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With creativity and innovation, golf courses could thrive after coronavirus

Golf after coronavirus
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Changes to course conditioning, food-and-beverage service and overall operations at public and private clubs that were enacted to survive during the pandemic could chart the way forward for golf

Editor’s note: Morning Read is exploring the present and future of golf as the U.S. continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic. This is the second report in our multipart series. Read Part 1 here.

Pretty soon, the assistant pro at your local pro shop won’t just be stocking tees, balls and gloves by the cash register. It’ll be more like face masks, hand sanitizer, bleach wipes and disposable forehead thermometers.

Welcome to the new world order of golf. Its contours are emerging slowly, if still only in barely discernable form as the coronavirus pandemic nears its apparent peak in the U.S.
Dr. Jeffrey Sterling, an emergency-room physician and public-health consultant in Fort Worth, Texas, where he also is an avid golfer, thinks that is one of many likely scenarios as golf crawls back to full life. With 12 states maintaining virtual bans on the game as a non-essential activity and just more than half of courses closed nationally, golf is sure to look different on the rebound.

Of course, it will be something of an industry achievement just to have those pro shops up and running at all. Right now, the restrictive guidelines in the 37 states allowing course traffic (with Alaska undecided) basically prohibit pro shops from doing any business. Tee-time reservations and payments are made online or, at private clubs, left to a matter of first come, first off. Various social-distancing provisions are designed to present contact with staff and with other golfers. Caddies are forbidden. Flags are left untended. Rakes and all other frequent points of contact – ball washers and drinking fountains among them – are out of commission. Clubhouse operations are all but shuttered. Food-and-beverage service is limited to casual-menu takeout. Carts generally are limited to solo riders, except for sharing by household members.

Pull carts are now acceptable at clubs that had banned them for concern that they made the place look like “a muni.” Many facilities that are open report a steady trade in walkers – including those golfers who had relied upon carts for years. With many courses extending their tee-time gaps from eight and 10 minutes to 12 or more, there’s been a noticeable uptick in the pace of play thanks to the enhanced spacing between groups.

Eventually, the rules will be relaxed. No one knows when, or with what steps of gradually ramping up. But when they do, and as the country’s 14,560 green-grass golf facilities emerge in various places from their enforced dormancy, we’ll see something of a transformation in how golf operates.

All of which leads Joe Beditz, chief executive officer of the National Golf Foundation, to speculate hopefully about what the near-term future will bring. In an era prevalent with doomsday forecasts about reduced cash flow and clubs unable to meet operating budgets, Beditz is characteristically optimistic that the industry can adapt to what he terms “an inflection” point in the game’s history.

“We have a rare opportunity,” he said. “Nobody knows how to scale or restart the engines. We’re in uncharted territory, but we’re already seeing the outlines of a different golf culture. At private clubs, where guests have not been allowed, members are showing up looking for a game and they’re now playing golf with folks they hadn’t seen or mixed with. They’re also walking more, which is great exercise. And that gives us a chance to emphasize the healthy aspects of the game.”

Anyone in the golf industry who thinks he can return to normal without major adjustment once the pandemic is over is likely to risk going bankrupt. For one thing, there is not going to be a “normal” to go back to. The key to moving forward isn’t just a case of surviving but of adapting and innovating to a whole new world order. The problem, of course, is that when you’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s hard to see your way out, let alone what the new world order will look like.

Beditz is among those who expect to see a wide variety of strategic responses by clubs in how they present themselves. With many public courses now presenting golfers with less-than-optimal playing conditions and the prospects of courses with stationary flags, holes turned upside down and unraked bunkers, it’s a good sign that so many public courses report active tee sheets and busy parking lots. The anecdotal evidence is that with so many walkers, there might well be a burst of activity in the merchandising of light carry bags and push/pull carts.

“We’ll see different standards of maintenance become standard,” Beditz said. “More variety in our golf courses would be great. Not everyone has to model themselves after the same kind of country club. The same goes for clubhouse restaurants. There’s more opportunity for creativity, more varied menus, getting away from providing the same kind of food experience.”

Sit-down meal service is notoriously service-intensive; every operations analyst can affirm that clubs generally lose money on every meal they serve. With private clubs already having reinvented themselves of late to provide light takeout fare, the clubhouse of the future might well find itself shifting its focus. Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., is among those daily-fee facilities that have seen a complete conversion of its food service, including four restaurants, into a bustling takeout service providing meals to golfers and the immediate neighborhood.

Private clubs have, in the past two decades, faced stiff competition from a variety of high-quality public restaurants, nationally branded as well as locally owned and operated. One perverse consequence of the prolonged pandemic shutdown is that a certain percentage of those restaurants likely will go out of business. That means marginally less competition for club dining – especially if the menus are as flexible and competitive as the distinct quality and ethnic diversity of the free-standing restaurants. Well-capitalized clubs with secure financing will be able to make the adjustment. Budget-bound smaller non-equity clubs, by contrast, will find themselves struggling to adapt and likely end up with reduced services, thereby cheapening the perceived value of membership.

One thing is likely: Clubs, both public and private, will have to reconfigure their food-and-beverage operations to create more space between customers. That will mean fewer service tables, less-crowded bars and less turnover. As for corporate and charity outings, long a stable of many facilities, the market for those events is likely to be paltry for the foreseeable future. Nobody knows, but until a coronavirus vaccine is established, it’s hard to imagine groups of more than, say, 50 allowed to congregate even under generous conditions of spacing. And there’s also little likelihood of shotgun starts in the near future – too much crowding before and after. This will change the market entirely and eliminate one of the most profitable opportunities for clubhouse operations.

This might well be a case of the well-off clubs growing stronger while those with marginal cash flows will weaken. Ray Cronin, the self-described “founder and chief innovator” of the Boston-based industry analysis firm Club Benchmarking, points out the precarious financial position of the country’s private clubs. As he wrote in an extensive white paper dealing with strategic responses to coronavirus, “50 percent of clubs are worth less in real dollars in 2019 than they were in 2006. Half the clubs in the industry have literally shrunk in the last recession.”

Cronin counsels against clubs responding to the COVID-19 crisis by reflexively cutting operational budgets and reducing dues and initiation fees. Such a response, he contends, cheapens the value of the club experience and initiates a cycle decline, measured largely in terms of increased “churn”: high member turnover and little capital growth. The answer, he says, is to hold steady, innovate and enhance the value proposition of membership.

Actually, some clubs might find it rational to reduce services and adopt a model based on a classic English or Scottish golf club: focus on golf, a simple bar and allow public play as a supplement to membership.

At high-end residential clubs, managers have extended the normal range of services to provide an all-inclusive environment as members ride out the pandemic. Along the way, the club is able to show the enhanced value of membership, which itself becomes a selling point. In other words, the club as the place where members go when they are not at home.

At Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, Ga., an onsite food pantry, Ford Market, has expanded from what had been little more than snacks and supplemental food to become a major onsite source of grocery-staples shopping for the club’s fulltime residents. “Call in by 4 p.m. Saturday, delivery by Wednesday,” club general manager Marc Ray said.

The 1,800-acre club is running at full capacity as families seeking shelter from the pandemic have gravitated toward the gated, upscale residential community 20 miles southwest of downtown Savannah. Sit-down dinners have been eliminated, but the grocery-to-go service has become a basic supplier. Among the services Ray’s staff now offer are concierge-level pharmacy prescription delivery and securing specialized medical treatment for residents in need.

Ray says that the value of resident memberships is climbing. Virtual tours of the property are now standard, and 2020 sales already have equaled the total sold in all of 2019.

That hasn’t stopped several creative people in the golf industry from experimenting and, in some cases, succeeding with new ways of doing business.

At Fort Belvoir (Va.) Golf Club, 20 miles southwest of the White House, superintendent Ben Ellis is single-handedly maintaining his 36-hole Army-base golf facility during closure. He knows that’s not a sustainable model, but it will help get his facility through the short term while his crew is furloughed.

A more manageable plan for the long run includes split shifts of the maintenance crew. It will allow the staff to stay safe while keeping up on the golf course. A version of this model is in effect at the Meadow Brook Club in Jericho, N.Y., where veteran superintendent John Carlone has managed to keep his full-season crew of 14 by splitting them into an A team (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and B team (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday); they work nine-hour shifts and get paid for 40 hours a week. The work protocol entails a complete washdown, bleaching and disinfecting of the staff room and equipment. All employees are outfitted with masks and rubber gloves. Lunch breaks are taken in their cars, not in a common room. This setup is planned to continue once the golf season ramps up as weather warms, with crews moving to a split five-day rotation.

Like many superintendents in the Northeast, Carlone reports ideal weather conditions for spring recovery. The absence of cart traffic on most courses in the region has helped. New York state initially allowed for golf, then imposed a full shutdown April 11-18. Now golf is allowed in the state at private clubs and public courses, with walking only – no motorized carts. Meadow Brook limits play to onesomes and twosomes (the latter only for members of the same household, with the cups turned upside down, and all “touchable” items – rakes, ball washers and water fountains – removed. The pro shop and clubhouse are closed.

The point of these measures isn’t just to protect golfers. It’s also to protect employees and make them feel safe at work. Throughout the country, golf managers are taking stringent measures to enhance the sense of team camaraderie and provide a secure environment. The moves are designed to minimize turnover, maximize efficiency and create a safe environment for all.

That approach also is in line with the new thinking about private-club membership. If it’s going to succeed in the future, it has to offer more than golf. It has to provide a network of services and a unique sensibility that adds value to the membership.

A cautionary note is appropriate about reopening. There is still far too little known about herd immunity and recovery by those who have tested positive for coronavirus without showing intense symptoms. Can they be passive carriers? Are they subject to reinfection? We do not know whether and to what extent public safety measures can be lifted if the infection rate tapers off. Absent a satisfactory vaccine – a development which most epidemiologists estimate to be a year or more away – any reduction in social quarantining will have to be piecemeal, step-by-step and subject to re-imposition. This suggests tip-toeing into a new public-health culture in which risk is reduced but not gone.

Golf has an advantage. Unlike with passive sports spectating in a crowded arena, the inherent activity in golf offers tremendous health benefits and can be practiced safely over a wide space. This fact also might prove to be advantageous in opening PGA Tour golf to spectators before other sports open their arenas to fans.

As for opening courses to everyday play, that requires sustained discipline by golfers to adhere to whatever new rules are in place. The track record of divot replacement and ballmark repair suggests that getting golfers to comply will not be totally successful.

Other issues remain to be addressed if golf is going to thrive. Presuming that shared motorized golf carts are likely to be banned for a while, what happens with courses allowing solo cart use? Already at many facilities, four solo carts per foursome is commonplace. That puts tremendous strain on turfgrass. It also taxes the cart fleet.

There’s also an issue of potential liability for those courses that are open or that will open soon. As Sterling, the Fort Worth physician, asked, “Will there be liability claims against courses claiming it’s safe to play when someone comes off the course claiming infection from coronavirus?” We might see liability waivers become as commonplace as those required at some courses for use of a motorized golf cart.

These details aside, golf is more likely to come back as a safer recreation than softball or pickup basketball. And at the professional level, the game can be conducted on a competitive basis and televised far more readily than professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey – all of them intense contact sports.

All of which poses an interesting moment for the golf industry. Golf has a chance to promote itself at a time when people are getting cabin fever and looking to return to outdoor activity with a social component. If it can refashion its business and its culture, and present a different, more varied model of the game, golf has a chance not merely to survive coronavirus but to thrive through innovation on the other side of the pandemic.

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