HOW long will golf courses remain open in the UK? Everyone connected with the sport is hoping that it can be one of the great survivors of the coronavirus pandemic.

At a time of global crisis, with the numbers struck down by the illness continuing to rise on these shores, getting the clubs out and hitting the fairways is perceived to be one of the remaining activities that can still be enjoyed provided the necessary precautions are taken.

Mentally that could be a massive boost to many, who are set to be indoors without their usual sport fix, and, like jogging, golf can be enjoyed on your own or with a friend without really having to come within a few metres of one another.

As the sun shone on Sunday, the trolleys and bags were out in force across County Durham, with hundreds, probably even thousands, making their way up and down the fairways and on to the greens to escape the constant updates of the deadly disease across the media.

Golfers have been told to adopt measures such as not touching the flag or shaking hands at the end of a match if they do play, just days after it was confirmed even Royal & Ancient are keeping an eye on things in the hope that the Open Championship and Women’s British Open can still go ahead later this year.

The message from England Golf has been well received in the North-East following the outbreak which has seen sporting events everywhere cancelled - including the showpieces such as the US Masters, the PGA Championship. The Players Championship across the pond had to be cancelled too.

At the time of writing this, a constant flow of golfers could be seen teeing off and swinging on the practice area at Seaton Carew Golf Club - and that is reflected everywhere, despite the ongoing crisis that threatens to run for some considerable time.

While the professional game has been decimated for men and women, with Tour schedules postponed or in some cases like the EuroPro Tour completely cancelled for 2020, England Golf has advised that clubs can remain open if they make widespread changes to their usual way of operating.

That is welcome news at a time when many clubs, which rely on its membership, are already hit hard by a long, wet winter which caused courses to close for spells and now a core of the ageing memberships have been asked to go into self-isolation.

“We have had to take steps to ring fence the business,” said Rockliffe Hall’s director of golf Martyn Stubbings. “These are unprecedented times, the spa has had to close, but the golf is outside and we are being allowed to carry on with precautions.

“Everyone is talking about mental health these days and golf is always a good way to help because people get out in the fresh air. The health benefits of playing, people are encouraged to go out to play. People have more time to enjoy a game of golf because of the climate, it is one thing we can do as golf courses to help.

“We are busy at the moment here. It is weather dependant of course, but we have come out of the worst winter for a long time when our course and many others have had to close.

“We are getting busier already because of what is going on, a couple of groups were supposed to be in Portugal the other day on a golfing holiday and it was cancelled.

“What that group decided to do was use the refund to play different courses in the area, that’s a positive spin for the local area. We are busier in that respect, we have members playing and we have already had more visitors coming through.”

It is a message being repeated across the region, and the country. England Golf, guided by government advice too, are taking a different stance to many other European nations. As of March 18, the game had been suspended in at least nine different countries.

According to a Bunkered investigation, almost half of the continent’s 8,940 courses are said to be in lockdown, with Germany accounting for the highest proportion of those, while France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Netherlands, Norway and Denmark have all taken similar steps.

Seaton Carew’s captain Norman Bagley, after a committee meeting to deal with the crisis, said: “Golf is a healthy activity played in the open air and, provided expert advice is followed, it’s one of the safest forms of recreation for anyone in good health and not in the vulnerable age group.

“The Committee has decided to try to keep the course, clubhouse and all other facilities open for as long as we are able and allowed to do so. However, we would ask you all to undertake simple precautions such as not shaking hands and leaving the flagstick in to avoid the spread of infection.

“Should you to decide to remove the flagstick please do so with your gloved hand. You will notice we have removed the flagsticks on the practice greens and rakes from bunkers for the same reason. The advice from England Golf is to play in two-balls rather than larger groups and avoid congregating on the tee. They also advise that buggies should be restricted to solo use.”

Many clubs are asking for the bunkers to raked by the golf shoes, while in others the sand hazard is not being used at all.

Clubhouses have had to close since the Prime Minister’s request for all bars, restaurants and clubs must shut their doors, while club shops are tending to remain open with a limit on numbers going in – but the situation is ever-changing.

Durham County Golf Union moved on Friday to suspend activities until April 25 at the earliest. Championships, Competitions, Education Seminars, Course Ratings, Talent Coaching and any other meetings/activities at which groups of golfers or volunteers are present have been halted.

Stubbings, who has witnessed Rockliffe Hall suffer flooding and temporary closure in recent months because of storm damage, thinks clubs everywhere will be doing everything they can to help limit the spread of the coronavirus for as long as they remain open.

“We are very much trying to put the word across that there is literally no contact as soon as people arrive, to come in separate cars,” said Stubbings.

“Our golf services department, outside, where we would clean the clubs and take them round from the front of the clubhouse, we have had to pull the plug on that to keep the club going to keep safe.

“We also have rules in place like we have two people in the shop at any one time. We need to make sure we keep social distancing, everyone has to stick by that.

“Our starter is telling people to be careful on how the golfers go around the course, like touching points, flags are staying in the hole and not to be touched, we are encouraging people to use the glove hand to get the ball out of the hole, play more ‘gimmes’ so there’s less chance of going in the hole.

“We are doing what we can. We have made tee times further apart to avoid people congregating on the tee box or close together on the course. We honestly believe that people can come and stay out of contact.”

The steps fall in line with what England Golf have requested.

Last week’s statement read: “The risk to players, who are of good health and not classed in a vulnerable age category, is smaller than most other sports provided the expert advice is followed. The vast majority of golfers can continue to play at your facility.

“However, golf facilities must be mindful of the older age profile of their membership and understand that it is only prudent to implement sensible policies to limit the potential spread of any outbreak.”

The statement continued: “Offering a thumbs up or some other form of friendly greeting should be used as an alternative (to the handshake).”

There are approximately 600,000 club golfers in England, with the average age around 60, so many of them will fall in the over-70 demographic who are classed as vulnerable and have been asked to self-isolate.

There are clearly fears that golf clubs will be seriously affected by a lack of income and in some cases threaten closure completely, so it will be hoped that golf is one of those to survive the crunch which Covid-19 brings.