New staff, record numbers and silver linings: How the pandemic has impacted the Ralph Myhre Golf Course

By Blaise Siefer

Derrick Cram turns to his side and looks at one of his co-workers. “You ready?” he asks.  

Cram, the business manager of the Middlebury-owned Ralph Myhre Golf Course, is about to announce that the golf course will be open to students throughout the fall semester. He’s sitting at his desk in late summer, as nearby Middlebury students acclimate to a Covid-altered semester: Zoom classes, to-go meals, go/snitch — the whole shebang. 

In the carefully-worded email, Cram writes that Middlebury students are welcome to the golf course throughout the fall semester — masked and socially distanced, of course — once they have cleared quarantine. It was a decision that necessitated hours of thought and planning, but ultimately one that the Ralph Myhre crew — and the administration — felt confident and excited about. 

Cram hits send, knowing the next few hours might be a little crazy. He was right. 

“I kid you not, as soon as I hit send, it wasn’t even two minutes before the phones started ringing,” Cram told The Campus. “We had three phone lines busy for no less than three hours.” 

Many businesses have struggled to attract customers during the pandemic, but the Ralph Myhre Golf Course has not. Since they first opened during the pandemic on May 7, 2020, there’s been a steady flow of golfers, including first-time players, old faces who finally had time to golf again and, of course, the regulars. 

Cram can’t say for sure, but last summer might have been the course’s most successful season to date; in his 23 years of working for the college, he can’t remember a year that compares. 

“This summer was crazy busy,” Cram said. “This is the busiest summer I’ve ever seen. We did not expect this summer to unfold the way it did — we were blindsided by the amount of support and business that came through our course.”

While Ralph Myhre had to curtail about 30% of their tournaments last year due to Covid-19 — including college tournaments and shotgun-style tournaments, in which all the golfers start at once — the traffic remained incessant.

Business was booming, but it wasn’t without months of brainstorming, planning and flat-out waiting. When the pandemic first hit Middlebury in mid-March, Cram and his crew were kept at home for roughly a month, effectively sidelined until they received information on how to proceed from the state.

The first group of employees allowed back onto the course was the grounds crew, tabbed as essential workers by the state. Without their maintenance, after all, the course’s terrain would’ve incurred lasting damages. 

Finally, on May 6, Gov. Phil Scott announced that golf courses would be allowed to open. After about eight weeks of static noise, Cram and his co-workers finally had answers. 

“The switch was flipped and we had to have a plan the next day,” Cram recalled. “We were on location the next morning. It was myself, our golf pro Paul Politano and our grounds crew. And that’s how we ran for the first couple weeks since the procedure for how to staff safely was still in the process of being implemented.” 

It might have cost the Ralph Myhre crew a bit of sleep, but they did it. On Thursday, May 7 — the day after they were alerted that they could reopen the course — Ralph Myhre opened to the public. 

From the get-go, the operation looked different. For one, seasonal staff was prohibited from working per state guidelines, leaving a sizable hole in the crew. The solution? Sourcing displaced dining and custodial workers who were eager for work once students were sent home. 

The Ralph Myhre crew in the spring of 2020 included returning full-time workers, a handful of Snow Bowl Operations staff, and some dining staff. (Courtesy: Derrick Cram)

With a patchwork staff manning the day-to-day, golfers returned to the course, which sits adjacent to the football field and against a picturesque Vermont backdrop. At first, golf carts were prohibited, as was other shared equipment, like divot bottles, ball washers, rakes and drinking coolers. Guests were also asked to wear masks when they floated in and around the clubhouse, and the Pro Shop was closed per state guidelines.

Ralph Myhre’s staff also needed to reconfigure games with a shotgun start, like the popular member-guest tournaments. Given the risk inherent in inviting a flock of participants at once, the staff implemented structured tee-times, where players would arrive and tee off at staggered times. 

Surprisingly, the new structure — although different — was a big hit among the golfers. 

“People liked the tee times for the member-guest [tournaments] because they wouldn’t have to deal with the crowds,” Cram said. “It was more of a flow on the driving range, it was more of grab-and-go food, and it cut back the length of their commitment. They said it was actually nice to have shorter days.”

The check-in table, usually positioned in the Pro Shop, was also shifted outside, placed adjacent to the first hole. While it was an adjustment at first, it might be a change that’s here to stay, according to Cram. 

Now outdoors, the check-in table allows staffers to have a better sense of how busy the course is, when to hold people back a few minutes and when there’s a chance to pair up solo golfers. 

Throughout the summer, the Ralph Myhre crew had to tinker with regulations as Vermont and the college’s guidelines shifted. It was an ever-moving pivot, but as long as the course was operational, Cram welcomed the challenge.

“As the summer unfolded, procedures changed,” Cram explained. “Stuff just developed as the season unfolded. We actually became more stringent as things unfolded.”

Once August hit, for example, seasonal workers were able to return to work, relieving dining and custodial staff of their atypical duties. It allowed the temporary helpers to shift back to their regular positions, just in time to welcome the roughly 2,000 students who returned to Middlebury last fall.

Flash forward to the late-summer day when Derrick hit send on that email. Without NESCAC competition, access to the Peterson Athletic Complex or regular club sports, golfing offered an attractive alternative for cooped-up students. 

And Midd kids were all over it. 

Besides delineating the golf course’s plan for the fall, Cram’s announcement to students also included another attractive layer: golfing would be free for students that semester, excluding golf cart and club rentals. 

It was an idea that had been floating around the administration for a while, Cram explained, and one that the administration felt well-positioned to pilot during a Covid-defined semester. 

At first, students were only permitted to tee off during student-reserved time blocks, separate from those available to all other golfers. But once Middlebury transitioned into Phase 2, that barrier was eliminated. 

As students were introduced into the fold, community members quickly learned to book their tee times far in advance, sometimes even two weeks ahead, indicative of the chaotic traffic at the course. 

A group of students tee off at Ralph Myhre on Oct. 15 as the sun sets in the distance. (Courtesy: Blaise Siefer)

Like all other fall sports teams, the men’s and women’s varsity golf squads didn’t compete in the NESCAC last fall, but they still practiced daily at the course. There were noticeable changes to the day-to-day, though, including a two-person limit in the locker room.

Throughout the fall, students and community members alike flooded Ralph Myhre, filling days from morning to night. In some instances, students were booked to tee off in the late afternoon, just an hour or so before sunset.

It was a hectic season, and one that might repeat this spring. While the course hasn’t been open yet this semester — it was transformed into a cross country ski course for the first half of the semester — opening day is just around the corner.  

Cram said he envisions April 10 as the tentative reopening date. Unlike last year, the vast majority of traditional tournaments and clinics will resume in 2021, including traditional collegiate golf meets. 

As things stand, the course will host one collegiate competition on Saturday, May 8, when both the men’s and women’s teams will close out their five-match seasons. 

While free golfing won’t continue this spring semester, it remains an idea that the administration could consider implementing long-term — and it might even extend to free season passes at the Snow Bowl, according to Cram. 

Students enjoy the cross country trails groomed on the golf course this semester. (Courtesy: Lucy Townend)

If weather permits, the course will host their traditional spring clean-up day on April 10, an event that invites students and community members alike to bond and share stories from the winter. 

“We’re going to offer a clean-up day on April 10, if weather permits,” Cram said. “We invite members and students alike to join in––it’s a community-builder. After that clean-up, we have a little cookout with grab-and-go burgers and dogs, and we start tee times immediately following clean-up.”