MIAMI — The text arrived on Tuesday afternoon: “I got Alonzo Mourning with me on Thursday,” it said. “10:30 tee time. It’ll be fun.” Of course I was in, though not because of the star power of a group that included a basketball Hall-of-Famer as well as the 2014 U.S. Open runner-up, Erik Compton, the author of the text.
Hibernation is a strange thing in a place called the Sunshine State. There are reasons spring breakers migrate here, retirees retire here and golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation in certain neighborhoods around town. And while I can come up with a list of states that have better golf courses (New York, California, Michigan, to name a few), when it comes to the state with the most golf courses, the list starts and stops with Florida. One of its license plates, with silhouetted golfer taking a swing against the backdrop of the sun, says so: “Golf Capital of the World.”
Six weeks ago, golf courses—along with beaches, parks, marinas and other recreational gathering spots—in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties were ordered closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With good reason. Of the 33,000-plus cases across the state, more than half have been in the aforementioned counties. That includes 632 deaths, which again accounts for half of Florida’s total fatalities.
But on Wednesday, golf courses here (along with parks and marinas, but not beaches) re-opened, with restrictions to make sure those numbers don’t continue to grow. The response? Every tee time at International Links Melreese Country Club—Miami’s lone city-owned course and where Compton as well LPGA star Cristie Kerr learned the game— was booked, from before 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Other courses in the area reported similar packed tee sheets.
Among those guidelines in the new normal: Staff are required to wear masks and aren’t allowed to handle your bag; locker rooms and pro shops are closed; grill rooms only allowed for carry-out; one person per cart; carts sanitized after each use; no touching of flagsticks; rakes and water removed from the course; everyone must stay at least six feet apart. Each of the requirements is sensible, and all contribute to allowing golf, at least recreationally, to offer a little normalcy if not a reprieve amid a national crisis and far more important issues.
Still, it was a strange feeling driving to the course on Wednesday to shake off the cobwebs before I pegged it with Mourning and Compton the next day. Anticipation was mixed with questioning whether I should just stay home. No one needs to play golf. But I love golf. So do the three guys I played with on Wednesday—60-year-old Rudy Leon, whose parents escaped communist Cuba when he was a young boy, owns a produce business and is a first responder for FEMA; 50-year-old Alfred Perez, a Venezuelan native who was forced to shutter his embroidery store a month ago and has instead resorted mostly to making masks for everyone from health-care workers to landscapers; and 76-year-old Aurielo Roa, who grew up in Mexico City but is now a retiree living in Key Biscayne.
Given their ages, all are among the most vulnerable sector of the population when it comes to coronavirus. But they were also eager to go back to the course, where before the pandemic, they would spend three or four days a week playing.
“I don’t want to be locked up anymore,” Leon said. “You can’t stay locked up forever.”
Added Perez: “We love to play this game, it’s a beautiful day, and we can be safe about it. It’s OK.”
A day later, Mourning and Compton felt a similar joy to be playing once again. Compton had hit balls into a net at home just once over the last six weeks, and Mourning doesn’t get out often because of work with his foundation and other duties that keep him busy.
We talked about the coronavirus, being able to play golf again and whether professional sports—including the PGA Tour—should and will come back, and how to do it in a responsible way. Their opinions were intriguing for a very specific reason: Both are transplant recipients, and thus have underlying health conditions. Compton is on his third heart, Mourning his second kidney.
“This virus is no joke,” said Mourning, who despite being 50 years old still looks like he could drop 15 points and 10 rebounds a night. “People are going to have to follow guidelines. Things aren’t going to be normal for a long, long time.”
Indeed, neither took the return to the golf course as a sign that all is OK. Nor was it something to be flaunted.
‘Zo, despite being one of the NBA’s most intimidating players in his prime, was a sweetheart on the course. The conversation included his take on the new Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance” (of Jordan’s Bulls, he says they would have beaten everybody no matter the era), the old Big East, golf and life. A life now, he says, that includes the act of changing out of his clothes and leaving his shoes at the door when he gets home. Because, why risk it?
As for Mourning’s perspective on professional sports coming back, he predicts the NBA will return, sans fans, in June. On golf, he thinks it’s the sport that is most sensible to return to play, given the ability for people to spread out and limit contact, even with the complications associated with conducting a tournament. He noted people’s thirst for the games, the likely huge ratings and, of course, the financial element (read: It’s always about the money).
Compton, who still makes his living as a professional athlete, playing these days on the Korn Ferry Tour, was a little more skeptical, particularly when it comes to how professional golf, slated to return without fans on June 11, will be carried out.
“It’s like trying to figure out how to do surgery on someone when you don’t have all the answers to what’s going on inside,” Compton said. “Eventually you have to [play again], though, and it’ll be a learning process once we do.
“Sports can be a healing process for everyone. But we’re all going to have to be patient. It’s not like in two months everything is going to be normal.”
A few minutes later a wicked thunderstorm tore through the area and blew us off the course. For a few hours, anyway, things felt as normal as they could be.
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