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Is playing golf an essential activity? An Arizona dilemma

April 15, 2020


by Anne-Lise Boyer, doing a research study at the UMI iGlobes and doctoral student in geography at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon (ENS Lyon)



During the week of March 15-21, with 152 reported cases and two deaths throughout the state, most cities in Arizona declared a state of emergency to help stop the COVID-19 outbreak, especially by implementing social distancing measures. 

Golf course in Arizona (source Wikicommon)
Golf course in Arizona (source Wikicommon)

In Phoenix, for example, Mayor Kate Gallego (Democrat) ordered gym and library closures on March 17 and restricted restaurants and bars to take-out.  


But on March 23rd, while twenty-eight other states had already issued stay-at-home orders, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (Republican) told reporters that the state would not enact such a directive. He even prohibited counties and municipalities from taking the initiative themselves to declare stay-at-home orders in their jurisdictions. This declaration arose anger but also concern among mayors in Arizona cities, who came together to sign a joint petition urging the governor to join the ranks of states which had already told residents to stay at home. In addition to the mayors' petition, another petition launched by a Scottsdale doctor collected more than 230,000 signatures. Under pressure, on March 30, Gov. Doug Ducey finally announced a statewide stay-at-home order. On that day, the number of people with COVID-19 surpassed 1,000 and there were 20 deaths.

Tweet from Phoenix mayor criticizing the goverenor's list of essential activities.
Tweet from Phoenix mayor criticizing the goverenor's list of essential activities.

While the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, the list of "essential activities" as enacted by the governor is now provoking a mix of surprise, incomprehension but also mockery: indeed, the list first included golf courses and beauty salons! In a tweet, the Mayor of Phoenix criticized this stand, and on April 3rd, the governor issued new guidelines to refine the definition of essential services. The beauty salons are now closed, but the golf courses remain open...


Is playing golf really an essential activity? In Arizona, where there are over 300 golf courses and where golf is an important economic driver, the question is worth asking.


Since World War II, the economy of sunny Arizona (we are in the Sun Belt) has become increasingly oriented towards high technology, services and real estate development. As urban Arizona attracts young professionals and wealthy retirees who leave their home state for warmer and sunnier regions (Pihet, 1999), urban growth has been spectacular (the Phoenix Metropolitan Area had 330,000 inhabitants in 1950, it has now almost 5 million). Arizona's image, as an oasis where life can be really pleasant, actually appeared before this boom. As early as the 1920s, thanks to the lobby of the Sunshine Climate Club, Arizona real estate developers and tourist agencies started promoting the "western ranching lifestyle", with a low-density urban planning centered on the outdoors (courtyards, patios, swimming pools, scenic desert landscapes planted with cacti) (Benites-Gambirazio et al., 2016). With the democratization of access to leisure and the construction of parks and sports fields, golf also became an important part of the American landscape in the 1920s. Believing in the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of small landholders and under the influence of the transcendentalist philosophy which links moral principles and life in harmony with nature, the first suburbs were developed. Thus, the craze for golf can be explained by the fact that this sport crystallizes these American values: the action of an individual alone facing "nature", who has to channel his strength by estheticizing it (Hardin and Zuegner, 2003). The golf course therefore became central to the suburban lifestyle and playing golf also became an essential social marker for upward-mobile middle classes.


In the Phoenix metropolitan area, developed entirely on the suburb model, there are now 170 golf courses. Every year in February, the city hosts the world's most attended golf tournament, the Waste Management Open, which received more than 700,000 visitors in 2018. The Arizona State University and the University of Arizona women's golf teams are ranked in the top 10 nationally. Moreover, in 2014, it was calculated that the golf industry accounted for 42,000 jobs (direct and indirect) and contributed $2.1 billion to the state's GDP that year (Duval et al., 2016). Golf is an important driver of Arizona's dynamic economy.


So, it is quite understandable why golf is seen as an essential activity, even during this major public health crisis that is COVID-19. Golfers [1] also defend the "hygienic" nature of this outdoor sport, which does not contravene measures of "social distancing". It would therefore be absurd to suspend it temporarily, particularly since public parks remain open and their use encouraged by local institutions. Finally, while Arizona's major cities are increasingly won by progressive Democrats, the state as a whole remains conservative and a fervent protector of individual and corporate freedoms, in keeping with the unrestrained capitalism of the modern Sun Belt. The list of states protecting golf playing during the pandemic can be an indicator of their political orientation (such as the very conservative Alabama) and economic positioning (such as the very pro-business Florida). The debate on golf as an essential activity thus seems to reveal a dilemma faced by the entire country.

[1] See for instance this opinion article in The Arizona Republic: "Why is everyone teed off about golf courses being open? In some ways, they are essential”, Abe Kwok, 3 avril 2020.

Anne-Lise Boyer is a doctoral student in geography at Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon, in the Environment City Society lab (UMR 5600 EVS). A visiting scholar at iGLOBES (UMI 3157) in Tucson, Arizona, her research focuses on the management of water resources in oasis-cities of Arizona in the United States. 



Benites-Gambirazio E., Coeurdray M. et Poupeau F., 2016, « Une promotion immobilière sous contraintes environnementales. Les logiques sociales du périurbain dans les Desert Cities de l’Ouest étasunien », Revue Française de Sociologie, 2016/4, vol. 57, p.735-765


Duval D., Kerna A., Frisvold G. et al., 2016, Contribution of the Golf Industry to the Arizona Economy in 2014, report, The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Agricultural and Resource Economics, December 2016 


Hardin R. et Zuegner Z., 2003, « Life, liberty, and the pursuit of golf balls: Magazine promotion of golf during the 1920s », Journalism History, 2003/29, vol. 2, p. 82-90


Pihet C., 1999, « Le développement d'une territorialisation produite par l'âge : les ‘retirement communities’ aux États-Unis », Annales de Géographie, n°608, p. 420-435