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’

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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 Magazine.com 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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