Residents question golf as an essential activity as rounds soar at Richardson course

Nuanced language that allows certain outdoor sports but leaves others open to interpretation has sparked outcry from some residents who say golf does not pass muster as an essential activity.

Executive orders issued by Gov. Greg Abbott do not explicitly prohibit golf. As a result, some courses in Texas have remained open, including city-owned Sherrill Park in Richardson.

City leaders have put in place safeguards to reduce in-person contact, but residents who live near Sherrill Park say those efforts are thwarted by the sheer number of golfers turning out to play.

Misty Keasler, whose home of six years backs up to course, said shelter-in-place orders meant to discourage gatherings have instead brought golfers out in droves.

“Every day was like a packed weekend,” Keasler said of the weeks that followed stay-at-home orders. “Golfers were kind of on top of each other.”

The golf course has seen an uptick in rounds played over the past few weeks, Deputy City Manager Don Magner said. Over the entirety of March, Sherrill Park averaged 196 rounds per day. In the first three weeks of April, it averaged 252 rounds per day.

The increase in play can be explained in part by the widespread closure of nearby courses, Magner said.

“Those [courses] that are open are seeing a higher level of play,” he said.

In late March, Richardson resident Andrew Laska sent an email to Mayor Paul Voelker along with several other city officials asking why golf courses remain open while other recreation facilities are closed.

In response, the mayor said golf requires minimal contact between players and is therefore a valuable escape opportunity for residents.

“Golf differs in important ways from those recreation activities that have been ordered to cease operations during this crisis,” he wrote. “Participants do not have to share equipment or break social distancing guidelines to participate, for instance.”

To minimize contact between players, the city canceled tournaments, closed the pavilion and limited golf carts to one person per ride. In his email, the mayor encouraged residents to report violations of social distancing guidelines by calling 9-1-1, but Keasler said police have enough on their plates.

Fees paid by golfers at Sherrill Park act as a revenue source for Richardson’s operating budget. In fiscal year 2019-20, golf fund revenues totaled $2.3 million. Keasler said keeping the course open undermines the city’s position that it is committed to flattening the curve.

“The city has decided that all of these other businesses need to be closed, but our business that is going to impact us should stay open,” she said.

Magner did not address the revenue issue but said the decision to keep the course open is in accordance with officials at various levels of government, including the governor. On April 11, state Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an informal letter that defines golf as an essential activity.

“The city is cueing off of Gov. Abbott’s guidance as well as the attorney general’s guidance and the county judge’s guidance that says you can do outdoor activities—golf is an outdoor activity—you just have to make sure you’re adhering to CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” Magner said.

Abbott’s executive order singles out visiting parks, hunting, fishing, jogging and bicycling as essential activities but makes no mention of golf. However, the governor has OK’d golf during news conferences, Magner said.

On April 11 the city announced the temporary closure of Sherrill Park. Magner said the decision came on the heels of an April 10 news conference during which Abbott said courses can remain open as long as certain services, such as the booking of tee times, are done remotely, Magner said.

“At the time we did not have the technology in place to be able to do that,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we were compliant, so we decided to shut down.”

The city’s IT department quickly upgraded its booking technology, and the course reopened April 15. Magner said the decision to reopen was rooted in the city’s desire to offer a safe way for residents to get outside when many are pent up at home.

“We are keeping the golf course open because we have people in the community that consider it an amenity,” he said.
By Olivia Lueckemeyer
Olivia Lueckemeyer graduated in 2013 from Loyola University New Orleans with a degree in journalism. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in October 2016 as reporter for the Southwest Austin edition before her promotion to editor in March 2017. In July 2018 she returned home to the Dallas area and became editor of the Richardson edition.