Marcus Hayes: I played golf. It was scary. Also, awesome.

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

After weeks of sheltering in place, keep a wary eye on the ball upon return to the golf course. - Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Playing golf isn’t essential. Often, it isn’t even fun.

But it’s one of the few things we’re allowed to do during the lockdown, and, as a journalist, it’s my responsibility to enlighten the reader to the dangers and hazards of the world we share. So on Monday, purely in the interest of the greater good, I played golf.

After seven weeks of sheltering in place, I had a 10:12 a.m. tee time at Talamore Country Club, and it delivered a magnificent mix of sensations, mostly olfactory: the cut grass, the magnolia trees, the dung in the newly laid mulch. Smelled like freedom.

I risked hypocrisy in this expedition. After all, it was I who begged fans to stay away from basketball and hockey games two days before Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus and effectively shut down the country. Could I, in good conscience, now play golf, even as the total number of cases in the United States remained above 1 million for the seventh consecutive day, and the number of deaths climbed toward 70,000 with no real sign of slowing?

Yes I could, if I was smart. And if everyone else was smart, too. I was. They were (for the most part). It was weird. And frightening.

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Albert Fung sat in the hatch of his white SUV. Mike Vlahkis stood about 6 feet away. Smoke floated between them, just two bros sharing a cigarette in the afterglow of a pleasurable, satisfying experience. This was Sunday evening, and they had just finished doing the thing they loved best: Golf.

Mike and Al are both 47. Both graduated from George Washington High in Northeast Philadelphia, both now live in Newtown … and they both played golf all weekend: Saturday at Riverview Country Club in Easton, then Sunday at Northampton Valley Country Club in Richboro.

I was doing reconnaissance for my Monday mission, and I wanted to check the temperature at the scene.

They acted like felons on parole.

“It was pure smiles out here today,” Fung said, smiling.

“And long overdue!” Vlahkis added. “I was having cabin fever times 100!”

I know that feeling.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf allowed golf courses to reopen Friday, while New Jersey Gov. Tom Murphy opened courses Saturday, and a tee time was harder to get than toilet paper.

The Bucks Club, in Jamison, Pa., sold out its weekend tee times in 25 minutes. Northampton Valley almost immediately filled all 144 slots for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Five Ponds Gold Course in Warminster didn’t have an opening all weekend.

There were tons of restrictions: Gloves and masks for all employees, which made for an eerie greeting; masks for everyone in the common areas, like parking lots and practice greens; limited bathroom availability; clubhouses, pro shops, and grills mostly closed, as are chipping areas and driving ranges; most fees prepaid or paperless; no bag handlers; one player per cart; no rakes in the bunkers; and, under any circumstances, no touching a flag stick.

Clubs used various methods to raise the bottom of holes so balls didn’t plunge 6 inches below the surface. The most cost-effective method involved cutting a short section of a floating styrofoam noodle and wrapping it around the base of the flagstick, though, considering the caliber of golfer at most courses this weekend, keeping the ball from falling into the hole seemed like overkill.

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“We had a report of somebody high-fiving on the fourth hole on Saturday,” said Andy Watters, the head professional and general manager at Talamore. “Probably just a natural reaction.”

Local public courses estimate that the lockdown cost them as many as 3,000 rounds from mid-March to May 1. At, say, $50 per round, that’s $150,000. They’re eager to recoup those losses, using skeleton crews working long shifts, but they’re being more responsible than greedy.

Northampton put out only 144 golfers Sunday to make sure there were no bottlenecks on the course, allowing groups to tee off in 20-minute intervals. That’s about twice as much time between groups for most courses — though, as Watters pointed out, foursomes seldom get within 6 feet of each other when they’re waiting for the group ahead of them.

Players seemed restrained. They’d better be. Police cars cruised through the parking lots at Five Ponds and Northampton Valley this weekend.

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I’m a member at Talamore. It took me four days to get a tee time, and then only because somebody backed out. Talamore usually has 10-minute gaps. We went every 12 minutes. We were the second group of the day. We played … efficiently. We didn’t wait, and we weren’t pushed, and we had fun. And I got scared.

I brought my neighbor, Jason Ralph, and we’re pretty good; single-digit handicaps when in midseason form. We were paired with a couple we didn’t know, but they could play, too. They were not always, well, diligent.

On the first hole, she took the flag stick out — Rule No. 1, remember? Yeah, well, she grabbed it with her bare hand. Then she gave it to her husband, and he held it with his bare hand. Both were unmasked on the green.

I looked at Jason. Jason looked at me. He looked scared, too — from the eyes up, anyway, because he never took off his mask. We said nothing.

Second hole, I hit my tee shot into the left rough. The husband found it before I did. Picked it up — again, bare hand. Put it back down. Yikes. I finished the hole with the ball and had to handle it with my bare hand, but I drenched it with sanitizer — both hand and ball.

At least they didn’t touch the flag stick this time.

This wasn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be. Then I got paranoid.

I’d been playing without a mask except for when I was on the green, but when I teed off No. 4, I realized I was walking into the same space the husband had just occupied, and thought, coronavirus spreads through the air, you idiot. I masked up immediately.

Then, on the sixth tee, we faced a headwind, and after I hit my shot I realized that coronavirus stood no chance against a stiff breeze — or, if the husband was going to infect me, I’d better not stand downwind. Then I got a grip.

I’d spent the first 90 minutes of my first round in 90 days with the image of myself lying in a COVID ward, gasping for breath. At which point I said, the hell with it. I’m here. If I get it, I get it.

Because that’s the reality. The masks most of us use don’t filter air well enough to really protect us, and we’re not going to play golf in a hazmat suit — or go shopping, or to the auto mechanic, or the Chick-Fil-A drive-through, for that matter.

This virus is hearty, and it’s deadly, and it’s probably going to nick us all, sooner or later. Our job is not, necessarily, to avoid it; it’s to avoid too many of us getting it at the same time, thereby crashing our health-care system and diminishing the high level of care we might otherwise receive. If we don’t commingle, and if we wash our hands, and if we don’t touch our faces, then we’ll probably achieve this goal.

They’ve returned to a degree of normalcy in South Korea, where the Korean Baseball Association began its season Tuesday after a five-week delay. Then again, South Korea’s citizens and government have been the model of proper response to this pandemic.

Still, Major League Baseball hopes to start in late June; the NBA and the NHL have not abandoned hopes of finishing their seasons; and the PGA Tour is scheduled to resume June 11. NASCAR (of course) will lead the charge with a restart May 17.

Any spike in cases and deaths could derail any or all of those plans, but we seem to have reached a minimum level of compliance and common sense. So, for now, you should go running in the park, and walking through town, and, God bless you, definitely go golf. Just be sure take a few extra face masks.

I lost mine somewhere between No. 9 and No. 10.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer