If there is a sport made for social distancing, that sport is golf.
That does not mean, however, that high school golf in Illinois won't look quite a bit different in the novel coronavirus era.
Golf — both girls and boys — is one of just four traditional fall sports the Illinois High School Association [IHSA] will be keeping in the fall. Teams can begin tryouts/practices as early as next Monday, with the updated IHSA calendar allowing interschool competition to begin Thursday, Aug. 13.
The season will be played under new, sport-specific guidelines released Thursday afternoon by the IHSA blending together ideas from organizations such as the Chicago District Golf Association, the Illinois Junior Golf Association, the PGA Tour and the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"We put those together, mixed them up and tried to use what we think are the best and most practical tips," IHSA Associate Executive Director Kurt Gibson, the organization's administrator for boys golf, told Shaw Media Illinois. "It really comes down to, golf is considered a low-risk sport. The biggest thing we have to do is try to get people to eliminate gathering opportunities and make sure they are maintaining good social distancing.
"A lot of the tips and concepts we've been giving stem from those two main ideas."
What's on the schedule?
With or without a state series culminating in state championships, the season is scheduled to end no later than Oct. 24. Regular-season slates are being significantly altered as schools concentrate on in-conference and other, closer competition to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Like everything else during the pandemic, though, those dates are extremely fluid and subject to change ... even the ones right around the corner.
"We might have a match on the 13th, but to be honest I haven't gone past the 11th on the calendar," said Richmond-Burton girls golf coach Brandon Creason. "I've had people ask me for schedules, and I say, 'Are you nuts?'
"We start practice Monday, but I think for everybody it's just day to day. I know it sounds funny, but it starts in three days, and I feel like the season is still possibly in jeopardy ... but golf can do it. If there is a sport that can follow these [social-distancing] guidelines, hands down I think golf is the easiest."
That uncertainty at the front of the schedule is more immediate but perhaps less impactful than the uncertainty later on.
Earlier IHSA and state guidelines seemed to suggest larger tournaments and invitationals would have to be removed from teams' calendars, but the sport-specific IHSA guidelines recommend larger tournaments can be held with multiple "waves" of fewer than 50 competitors on a given part of the course at a time.
The guidelines also recommend scheduling teammates' tee times closely together; teams arriving shortly before their scheduled start time and heading straight to the bus to leave when their rounds are completed; and mailing awards to schools instead of handing them out around a crowded leaderboard.
"The short answer [when it comes to larger tournaments] is, yeah, those are still possible," Gibson said. "But you have to put in a lot of extra planning and coordination from A to Z to make that happen. ...
"It takes some buy-in from everybody involved, and as we know, all it's going to take is one event to not enforce some of these procedures ... and then everything is going to explode on us."
How will it look?
Masks will not be required out on the course to start the season, but other things — such as the handling of scorecards [the new IHSA guidelines encourage using smartphones instead], allowing the gallery to follow players out on the course [no carts, no leaving cartpaths] and even players' using golf-course staples such as bunker rakes, ball cleaners and flagsticks [not permitted] — will look and play different.
"There are going to be some things that feel different, especially at the beginning of the round ... and at the end of the round, when they'll be confirming their scores," IHSA Associate Executive Director Stacey Lambert, the organization's administrator for girls golf, said.
"But hopefully the time they spend on the course will feel very normal to them, when they're playing and only worrying about golf."
Safety, of course, is key.
"Golf is a sport where you're easily able to manage those things," said Oswego coach Chad Pohlmann. "You're not in an indoor facility, you're able to spread out and be away from other competitors.
"Obviously there's more work that we have to do as coaches to prepare for it ... but that's just what we've got to do. We want to make sure that the kids get to compete. That's the most important thing: to get them out there doing something they love to do."
What about numbers?
An interesting prospect that could spin out of the IHSA's having pushed other traditional fall sports [such as volleyball, football and boys soccer] to the spring could be larger numbers of student-athletes coming out for those fall sports still being contested in the fall.
"We start Tuesday, and already I'm getting a lot of [traditional] soccer players signing up," Streator coach Dustin Masley said Friday morning. "We usually have 12 to 15 come out, but this year we might get 25-30, kids who golfed when they were younger but like soccer or football or volleyball a little better. ...
"I bet a lot of schools are going to be in the same boat. Kids are starved for something to do, to play a sport."
It could also make for some interesting meet-day lineup decisions for coaches: To stick with their usual golfers who have been in the program since freshman year or perhaps insert a less experienced but more talented player who may only be with the program this one year?
And that could also cause top linksmen — or even entire programs — to spring up where they haven't before.
"I was talking to a guy down in southeastern Illinois," said Gibson. "They'd never had golf, but he had some of his football guys who mess around with golf come to him and say, 'Hey, we just want to be out competing,” and they’re looking at getting a golf team together.
"That was a smile on my face that day. We've had a lot of tough days around here, so that was a good one to hear."
To state or not to state?
The big question, of course remains:
Will the 2020 season culminate in a state series?
"It's my senior year," Crystal Lake Central girls co-op standout Renata Petersen. "When I found out we weren't going to be playing as much this season, I was disappointed because this was the year I believed I would qualify for state and maybe get a state medal. ...
"It would be a dream come true. Coming from a family where both my brothers are well-known wrestlers, always getting state medals, I think it'd be really special to have that same experience with golf. ... was really looking forward to competing for a state medal.
"It'd mean the world to me."
Assuming a statewide IHSA postseason tournament is indeed unplayable when the calendar flips to October — a good bet at this time — there has been speculation something closer to home could take its place.
"Maybe it ends with a regional or a sectional, or maybe you have a tournament to crown a champion in each (Restore Illinois) COVID region," said Masley. "Maybe you can't be the best golfer in the state, but you can be the best golfer in your region."
Gibson said the IHSA is working on state series scenarios and expects to discuss the matter in detail at its upcoming late-August board meeting.
"But we feel very good at this time that we'll be able to have some kind of postseason events," he said. "We feel good that, at a minimum, we can do something within COVID regions."
So what's the verdict?
As different as it may be, Creason feels golfers and coaches should be appreciative they're getting the chance to have a season amid such uncertain times.
"You want to be thankful that you're there and enjoy that you're getting the opportunity to play," Creason said of the mindset he plans to convey to his team. "Realistically, there might not be any other sports this school year that get that opportunity. ...
"There are so many kids in school — kids in band, kids in other sports, kids in the play — who may not get to do what you're getting to do."
"The goal at the end of the day is to make high school experiences," Lambert said.
And getting to compete at all, it seems, is the important thing.
"Hey, we’re getting to do something," Pohlmann said. "It could be more than anyone else gets ... and I commend everyone who's put this together so the kids have a chance to play."
"At the end of the day," said Petersen, "I still get to be with the team. And even though the only time we get to play might be nine holes with some of the local schools, it'll still be fun and a good opportunity to get some practice in.
"We just have to make the best out of the situation."