News & Opinion

Tread carefully into golf’s ‘new normal’

Haste will make waste in the golf industry if we fail to respect the seriousness of the coronavirus threat and rush into our old habits

The only thing normal about the “new normal” will be that my golf game will stink as badly as it did before the coronavirus pandemic. The rest of the new normal will be very different, on and off the golf course.

This week, the vast majority of golfers around the U.S. will be able to return to play as the country slowly starts to open up. Each municipality and state will have different approaches and varied rules, but the pressure cooker of emotions, from boredom to financial disparity, with plenty of disbelief, has created a caldron that is ready to explode.

Golf scene at sunrise
The sun shall rise again for the golf industry, if we only give it time to recover from coronavirus, Alex Miceli contends.

So, now we make the difficult move back toward normalcy, but it won’t be the routine to which we had become accustomed, at least in the short term. We might never return to the happy-go-lucky days that so many of us took for granted.

Virtually all of the world and every corner of this country have been exposed to the virus, and the cure is still not yet in sight.

What we might have joked about after watching pandemic movies on theater and TV screens has become part of our everyday lives. Now, the question is, how do we navigate around the virus so we can get back to doing some of the things that made life enjoyable?

Professional golf will change dramatically, but not in the ways that most of us will see.

One highly visible absence will be fans. For the first four tournaments on the PGA Tour’s revised schedule, beginning with the Charles Schwab Challenge in mid-June in Fort Worth, Texas, fans will be barred from attending. Most of us simply will do what we always have done regarding the PGA Tour: watch on TV or over the Internet.

Add the fact that the PGA Tour was working hard to bring gambling into golf, a real hand-in-glove desire by the Tour to boost fan interest and eventually create more revenue. Those PGA Tour broadcasts will be jammed with content to facilitate gambling. Ultimately, coronavirus might even fast track the gambling initiative, with a bottom line of producing a more compelling broadcast, which clearly would be a new normal.

Golf-course survival also will be part of the new normal. In recent years, many courses have been on the financial brink due because of an oversupply in parts of the U.S. amid flat or declining demand. A change in recreational habits for families and the time it takes to play golf have been part of the industry’s larger discussion about how to increase participation.

Coronavirus and the need for social distancing have closed many golf clubhouses and restaurants, plus rendered two-person carts for single use only, further reducing the return on investment for many courses that already were struggling to be profitable.

So, for golfers, changing shoes in the parking lot and bringing their own food and drink will be small inconveniences. The interaction with friends will be different, and that change might be enough to turn some golfers away.

The golfing supply chain also could be in significant peril and need a reworking.

For most of Donald Trump’s presidency, the U.S. has been at odds with China. The primary issue has been over trade. Each of the world’s two largest economies has imposed hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs on the other’s companies. The golf industry paid its share in duties, in some cases passing the cost of those tariffs to the consumer.

Now with the administration putting China in the bull’s-eye as the source of coronavirus and discussing new economic sanctions, with tariffs being part of the arsenal, golf manufacturers and consumers likely will feel the pinch.

Most golf balls are made in the U.S., so that product likely would not be affected. However, most clubs, bags, apparel and shoes are made overseas. How they would be treated in any punitive acts by the administration will determine the cost of most golf equipment.

At the same time, golf manufacturers have seen how unpredictable the supply chain can be from China to the U.S. We have learned a lot about what is made in China and how the smallest part can slow the entire manufacturing process. Now, the potential reality exists to return some of that work to the U.S. instead of relying on foreign manufacturing.

This would be hard at first because we have limited foundry capacity in the U.S. to make heads for clubs. But even if that obstacle were to be overcome, it still would take time to bring the manufacturing home.

Almost everything involved with golf, with the exception of specialty goods such as certain putters, is made overseas. Even the grips used by specialty manufactures are made overseas, and there already had been a significant shortage on the PGA Tour even before the pandemic.

Will golfers be willing to pay more for a product made in the U.S.? That could be part of our new normal, as well, because that is the price that needs to be paid for a reliable supply chain.

Even when we finally get a vaccine, which is not projected before 2021, the world will be different. Any new normal in golf will be shaped by how golfers deal with reopening the country.

Though I don’t expect outraged golfers to be protesting about some of the new realities at their local clubs, some players at public and private courses could push back regarding the rules that will define reopening.

That opposition can’t stand. The slow and deliberate opening of golf facilities will provide a long-term viability for most clubs, but a haphazard and rushed approach will cost lives and potentially the sustainability of golf in this country.

These words can seem harsh and alarmist, but just think if such thoughts were heard and acted upon in January instead of the end of March.

Golf provides a great escape from our world. It can be that outlet again, if we take our time and be cautious in our approach, knowing that we are entering a new normal for the foreseeable future.

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