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Golf seeks to build on its Tiger-like upswing

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Players flocked to golf courses amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, testing the industry to keep pace with demand and setting the stage for a brighter forecast in 2021.

With lessons gleaned from demanding year of maintaining courses amid increased play, golf industry looks toward better days ahead

It’s no understatement to say that 2020 was the year of maintenance hell for golf courses.

Surpassing everything and shaping life down to the smallest detail, of course, was – is – the COVID-19 pandemic. Add the complexities of weather: massive forest fires in the American West (California alone lost an area larger than Connecticut) and searing, drought-like conditions at the peak of the golf season in the Midwest and Northeast.

By the end of 2020, we saw a boost across the entire golf industry of 14 percent in the number of rounds played in the U.S., according to the National Golf Foundation, with 60 million more rounds played in 2020 than in 2019. There’s not been a comparable surge in rounds since 1997, when Tiger Woods burst onto the professional scene.

All of that increased business meant much more cart traffic, thanks to state regulations which variously enforced restrictions on riders. That solo cart traffic pounded the turf, but greenkeepers just figured it was the cost of doing business. If it meant more overseeding and more juggling of ropes and cart signage, so be it.

“I’ve never seen so much play,” said veteran superintendent Joe Kinlin, now in his 11th year at Bey Lea Golf Course in Toms River, N.J. His municipal facility draws from the immediate Jersey Shore market as well as from Philadelphia and New York, each of which is about 65 miles away. 

“Regular customers, younger folks, women, girlfriends, spouses of regular players who are now coming out to play;  we’re seeing more new people into the game,” Kinlin said. “We did 6,900 rounds in July. We did just over 40,000 rounds for the year, up 14 percent from a norm of 35,000.” 

For all the hopefulness about a vaccine putting an end to the pandemic in 2021, industry observers across the board expect things to continue well into this year as they turned out for 2020: busy. 

“I’ve heard it called a marathon, but I think a better phrase to describe what we are going through is a triathlon,” said Paul MacCormack. As both greenkeeper and general manager at Fox Meadow Golf Club in Stratford on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, he has an unusually wide-ranging perspective on the industry. In addition to running the golf facility, he is an industry lecturer on career development, with a focus on mindfulness as a mechanism for dealing with stress. “We’ve just now finished the first part: swimming,” said MacCormack, expanding upon his triathlon analogy. “We still have to do the bicycle part and then do the marathon run before we can really say we’ve finished this quest.”

The big juggling act for the year entailed managing social distancing, masking and heightened sanitary procedures among a staff. The standard procedure of crew gathering early each morning for a huddle before heading off and using equipment interchangeably had to change fast. After initial layoffs during the first round of government-mandated course closures, superintendents learned how to coordinate split shifts, flex schedules and to get work done between groups on the course. It helped not having to maintain bunkers as intensively. In some cases, greens got mowed once instead of twice, or a scheduled round of rolling was skipped. Some creative superintendents did away with the intermediate cut around fairways, to save time. Whatever it took to get ahead of golfers. 

At Hillwood Country Club in Nashville, Tenn., superintendent Dave Robertson has seen the round count go from a norm of 25,000 up to 35,000 for the year. To manage course conditions, he adopted a split-shift schedule, with some crew reporting as early as 4:30 a.m. and deploying lights to get ahead of early play. Occasionally, he can get a tee time or three blocked off and will send a spotter out to find a gap for the crew to get some work in. Some staff return late in the afternoon, as well. With the club closed on Mondays and outings this year limited to just a handful, the off day for golf has proved to be useful for maintenance work.

The good news is that golf got an unexpected boost in 2020 when folks found the game to be among the safest, most enjoyable ways to spend time outdoors. The golf industry did an impressive job in late winter/early spring 2020 of convincing various state and regional health boards that courses should be allowed to open, and that golf could safely proceed on a “touchless,” socially distanced basis.

That meant flagsticks fixed in the hole, often with a rubber noodle in the cup so the ball didn’t drop all the way down and was easy to lift out. It also meant rakes pulled out of bunkers. Ball washers were a no-no, as were on-course water bubblers and benches. In other words, all vertical stuff got removed, as did the kinds of accessories that make for nuisance work by the setup staff. Golfers quickly adjusted, with clubs adopting “lift, clean and place” standards for bunker lies, or at least players agreeing to move the ball from buried, unplayable or unraked positions in the bunkers, and life moved on. The emphasis shifted to being thankful for playing golf and not letting the normal kinds of irritants annoy golfers.

The lesson here might well be a great one for simplifying course presentation as we move into 2021 and beyond. Golfers will be happy to be playing golf; we can all spend less time sweating the minutiae of course setup.

One big change going into 2021 is that superintendents are planning ahead for more fairway impact and are likely to be using more fertilizer. Golfers won’t notice the increased application of potassium and nitrogen, but they are likely to see considerable improvement in wear tolerance.

Another big change is that many facilities are planning surcharges for solo carts when golfers could be sharing carts. There was widespread reluctance to impose such an additional charge in 2020 because of the presumed medical necessity involved. But between the toll taken by the proliferation of solo carts and the occasional abuse spotted – instances of golfers arriving at the course in one car but then taking solo carts for their round – that many facilities are planning on imposing an additional fee for the privilege. It will help offset the extra costs imposed by solo carts in the form of course wear and tear and increased sanitary procedures.

The vaccine rollout certainly has been a reason for optimism in the golf industry, even if the initial inoculation rate has been slower than planned. Business people will not be rushing back soon to offices to work, and with home nesting and Internet work still the dominant modes, would-be golfers should have plenty of down time for golf that they might have spent communing, in meetings or traveling out of town. It all bodes well for the game in 2021.

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