News & Opinion

Course operator sees a way forward with golf

Ted Bishop, who runs The Legends Golf Club in Indiana, points toward an opportunity for public golf during a time of national crisis ... if only golfers will seize it

FRANKLIN, Ind. – In my 44 years of running golf courses, I haven't seen anything quite like the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. It certainly is on a much different scale than events such as 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, mass shootings, hurricane disasters, etc. But, it has caused a massive disruption in human routines, and that is a problem.

Public golf could prosper during these times. Public golf rarely has been given a mulligan of any kind when it comes to a business catastrophe.

Ballybunion Golf Club at sunset
OK, so daylight might disappear if your group is stuck behind Julius Irving, but why not enjoy the sunset anyway?

However, if the coronavirus, or COVID-19, crisis does worsen, as health experts predict, panic could set in and facilities could be forced to shut down. The golf landscape in the U.S. might never look the same again. Many public courses outside of the sunbelt states are coming out of winter and the non-revenue months. Credit lines, if a course was lucky enough to have one, likely are tapped out. Any extended closure could be the end for many of the country's public courses.

All responsible businesses are communicating to their customers why it's still safe to purchase goods or services such as haircuts, groceries and meals, even though nothing any longer is "finger-lickin’ good." Banks are encouraging online transactions. I spent five hours on Friday crafting our statement here at The Legends Golf Club, which I manage as a part-owner, and it caused a lot of internal bickering between my daughter Ashely, who is our assistant general manager, and me as we debated on the proper email message for our customers.

We realize our responsibility to offer a safe and sanitary environment if we are to be open for business. The reality is that people do need something that will help promote a safe and healthy lifestyle, as well as a diversion from the saturated coronavirus coverage. Public golf can be that outlet.

Like every other business, the buildup of daily stress on my staff has taken its toll as coronavirus information seems to change every hour. My head pro has two kids of her own, and the same is true for my daughter. Schools are closed, and we are juggling the daily work schedules. I was looking forward to coaching the local boys high school golf team this spring, and practice was to have started on Monday. We found out Friday that our season has been suspended. My situation pales in comparison with that of my other daughter, Ambry, who coaches the women at St. John's University in New York. St. John’s not only had its season canceled by the NCAA, but Ambry has three foreign players who can't get home because of travel restrictions imposed by President Donald Trump.

I received a call Saturday night from my good friend Cam Cameron. He played quarterback at Indiana and is a former coach at his alma mater and in the NFL. His Rotary Club in Coronado, Calif., had a big outing scheduled for Friday of this week. He was asking for my advice on whether the outing should be played. The Rotary Club already had canceled its post-round dinner. Ultimately, the club opted to cancel the outing, too.

Golfers can keep their distance from one another and practice the recommended “social distancing”; it’s not so easy in a banquet setting. Food-and-beverage revenues at all golf courses are going to suffer greatly as bars and restaurants are ordered to close down nationwide.

America has become such a society of spectators when it comes to sports. On those busy days last week, a constant comment from my golfers was, "You are going to get sick and tired of seeing me, because there is nothing else to do!"

No March Madness. No baseball, basketball or hockey on TV. The only golf we have are reruns of old tournaments or exhibitions, which I actually find quite refreshing. I enjoyed watching the Golf Channel series "Arnie" for probably the 20th time, and "Tom at Turnberry" reminded me how my relationship with Tom Watson began.

In central Indiana, we have enjoyed four playable days in the past week. During that time, we accommodated 606 golfers amid frost delays, cart-path restrictions and wet-and-windy conditions. Those are good numbers for mid-March in Indiana. Many private clubs have chosen not to open or drastically alter how they conduct business. Those practices could contribute to an explosion of public golf once the weather does break, if our government does not restrict human movement.

One other major concern I have is that business-interruption clauses in commercial insurance packages do not kick in if the government mandates a shutdown. Golf has a bad track record when it comes to being taken care of by the government. As recently as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, golf courses were lumped in with tattoo and massage parlors and were restricted from any federal aid by the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

We have a president who owns golf courses, but his 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated business entertainment as a tax deduction, which hurt the golf industry. So, I am taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to the federal government giving the golf industry any help.

We have all seen pictures and reports of the craziness with consumers showing up en masse to purchase essentials in anticipation of a quarantine order. Quantities on certain items are being restricted. Price gouging already is taking place on disinfectant cleaners, sanitary wipes, toilet paper and bottled water. Hand sanitizers are nowhere to be found. Nor are the ingredients such as alcohol and aloe gel that are required to make a homemade version. Lines are long. Stores are packed. Golf shops certainly are not this crowded, and golfers can practice "social distancing" while checking in to play a round.

Playing a round of golf outdoors with three of your friends, using your own equipment and being spread out over acres of green space seems like a pretty good thing to do right now. Thanks to the USGA, golfers don't even have to touch the flagsticks anymore. This is serious business, and I am sure that a lot of owners and operators are having sleepless nights, as I am.

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