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Golf Can Be An Act of Civil Disobedience During the Coronavirus Crisis

Golf Can Be An Act of Civil Disobedience During the Coronavirus Crisis

In an age of irrational government action, playing golf — socially distanced from others — can be an act of defiance.

On April 2, 2020, three men from Massachusetts were arrested in Rhode Island after crossing state lines to play a round of golf.

Several days prior, the State of Massachusetts, to combat the spread of Covid-19 or Coronavirus, closed down all golf courses and driving ranges as part of a slew of non-essential business and stay-at-home orders. Similar rules went into effect in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. If you wanted to play golf, you had to venture south to Rhode Island or Connecticut where courses remained opened—albeit with social distance rules in effect.

Golfers are notoriously intrepid and will do anything to get a round in. If Rhode Island was open for golf, by gum that wasn’t going to prevent residents of Massachusetts and elsewhere to brave the virus and hit the links.

Rhode Island caught on quickly and issued edicts about travelling to or through the State without express purpose related to essential commerce or business. Golf courses began checking license plates to ensure only State residents were playing on their tracts.

That wasn’t going to stop a few Massachusetts men, who drove across the State border to a McDonalds parking lot, met a friend from Rhode Island, and hopped in his car to play at a nearby course. The McDonalds employees became suspicious when the Massachusetts cars remained idle for hours. They called police who met and apprehended the men when they returned to their vehicles.

Though it’s unclear if the men were actually handcuffed (as opposed to detained), they were issued citations and court dates. It’s unlikely they will do time; in fact, it’s near certain they will only pay fines.

However, the incident did raise questions about the Constitutionality of these State orders. The First Amendment to the Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law…respecting the right of the people to peaceably assemble…” Undoubtedly, the framers did not have in mind a round of golf when they wrote these lines, but how far can a government, whether State or Federal, go in limiting the right of its citizens to move about and to gather?

Even legal scholars will differ about what a government, in times of war or extreme circumstances, can order its citizens to do. We have not, as far as I know, declared martial law, so can State governments prohibit people from travelling from one State to another, to, say, gather for a protest? Attend a religious service? To play a game of golf?

Polemically, I asked, when this crisis began, would the reaction to all the orders and edicts have been different if they had come a few days before the first Women’s March?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say much of the media and public reaction is related to the occupant of the White House. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, would there be daily briefings as combative as we’ve seen or an effort to frame her as unfit to lead in a crisis?

Anyone would have to be naïve in the extreme to believe politics does not play a role in this emergency, but that is not the main intent here.

It’s a reality that we have many restrictive rules in place about how United States citizens, can move about, work, and play. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen outside of civil or world war.

At the moment, the bigger questions about gathering to petition the government or march for civil rights seem to be on hold. What is a hot topic of debate is: can you golf in times such as these?

For exercise, if you are homebound, at least in Massachusetts, you can take walks, ride a bike, or, go to the beach. Whatever your activity, you are instructed to maintain strict social distancing from others: stay at least six feet away!

We’ve all seen stories about people violating the rules, in parks, on basketball courts and other playing fields, but nowhere has the push back been greatest than on the golf course. No longer are the violations crossing State lines, but players in Massachusetts (and other States) simply ignoring the rules and taking to both public and private courses to get their hacks in.

It is, perhaps, because golf straddles the line of acceptable and non-acceptable activity. It is played outdoors. No golfer need make contact with another. Handshakes can be forgone; pins left in cups; rakes removed from bunkers.

Golf can be played by walking and keeping distance from others. If taking a cart, only one rider may use it. Clubhouses can be closed for the eventual (and necessary) after-match carousing. Bathrooms can be left open and sanitized, but little else at a golf course need be accessible to players which would put them in close contact with others. Indeed, one golfer was heard to say, “I’m in the woods most of the time, so I’ll never be near anyone.”

So, ask many, why close down this activity, especially when exercise is encouraged by Governors to keep people fit and in a cheerful mental disposition?

The counter arguments seem to be, you can’t have people gathering for a sporting contest, no matter what the situation. If town basketball and tennis courts are closed, so too should golf courses. The slippery slope paradigm has also been invoked: if you allow golf where will it end? Before you know it, every hot yoga studio will get in on the act, and we’ll all be sweating on top of each other.

I take no sides, but since golf is my passion I have noticed that it, more than any other activity, is where people are testing the boundaries of movement restriction.

It’s easy enough for the police to pull up to skateboard parks and ask people to disperse, but harder, given the stress put on departments during the crisis, to make their way out to the 14th hole of a golf course to order golfers home.

Some are happily embracing the snub at authority, not just because they need the exercise or won’t be kept from their beloved hobby, but also because golfing has become a passive form of resistance.

Golfing seems to have become the tip of the spear for those who want to get back to work, play, and normality. These players are certainly not latter day Henry Thoreaus (a Massachusetts native), nor would I compare them to the marchers on the bridge at Selma, but, prohibited by their governments from assembling, they raise their golf-gloved fists and say no.

It helps that golf cannot easily be damned as anathema to public safety, such as a pick up basketball game might be, but the act of golf has become a form of protest and a response to hectoring bureaucrats, media, and even neighbors who want to shame others into behavior they deem acceptable—and this when the science on the virus is young and appears to change daily.

This is not to say golfers are some anti-science, anti-social distance group. Most believe they are conforming to best practices and golf is not a violation, if in spirit or in letter, of the new rules. Yet they are at the forefront of the pushback. How long will the government keep us sequestered? How long will it keep us from our liberty?

Golf might be just a frivolous game, but at this moment in time it represents not only an act of defiance but also a principle: we have rights secured to us by the Constitution. Are these rights being abridged in the current crisis—even if born from motives of public health and safety?

I recall thinking, when the three Massachusetts golfers were arrested, this might make an interesting Supreme Court case some day. I chuckled a bit at the thought, but as golf leads the way in testing the limits of state authority, it’s not so far fetched. Famous lawsuits have arisen from far less, so perhaps the detained golfers have a case.

Perhaps their act of defiance epitomizes the national conversation we were having before and during this crisis as to the direction of America. Do we accept more state control over our lives, or do we return to a time of more freedom, even if this freedom comes at the cost of security?

It’s a question I look forward to pondering when the golf courses reopen, and a leisurely round becomes, again, just that, and not an activity that risks fine or imprisonment.

I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.

-Henry David Thoreau in ‘Civil Disobedience’


Randy Steinberg lives in the Boston area. He has a master’s degree in film/screenwriting from Boston University. He has been a film and television reviewer for Blast since 2011. He has published golf essays in Sport Literate and Aethlon: the Journal of Sport Literature. His golf handicap is 8.


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Golf is considered an essential activity down here.

The case of 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case Corfield v. Coryell may apply here. A PA man went into NJ territorial waters to dredge oysters. NJ said you can’t. NJ won at Supreme Court. But the Court recognized that NJ couldn’t keep out visitors from other states, though it could favor its residents in their harvesting of oysters from local waters. Here, it’s hard to see a prohibition of others from using RI golf courses, especially if they’re public, and especially in the absence of a requirement of state residence to use them. (There probably is none.) And the Privileges and Immunities clause of the Constitution may provide an extra foothold, as RI (if it’s a public course) is not extending to a Mass. golfter the right it extends to its own residents. RI Gov. Raimondo already failed in her efforts to discriminate against New Yorkers entering the state; it had to apply its checkpoints to anyone entering the state (maybe even Rhode Islanders returning to the state) to make sure they quarantine. (RI was going to ask motorists and their passengers to self-quarantine for 14 days, though it was only a request, not an order.)

2smartforlibs | April 12, 2020 at 4:15 pm

The left understands right now you’re the frog in the pot. How hot will it get before you cook?

    TX-rifraph in reply to 2smartforlibs. | April 12, 2020 at 4:26 pm

    Does the frog jump out of the pot saying “Enough!” or does he wait for permission from the cook? Or just wait…and cook?

Are we experiencing what it was like to live in the Soviet controlled countries? Empty shelves, rationing, curfews, limited freedom, and police willing to enforce it all. Oh, and happy leftists/Dems.

It seems like there should be better use of police resources than staking out golfers’ cars. I wonder if Starsky and Hutch were sipping on free Mickie D’s frappes and cinnamon buns while they were conducting their stealth undercover operations?

    Randy Steinberg in reply to DanJ1. | April 12, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    As I understand it, the cops were not staking out the parking lot. The McDonalds employees saw the cars with Mass. plates sitting there for a while and called the police. Still, I think you are correct to wonder whether this is a good use of police time and resources, not to mention the willingness of people to call in the police for the apparent crime of driving from one state to another. I don’t think the employees knew the men were golfing, though it’s possible. Under normal circumstances, perhaps calling a tow truck for using a parking lot while not partonizing that business would be enough. Unfortunately, these are not normal times.

Does this civil disobedience include a golf cart, sunscreen, BBQ pork sandwich on dutch crunch, organic sauerkraut,12oz soda and a free bucket of balls(range) for $150.00?


surfcitylawyer | April 12, 2020 at 5:09 pm

With a couple of simple rules, golf courses should be open. 1. Up to 4 people from the same residence can play together. 2. No carts or bathrooms (keep the golf course staff safe). 3. Stay at least 6 feet away from other groups. 75 to 100 yards would be normal. 4. take out food only.

    gospace in reply to surfcitylawyer. | April 12, 2020 at 7:53 pm

    Well, for men, there’s a bathroom wherever there’s a tree….

    danvillemom in reply to surfcitylawyer. | April 12, 2020 at 11:25 pm

    USGA actually has guidance that the courses in AZ use. Each person has their own cart etc….my husband plays 3-4 times per week. Much better than CA with all the courses closed!!

    Floridamom in reply to surfcitylawyer. | April 13, 2020 at 8:19 am

    Golf courses in my Florida county are all open, with similar “social distancing” rules – and checks by the Sheriffs office. Food service is open on our course. Croquet pitches open, also. (Serious sport down here). Many “Karen’s” calling in from condo towers to report both golfers and croquet players.

      Julio2121 in reply to Floridamom. | April 13, 2020 at 8:58 am

      Here in Dade, they are all closed, as is the one public shooting range. I have been tempted to just walk out and start to play a round and see what happens. I could double the fun and also practice my aim on all the nasty iguanas that have overrun the Biltmore. Probably end up in some kind of trouble given that I am a law abiding citizen who is fierce about his rights.

John Sullivan | April 12, 2020 at 5:17 pm

I have said it before and will say it again. The silence of the ACLU these past few weeks has been deafening. Go to its Twitter page and the only concerns being expressed are about immigration, gender and prisoners.

    It NEVER took a 2A case.

    Founded in 1920 by Roger Baldwin, a Communist, for the sole purpose of undermining the American republic, an objective shared by the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921).

    The ACLU name chosen was intended as a ruse, following the now common pattern of Democrats who give titles to their bills wildly off from what the substance of their statutes actually provides.

      Milhouse in reply to pfg. | April 12, 2020 at 6:21 pm

      The ACLU was originally founded by communists, but genuine liberals soon took it over and kicked the communists out. For about 50 years the ACLU was a genuine and valuable bulwark defending most of our civil liberties. No, the 2A was never on their agenda. And while going to the utmost to defend the free exercise of religion so long as it was without any state involvement, at the same time, taking an overbroad view of the establishment clause, they went to the utmost to attack any assistance a state might give to that free exercise. But on the balance they were a powerful force for good. In the early 2000s they started losing their way, and have not been good for much since. Some local chapters are still dedicated to their decades-long mission, but most seem to have turned.

In Michigan, just North of here, the Governor, Ayatollah Whitmer, has declared recreational boating as non essential. One of the easiest things to maintain “social distance” is banned!?!

Gathered inmates in the Exercise Yard,

“Whaddya in for?”



“Playing golf”

“Oh man, they’re gonna throw the book at you”

Hey, I don’t need to go to a golf course. I can throw my two iron into the trees anywhere I want.

Everything non-essential is closed in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Just north of Palm Beach is Martin County where all the golf courses have decided only county residents may play there. I have been driving 2x a week to the one course in Collier County that doesn’t discriminate. It’s an hour and a half each way, but worth every minute to me.

Katy L. Stamper | April 12, 2020 at 8:20 pm

Listen Professor, if you’re going to have Golfers write for you, can you please find a Scratch Golfer?

Standards, man!

LoLololo (Now I’ll read the article; had to get that out!)

SeekingRationalThought | April 12, 2020 at 8:29 pm

Clearly, China isn’t the only @@@hole involved in this pandemic.

The NY Constitution reads: §9. 1. No law shall be passed abridging the rights of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government, or any department thereof;. Doesn’t include any exceptions.
But, interestingly enough, in 1963 the following amendment was added: §25. Notwithstanding any other provision of this constitution, the legislature, in order to insure continuity of state and local governmental operations in periods of emergency caused by enemy attack or by disasters (natural or otherwise), shall have the power and the immediate duty (1) to provide for prompt and temporary succession to the powers and duties of public offices, of whatever nature and whether filled by election or appointment, the incumbents of which may become unavailable for carrying on the powers and duties of such offices, and (2) to adopt such other measures as may be necessary and proper for insuring the continuity of governmental operations.

Nothing in this article shall be construed to limit in any way the power of the state to deal with emergencies arising from any cause.

Interesting wording there- Nothing in this article shall be construed to limit in any way the power of the state to deal with emergencies arising from any cause. That’s sort of like the beginning of the Canadian Charter of Rights: 1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. All the guaranteed rights and freedoms listed after that are meaningless- because each and every one of them can be abrogated as long as it’s by a “reasonable limit prescribed by law.

So apparently as long as the governor decides something is an emergency, there are no limits on his power.

The governor under The Laws Of New York Consolidated Laws Military Article 1: The Militia Of The State Section 9 has the power to declare martial law, which he hasn’t done. While issuing all other kinds of social distancing rules, which apparently, by declaring an emergency, he has the power to do.

I suspect that NY’s constitution gives the broadest power to the government of any state constitution. Of course, NY’s constitution reads like a law book, so that’s not surprising.

I live on a golf course in Arizona. It is open and the most notable change is that a foursome now uses four individual golf carts. It is busy most of the day and what with most people being lousy golfers they are spread out all over the fairways.

The leadership of these states seem to forget the “Right to Travel”, between states, which has been upheld in the Supreme court. Saenz v Roe (1999) acknowledges that the right of a citizen of the United States to freely travel between states was established under the Articles of Confederation and, though not expressly addressed in the Constitution, can be assumed to be recognized as a right by the framers. Paul v Virginia [1869] recognizes that Article IV confirms that rights and privileges, equal to those enjoyed by citizens of that state, are conferred upon a visitor to that state.

Then, of course, we have the problem of whether local and state leaders actually have the power they are wielding under state statutes, the constitutions of the various states and the US constitution.

    Milhouse in reply to Mac45. | April 13, 2020 at 9:07 am

    The US constitution has no problem with it. States are not limited to enumerated powers, unless their own constitutions say so. They have a general police power, and quarantine measures fall squarely under that.

      John Sullivan in reply to Milhouse. | April 13, 2020 at 10:01 am

      Do not overlook the 14th Amendment, which makes the Bill of Rights guarantees applicable to the states and thereby limits the states’ police power.

        Milhouse in reply to John Sullivan. | April 13, 2020 at 3:00 pm

        The 14th doesn’t reduce the states’ police power. It just prohibits them from doing certain enumerated things. It’s a negative enumerated powers clause. While Congress can’t do anything except the things it’s explicitly authorized to do — and even then it can’t infringe anyone’s rights — states can do anything they like (unless restricted by their own constitutions), so long as they don’t infringe anyone’s rights.

      Mac45 in reply to Milhouse. | April 13, 2020 at 11:06 am

      When the several states ratified the Constitution and joined the Uited States of America, they gave up certain rights, whether enumerated in the US Constitution or not. One of those was the right of open borders and the right of the people to travel freely between states. This “right” has been disucussed under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution. So, essentially, the various states can NOT close their borders to citizens of other states, nor may they hinder the free travel of said persons while within another state or traversing that state.

      Now, quarantine is a sticky wicket under the law. Historically, under the law in the US, internal quarantine has always been limited to those persons exhibiting symptoms of the infectious disease or those people who were in close proximity to a person suffering from the infectious disease. There is NO historical legal president which allows a state, or its political subdivisions, to quarantine health people. States can impose the use of protective equipment, under a variety of circumstances. So, requiring the wearing of masks would likely be found legal and constitutional. While quarantine is an allowed function of state and local government, under the US Constitution, its use has to be justified and strictly restricted.

      These draconian measures may well come back to bite state and local governments in the butt, when this is all over.

        Milhouse in reply to Mac45. | April 13, 2020 at 3:04 pm

        States can’t discriminate against citizens of other states, but they can subject them to the same restrictions as they do their own citizens.

        And quarantine laws fall under the states’ general police power, so they don’t have to be justified or strictly restricted, as long as they apply equally to their own citizens and those of other states and don’t infringe any of the protected rights.

          Randy Steinberg in reply to Milhouse. | April 13, 2020 at 7:33 pm

          I wonder, when all is said and done, if residents of several (if not every) States will rethink their constitutions and how much power they can bestow on Governors. The Federal government has been somewhat passive, but it’s at the State (and local) level where this raw power has been exercised. If this has not given pause to residents of Rhode Island, Michigan, et al. I don’t know what will.

          Mac45 in reply to Milhouse. | April 13, 2020 at 8:49 pm

          Requiring travelers from another state to self quarantine when entering a given state, which has happened in several states to date, is uc9nstitutional unless it applies to the residents of the state entered. In other words, the people entering the state can only be required to self quarantine, if ALL OTHER CITIZENS od the state entered are also required to self quarantine. That is your position, correct?

          How about allowing citizens of a state being allowed to engage in non-commercial enterprises while denying that to those from out of state? That is what happened in the case sited in the article.

          As to quarantine, it is NOT limitless, in scope. Historically, it has only been applied to those people who exhibit the symptoms of, or who have been in close personal contact with a persons exhibiting such symptoms of, an infectious disease. It has never, in modern history, been applied to an entire society or state. And, it has to be historically justified. Mass quarantines were not done in regard to SARS, MERS, Swine Flu or when 65,000 people died, in the US, in the 2017-18 flu season. Or when 60,000 died, in the US, during the 2018-2019 flu season. Or when 20,000+ had died, in the US, in the first half of the 2019-2020 flu season. So, what justified the shutdown of US society, when there were only about 3000 dead from COVID? Government power is not unlimited. Executives and legislatures can not simply do what they “FEEL” is advisable or necessary. It has to be justified. The actions taken in response to the COVID virus have not been justified. And, any harm caused by them will have to be answered for by the political subdivisions responsible.

Fascism is back in vogue, just ask a Democrat Governor.

Hmmm, they are letting heroin dealers and other felons out of jail to make room for golf addicts. There is nothing worse than a golf addict! I am aware that some golf addicts have blown 18 years of savings for their kids college educations on country club dues, fancy golf carts and deluxe sets of golf clubs. Some have even led their wives into the terrible addiction.

I got a ticket for drinking on a golf course many years ago. State troopers drove out onto the 8th fairway and wrote us up and had the whole front nine backed up for like a $10 fine. It was illegal but seriously.

Jail conversation, What are you in for? Murder. How about you? Drug dealing. And you? Playing golf.