News & Opinion

Golf positions itself for modern makeover after coronavirus

After the Virus Part 3
Social distancing in golf will be part of the game for the foreseeable future.

Savvy course operators will embrace trends in how the game is being played and how their clubs cater to guests, creating opportunities for better golf experiences and sustainable businesses on the other side of the pandemic

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 third report in our multipart series. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here, plus related essays from contributors Dan O’Neill and Tom Coyne.

So, this is what they mean by pent-up demand.

After three weeks of forced closure because of the growing coronavirus pandemic in Northern California, county authorities in Sacramento allowed WildHawk Golf Club to reopen on April 9. Carefully specified guidelines of social distancing and limited cart use prevailed. So, too, did now-standard measures of shallowing the cups, removing rakes and ball washers. Course superintendent Sam Samuelson had to oversee maintenance from his nearby home because of health concerns. At age 65 and with some medical sensitivities to respect, he was abiding strictly by authorities’ sheltering recommendations for those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Hand sanitizer WildHawk GC Sacramento
At WildHawk Golf Club in Sacramento, Calif., hand-sanitizing stations built by the maintenance crew stand as prominent reminders for golfers to observe coronavirus protocols.

Among the amenities rolled out for the occasion was a portable hand-washing unit, rented for $85 a month and placed strategically between the pro shop and the first tee. The maintenance crew also built three hand-sanitizing stations for the golf course. WildHawk, owned and operated by the Southgate Recreation and Parks District, averaged 170 rounds a day in April. When it reopened three weeks ago, 300 golfers showed up, and the course has been averaging 296 since.

“People can’t do a lot of other things safely like they can with the game of golf,” Samuelson said.

Across the country, the golf courses that have managed to open – or stay open – report busier-than-normal activity. As of May 2, the game will be allowed to proceed in some form in at least 41 states. A ban still holds in eight: Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. A decision for Alaska was pending. Local restrictions vary in some of those states that do allow golf, but the trend of more courses open is discernible. In the past week, according to data from the National Golf Foundation, the percentage of U.S. courses opened jumped from 49 to 58. Joe Beditz, the NGF’s president and chief executive, anticipates that “the number could rise to 72 percent by mid-May.”

As golf re-emerges, the outlines of a new game – and a new golf industry – are discernible. At most courses that have been open, the emphasis has been simply on being able to play, with golfers less demanding and more grateful to be outdoors. The U.S. Golf Association has contributed to that sentiment by making it clear that golfers can post scores from rounds played under altered conditions and qualify for a valid handicap/index.

The relative absence of competitive events has been replaced by a more recreational approach based upon the fun of shared experiences with friends and family. Across the board, complaints about course conditions have plummeted. As one Southeast golf pro said, “Anyone who gripes about course conditions these days should be banned. It’s something of a miracle, or at least a matter of heroic effort, that we’re able to open at all and get the place in shape.”

Faced with a quick turnaround, the staff does what it can. The Legends Club in Prior Lake, Minn., got 20 hours’ advance notice by state officials to go from closed to open for golf on Saturday, April 18. The four-person maintenance crew, including superintendent Scott Thayer, managed to get things in shape. There was enough time to roll the greens but not mow them, so they played slower than normal in April. Carts were confined to paved paths. Within 30 minutes of the opening of online booking, 212 golfers bought up every slot. According to Thayer, “nobody griped.”

Based upon extensive conversations with industry professionals during the past few weeks, I found that these long-term trends are likely to emerge.

For golfers:
* Establishment of stringent measures for preserving social distancing, to be communicated clearly throughout the course.

* Provision of casual health-care stations, including hand washing and hand sanitizing.

* Removal of multiple touchable points on the course, including ball washers and towels, drinking fountains, benches, scorecards and pencils.

* Wider spacing of tee times – to 10-15-minute intervals or more – to allow for greater separation among groups.

* Significant reduction in aggregation of golfers before and after rounds, with attention paid toward less socializing in parking lots, patios and 19th holes.

* Restricted use of motorized carts, including limitations on shared use by non-family members.

* Increased tolerance of push/pull carts and widespread adoption of lighter carry bags, all designed to encourage walking.

* Gradual and limited return of caddie programs, emphasizing forecaddies and single-bag carriers, with players handling the clubs and caddies masked, gloved and expected to limit duties to yardage, ball hawking and conversation from a safe distance throughout the round.

* Limited availability of on-course bathrooms, subject to stringent measures of multiple cleanings per day.

* Where carts are prevalent or virtually necessary, such as on highly elevated or severe terrain and those with routings extended across vast real estate, reliance on single carts might well entail confinement of traffic to cart paths. Alternatively, it might entail excessive wear and tear as the price paid for four-ball groups with four separate carts. In many of these facilities, limited cart storage will entail clubs’ running short of usable carts earlier in the day (40 carts would have accommodated 80 golfers in the past but now would handle only 40). Clubs are not likely to increase purchase or leasing of expanded fleets because of the financial burden, as well as the excessive demands on staffing and storage. Access to carts is likely to become more of a contentious issue for golfers requiring them.

For course management and setup:
* Delayed starting times as reduced crews attend to necessary daily setup.

* Varied conditions of presentation, with less emphasis upon flawless, TV-style lush-green setups and more tolerance for less maintenance of roughs, native areas and areas around tees. This ecologically sustainable approach will entail less water, fewer chemicals, less-frequent applications and reliance more upon scientific principles of agronomic management such as ”degree growing days” and moisture-level monitoring.

* In an effort to reduce turf stress and heavy reliance upon chemical inputs, courses will adopt marginally raised mowing heights of fairways (say, from 0.40-inch to 0.55-inch) to reduce mowing demands and make the playing experience more fun and enjoyable for mid-to-high-handicappers and newcomers. This trend will vary from facility to facility, depending upon client and member expectations. These setup conditions also can vary depending upon the occasion.

* Superintendents will be relying on smaller, more efficient crews, which means more interaction among golfers and workers. These reduced crews will devote more of their workday, especially at the start, to sanitizing equipment, keeping safe distance in the workplace and attending to safety conditions among golfers.

* Increased reliance on long-term, labor-saving equipment such as robotic fairway mowers. Efficiencies over larger areas, notably the 20-50 acres of fairways, are far more likely than gaining any labor efficiency over a smaller area such as greens, which total roughly 2-5 acres at most courses. As with any innovative technology, the unit price of robotic mowers will come down quickly as adoption rates increase. The early brunt of the excess cost will be borne by the most well-positioned private clubs and slowly benefit mid-tier facilities.

For club operations:
* Reconfigured food-and-beverage facilities, with greater spacing among serving tables, if necessary, and any unused banquet halls converted to regular dining.

* More emphasis upon takeout of casual meals, which has proved to be popular during the recent social-distancing measures. As we rebound to a semblance of normalcy, the practice might well become habit-forming for consumers; it certainly is more efficient for clubs to provide – less labor, less waste of food and easier to prepare and serve. This will require additional supplies of disposable serving supplies, such as bags, plastic plates and Styrofoam containers, and less emphasis upon conventional flatware and glassware.

* Limited soft goods and equipment in pro shops, continuing a trend as golfers flood online markets and delivery services. Pro-shop goods are more likely to be focused on immediately consumable items for golf, but they also are likely to include more health-care-oriented products such as hand sanitizers, masks and sunscreen.

* Cashless transactions, with more reliance upon online booking and electronic money transfers rather than cash or even credit cards, with no signed receipts for clubhouse business, including food and beverage. The point-of-sales emphasis will enable savvy golf operators to capture more information about consumers and help those who know how to handle data with the opportunity to communicate more effectively with clients. In turn, the trend will enhance the sense of direct service and make it easier for customer retention.

* Less reliance upon banquets and profitable business outings and more focus on direct service to consumers in smaller, private groups. Until development and widespread adoption of an effective vaccine, it is impossible to imagine clubs reclaiming more than a small share of their previous food-and-beverage revenues. Clubs lose money on direct member F&B service but regain a considerable share of it, if not more, with large-scale events.

For private clubs:
* Private-membership clubs are likely to differ markedly in their strategies as they rebound, with the relatively well-positioned ones able to enhance the level of service and provide more security and value to members. Clubs at the bottom tier are going to engage in more desperate cost-cutting, fee reduction and market scrambling, to appeal on the basis of price. The results will tend to be self-reinforcing, with discounters engaged in a downward spiral while the strong clubs will increase their appeal.

* Mid-tier clubs unsure of their future and needing to reassure members about the need and value of continued dues in the face of service cutbacks can provide more of a proprietary, ownership mentality than a simple transactional one of being a consumer. Instead of cutting fees or announcing a break on payment, commit to a percentage rollover of current ongoing dues payment to future services and commitments (for 2021 and beyond). Relax or suspend food minimums and ancillary payments for lockers and the practice range.

* All clubs must focus on employee safety as a condition of employment. It will help cultivate a culture of commitment that promotes staff loyalty and longevity, which these days is a valuable part of the private-club experience.

* All private clubs will seek greater efficiencies in operations by scaling down and simplifying their employee flow chart, with consolidations in management and in the back office. The smart clubs will hire sales staff for membership and banquet events.

* Private clubs positioned to enhance their non-golf services, including gym, health club, swimming, tennis, spa and child care, will be able to offer the kind of comprehensive experience of safety, nesting and family comfort that is likely to prove highly attractive in a post-pandemic culture.

* Private clubs that position themselves carefully can provide a wide range of comprehensive services that, individually, are struggling to survive in the marketplace. Movie and stage theaters will continue to struggle with reopening, as will gyms, hair and nail salons, and many restaurants. A great number of those businesses will disappear, thus creating a market niche for carefully planned club offerings.

* Likewise for private real estate golf communities, residents will come to value the onsite provision of functions formerly dispersed, from post office and shipping to medical and pharmacy, grocery shopping, hair and nail salons, massage and personal health training. Facilities that can provide these services will have a tremendous market advantage in the years to come.

From early on, as state governors formulated public-health measures designed to reduce the points of virus transmission, golf-industry personnel at every level took up the game’s cause and lobbied to stay open. Not every state complied. In Minnesota, for example, the initial shutdown was so severe that not only were courses closed for play, but they also were shuttered for any maintenance. Now, both bans have been lifted. Gradually, areas are opening up to golf, recently including southeast Florida, the upper Midwest and mid-Atlantic.

The grassroots effort involving superintendents, golf pros, club managers and officials at regional and national associations nonetheless laid the groundwork for the game’s re-emergence well before other sports are fully back up and running. At least in its popular recreational form, golf is more able to conform to social-distancing standards and “touchless” play than workout gyms, bowling alleys, ice-skating rinks or softball and basketball leagues. An effective case has been made that while golf might not be essential, it’s something that can be done safely, and in conformity with rules consistent with public-health considerations.

That also might hold for the professional golf tours, as well. With professional hockey, baseball and basketball on hold, and college and pro football facing severe limitations due to concerns about filled stadia, the PGA Tour and the LPGA might well be among the first to return to some semblance of a competitive calendar, even if, as currently planned, without spectators in attendance.

Any recovery will entail a sequence of public-health progress on a number of fronts in the fight against coronavirus: testing, tracing, antibody tracking and ultimately a vaccine. Any return is going to be partial, at least for the foreseeable future. But golf is positioned in a way to enable it to come back faster and more thoroughly than other sports.

In anticipation of that gradual return, the industry has aligned with an effort that entails a series of carefully specified steps designed to provide an environment at the golf facility that is safe for players, employees and the non-golfing public at large. Golf is uniquely positioned to make a comeback. It’s also a great opportunity to sell the game as fun, good for the environment and conducive to public health.

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