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The worst year in memory was still a boom year for golf

J.D. Cuban

There were golfers in 2020 who never thought they’d be golfers. Or they had been before life intervened—kids, jobs, herniated discs. They coached soccer, or took spin classes. They packed trains every morning and shuffled home every night.

A game played in four-and-a-half hour increments wasn’t much of an option—until, abruptly, it was.

“I can’t tell you how many times someone would come in and say, ‘I used to play in high school but it’s been a while so I need a set of clubs and I need lessons,’” said Mike Laudien, the Director of Golf at Philip J. Rotella Golf Course in New York’s Rockland County.

Golf executives have long been preoccupied with finding ways to shake golf out of a period of stagnant growth. There have been strategy meetings and PowerPoint presentations now taking up space on hard drives. The concepts floated were met with varying degrees of success: Forward tees! Shorter rounds! Topgolf!

A pandemic strategy, one that disrupted virtually every element of life but somehow preserved and even fortified golf’s most important elements, was surely never part of the plan.

And yet at the end of 2020, golf can boast the type of surge in participation no bar graph projection would have dared make. According to the National Golf Foundation and Golf Datatech, there will end up being some 50 million more rounds played in 2020 than in 2019, a figure even more staggering considering how the season began. In April, May and June, golf rounds were actually down sharply because of shutdowns and general apprehension in the early days of the pandemic. But once golfers started showing up at courses, a confluence of time, favorable weather and a dearth of other options led to full tee sheets around the country straight through the fall.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said John Krzynowek, a partner at Golf Datatech.

“A startling turnaround following a disastrous start to the spring,” Joe Beditz, president of the NGF, said in October.

A triumphant golf story requires context, however. Start with who precisely was driving the surge in play. According to NGF projections, there were 20 percent increases in both junior and beginning golfers this year, around 500,000 more in each category that many retailers experienced firsthand.

At Golfdom, a popular golf store in Tysons, Va., president Buddy Christensen said it was common for new golfers to purchase beginner sets this year, then seek an upgrade in drivers and wedges not long after. “That’s a cycle that would take at least a year and it was happening in four to six months,” Christensen said.

If it sounds like the beginnings of another golf boom similar to one Tiger Woods fueled at the turn of the millennium, there is still reason to tread cautiously. For starters, the uptick in beginning or lapsed golfers still doesn’t fully explain the sharp increase in play. Even if there were 1 million new golfers in 2020 who each played 10 times this year, that would still only account for a fifth of the extra rounds played.

More likely is that this was a year in which core golfers simply played more. It’s why Christensen said he saw a 30 percent increase in his club-repair business, or why an NGF analysis of private clubs had more reporting “a good or great financial state” than previous years (64 percent versus just 46 percent four years earlier). Both reflected how the game had taken a more central role in golfers’ lives in 2020.

J.D. Cuban

“People who were playing five times a year were now playing five times a month,” Christensen said.

Good for golf, yes, but with it, a flip side. If more people played golf in 2020 than they had in years, it’s in part because their gyms and offices were closed, because the youth sports seasons were wiped from the calendar and because, especially early on, everything else seemed fraught with risk. One could argue the extent to which golf flourished is inversely proportional to the other parts of life that suffered. Which is to say, people weren’t just flocking to golf, but away from everything else.

“It was the only game in town,” Rotella’s Laudien said.

What solace there is to take from such an equation extends beyond self-interest, but in embracing the role golf played in steering people through some of the darkest hours of the pandemic. The game represented an outlet and a distraction, and an opportunity for the type of social connection that Instagram or Zoom couldn’t foster. Maybe it wasn’t that golf was the only game in town, but the right game for the moment.

“Men never talk about mental health or wellness,” sports psychologist Jonathan Fader told Golf Digest editor-in-chief Jerry Tarde in his column, The Year That Changed Everything. “Ninety percent never go to a therapist. They deal with their mental health through an activity, usually sports. Golf is the only sport you can do in groups and do it safely. We deeply need to be together.”

So what happens when 2021 hopefully allows for more connection? As vaccinations begin and health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci project some semblance of normalcy by summer, the typical hum of American life could come at the expense of golf. People will return to offices, to airplanes and to the sidelines of their children’s sports—most likely not at pre-pandemic levels, but enough to where the 3 p.m. weekday tee time might not be such a given.

Only the tone deaf among us would say we don’t know what to root for. Because the other part to consider is that those who played more golf than ever in 2020 did so by virtue of good fortune. Plenty of others had work they couldn’t do from afar, or lost jobs altogether, to say nothing of the millions who fell victim to the virus themselves. Which is why the most exuberant participation statistics from 2020 are tempered by a sobering contrast: According to the NGF, more people also left golf behind in 2020 than in recent years.

Short of survivor’s guilt, those of us who remain should at least take to the golf course the sort of perspective this year delivered in abundance—about how we spend our time, and who with, how it all could be pulled out from under us at a moment’s notice. Much as we tried to keep distance from one another this year, that was still something we could all embrace.