For Tibor Kobolak and John Ahn, Saturday was like Christmas morning.
“I felt like I was a 10-year-old kid,” Kobolak said, his voice muffled by a face mask. “I went to my office to get some work done and I was jittering the whole time saying, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
The two teed off early at the Riverton Country Club, in the South Jersey town of the same name. Gov. Phil Murphy allowed golf courses and parks to reopen Saturday, with some minor adjustments for safety. Golfers flocked back to the tees and greens in droves, a sea of pastels and cleats with cigar smoke wafting among them. Clubs throughout the region were packed to their newly reduced capacities, honoring pandemic safeguards while accommodating players.
Murphy warned during his daily briefing Saturday that he would not hesitate to close courses again if people do not practice social distancing. Preliminary and anecdotal reports were “so far, so good,” he said, urging residents to refrain from “knucklehead behavior” and to practice social distancing in parks.
“If we hear reports of people not taking either their health or the health … of other park-goers seriously, we won’t hesitate — and I don’t say this with any joy — to close them again,” Murphy said.
Golfers on the other side of the Delaware had a one-day head start: Gov. Tom Wolf allowed Pennsylvania’s courses to start allowing tee times beginning Friday, so long as they followed social distancing recommendations.
At Riverton, that translated to one person per golf cart, the inability to touch the flag at the end of each hole, and the removal of score cards and other items normally shared during an outing.
But those adjustments didn’t phase anyone: Tom Kearns, the club’s president, said the 180 slots for this weekend sold out in about four minutes — “a mad dash” for members who have been reduced to practicing their swings in their backyards or on simulators. The weather was a boon: cloudless skies, with temperatures in the 70s. But not even a downpour would’ve stopped Ahn.
“If it were a high of 30 degrees and raining, I’d still be here,” he said. “I’d put on my gear and get it started.”
A few miles away, at the 127-year-old Merchantville Country Club, reservations had sold out in about an hour, according to Bill Goodrich, president of the board. The fact that the club used scheduled tee times at all was an adjustment. At only nine holes, the course is played quickly, and members usually rely on WhatsApp to coordinate when to arrive and whom to play with, he said.
Unusual, yes, but his members were willing to do whatever it took to get back on the course.
“We’ve been given this great opportunity, allowing us to reopen,” Goodrich said. “Whatever guidelines we need to follow, we’ll follow. Our goal is to get back to full operation, but in a safe way.”
Clubs have found ways to keep busy during the lockdown. At Riverton, golf pros held video tutorials on keeping swings steady, and club bartenders and chefs shared virtual recipes. Fund-raisers and donation drives were organized for any employees temporarily furloughed.
Merchantville’s kitchen remained open for curbside dinner pickups twice a week, some of those meals donated by members to local hospitals and police stations, according to Goodrich.
Across the river, some reopened courses in Pennsylvania honored first responders in a different way. At the Golf Course at Glen Mills, each hole had a sign thanking a different police department, fire department, or hospital, according to Chris Spriggs, the acting executive director of the Glen Mills Schools. First responders and essential workers also were given a 25% discount on their rounds.
“The most important thing for me, while also being important to open, is that we’ve recognized during this time that there are heroes among us that we haven’t recognized in the past,” Spriggs said. “This small gesture allows us to honor those heroes and give golfers a sense of purpose while they golf.”
For Dave Swiderski, the longest-tenured member of the Merchantville Country Club at 57 years, his first game back had that purpose, among others. It was a dose of hope after weeks of uncertainty, and a promise of a return to form.
“I think it’s a safe start, and I think as time moves on, it’ll be clear that this was the right move,” the Cherry Hill resident said Saturday as he walked to the course’s next hole. “We’re learning to adjust to the new normal, whatever it is.”