Girls golf season tees off with uncertainty on the fairway
The Michigan City girls golf team got together last Friday in a classroom at the high school to watch a Pace of Play video.
It was largely barren, as Wolves coach Drew White described, with one striking exception.
"One thing that was up was the calendar and it still said March," White said. "It might be the most surreal moment I've had in all of this. It's almost like it was frozen in time, a reminder when everything ceased to operate."
Sports at all levels were halted by the coronavirus back in the late winter, not returning until Monday, when the girls golf season officially began in Indiana. The Wolves hosted the annual La Porte County Invitational on a day when just being there was truly the big deal.
"I'm proud of all the girls, La Porte, Marquette, New Prairie, ourselves, for what they went out and accomplished, regardless of the outcome," White said. They all did a good job trying to stay as separated as possible. It was good to be out on the course. The scores were not the important thing. We're used to being the first Wolves in competition in a given year, and obviously this was kind of a surreal feeling, knowing we were the first game in town since the second week of March. I opened up my remarks by saying, welcome to high school sports during the global pandemic. Part of it was meant to be funny, to try to break the ice. At the same time, it's a serious thing. There's a reason we were the first people to get out and compete."
While it remains to be seen what the season will bring, the professional level has shown that golf can function during COVID-19 easier than other sports.
"It's a very unusual time," Marquette coach Bill Luegers said. "It's been a tough summer. I didn't really recruit kids, try to find anybody, just because we didn't know if we were going to be playing until a couple weeks ago. If there is one sport that can be played pretty safely, this is the one. Golf does lend itself to social distancing. The girls did a wonderful job staying apart, not touching flag sticks. I think they're happy to be out here. I know I am."
For Michigan City and Marquette, players made the short drive over to the Municipal Executive Course on their own. New Prairie and La Porte had to come via mini bus, which brings its own new requirements, including wearing masks during the trip.
"We're very fortunate to be playing, yet we have to be very careful," New Prairie coach Bruce Watson said. "It's different. Obviously, it's a bad situation for everybody, but for young people, it's really interesting because they're having to fill forms out, wear their mask, be cautious. They're having to think for themselves as opposed to having somebody tell them to do it. It's high stakes, it's not low stakes, like missing a putt. You don't want to get sick. I think there's a silver lining in that young people are getting more disciplined, they're thinking about their future. When we were younger, we just lived in the moment. Now there's no exceptions."
Players didn't have to wear masks during their rounds and coaches gave the option to have them on as they loosely gathered for a quick recap afterward.
"Last year, my freshman year, I never saw this coming. It's definitely a change," La Porte's Ella Schable said. "There are some little things we have to do differently, but it's all worth it. If we're able to play, we'll take it. It's really nice that we can actually have a season, especially since some of our other sports have already been (suspended). It's still a little iffy, but it's easy to social distance in golf, so hopefully we can keep going. I'm just lucky I'm not a senior. I feel bad for them. You really just don't know if you're going to have a season. Hopefully, I'll have a season next year, too."
One of those who won't, at least not in high school, is Michigan City's Lia Thomas. The two-time state qualifier has all-state aspirations, though those thoughts are a long way off right now as she prepares to start school like she ended it back in May -- from home.
"I'm a little more upset about it now because obviously it's my senior year," Thomas said. "The fall is my favorite time of the year, football games. I'm a little heartbroken, but at least we still have a season for right now. I'm just going to be grateful for what's been given and take it one step at a time, take advantage of each tournament while I have it. The rug could be taken out from under us at any time so I've just got to stay positive about it, go out and do my thing. All those thoughts are in the back of my mind, but day to day, it's just play golf. Not knowing is the worst part, but I've just got to deal with it, control the controllables. I hope everyone keeps taking care of themselves."
The high school girls golf season began Monday in Indiana, the first prep event held in the state since the March 14 gymnastics state finals. Coaches and players were happy to get started, while holding out cautious hope that COVID-19 issues won't disrupt the schedule.
Junior teammate Taylor Skibinski, who also made it to Prairie View last fall, thinks the circumstances will help her roll with the ups and downs of her rounds better.
"This season, I'm just taking it one day at a time, playing the best I can and having fun because who knows what will happen," she said. "I'm not trying to be hard on myself like I was my sophomore year. Who knows when the last time I will play my junior year will be."
The fact that two other fall sports -- football and boys tennis -- were suspended at La Porte Sunday due to positive virus tests wasn't lost on Schable nor Slicers coach Libbie Gilliland.
"With all the uncertainty of everything, it's nice to finally get out and get a match under our belts," Gilliland said. "We're not sure what's going to happen in the future, but to have our season officially started today is kind of nice. My one and two were freshmen. This is their first high school match. They were a little nervous, but they were excited. This is a fun course. To get out here and actually play and get some competition going is nice. We had three sports shut down so it's day by day. We take what we're given and we run with it. I think they're grateful for what we have and are ready to accept changes, roll with the punches, go with the flow."
The new normal includes trying to limit removing flag sticks -- a rule was implemented last season allowing players to putt with the flag in -- and using sand trap rakes.
"Some of the habits we have as golfers, it's just weird not to have them anymore," Thomas said. "Like the pins and shaking hands, you're so used to it. (White) didn't forbid us to take it out. I did it a couple times on my most important putts. It's windy and the flag is blowing. I wanted to eliminate any distractions."
"My sophomore year, it kind of bothered me 'cuz I wanted to take the flag stick out," Skibinski added. "Now I'm used to putting with it in. It doesn't bother me any more. I kind of like it with the flag stick in. It's definitely different not exchanging scorecards, saying nice job at the end and shaking hands. Now you just give 'em a wave."
All things considered, the sacrifices are certainly worth it.
"We're the only normal thing going on in their lives right now," Watson said. "Even their families, it's pretty tough, moms are working, dads are working, some are not working. It's crazy. It's good that we're having sports, just getting into a routine, going to bed at night, getting up in the morning, eating properly, having something that's important to you during the day. With COVID going on, nothing's focused at all. We don't even know what we're going to do tomorrow. We could get a call and you're not going. Having practice for two hours, three hours, we're focused on what we're doing."
Now that the season has started, the next questions become, what's next? and will it last?
"You don't know who or what to believe," White said. "It would be painful to have gotten this taste of it, then stop. There would be no easy way. I really hope it doesn't happen where we play one or two weeks and then there's a blanket shutdown. It would be like a Band-Aid, slowly peeling it away. Part of me thinks the plug get pulled. You have a sense of, is it going to happen? I want to remain as positive as I possibly can, but also be a realist. You have to deal with all that uncertainty. You just sit here and realize sports are important to a lot of us but in the entire scheme of things, sports isn't quite as important as a lot of us want to make it out to be."
Health and safety issues could ultimately make it all a moot point if the state government or Indiana High School Athletic Association shut down sports, but what happens if it's left to the discretion of schools?
"I've been led to believe there's a scenario where we'd be able to play golf even if football, volleyball or soccer get shut down, that we'd be our own autonomous sport," White said. "Football pays for pretty much all of us non-revenue sports. We don't make a lot of money, so if we're not making money off football, there's not a whole lot of incentive to play golf. We can play golf safely and I really hope we get the opportunity to see our season through, but if they shut down (contact sports), there are people who are going to say, why do they get to play when our kids don't? It's a matter of two things, optics and finances."
Those answers figure to come within the next 10 days to two weeks as football and other fall sports are scheduled to start.
"Hopefully, we can get in a whole season," Luegers said. "It's going to be hard to tell. A lot of it is going to depend on what goes on, county-wide, state-wide. We'll do our best to do things (school) officials tell us to do, and we'll do it for golf season, too. Each round truly is something special. It might be your last."