Coronavirus and golf: One man, 350 acres

His facility closed, a Virginia superintendent tasked with single-handedly tending 36 holes of golf describes his strategy and the strange solitude of a vacated golfscape.


Ben Ellis golf
A fleet to one’s self: Ben Ellis, superintendent at Fort Belvoir (Va.) Golf Club, is the lone golf course maintenance employee currently allowed to report to work at the facility. Photos courtesy of Ben Ellis

Ben Ellis’ new normal straddles the gap between horrific and idyllic.

The GCSAA Class A superintendent at Fort Belvoir (Va.) Golf Club has found himself tending a 350-acre, 36-hole facility by himself. That’s the idyllic part of Ellis’ life in a world grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Sometimes, when you’re on the golf course all alone, it’s almost surreal this is happening,” says Ellis, a 14-year GCSAA member. “There are no golfers. It’s a gorgeous day. The sun is shining. And you look back across the course, and there’s nobody there except you. ... It’s the oddest feeling. You just can’t take it all in. Is this really happening?”

Fort Belvoir GC — which bills itself as the “flagship golf course of the U.S. Army,” located just south of Washington, D.C. — has been closed to golfers since March 21. Other courses across Virginia remain open — “The courses I’ve heard about are making mega-numbers,” Ellis says. “They’re doing weekend numbers every single day.” — but, being a military facility, Fort Belvoir has shut down, and Ellis sent his small crew of four, which swells to 15 or so in peak season, home. Or, he tried to.

“Since we’re an Army golf course, the guys are currently able to get paid even if they’re not there because of the way benefits are working,” Ellis says. “I told them there’s no point for them to be there during all this, because why are they working for free? The thing is, they’re basically refusing to stop working. They want to come in and work. They want to see the golf course do better, and they want to see all their hard work keep going.”

So Ellis had to tell his crew members to stay away from the facility until they’re needed. And in the meantime, he goes to work.

“It’s quiet,” he says. “I go in at 4:30 (a.m.) and make coffee. I just read emails, then go hop on a mower. I’ll hop on a greens mower and mow 18 on one golf course, then go do something else, whether it’s put out pre-emergent or mow fairways or water, then just pack it all up.”

Fort Belvoir Golf Club
A fairway at Fort Belvoir Golf Club, freshly mowed at 2 p.m. on a day the facility would have normally welcomed golfers. The club, operated by the U.S. Army, features two 18-hole golf courses, the Woodlawn Course and the Gunston Course.

Ellis considers himself pretty handy, so he’s able to keep his equipment working. He says his equipment manager has been volunteering to report to the shop, but for now, Ellis has told him to stay home unless a major issue arises.

Also working in Ellis’ favor is his relatively enormous fleet, housed in an even more outsized shed. If a mower, say, malfunctions, he can simply park it and roar off on another.

“I have been fortunate that I’ve had to maintain and learn how to repair things in years past,” Ellis says. “At the course I was at prior to here, I was actually the mechanic as well, so I can keep things up and running. And I’ve got to say, I’m extremely fortunate to have the equipment that we do. That’s from my leadership really, really supporting the golf course maintenance operation and getting them the right tools in years past. I was able to walk in, and it’s just absolutely astonishing how much equipment there is. Here, it’s always been more of an issue getting butts in those seats.”

For now, there’s just one seat, but that’s just fine with Ellis.

“I’m there every day,” he says. “It’s one of those things; I enjoy what I do. I want to see the golf course be there. I don’t want to have it be fall and have to do a grow-in.”

While being alone on the course doesn’t bother Ellis, he isn’t entirely without company. “Every now and then, a deer will pop out when you’re not expecting it,” Ellis says, “or a raccoon will pop out of a trash can and startle you a little bit, but I don’t mind it. ... I’m in my own world.”

Fort Belvoir golf
The Fort Belvoir grounds department’s once active job board is presently just “wall art,” says superintendent Ben Ellis.

As Ellis and many other superintendents have noted in recent weeks, it’s much easier to maintain an empty golf course than a busy one. He can work according to his own schedule without worrying about a tee sheet.

“We’ve been able to do whatever we needed to do,” Ellis says. “We aerified fairways we normally wouldn’t have been able to get to yet.”

Given the current climate — environmental and social — most of Ellis’ solo course upkeep skews toward the minimum.

“With no players here, I’m mowing greens every other day, and I might be stretching that out a little bit,” he says. “I’m about to use fertilizer that extends out longer throughout the season, and I’ll definitely be spending a little more on fungicides — a higher-quality, longer-lasting product. Growth regulators will be our friend. We have bermudagrass tees and fairways. They haven’t really woken up yet, so that’s a blessing. Once they do, we’ll have to start spraying to slow them down.

“We’re still at least getting the basic stuff done. We don’t have to worry about players, so we can do whatever. We can mow or whatever in a day, with nobody in our way. So that’s really nice. … It’s just really interesting seeing a golf course with nobody on it.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.