Coronavirus and golf: A bundle of joy in the midst of a pandemic

For Kansas superintendent Clay Payne, a new addition to his family arrived at the same time as the new reality of the coronavirus.


Clay Payne family
Clay and Samantha Payne with their children, (from left) Emmitt, Wyatt and Sawyer. Photos courtesy of Clay Payne

Welcoming a baby into the world, even a third child, can be a time of anxiety for any expecting parent. Having the due date fall right as fears over the novel coronavirus were mounting would no doubt exacerbate those feelings.

Clay Payne, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Buffalo Dunes Golf Course in Garden City, Kan., and his wife, Samantha, had been expecting their third child in mid-March. As concerns over COVID-19 grew and as stay-at-home orders began to be instituted, the Paynes made a big decision.

“I was induced into labor on March 19 because we wanted to be in and out of the hospital,” Samantha says. “Everything was changing and nobody knew what was happening. I wanted to be back in the house.”

Wyatt Payne was born that day, and the family’s stint in the hospital was just 24 hours and was marked by isolation.

“We were locked in,” says Clay, a six-year GCSAA member. “It was strange not having any visitors to see the baby. Looking back, it was relaxing, because we didn’t have to worry about showing him off to anybody.”

When the Paynes returned home, though, they were ready to introduce Wyatt to their family in the area. After all, they had moved back to Garden City after seven years away, during which time Clay was working as an assistant superintendent at Dismal River Club in Mullen, Neb., and at Ballyneal Golf Club in Holyoke, Colo. He took the reins at Buffalo Dunes in January 2017.

But with stay-at-home directives and social distancing the orders of the day, those much-anticipated in-person meetings couldn’t occur.

“It was hard when we got home from the hospital with Wyatt because we had moved back to Garden City to be close to our parents, and we had this moment we wanted to share, and we couldn’t,” Clay says. “They had to see the first weeks of his life via video over a phone. That is not what grandmas want.”

Through it all, Clay still had to focus on his responsibilities taking care of what is widely considered the finest municipally owned golf course in the state of Kansas. Without seasonal help until earlier this month, Clay and his four-person staff kept the 18-hole facility “afloat,” he says. “We maintained but did not improve the course during that time.”

Since that seasonal help has returned, a number of projects have been underway to improve the playability and reduce the environmental impact of the course. Recently, nearly an acre of sod was replaced with a native area, and the old sod is being repurposed by other city departments. When fully implemented, the facility’s overall course-improvement plan will allow Buffalo Dunes to conserve 15 to 20 million gallons of water annually.

Buffalo Dunes Golf Course
Opened in 1976, Buffalo Dunes Golf Course sits in the sand hills of southwestern Kansas and features bentgrass greens and bluegrass fairways. The public course hosts the Garden City Charity Classic, a stop on the Symetra Tour.

Clay says he’s grateful to be in a position that allows him to split his time and take care of all aspects of his life at home and at work. Along with Wyatt, the Paynes have a 4-year-old daughter, Sawyer, and a 2-year-old son, Emmitt.

“I am fortunate to have a very experienced staff,” Clay says. “The main six guys here have 127 combined years of experience. It is nice to be able to fall back on them if I need to get home. Samantha can’t take the other children to the doctor appointments, so it has been nice to know that I can walk away from work when I need to and everything will still get done in a timely fashion.”

Going back and forth from work and home has had Clay concerned about coming in contact with and spreading the virus.

“I was scared — not about what getting infected would do to me, but I didn’t want to expose someone else to the virus,” he says. “I am in contact with a mother, a newborn, parents, employees. How do I protect all of these other people? It created a little bit of anxiety, worrying that you could pass it on to the people that you love.”

At Buffalo Dunes, Clay’s maintenance team has been focused on cleaning and social distancing, and start times for crew members have been adjusted so that each can get their cart and tools and be out of the shop before the next person arrives.

Clay says his roles at both the golf course and at home have changed a bit during the pandemic.

“I think the hardest part for me as a dad and a husband and a boss is that you are a sounding board,” he explains. “It is just being there and letting them express their feelings. I just want to be available even though I don’t have all the answers. There is a lot of anxiety. Normally my guys wouldn’t speak to me about feelings, but I know that it is important for them to be able to do that. Let’s all be positive and get through this together.”

Mike Strauss is GCSAA’s media relations manager.