Rumors of Long Beach golfers illegally playing on the local courses have not been greatly exaggerated.
Long Beach Parks & Recreation golf courses at Recreation Park, El Dorado Park, Skylinks and Heartwell have all been closed for almost a month, which is the longest such closure in city history.
However, the COVID-19 closure of nonessential businesses hasn’t stopped golfers from sneaking in some free practice. El Dorado Park Golf Course superintendent Mark Lilleberg, 49, said he’s been routinely asking people to leave for the last few weeks.
“We have a lot of people continuing to play on the courses and they shouldn’t be,” Lilleberg said. “I politely ask to leave. Then when you see the same people and they ask simple questions that are too simple to answer like, ‘Why?’… We don’t want to yell at our customers, but there comes a point when it’s frustrating.”
Long Beach Parks & Recreation Interim Director Stephen Scott said he is very concerned with people playing golf illegally, and that the city is relying on American Golf personal like Lilleberg, and the local residents themselves, to keep the courses safe and clear.
“Right now is not about recreation,” Scott said. “This is about keeping people healthy and safe. All of the decisions are being made right now have that in mind… It’s not just the pro shop or the clubhouse. The courses themselves are closed.”
Lilleberg is usually one of 12 employees working at El Dorado on an average day, and one of nine on the groundskeeping crew. Some of those employees have been let go, and Lilleberg has been doing the work alone to keep the course ready for reopening.
“It’s a lot for one person but it’s manageable and maintainable,” Lilleberg said.
American Golf has one groundskeeping employee at each Long Beach course, and the recent rain has made their jobs even harder.
“It’s kind of a catch-22 because right now,” Lilleberg said. “I’d prefer to have it a little dryer because then you can control the growth and control the mowing schedule. Right now it’s out of control. Stuff is growing too fast. I was caught up after the last set of rain storms and now I’m right back where I started — having to cut wall to wall with every inch of rough growing.”
Lilleberg joked that El Dorado’s “senior golfers” won’t be very happy if they come back to a course with lush tree lines and deep rough.
“We’re just trying to get through this and keep things going in the right direction to open up for the public ASAP,” Lilleberg said.
Weekend warriors can wait their turn, but high school and college golfers don’t have that luxury.
March is usually a heavy recruiting period with multiple elite tournaments. Coaches are still recruiting virtually, and even independent golf instructors have taken to FaceTime and Zoom to critique backyard practice swings.
Long Beach State women’s golf coach Joey Cerulle said he’s ready and willing to receive information from prospective recruits if it’s done correctly.
“I don’t need a highlight video,” Cerulle said. “I don’t need to see you make five putts in row. I need to see some raw footage of just who you are. Set a camera up and takes some swings. No need to edit.”
Wilson Athletics Director Jeff Evans has told Bruins golfers to continue improving their game at home.
“You can always be working on your short game,” Evans said. “Chipping in the backyard, putting in the house… The short game is something you need to grind on, and it’s the perfect time to grind on it.”
Virginia Country Club is also closed, as almost all California golfing facilities are, but there have been rumors of some private clubs allowing members to play by themselves. Lilleberg said that American Golf wants to make sure the return to the courses is fair for everyone.
“We want to offer the same thing to every person in Long Beach,” Lilleberg said. “We can’t just give one person privileges because other people who are following the rules and want to come out are saying safer at home. The people at home want to play golf too, but they know that’s not the right thing to do.”
The golfing community is full of people who think their sport can return before others because of its inherent social distancing. The Arizona-based Cactus Tour for professional women golfers in the western United States is still running events without spectators. The golfers participate in twosomes, and don’t shake hands after the round.
The PGA announced today that it’s adjusted its season schedule to restart on June 11 without spectators.
“I’ve seen tournaments with single carts where no one touches flag,” Evens said. “I just don’t know, how does that liability work?”
“From the very beginning our players said, ‘We’re not a contact sport, we never have any contact with each other, no one touches anyone else’s equipment and we’re on a four and a half mile acreage park’,” Cerulle said. “It’s not unsafe, I’ll say that.”
“Golf is a socially distant (activity), and I think there’s an angle for opening up early,” Lilleberg said. “I believe the SCGA, USGA and the powers that be in the city and state need to come up with the best practices like having tee times more spread out. There’s going to be concessions on the normal game of golf. It’s not going to look the same at first.”
There’s no doubt that local golfers will be ready to adjust.
“Long Beach was already flooded with golfers and people who want to play,” Cerulle said. “That day it all opens is going to be packed.”
“Our public health professionals will make that decision,” Scott said.