News & Opinion

Golf industry must build on its unexpected boost

Golf at twilight
Golfers squeeze in that last ounce of daylight from their rounds.

COVID-19 pandemic prompts sharp rise in rounds played in 2020, offering potential for change in a game that had been declining

The first of a two-part series

To fully understand the magnitude of what happened with golf in the United States in 2020, a glimpse to the past is extremely telling.

Nearly a year ago, Golf Datatech reported that rounds played in 2019 increased 1.5 percent from the year before, largely because of a mild December across the country. Rounds played had fallen by 4.8 percent in 2018 compared with 2017, when they had dropped 2.7 percent from the previous year.

There was glee at the National Golf Foundation because it was the first time since a 0.6 percent uptick in 2016 that rounds played had increased in America. Since 2000, rounds played have dropped in 14 of the 20 years, marked by course closings and an overall shrinkage of the game. More recently, rounds played declined by 5.4 percent from 2016 to 2019.

As a golf course operator of 44 years, I held no reason for much optimism heading into 2020. Golf was at a point at which it would take an act of God to turn the tables. And that is exactly what happened with the coronavirus pandemic.

A global nightmare that has led to more than 370,000 U.S. deaths conversely proved to be a game-changer for golf as Americans sought sanctuary outdoors. Year-to-date through November, Golf Datatech indicates rounds played are up 13 percent nationwide: 19 percent at private clubs and 12 percent at public courses. (Final numbers for 2020 aren’t expected to be released until late January.)

As my good friend Barney Adams, a legendary golf innovator, told me, “So what do we have? A COVID product. People can’t go to the gym, but they can hike and play golf. It’s a way to get out of the house. Families go together. Any individual or group that takes credit is a phony.”  

Adams added: “The question now becomes, How can the industry keep these people? Frankly, I don’t know. I think cheapening the game with gimmicks is short-sighted and will not work. Whatever can be done to establish the purity and essence of golf will keep a significant percentage. When the bars open, normalcy returns. Industry people need to be extremely vigilant and see what works.”

As a golf professional and an operator, I need help in figuring out how to capitalize on this unprecedented surge in golf, and right now the industry is not providing it.

Your local golf pro is on the front line. In my conversations with many around the country, the sentiment is the same: 2020 was a bizarre year. It caught everyone off guard. COVID-19 protocols forced operations to change on the fly. Tee-time pressure and course access became huge challenges at public and private facilities. Outings, weddings, parties and large gatherings were lost, leaving courses to replace those revenues with membership sales, green/guest fees and golf car rentals. Golf became a business built on volume in 2020, and no one saw that coming.

Clubs and courses are facing key decisions heading into 2021. Will full-priced rounds of golf in the form of members at private clubs or rack rates at daily-fee operations squeeze out access for juniors? Junior tours and state golf associations have had the luxury of easily being able to find host sites in the past 10-15 years because so many courses were underutilized. That changed in 2020. Many golf pros and board members with whom I have spoken are saying that access pressure from the increase in rounds is causing them to put the priority on members and full-priced daily-fee players. (More to come on that point in my next segment.)

Don’t forget about our course superintendents. Heavy traffic from more play along with the unexpected wear and tear from single-rider golf cars caused stress and damage to courses around the country.

Cale Bigelow, a professor at Purdue University specializing in turf science, made these observations a few weeks ago: “In my travels to golf courses this fall, I saw a lot of turf wear from golf car activity. No doubt the single-rider cars during drought conditions put a lot of stress on turf, particularly in the non-irrigated areas. Re-seeding and fertilization will be needed at a lot of courses.”

I will use my own 27-hole operation as an example. In 2020, we hosted 55,751 golfers compared with 43,710 in 2019, an increase of 27.5 percent. Our expenditures on chemicals and fertilizers increased by 30 percent. Most of this was geared toward increased turf fertility to offset the damage from high traffic. Other expenses, such as golf shop and golf car labor, skyrocketed across the operation. Even during the times when our building capacity was limited, we had to run two check-in points to comply with social-distancing requirements. Single-rider golf cars coupled with the need to increase cleaning/sanitizing procedures tripled labor.

When I reflect upon 2020, I find that it certainly was a fortunate year for the golf business. Not many in the service industries can say the same thing. What distresses me most is that the immediate future appears to be in the hands of local operators and golf professionals to fight for survival. We have this great influx of rounds played coming from the core golfer playing more frequently and many latent golfers returning to the game. Yet, there is no industry-wide initiative to keep these players in the game.

In the 1990s, the industry essentially said, Build it, and they will come. We overbuilt it, and course supply soon exceeded demand, resulting in golf’s most historic failure. Today, the players have come back, and we hope they stay, but It truly will be survival of the fittest for course operators.

Next: What to expect for golf in 2021.

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