A course owner fights to save his business in an area ravaged by COVID-19
Photos by Alan P. Pittman during video chat
There hasn’t been a moment of levity. Not yet. There’s a home for seniors south of the course that has lost more than a dozen to the virus that has left our county heartbroken. Maybe when we start to see the curve flatten, we can begin to hope.
I’ve been in the golf industry for two decades, but I recently just became a course owner, purchasing Haliburton Highlands Golf Course. It’s an executive nine-holer in a tourist and cottage area in central Ontario. Because of that layout, our demographic has a contingent of retirees. They love the game, can’t get enough of it. But they know they’re an at-risk group. You can hear the worry in their voice.
Conversely, just like in the United States, there’s a separation of opinions. A lot of our core customers believe they can get after it safely with certain restrictions in place. You hear them out, empathize with them. But I’m not going to do anything that puts anyone in harm’s way, no matter what this does to the business. People come first. Luckily our government has made that decision for me, deeming golf courses “non-essential,” so we are closed at the moment.
This comes with its own problems. Golf already operates as a short-season sport in the north country limits of Canada, so do the math on what closure means for our profitability. The government does allow us to maintain on-course operations, keeping plant growth at bay and the property in decent shape to prevent the course from becoming unmanageable. There’s only three of us, yet the effort is great to constantly sanitize the equipment and abide by physical distancing. My crew is strong, but they’re worried about how things will change going forward.
Worse, even in a normal year, our calendar limits the amount of work I can offer seasonal employees. I don’t know what the staff retention will be like the longer this stretches out; I wouldn’t blame them if they went to a new industry. People have to pay the rent, put food on the table. They can’t keep waiting for something that might not come.
It helps knowing other courses and owners are in the same situation. That’s the only way any of us are going to get across this damn thing, putting our differences aside and working together. We are communicating with our golfers and staff alike, following the guidance from our government leaders.
There are big decisions ahead for the course. It’s not just the bottom line, it’s the stories in those numbers. But golf will return, when the time permits. And my focus is on making sure the course is ready for when that celebration comes. —with Joel Beall
Randall Wood is owner of Haliburton Highlands Golf Course in Haliburton, Ontario.
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