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Get ready for changes at your local golf course

Crowded tee box
A crowded tee box won't be the only thing that COVID-19 has changed about golf entering 2021.

After pandemic transforms game from doom to boom, golfers can expect culture shift amid influx of new faces on a crowded 1st tee

The second of a two-part series

Part 1: Golf industry must build on its unexpected boost

The business of golf in America has been around for 133 years, and at no time has the sport seen a wilder year than in 2020. Golfers around the country should know that changes are coming in 2021.

The culture in which you so often felt comfortable at your home course might never look the same. All savvy operators are taking matters into their own hands and adapting their golf operations based on the pandemic and the challenges that were created from increased traffic in 2020.

Of particular interest to me, as an owner and operator of semi-private The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., were my conversations with golf professionals and board members at private clubs. One of the biggest differences between public and private golf in America is the resistance by the private sector to adopt change. There were some eye-opening perspectives from operators at private clubs, and they might be shedding light on what we can expect in golf if we are to capitalize on the momentum from 2020.

PGA professional Greg Bisconti has been at Saint Andrews Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., for 23 years. Saint Andrews, which was formed in 1888 and is America’s oldest golf club, is in Westchester County, 20 minutes north of Midtown Manhattan. The club increased its membership from 240 to a record 270 in 2020.

“We were looking at a doomsday budget shutdown on May 1,” Bisconti said. “When we actually were allowed to open by the state of New York, our membership sales exploded. The influx has come from those sub-35 years of age and empty-nesters in their late 40s and early 50s.”

What Bisconti discovered was a group of people who never had a private-club experience. In his own words, they were “lost and unattached.” The new members needed direction, so Bisconti took matters into his own hands.

“Relationships are the single most important thing at Saint Andrews,” he said. “I dedicated my Fridays to playing with every new member. I wanted to get to know them and help assimilate them into the club,” he said. “It allowed me to get to know their personality and try to find a fit for them within our membership.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Saint Andrews will continue not to utilize tee times, even though member rounds increased by 35 percent. The club will ban singles and twosomes during peak times. Members will be restricted to one weekday guest, and guests will not be allowed until after noon on weekends.

On the other side of the U.S., Brentwood Country Club resides in the heart of one of Los Angeles’ most desirable neighborhoods, cooled by the ocean breezes just minutes to the west. BCC has been a welcoming “home away from home” for its 545 members and their guests since 1948. PGA member Patrick Casey is in his 20th year as the head golf professional.

Los Angeles County’s health guidelines have been stringent since the outbreak of the pandemic. BCC was closed from March 16 until May 8, and the club still limits its indoor services. Only those 65 and older with a disability are allowed to ride in golf carts. The percentage of riders fell from 80 to 50 in 2020. Guest play has been eliminated. Since the club re-opened in May, rounds are up more than 30 percent. Tee times were not allowed before the club closed, but the club’s board installed an online tee-time system for the reopening.

“We have been doing more with less staff,” Casey said. “With more walkers, our average pace of play went from 3:55 to 4:05. This caused my staff to have to spend more time on the course. We saw members who had not played much, play more. Spouses and dependents definitely played more. Handicap indexes went down because people simply played more golf.”

Golf instruction increased at Brentwood by more than 25 percent. According to Casey, those previously not engaged were now trying the game, prompting him and his instructional staff to change the way they were teaching.

“We are definitely trying to create a more fun and enjoyable environment that is not intimidating. We are emphasizing the fundamentals more than swing mechanics, and we try to introduce them to the golf course sooner. We have scheduled a lot of playing lessons after 2 p.m.”

Casey doesn’t see relief or a return to normalcy at Brentwood until late spring or early summer.

Crooked Stick Golf Club is metropolitan Indianapolis’ most exclusive private golf club. It has hosted the 1991 PGA Championship, 1993 U.S. Women’s Open, 2005 Solheim Cup; 2009 U.S. Senior Open and the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship in 2012 and 2016. The course was designed by Pete Dye, who lived just a few hundred yards from the golf shop door before he died in January 2020. Tony Pancake has been the PGA professional at “The Stick” for the past 17 years.

Pancake and I talk frequently. I sensed how tired and beaten down he appeared to be when we spoke in November. The club saw its play increase from its typical 16,000 rounds to more than 23,000 in 2020. Crooked Stick never shut down and played every event it had scheduled, even though it eliminated a lot of the social components, which ultimately reduced entry fees.

“In April, I prepared three different budgets for my board. The first was a 20 percent decrease, then a 40 percent decrease and finally a dooms-day budget. No one could have imagined the year would turn out like it did. Our dependent play was up 175 percent. Spouse play was up 115 percent. I remember one Saturday in June when we had 11 groups waiting to tee off,” Pancake said.

“As a result, our board has made some significant changes for 2021. You are really not going to see 2½-hour rounds by twosomes. That’s not happening anymore in the foreseeable future.”

Crooked Stick will not allow tee times in 2021. It will not host any high school or college events, other than the Big Ten Championship. Dependent play will be limited, and Pancake fears that will have a negative effect on access for juniors and their development. While golf instruction did increase in 2020, Pancake and his staff devoted more time to managing play than they did giving lessons. That’s a common thread among many professionals at private clubs.

“Looking forward six months, I am not sure golf has really seen the negative side of COVID,” Pancake said. “People have been willing to spend money on golf because there is really nothing else to spend it on. There could be other things that take a priority, and I am concerned about that. People who own their business are probably going to have to devote more time to that.”

Crystal Morse, the PGA professional at The Legends, added some perspective: “The biggest challenge is creating a personal experience in a time where everything is very impersonal. And we do that through continued communication about relevant and engaging topics, events and instruction. Not really different than what we have tried to do in the past, but we are trying to hold the attention of a bigger audience now. And ultimately, I would argue that junior-golf development needs to be viewed as family-golf development.”

If anything is certain as we look at golf in 2021, it is this: The impact of the pandemic will linger into a new golf season. State and local governments continue to hold the cards on golf operations across America. Tee-time pressure, course access and pace of play will remain the primary challenges at most private and public courses. There is no unified industry approach on how to deal with the future.

The business of golf has been given the greatest mulligan of all-time. 2021 feels like a new start. Certainly, we are better equipped to know what to expect as the effects of the pandemic linger and hopefully fade away. When other activities are open and society returns to normal, can golf sustain the momentum from 2020?

It just seems as if we hope we can. I wish the industry had a plan.                 
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