would have to operate in limited scale.

Golf-course superintendents and greenskeepers continue to work, because not doing so would risk the properties falling into serious disarray.

Filler likens the golf industry to the landscaping industry, which also is shut down, unfairly in his opinion. He said a worker who drives by themselves and works by themselves shouldn't have to be out of work. In Filler's estimation, any industry that can stay safe should be allowed to be open — especially given the state's new unemployment claims in the last couple weeks are well into the hundreds of thousands.

One criticism toward re-opening golf courses, though, is the governor's "non-essential" term. Under even the loosest of definitions, golf courses can't be considered essential businesses amid a pandemic.

"That leads to a different conversation," Filler said. "Just because an industry or a small business has been declared non-essential doesn't mean that should be a death knell for months and months and months."

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The state's golf industry typically perks up in early April, and hits its stride in May and June. The governor's stay-at-home order runs through April, and could be extended.

The golf industry already operates with a narrow window, given this a legit four-season state, and any stretch of non-revenue could be crippling.

That's why any chance golf courses have to make a buck — even if it means opening on a 40-degree Christmas morning — most jump at the opportunity.

Filler wanted to make the point that during this unprecedented crisis, he's hardly just sitting back and thinking about golf. The Legislature is taking up scores of issues, many of them with potential life or death consequences.

But he's heard from enough courses and constituents, that he felt compelled to stick up for them, too.

"What's the difference between me walking down the fairway by myself," said Filler, "and me walking down the same fairway with my 9 iron?"

Twitter: @tonypaul1984