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Golf scrambles to adjust to a new world order

Golf After COVID-19

With more than half of the nation’s courses closed and job losses mounting, the industry fights for survival amid fragmented guidance during the coronavirus pandemic

Editor’s note: In the coming weeks, Morning Read will explore the present and future of golf as the U.S. continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic. This is the first report in our multipart series.

There’s no escaping this virus, not even for a game organized around escapism. A golf-resort destination as remote as Bandon Dunes, 250 miles southwest of Portland, Ore., on the barren coast of the Pacific Ocean, is not beyond the reach of the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic. All five of its golf courses – 85 holes – are shuttered, along with its 186 guest rooms. Staffing is limited to basic upkeep plus grow-in of its next course, Sheep Ranch, with a tentative opening in late spring.

Among the casualties are the 400 or so caddies who, as independent contractors and not resort employees, relied upon guest play for year-round work. With the area’s largest private employer on hold, the Keiser family that owns Bandon Dunes is lending a hand by contributing to community meal programs and food banks and hosting its own food pantry for staff and caddies.

Nationwide, the industry toll is considerable, with job losses across all golf categories reaching a few hundred thousand, officials say. And while no one would compare the economic plight with the tragic scale of lives claimed by coronavirus, known as COVID-19, golf provides a compelling example of the way in which forms of everyday life have been upended by the pandemic.

In the absence of a singular national policy on the medical authorities’ “shelter in place” guidelines to slow the virus’ spread, golf’s shutdown picture varies state-by-state. The game has been allowed to continue in 35 states and banned in 14, with Alaska pending. Washington, an early center of the pandemic, is among those states banning golf as a “non-essential activity.” The temporary halt is strongest in the upper Midwest (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) and Northeast (Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont). California, where golf technically is allowed, effectively has shut down golf in most major metropolitan regions, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego. Among those states allowing golf that still are going through a rising curve of coronavirus outbreaks are Connecticut and Louisiana. New York, the worst-hit of all, closed its courses during the past weekend.

Nationwide, slightly more than half of the country’s 14,600 golf facilities are closed, according to the latest industry research. A National Golf Foundation survey found that only 33 percent of municipal courses are open, but 51 percent of daily-fee facilities and 53 percent of private clubs are open. All told, 48 percent of U.S. courses were open this week. Most courses across the South remain open – upwards of 78 percent, per the same poll. Even the wildly successful golf/entertainment franchise Topgolf closed its 55 locations last month, citing concerns about coronavirus, as did copycat Drive Shack and its four centers.

Resorts are especially vulnerable, because golf accounts for only a small share of their overall trade. Florida golf remains open, including the four courses at Disney World, though the theme parks in Orlando are closed. A similar story prevails at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, where the hotels are shuttered but golf proceeds on the resort’s 10 courses.

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The parking lot at Wintonbury Hills Golf Course in Bloomfield, Conn., indicates that the course is doing a brisk business on recent weekday. Downstate in some places, the game faces a different reality.

The pattern of closings across the country is a function of decentralized decision making. Federal policy has ceded day-to-day management of the crisis to the states, with governors largely making decisions based on input from their health experts and public-policy advisers. In most states, local authorities also retain the authority to make judgments about allowing golf to continue. In Connecticut, where golf is allowed, Hartford County’s public courses reported booked-out tee times all weekend. But in Fairfield County, adjacent to New York City, golf courses have been closed to limit opportunities for social gathering and to keep workers at home.

The patchwork nationally is a function of sustained industry lobbying to make a case for allowing golf to continue. The industry-wide coalition We Are Golf rallied its constituent organizations to make a case on behalf of the game as a safe, healthy recreational activity during a time when so many other pastimes were prohibited. National trade groups including the Club Managers Association, the PGA of America, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the National Golf Course Owners Association mobilized leaders from their local chapters to buttonhole decision makers. The key to the grass-roots lobbying effort was making a convincing case that golf courses can provide a healthy setting for recreation while allowing participants to respect basic guidelines of social distancing.

In New York state, where golf was allowed until April 11, the statewide network of 19 facilities had been open, including three of Bethpage State Park’s five courses at any one time (excluding the famed Black Course). In New York City, where coronavirus infections are among the most concentrated in the U.S., if not the world, all 13 full-length golf courses under the auspices of the Department of Parks and Recreation are closed until further notice.

Where golf has been allowed to remain open, the game takes place under norms that quickly have evolved into industry standards for safe, virtually touchless golf. Golfers are expected to keep a safe distance from one another during a round. Many courses limit play to walking only, with players carrying their own bags or using push carts. Caddies have been banned, because by definition they entail close hand-to-hand contact with golfers. Where golf carts are allowed, they are washed and cleansed more carefully than usual. Most facilities that allow carts also have banned shared riders, except in the case of spouses or immediate family members who live together.

Raised cups on the greens have become standard in an effort to minimize players’ having to touch common areas of the cup when fishing out a golf ball. Players are advised to avoid touching the flagstick and always leave the pin in the hole while putting. Rakes have been removed from bunkers, with players advised to smooth the sand with their feet.

Cash transactions at the pro shop generally are forbidden as well, with tee times at public facilities made online and private-club members making their own arrangements informally. Most pro shops and clubhouses are shuttered, with food-and-beverage service limited to takeout. At some private clubs with nearby residential membership, the limited food takeout has become a staple of home meal life.

One unexpected change that’s been observed is the way golfers have taken to walking. At one prominent private club in Ohio, the golf director reports what he terms “a miracle cure” whereby golfers who for years have insisted on relying upon a cart suddenly have found that they can walk, carry their own golf bag and enjoy the round.

It’s too early in the golf season to measure the impact on overall play, but the anecdotal evidence is that play is down considerably.

Jim Koppenhaver, president of Pellucid, a golf industry-analysis firm, said U.S. rounds played easily could be down by double-digit percentages in 2020.

“If we make an assumption of play returning back to some sense of normal by the end of June – and I must emphasize, that is only an assumption – we are likely to see about a 10-percent reduction in rounds played for the year, and for the Northern states, something on the order of a 35-percent reduction for the year."

Golf operators also know that potential closings loom. Uncertainty prevails, along with a considerable measure of caution and the need for conservative long-term planning. Course closings during the past decade numbered about 160-200 annually. “We’ll see more closings,” said Larry Hirsh, president of Golf Property Analysts. “But the result might well be to strengthen those in direct competition.”

KemperSports, a Chicago-based management company with a portfolio of 120 courses in 24 states and Mexico, indicates that close to 70 percent of its courses are shut down, including two of its flagship properties, Chambers Bay in Washington and Bandon Dunes. Josh Lesnik, KemperSports’ president, is like many in the industry when he says, “We’re meeting daily to review all information and make plans, trying to get out ahead of what is a fluid situation.” Their goal is to keep as many courses open and to save as many jobs as possible. Where furloughs have been made, the company is placing a priority on taking care of medical benefits for as long as possible. Where courses are shut down, maintenance staffs have been pared to the minimum, with no seasonal hires until reopening.

The story is not without its legal complexities, particularly when a course operator resents being told to shut down. After Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf deemed golf to be a non-essential activity and thus subject to closure, the owner of Blueberry Hill Golf Club in Russell, in the state’s northwest corner, took umbrage with the decree. Now, the club has filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming violation of due process because the governor lacked the proper legislative authority. It likely won’t be the only suit of its kind that is filed in the coming weeks.

“We sued because golf is one of the safest forms of recreation you can have,” said Jim Roth, Blueberry Hill’s general manager. “Their distinction between life-sustaining activities and non-life-sustaining is pretty vague. If they can allow fishing here in the state and beer distributors to stay open, how can they not allow golf?”

Roth adds that “it’s not a money thing.”

“If they don’t want me to have the public play, I still at least want to let my members play.”

Compliance with basic standards of social distancing will need to be enforced if courses are to remain open. With only one out of 13 Americans participating in on-course golf, according to the National Golf Foundation, it’s easy to arouse the suspicions if not the contempt of the non-golfing public when so many other everyday activities are shut down. Retail stores and sit-down restaurants have closed, and many Americans struggle just to secure groceries and basic supplies.

All it takes is a photo or video posted on social media to get a golf course shut down these days. That’s what happened to Hop Brook Golf Course in Naugatuck, Conn. The mayor closed the course after video was posted of golfers congratulating one another in close proximity on the course.

Golf certainly finds itself under heavy scrutiny for staying open. Rhett Evans, the chief executive officer of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, recalls a recent national board meeting via Zoom in which a participating member from Utah was called out to handle a complaint from a local health-department official. A passerby had spotted a man and woman riding together in a golf cart and called it in to authorities to cite an abuse of guidelines. It turned out to have been a married couple.

“All it takes is a restaurant owner, small-shop owner, who wants to take his or her frustrations out on golf operators,” Evans said. “There will be more closures if we’re not careful.”

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