News & Opinion

How the coronavirus pandemic saved golf … maybe

Golf group on course
Golfers flock to the fairways in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic, boosting everything from the number of rounds played to equipment sales.

Industry insiders confirm what recreational golfers already know: We’re in the middle of a golf renaissance, but how long can it last?

Looking back, 2020 might be the year when the COVID-19 pandemic saved golf.

No one envisioned such a shocking development during the pandemic’s dark days of April and May. This is Believe-It-Or-Not material that would make even Mr. Ripley say, “What the heck?” Or a similar word.

More than 200,000 deaths in the U.S. so far, but a 10 million increase in golf rounds played during August compared with the same month in 2019? Irony, you are heartless.

Recreational golf, not to be confused with the televised professional game, has been trending downward for a decade. Some might say spiraling downward, although the game’s assorted organizations don’t because cheerleading is their mission.

Then, suddenly during the summer, your favorite recreational sport (sorry, tetherball) made a Mongolian Reversal in the pandemic’s wake and began rocketing upward.

Golf Datatech reported that rounds played were up more than 20 percent in August compared with the same month last year. That followed a jump of 17 million rounds combined in June and July.

“It’s been quite a summer for golf,” National Golf Foundation president Joe Beditz noted in the latest NGF report.

His understatement is appreciated. The NGF reported $331 million in equipment sales in August, up 32 percent from the same month last year and crushing the all-time August mark of $287 million in 2006. Golf Datatech began tracking retail sales in 1997. The hottest equipment category was, well, all of them. Iron sales were up 83 percent; woods, 74 percent; bags, 55 percent; balls, 27 percent.

Who buys all this stuff in August? People coming back after a period away from the game who notice their old equipment is obsolete, broken or missing, or new-ish golfers getting into the game.

Let’s not call this a golf boom. The NGF did that a few decades ago and was famously wrong, saying a new course needed to be built every day to satisfy the golf boom. It was the Titanic of forecasts.

This is a golf surge that can be reduced to simpler terms. In my 22 years in the Pittsburgh area, it’s never been so tough to secure a tee time, at public and private courses alike. The courses that were semi-empty in previous years were slammed during the summer. The odds are that it’s the same in your area.

Every state in the continental U.S. recorded at least a 2 percent increase in play. In two of the game’s hubs, Florida and Arizona, play soared by 37 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Just like that, these are the good old days of golf.

Ted Bishop, a former PGA of America president, is the general manager and founder of The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., just south of Indianapolis. His 27-hole facility, which is open to the public, has recorded 10,000 more rounds than last year. The club is on pace to log 53,000 rounds, 5,000 more than its 2018 record. If not for a few rainy days at the end of June, Bishop said, Legends would have cleared 9,000 rounds, or an average of 300 rounds per day.

“Here’s what I saw: There was nothing else to do,” Bishop said. “High school sports shut down. Restaurants and bars were limited or closed. We’re 20 minutes from downtown Indianapolis, and the Pacers haven’t played since March. I was one of the 2,500 fans allowed to attend the Colts game Sunday. It’s not the same. There has been nothing else to do or even watch on TV.”

So, the pandemic saved golf?

“I think that’s a pretty accurate statement,” Bishop said.

It may be impossible to underestimate golf’s turnaround in the past six months. Many low-end courses hurting for cash-flow figured the pandemic would be the final nail in the coffin, especially in states where governors closed golf courses and limited public gatherings, causing courses to lose green-fee revenue but also big-event money for weddings and outings that were canceled.

Instead, it turned into a reprieve, and in some cases, a boon.

“August was, by far, our best August in the 31 years I’ve owned the place,” Greg Essig, proprietor of Western Lakes Golf Club in Pewaukee, Wis., told Wisconsin.Golf. “It was non-stop. I didn’t want the month to run out. I wanted 35 days in August.”

What happened? From which woodwork did all these golfers come crawling out of?

“We had a governor in Indiana who, early on, deemed outdoor recreation an essential activity,” Bishop said. “Golf fell into that category. As soon as the weather broke in the spring, it was crazy. I think we’re seeing a lot of players return to the game who maybe played golf before but quit. And the people who played before are playing much more.”

The reasons for this surge are varied.

Golf was considered to be a safe activity because it is outdoors and spread across a few hundred acres. It could be operated safely with restrictions, such as single-rider carts, limited clubhouse access and plexiglass partitions in customer sales areas. Meanwhile, most indoor activities were closed, with few exceptions. Just ask my hairdresser – I mean, Supercuts – where I get my $10 senior buzz cut.

Most special events – from high school to professional sports, summer camps, auto races, concerts, you name it – were postponed or canceled.

Some businesses went on hiatus or employees worked remotely or from home, freeing up their schedules for other activities, such as walking, fitness and golf.

At Bishop’s club in Indiana, the course remained open on a restricted basis from April until mid-June. That meant no more than 10 people in the clubhouse at one time, including the three employees. “Our snack bar took a big hit,” Bishop said.

The restrictions were lifted June 14 after a coalition of state golf bodies, including the Indiana Golf Association and Indiana PGA, worked closely with the governor’s office.

“That’s when golf got back to normal for us,” Bishop said. “It kept going from that, and there’s been no letup.”

In addition, the weather in the Midwest has been phenomenal. July was sizzling hot but dry. August was warm but mostly dry. September was cooler and mostly dry.

“We’re having one of the driest stretches of weather in 150 years,” Bishop said. “It’s been the perfect storm.”

Or the perfect lack of storms.

This year’s success might lay the groundwork for future success. Bishop said the positive revenue influx allowed the club to buy two new green mowers, two riding bunker-raking machines, two rough mowers, a fleet of new golf carts and begin redoing the parking lot. The latter will enhance the clubhouse’s look.

He added that the golf course is in terrific condition despite the extra play, perhaps better than it’s been in 15 or 20 years, because there is new money to spend on fertilizers and chemicals. “It’s all good,” he said.

The multimillion-dollar question is whether golf’s turnaround in 2020’s post-pandemic time will pay it forward.

Golf’s future had looked bleak, based on the high participation rates of baby boomers who are rapidly nearing the end of their golf-playing windows, with no succeeding age group that has shown the desire to play golf in the boomers’ numbers. Those younger generations also might lack the financial wherewithal to play golf into retirement the way the baby boomers have been doing.

So, is golf in 2020 merely a blip on the radar? Or, is golf’s future suddenly brighter than sunshine?

“I’m optimistic that this excitement for golf carries on into 2021,” Bishop said. “More than anything, I’m optimistic about going forward. I would not have felt that way even two or three years ago.”

Lazarus awoke on his My Pillow. The Phoenix rose and brushed the ashes off its hoodie. Golf has been saved, too.

For now. Thanks to one small but not insignificant silver lining.

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