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LI courses were packed this summer — with a few drawbacks

Andrew Call tees off on No. 1 tee

Andrew Call tees off on No. 1 tee of Bethpage State Park's famed Black Course as fellow golfer Robert Hiensch watches his drive on Friday. The pair played a round despite a chilly rain that resulted in numerous tee time cancellations. Credit: James Escher

When New York State shut down golf courses on April 9 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, who knew what was in store for the game across Long Island?

And who knew then that by the middle of November, Long Islanders would be flocking to courses, some in record numbers?

The game seems to provide refuge from the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus.

Courses started opening by mid-April, some restrictions were eased later in the spring, carts were rented, ranges were opened, and a game with built-in social distancing could be played with a passion.

"Sold out every day. Never saw anything like it in the 13 years I’ve been here," said Bobby Callioras, head professional at Suffolk County’s West Sayville Golf Course. "With 10-minute increments, we were doing 260 to 300 rounds a day, every single day, seven days a week."

Just ask Sayville High School golf coach Sean McLaughlin how difficult it was to get a tee time this year.

"The toughest part of the pandemic is getting a tee time at Bethpage," he said. "It’s incredibly difficult. New York City courses were closed and not in good shape, so all the city players are coming out to Long Island to play. Bethpage is selling out morning and early afternoon tee times in literally one second of being released a week ahead of time. If you don’t get in by 7 p.m. and one second, you are not going to get a tee time anywhere before 4 o’clock."

"The season went extremely well," said George "Chip" Gorman, New York State Park regional director for Long Island. "The number of golfers in a number of locations were record numbers. Montauk Downs (44,632), the pitch-and-putt at Robert Moses (19,519) saw a record number of players."

"Golf during the pandemic for a while was the only thing to do," said Vincent Cirino, head pro at Islip’s Gull Haven 9-hole course. "People could not go to the movies, couldn’t go shoot pool, couldn’t go bowling or ice skating, all that stuff, so golf became even more so the thing to do. Especially people who didn’t even consider golf but now it was the only thing to do."

Across the board, pros were seeing an upsurge of interest in the game. "A lot of new faces," Callioras said, "You had these kids who were supposed to be freshmen in college and all of a sudden they are home. Their buddies might have played golf, so they started going to the driving range, and then they started playing golf.

"There are a lot of new older and younger faces. Lot more broader range of golfers now — men, women, kids, it’s everybody. On a given year I would know 75, 80% of my daily clientele by face or name. This year, I knew 40% of my customers, maybe."

And people who had stopped playing or reduced their rounds started to come back.

"A common refrain you would hear a lot is ‘I hadn’t played in a while, kind of glad I came back,’ " said Andy Carracino, head pro at Timber Point. "You did get some beginners, no doubt. A lot of good things came out of this for the game. Very interesting how the stars aligned."

Long Island’s private clubs were equally busy.

"Mother Nature helped us with spectacular weather and golf was busier than ever," said Barry Chandler, general manager of the Nissequogue Golf Club. "It was the safe thing to do this summer. People flocked to the club. I saw certain people there just about every single day. At least golf-wise, a spectacular season."

The club took in two dozen new members this season, a trend that seems to have rippled across Long Island. That’s a welcome prospect, considering that golf has been on the wane during the past decade.

"And we have more in the pipeline," Chandler said.

It’s not all rosy. The golf outing business, a large part of the industry on the Island, virtually disappeared because large group functions couldn’t be held. Clubhouse accessibility and food operations were significantly curtailed in many cases. And while tee sheets were full, there were fewer times available because social distancing practices increased the intervals between groups from a standard eight minutes to 10 to 12 minutes.

"A great year from where it started, a good year from what was anticipated," said Ron Wright, pro at the Golf Club at Middle Bay. "I don’t want to sound like I’m crying with loaves of bread under my arms or give an implication that we did not do a good number of rounds, but if you are used to collecting $85 for every round [with previously mandatory carts] and now you are collecting $65 because they are walking and you have 10- or 12-minute intervals when you normally have eight, losing two foursomes every two hours, there are some things that people overlook."

Still, it was a banner season for the thousands of players across the Island, one in which the expansive outdoor nature of the game was a huge drawing card.

Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter played with son Rob at Gull Haven in October. "It was a very pleasant experience, very comfortable," she said. "Being in the fresh air, an advantage we have over some other sports [in] that people can be outdoors and feel safe in [an] environment where people [don’t] feel so safe."

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