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Playing golf during a pandemic might be safe. But is it right?

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An Ethical Dilemma - By Max Adler

A priest, a rabbi and a yogi stand six feet apart from each other on a tee box.

This isn’t the start of a joke, but an honest effort to understand if it’s OK to play golf now. The National Golf Foundation reports that 44 percent of courses in the United States are open. Sixteen states have put golf on the nonessential list of banned activities, which means of course, 34 haven’t. In the absence of a unified stance, sometimes it helps to call on higher powers.

Jonathan Morris is a 9-handicap and a member of Winged Foot Golf Club where he has blessed many tournament dinners with perspective and humor. He played the first weekend in April when it was 50s and sunny, and remembers the decision being as straightforward as taking a walk in the park.

“I’m using my god-given gift of reason to live in accordance with what science and data is telling me,” Morris says. With walking distance, raised cups, no handling of flagsticks or rakes, golf is a sport that can be played alone yet parallel with others. (Not that you have to call it a sport; the label is irrelevant for our purpose here.) The question is, does Morris need an infectious-disease expert to calculate the chance of a transmission among small groups of people across hundreds of acres of grass?

Jonathan Morris

For the record, Morris is actually no longer a priest. Eleven months ago, Morris, who studied in Rome and was ordained in the Legion of Christ in 2002, asked and received permission from Pope Francis to be relieved of his duties to the clerical state, expressing unwavering faith but also a desire to be free to marry and have a family. (He entered the seminary at 21 and is now 47.)  If you saw “The Irishman,” which had 10 Oscar looks but missed every one, Morris played the priest who comforts Robert De Niro’s character, the murderous but loyal teamster Frank Sheeran, at the end of his life in a nursing home. After handing in his cloth, Morris expected Fox News would drop him as a contributor for theological perspective, but the network has kept him on. All this is to say he’s still in the habit of considering matters deeply.

About golf, Morris says, “I don’t think we should make decisions based on the fear of being shamed by others.” Just as we each make limitless decisions within the context of the rules, like whether to wear a mask or order groceries online or visit our parents, living according to others’ expectations is rarely wise. “Doing what you believe is right for you has very much been my personal walk as well,” Morris says.

But trumping all, Morris believes in “being faithful to the leaders who’ve been charged with making policies that are for the common good. Unless a leader is asking you to violate your conscience, we must follow their lead.” For the sake of harmony in society, it was nothing at all for Morris to give up golf on April 9, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo switched it to the nonessential list.

Of course, if Morris wanted to, he could make a short drive to Connecticut to find an open course, where the Connecticut State Golf Association has been proactive in lobbying the message of lost jobs and lost happiness if parts of the industry couldn’t remain open in forms modified for safety.

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes a syndicated column called The God Squad and was one of the key figures who brought the U.S. Open to Bethpage Black in 2002. He tried to retire to Los Angeles and is stuck there now waiting for the golf shop that ordered his new irons to re-open. Once this pandemic is over, he’s moving to Florida. Never one to give an equation short shrift, he says we have to first leave aside the matter of whether it’s ever ethical to play golf, “what with the use of needed land for an unneeded game, the chemicals poured onto grass and the undertaxed nature of many private clubs.” We might only guess to which side this lifelong golfer would steer on this foundational issue.

Gellman says: “Once exceptions are made to the ‘stay home’ rule, we must all agree that there are several morally defensible reasons to get out of your home. Securing food and medicine are obvious exemptions because they are necessary in a morally intuitive way. The case that opens up this issue is the question of whether it is ethically defensible to go for a walk away from the world of other people but inside the world of nature,” Gellman says. “If it is clear to everyone that people walking dogs are not committing an ethical offense, then we must ask, is this not discrimination against non-dog owners?”

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Rabbi Marc Gellman

Critical to remember, Gellman says, is that “true ethical dilemmas are always a conflict of good things and hardly ever a conflict between the totally good and the totally evil.” The social distancing that alone seems to hold the promise of reducing the number of infections is good, and personal recreation in fresh air to relieve stress is also good. Gellman thinks the underlying issue is privilege. “This virus has scratched the scab off the anti-golf prejudice that still exists in the United States.” In times of no crisis, people with disposable time and money can be dismissive of those who envy them. But in a time of crisis, should golfers show solidarity? Enjoying our silly, stupid, wonderful game when so many others are suffering from grief or are home-bound with underlying conditions could be seen as rubbing these poor peoples’ noses in it.

Sadhguru says, “You remaining joyful, exuberant, loving and involved with life around you is a sure way to recovery, for the society and the world.”

That answer comes in the philosophical distinction between non-malevolence and benevolence, Gellman says. “Put simply, you are always obligated not to hurt someone. But you are not obligated on the same level to help someone. You could help a lot of people by giving away all your money, but you don’t have to.” Showing solidarity with your fellow man by not playing golf then, becomes something like a good deed.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, known to his followers as Sadhguru, is a spiritual leader and frequent speaker on stages such as the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. When he changes his flowing robes for modern golf clothes and knots his long beard so it won’t interfere with his golf swing, it is one of the greatest metamorphoses of style in the world.

Sadhguru says: “My wish and blessing to everyone is you must be part of the solution no matter what the problem is. Right now, there is economic pain, the loss of loved ones and various problems in the world that all of us will have to face. So now shall all of us get into depression? If you become depressed, understand that you are becoming part of the problem. You remaining joyful, exuberant, loving and involved with life around you is a sure way to recovery, for the society and the world.”

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev
Photo by Bryce Duffy

Sadhguru is a spiritual leader in addition to being an avid golfer.

But what about solidarity? For what it’s worth, my rock-climbing brother who lives in Utah reports the local climbing community has ceased activity entirely. While the chance of transmitting COVID-19 on a remote cliff might be even be less than a blade of grass to a golf ball, the climbers there don’t want to risk stressing an overwhelmed hospital system with an injury. But more so, there’s a strong sense of “demonstrating that we’re all in this together,” Dave says. Climbing is far from a sport of privilege (in its purest and cheapest form, there’s no rope), and so are climbers one-upping golfers in the benevolence department?

Sadhguru says: “If this is one’s idea of solidarity, then football players should not play football because most people cannot play the game. Swimmers should not swim because most people don’t have a swimming pool in the world. Welcome to deprivation, then! This is not the way to handle life.

“No one needs to feel guilty about being joyful, playing music, dancing or participating in something. Your main business is to see that it is safe.”

In Korea, a country whose precautionary measures have been lauded, many golf clubs are open for play and even dining, but with tight restrictions such as mandatory masks for players and staff inside the clubhouse and a thermal-imaging camera at check-in. However, most of the top resorts in Malaysia and South Africa, for example, are closed. We note this only to show the divide over golf extends well beyond the United States.

So is it OK to play golf now? Clearly, I’ve stacked the deck by asking three wise men who happen to be golfers. But I also asked a non-golfer, my wife, who has granted me permission. Not merely for the sake of my sanity, but because we regularly watch her brother’s children, whose mother works on the frontline of a grocery store and so our family’s circle of exposure is already so widened. That’s our logic anyway.

In a New York Times article posted Wednesday, top doctors discussed the vortices of air currents that could theoretically propel aerosol sized virus particles 20 feet or more without the launching power of a sneeze. “What does it take for you to get infected?” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “And that is the trillion-dollar question we have.”

I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I would round out a foursome with the priest, the rabbi and the yogi.

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