Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)


An inside look at America's surging desire to get back to golf

May 29, 2020
A male adult golfer walks to the green atop a links golf course in England.

If only it was as simple as running a pizza joint.

In his times of exhaustion, when he’s worked another long day with the weight of keeping an entire golf course facility afloat, Steve Whillock allows himself to fantasize about tossing pepperoni onto dough, or he’ll drift to half-hearted regret that he didn’t retire before anybody heard of COVID-19.

Outside of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where Whillock is a general partner and general manager of the public Oak Marsh Golf Club, the local pizza place has been a source of escape from night after night of homecooked meals, while also offering a glimpse of how differently businesses are faring during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I talked to the pizza guy, and he said he can’t make boxes fast enough,” Whillock said. “The pizza business is going crazy. It hasn’t been affected one bit.”

On the surface, at least, golf has been like the pizza place of sports—the envy of nearly every other money-making recreational business because 97 percent of the courses in the United States are open again. Two live, high-profile charity TV golf matches have been played, and the PGA Tour is set to resume play on June 11.

Meanwhile, in these strange times, courses are more packed than they've been in decades, tee times coveted as much as toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Three months ago, if golfers got a hankering to play the next day, they hopped online and snagged a time from a wealth of choices. Now, it’s seven days in advance or you’re out of luck.

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Oak Marsh Golf Club in Minnesota. (Courtesy of Oak Marsh)

The National Golf Foundation said this week that 44 percent of the courses it surveyed were seeing an above-average rate of rounds played. Only 12 percent were experiencing fewer. This is in contrast to April, where courses where closed in several states, and Golf Datatech recorded a 42.2 percent decrease in rounds played nationally compared to the same month in 2019.

“We’re hearing rounds are up in many instances, and what’s contributing to that is new golfers, mothers and kids going out, and more lapsed golfers returning to the course,” NGF President and CEO Joe Beditz said. “It’s not just the same core golfers playing more rounds.”

Some of the numbers are stunning. GolfNow, the online reservation service used by 7,000 U.S. courses, reports that its facilities, in the initial re-opening phase from April 21-May 16, experienced a 35-percent jump in play from the same period in 2019. It was wild in Minnesota, where rounds were up 225 percent, thanks to pent-up demand and good spring weather. In Southern California, where weather is rarely a factor for playing, Inland Empire courses saw a 148-percent jump, while neighboring Orange County had play increase by 98 percent. Among urban areas, Detroit is a prime example of the comeback, with 43 percent more times booked compared to a year ago.

“In these last few weeks, we’ve really seen an explosion,” Jeff Foster, senior vice president at GolfNow, told Golf Digest. “We’ve never seen this level of demand for golf.”

Most everyone in the golf industry would agree that there hasn’t been a time in the centuries-old game like this, and it’s required flexibility and creativity among operators that is heretofore unseen. Who could have ever envisioned using plastic shields to place between golfers in carts, or a pop-up device in a cup to help retrieve the ball?

There are some very positive trends to emerge: By anecdotal accounts, more women and children are playing; more golfers are walking; and rounds have been faster. But the gains come with caveats. Due to COVID-19, more than half of America’s courses were closed at some point during state stay-at-home orders and some lost more than a month’s revenue. Since re-opening, earnings from electric cart use have fallen due to social-distancing policies, and for those facilities that do events business, it could be months, or years, before there’s a return to previous revenue flow. Many courses have applied for and received federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans that will eventually come due.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Danny Lane, the general manager of California’s Costa Mesa Country Club, a 36-hole municipal facility in Orange County. “But I wonder if this is something we can maintain. I’m fearful that an economic slowdown is coming.

“Our customers who have discretionary income, they haven’t been able to spend it elsewhere. There’s no travel, no concerts, no sporting events, no dining in restaurants—nothing to compete with us. I do think that’s helped us, but I don’t know that it can sustain itself when more and more things open up.”

For now, course operators are gladly sending out all of the golfers they possibly can. Lane said he’s filling times from 5:45 in the morning to 6:30 at night and putting out close to 600 rounds per day between his two layouts. At Oak Marsh, a popular 18-hole public course east of St. Paul, Minn., Whillock is seeing between 290 and 325 golfers each day.

“Our golf side is going crazy,” Whillock said. “I’ve got people teeing off at 7 o‘clock at night—and it gets dark at 8:30. They ask me when the last tee time is, and I tell them, ‘As soon as you won’t pay me anymore.’

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El Prado Golf Course in Chino, Calif. (Doug Benc photo)

At Boulder Pointe Golf Club, a 27-hole facility in Oxford, Mich., 40 minutes north of Detroit, Director of Golf Rich Morgan said he’s been booking between 365 and 385 tee times on days with good weather. Kevin Knutson, the general manager at 36-hole El Prado in Chino, Calif., was closed for 37 days, and since reopening April 25, he said he’s averaged 468 rounds a day—double his normal traffic.

“The biggest surprise for us is that there has been no difference in the days,” Knutson said. “Wednesday’s been no different than Saturday. Those first three, four weeks, we sold out every day.”

Added Morgan, “The most amazing thing to me is that people will call to ask for a 9:30 tee time. I tell them the earliest I can do is 1:25. Before, they couldn’t hang up fast enough. This year, they go, ‘I’ll take it.’ People aren’t that busy. They have more flexibility.”

Some intriguing dynamics are coming into play. Many people are either working from home or unemployed. They’ve had time on their hands and little to do outside that was considered safe and socially acceptable. Men and women who would never dream of taking time off from work during the week are squeezing in rounds between Zoom calls. With no youth sports going on, weekends are also open game for parents who might, in normal times, risk spousal backlash for even considering golf.

Ward Cleaver would be all in.

“We’re in a world now that reminds me of our dads’ days,” GolfNow’s Foster said. “Back in the day, dads slipped away on weekends or doctors took a day of the week off. Right now, [golf] is one of the most acceptable things to do.”

With office routines changing and more people permanently working from home, Foster envisions that more golfers might be able to get out on weekdays. “We could get a boom out of this,” he said.

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Boulder Pointe Golf Club in Oxford, Mich. (Courtesy of Boulder Pointe)

GolfNow became an integral part of many courses’ comeback by providing a system by which transactions for golf could be completed online, with no entry to the pro shop needed. That’s a window into the future of GolfNow’s services, with which golfers will make all their purchases online, be it a sleeve of balls or hot dog.

“I call it our Uber moment,” Foster said.

Some course operators are noticing that the demographics have been different. Whillock estimated that in the last month women have comprised 15 to 20 percent of his play at Oak Marsh, compared to 7 to 9 percent in pre-coronavirus times. He said he’s seeing a younger group of women trying the game for the first time.

“Kids and students are everywhere out on the course,” Whillock said. “I see a couple dozen a day. They’ve got nothing to do; school is out. I’ve had more applications for work from that group than ever in 25 years here.”

With carts either unavailable or restricted to single riders, walking is back in vogue, too. “The rebirth of the pushcart,” Morgan said. “People have been re-trained on the beauty of walking,” Lane added. It’s a double-edged sword for operators, who are happy to see more people getting exercise, with pace also improving, but they’re losing revenue in rentals.

The financial losses for courses are real. Whillock said nearly half of his facility’s revenue is generated by weddings and other events held in the clubhouse’s banquet rooms. He said he would normally do 80 fundraisers in a year; now he estimates he might do as few as 10. “All that revenue is gone,” said Whillock, adding that he has projected that his losses could come in the $500,000 range.

“Here’s the catch: Can we survive when the hammer comes down from the bank?” he said, while noting that he believes banks and other entities will have to be more lenient about payments.

Others note that golf’s true test may come in August, when the extra $600 people are receiving in unemployment runs out, and at the same time there will be more sports and entertainment options.

“I think they’ll be pressure going forward,” said Costa Mesa CCs Lane. “I’m not too confident that we’ll be as busy as we’ve been in the month of May.”

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Costa Mesa Country Club in California. (Courtesy of Costa Mesa C.C.)

Whatever may come, it’s hard to ignore the role golf has already played in buoying spirits during a troubled time. There are reasons, palpable and otherwise, people have chosen to flock to green, wide-open spaces for camaraderie in the bright sunshine.

“There are people who were at their wit’s end with the game before this,” Morgan, of Boulder Pointe, said. “Or maybe they didn’t have the time to play. They have the time now and they’re playing. And we need to keep those people playing.”