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North Idaho golf courses crowded with Idahoans and Washingtonians

The Highlands Golf and Country Club was filled with golfers on Monday. The Post Falls course has adopted measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including daily sanitization of carts, keys and tokens, limiting the pro shop to employees and raising cups above ground with a foam barrier so players don’t have to retrieve their ball from inside the hole. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
The Highlands Golf and Country Club was filled with golfers on Monday. The Post Falls course has adopted measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including daily sanitization of carts, keys and tokens, limiting the pro shop to employees and raising cups above ground with a foam barrier so players don’t have to retrieve their ball from inside the hole. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

The parking lot was so full at The Highlands last week on a beautiful spring day that several cars were stationed nearby in the gravel off E. Mullan Avenue.

Many of the cars at the Post Falls golf course had Washington license plates.

Roughly eight miles away at The Links, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, but there were no tee times available.

“We counted,” director of golf Darrell Hull said. “From 7:30 (a.m.) to 10:30 (a.m.), we turned away 450 groups. We can only have about 280 groups a day. We’re booked a week out until 4 (p.m.) every day.”

Hull estimated Washington-based golfers account for 70-75 percent of the tee times.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” emergency order March 23 to slow the spread of coronavirus. Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a similar mandate two days later.

Inslee’s order shut down Washington courses while Little’s permitted North Idaho courses to remain open, as long as they follow social distancing rules and other guidelines.

The discrepancy mirrors the rest of the country with golf essentially falling in a gray area in states with stay-at-home orders. The National Golf Foundation (NGF) estimated 44 percent of courses nationally were open as of April 10. Roughly 76-82 percent of courses were open in the South and Southeast. The percentages shrink in northern sections of the U.S., on the West Coast and in coronavirus hot spots.

“We, too, have observed inconsistencies across the country,” said Doug Chase, director of Spokane County Parks, Recreation and Golf.

Chase saw the NGF’s map of open and closed courses, noting “40-plus percent accommodated golf, recognizing it’s a pretty darn good fit for social distancing with how it operates and the ability to follow cleaning guidelines by the CDC.”

Still, Chase said Inslee’s directive made it “very apparent to us” golf wouldn’t be allowed.

In the meantime, Eastern Washington golfers have been crossing the border to get their swings in with Spokane city and county courses likely shuttered through May 4.

Hangman Valley pro Steve Nelke played Monday at Circling Raven, his first round since October because his job usually keeps him busy during the season.

“I’ve seen a few (Hangman Valley regulars) out here already,” Nelke said.

Circling Raven opened March 27, its earliest opening day in the course’s 17 seasons. There are few open tee times. Online reservations have gone through the roof with people spending so much time at home.

“It’s been crazy,” director of golf Dave Christensen said. “We opened early with our $55 rate and we extended that through the month of April with all the courses closed in Washington. It’s 40 percent off our regular rate, so that’s bringing a lot of new customers out.

“What we’re seeing is lot of the groups that have always played Qualchan or Indian Canyon or Downriver and those 8 to 16 guys want to continue their routine.”

At Prairie Falls in Post Falls, a customer drove his cart by course owner Billy Bomar and said, “You don’t know how happy I am, you have no idea.”

“I’m happy to see you, too,” Bomar smiled.

Bomar opted to keep Prairie Falls closed when Little’s stay-at-home order came down. He opened on Monday, with CDC guidelines in place.

“I wanted to make sure we were doing what we were supposed to do,” Bomar said. “Hopefully it helped.”

He knew the decision would cost him revenue, particularly during a recent stretch of sunny weather.

“Did I make money I should have made? No,” Bomar said. “Did I hopefully do something to help with the overall picture? If we’re not going to play the Masters or these major tournaments and you can’t watch baseball, we can maybe wait to play golf a few days. And I’m saying that as an owner that plays golf for a living.

“The rule book in golf is pretty specific on what you can do, but this has been a learning curve. I wanted to make sure we were doing everything we possibly could to promote safety and health, not only for my employees but the golfers. I have a lot of elderly golfers out here and they’re good friends.”

Bomar opened Monday instead of waiting for Little’s 21-day order to expire Wednesday because “from what I’ve heard, he’s going to extend us to May 4 so it’s not going to be any different until then.”

Chase said it’s too early to know the financial impact of the shutdown on Spokane county courses.

“I don’t have those figures yet,” he said. “I can definitely tell you we remain optimistic with the majority of the season ahead.”

Nelke said historically 70 percent of the Hangman Valley’s revenue comes from June on. Pros, pro shop staff and employees at course restaurants are independent contractors, while maintenance staff are county employees.

Nelke and a lot of Spokane-area golfers are hoping to hear good news early next month.

“Hopefully if Mr. Inslee rules us essential we can ramp it up in early May,” Nelke said. “With precautions, I don’t see any reason why we can’t. Most of the people practice social distancing and we all know what’s at stake here.”

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