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Summer rolls on, safely, at Mini-Golf at Saybrook Point

Among the many athletic events postponed because of the coronavirus are three of professional golf's major championships. The Masters, normally held in early April, will take place in November. The British Open, an annual July event, has been canceled until next year. And the U.S. Open, always a late June staple, is scheduled for Sept. 14-20.

If these iconic tournaments have been pushed back or scrapped, it says a lot that Mini Golf at Saybrook Point not only opened on schedule Memorial Day weekend but has stayed open all summer and will entertain customers at least through Columbus Day.

"From the start of the virus until now, we've had so many phone calls about whether we'd be open and if it's safe," said Ray Allen, director of Old Saybrook Parks & Recreation, which operates the facility. "And the answer is yes. Back in May, the timing was right. Memorial Day weekend coincided with the state's decision to start allowing 50 people to gather at an outdoor venue with masks and social distancing. We just made sure to take and maintain all safety precautions. And that's what we've continued to do."

The long-popular Mini-Golf at Saybrook Point is an exquisitely maintained course reminiscent of an old-time New England boardwalk attraction. A few yards away, the Connecticut River flows south to Long Island Sound. Katharine Hepburn's house is not far away, and the area's residential neighborhoods nestle up against salt marshes. And right next door is the elegant Saybrook Point Resort & Marina, where docked and easy-on-the-eyes vessels range from sleek sailboats and pleasure craft to one or two of the sort of luxury yachts Steve Bannon might be arrested on.

The course itself, a par 45 test, is creatively and challengingly laid out. Hole-by-hole decorative constructs include a replica of Old Saybrook City Hall; a German-style village square; and a lighthouse next to an Old Saybrook fireboat floating in a pond. The walkways and grounds are landscaped with grass, white gravel, plants and flowers, and wooden bridges over flowing water hazard  "rivers."

All of this is to suggest that playing a round at Mini-Golf at Saybrook Point is a pretty nice way to get out and relax a bit. Safe, too.

Engineering for safety

"We thought a lot about how to do this as safely as possible," Allen said. "It was a challenge at first, and ultimately we had to reverse-engineer our existing layout. It used to be set up where people would finish their rounds right where new customers were waiting to pay. It could bottleneck, so we flipped that."

Now, as per clearly labeled signs, incoming guests approach to the right and a kiosk that includes the cashier station and a small snack bar. In case of lines, 6-foot separation increments are marked. After paying through a plastic partition and receiving a scorecard, a new pencil and a sanitized golf ball, the athlete approaches a table to select a similarly cleaned putter.

Hole No. 1 is just to the right. Fortunately, the course at Mini-Golf at Saybrook Point is a spacious "track," as the Golf People say. There are connective walkways between the end of one hole and the tee box of the next; similarly, the fairways (such as they are) don't really run parallel to one another — so at no point on the course is there much danger of one player being within 6 feet of anyone in another party. There are also equidistant hand-sanitizing stations at three different spots on the course.

"The staff cleans the clubs and balls after each round in a bleach and water solution," Allen said. "At first we were cleaning the pencils, but now we just throw them away; it's not that big an expense."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, when the rudeness of the heat was matched only by intensity of the humidity, even the breeze off the river felt more like steam from a tea kettle than anything comforting. And yet Mini-Golf at Saybrook Point was a totally popular place to be. The course was crowded with all sorts of folks: 20-something couples on afternoon dates; free-range youngsters happily racing from hole to hole; even a large, tri-generational family split into separate foursomes that was using the outing not just for recreation but to gossip in that "haven't seen you in a while" fashion.

All employees are masked and gloved; virtually everyone playing wore masks.

Meg Dates and her son Caiden from East Lyme are frequent visitors to Mini-Golf at Saybrook Point. "We're totally comfortable playing here," Meg Dates said. "We're outside and you're almost never within 6 feet of another person. And they pay close attention to the equipment and what's happening on the course."

If there was any uncertainty about their round of golf, it was over whether to keep score or not. "Originally, the idea was that, if he lost, Caiden had to wash the dishes," Meg Dates said. In the end, no score was kept; Caiden, smiling widely, presumably put the outing in the win column.

The course was also the chosen destination for two East Haddam families, the Spencers and the Streckers, who hadn't seen each other during the pandemic.

Dad Brendon Spencer said this was one of their first social outings since March. "We just don't go out a ton unless we have to," he said. "But this seems like a pretty safe way for our families to get together and have some fun."

Dad Josh Strecker, carrying his own putter — "Because I'm left-handed, not because I'm so good I need my own clubs" — pointed out the coronavirus can be hard on kids because they don't always understand what's happening. He said, "My daughter Frances really enjoys mini-golf and it seems like you can only say 'No' so many times. Now, things have leveled off a bit and this seems safe."

Longtime employee Cassidy White of Norwich said she hasn't felt at all nervous the whole summer. "I love working here. This season has gone really well. We started slowly, of course, but we are taking all precautions and I think people are realizing it's very safe. They keep coming back, so that's a good sign."

r.koster@theday.com

Lily Bigos, 17, and J.J. Ford, 18, select their clubs for a round of mini-golf Friday, Aug. 29, 2020, at the Old Saybrook Recreation Department's course at Saybrook Point. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Lily Bigos, 17, and J.J. Ford, 18, select their clubs for a round of mini-golf Friday, Aug. 29, 2020, at the Old Saybrook Recreation Department's course at Saybrook Point. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

If you go

What: Mini-Golf at Saybrook Point

When: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily through Labor Day; 4-10 p.m. Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun. Sept. 11 until mid-October (call for closing date)

Where: 154 College St., Old Saybrook (Saybrook Point)

How much: $5 per round

For more information: (860) 388-2407, www.oldsaybrookrec.com

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