Maine and New Jersey are the latest to lift their bans, but courses in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and a handful of other holdout states remain closed, with no date yet given for when they may be allowed to resume operation. Also in today’s update: Courses in recently opened states report brisk activity; tournament play returns at Maridoe GC in Carrollton, Texas; and industry professionals gather virtually to discuss ways to succeed during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. “Once people are allowed, there is going to be a big surge in people wanting to play,” said Dennis Rye, Director of Golf at Mizner CC.
Here is C+RB‘s latest roundup and summary of club-related developments surrounding the pandemic that have recently been reported. Please send updates on what your property is doing that you would like to share with the C+RB community to [email protected].
All of C+RB’s daily updates on the coronavirus situation can be found at https://clubandresortbusiness.com/category/covid-19/.
Maine and New Jersey Latest to Get the Good Word
Two more states—Maine and New Jersey—have announced that they will lift their ban on golf May 1 and May 2, but New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts courses remain closed with no date yet given for when they may be allowed to resume operation.
—Democratic and Republican lawmakers in New Jersey are taking credit after Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order April 29 that will allow parks and golf courses to reopen in time for Saturday morning tee times, Politico reported. But Murphy said his decision to reverse his April 7 order to shut down state and county parks had little to do with the three weeks of pleading and cajoling that’s gone on publicly and behind the scenes.
“I don’t know how to say this delicately but, with the exception of the mental health case that many of you have [made], your interventions to me did not matter one little bit,” Murphy said during his daily press briefing. “With all due respect to all the pressure that’s been out there, we couldn’t frankly care.”
That didn’t stop Senate President Steve Sweeney from issuing a statement shortly after Murphy began his press conference thanking the governor for “listening to the bi-partisan legislators and thousands of state residents” in reopening the parks and golf courses, Politico reported.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Morris County Republican who has opposed the park closures since they were first announced, issued a statement declaring victory in his efforts to get Murphy to rescind the order, Politico reported. Republican leaders in the Senate issued a joint statement a little more than a half-hour into Murphy’s press briefing, urging him “to trust the tens of thousands of small businesses that have plans in place and are ready to reopen safely.”
Murphy said he decided to reopen parks and golf courses only after similar actions were taken in Pennsylvania and New York, thereby ensuring New Jersey’s facilities wouldn’t be inundated by out-of-staters, Politico reported. The governor said state and local officials would keep a close eye on parks and golf courses to make sure visitors are adhering to social distancing guidelines.
“If we don’t like what we see, I reserve the right to reverse the executive order I signed today,” he said.
—Golf courses in Maine will be allowed to open on May 1 as part of a four-stage plan for reopening the state’s economy, Gov. Janet Mills announced on April 28, the Portland Press Herald reported. The Mills administration determined that golf is among activities that can resume using social distancing practices designed to combat the spread of coronavirus. Golf is included in Stage 1 of Mills’ plan.
It will not be golf as usual, though, the Press Herald reported. The Maine State Golf Association is urging all of the state’s courses to adopt a strategy it’s calling Park, Play and Go Home: A Safe and Sensible Way to Play Golf.
The most significant change among a list of social distancing steps is prohibiting golfers from hanging around the course, or parking lots before and after their rounds, the Press Herald reported. Other key changes will be keeping clubhouses, driving ranges and putting greens closed, limiting food and beverage to take-out only if offering it at all, expanding the time between tee times to further distance golfers, and making sure all financial transactions are touchless.
When golfers are on the course, communal touch spots like sand trap rakes, water coolers, bathrooms, and ball washers will be removed or closed, the Press Herald reported. Players will be told to not touch the flagstick. Holes will be set above the grade of the green, or stuffed, to make sure a putted ball bounces off the hole, rather than dropping in where it would need to be retrieved.
Golfers were booking tee times, either online or over the phone, within minutes of the announcement, the Press Herald reported.
“We’re excited we’re finally going to be able to open. The phone is ringing off the hook,” said Dan Hourihan, the General Manager and owner of Nonesuch River Golf Club in Scarborough.
Golf and auto dealerships will be the state’s largest, non-medical industries allowed to resume business during Stage 1, the Press Herald reported. According to Maine State Golf Association Executive Director Brian Bickford, golf in Maine produces an annual economic impact of $350 million, employing over 5,000 people at 122 courses, of which 90 percent are public courses.
Mild early spring weather had allowed many courses in southern Maine to open prior to Gov. Mills stay-at-home order, which forced the state’s golf courses to close by April 2, the Press Herald reported. Since then, the MSGA has been actively working a two-pronged approach to prove to Mills and other state leaders that golf courses could operate on a limited, golf-only basis, that would protect public safety and offer a welcome recreational outlet. The MSGA had targeted May 1 as the reopen date.
Bickford said he believes the club professionals can act as “security guards,” to enforce the no-congregation rules before and after a round of golf, that clubs could undergo a peer review process, and, if necessary, the MSGA could act as an enforcement group, the Press Herald reported.
“We were open [in March] and the reason we closed is that some courses were not taking it as seriously as they should have.” Bickford said. “It was almost like the first time we missed our curfew and we got grounded. We’re not going to miss our curfew again.”
Prior to Mills’ announcement, Maine was one of just eight states that either were not allowing golf, or had not set a reopen date, the Press Herald reported. Pennsylvania will also reopen its courses on May 1 and Washington state, one of the first states to announce golf course closures, will allow golf as of May 5.
But in New England, courses are closed with no date to resume operation in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, the Press Herald reported. One concern Bickford said he and state leaders have had regarding reopening Maine’s golf courses, as well as its state parks and beaches, is that it could produce an influx of interstate travel, particularly from Massachusetts.
Bickford said he will be seeking clarification, but believes golf in Maine will be limited to Maine residents as long as the state enforces its mandatory 14-day quarantine period for someone entering the state, the Press Herald reported. Rhode Island has a similar state-resident only approach for its courses.
“I think [the quarantine] kind of supersedes everything and makes it Maine only,” Bickford said.
—Both city and private golf courses have been given the green light to welcome back players and employees on Oahu, Hawaii effective May 1, as golf employs roughly 27,000 workers in Hawaii, KHON out of Honolulu reported. But like everything else, the return to the green is not without a lengthy new set of guidelines.
For players, key changes will include only one player per golf cart, unless you’re riding with immediate family, KHON reported. Tees, towels, and water will not be provided, and flagsticks are not to be touched. For course operators, the key changes center around providing a clean and safe environment.
“They will see an increase of labor,” said Wes Wailehua, PGA of America Aloha Section. “From sanitizing carts maintaining facilities and regular wipe downs. Less staff could be implemented because of the spacing to protect the safety of the staff.”
More spacing between groups teeing off will be another change to protect players, KHON reported. For now, there can only be a maximum of four players per group which is something that will have an immediate impact on the always busy Ala Wai Golf Course.
States Holding Out Getting Closer to Opening
—Golfers could be the first in New Hampshire to get back to playing their game, with tee times likely to be available soon, the New Hampshire Union Leader reported. Gov. Chris Sununu said on April 28th that the final details are being refined, but he sees a point in the near future when courses closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic will be allowed to open.
“It is going to be there. [Golf] is conducive to be separate,” Sununu said April 28 on the “New Hampshire Today” radio program with Jack Heath. “There is a pathway there.”
Sununu said golf courses and campgrounds have generated the most comments during discussions about reopening the state, the Union Leader reported.
“I have made this commitment. I will get mini-golf courses open. The windmills will turn,” Sununu quipped.
He credited the New Hampshire Golf Association with developing a three-phase reopening plan to protect players and staff from contracting the virus, the Union Leader reported. NHGA Executive Director Matthew Schmidt made a presentation to Sununu’s task force on reopening parts of New Hampshire’s economy.
Nearly 12,500 have signed a petition to open golf courses, the Union Leader reported. The petition included safety recommendations, such as allowing only one person per cart and tee times at least 12 minutes apart to create social distancing on the links.
“Nobody can accuse our golf community of not being passionate,” said Schmidt, whose group represents 100 golf courses with 18,000 members. “So many states did not close courses, and that has helped make our argument that the game can be safely played. We have never tried to make the case we are an essential business. We have said we are a recreational activity where our players and staff can properly be protected if protocols are closely followed.”
In the first phase, golf courses would open, but golf shops, clubhouses and restaurants would remain closed, the Union Leader reported. All check-ins would be done remotely by internet or by phone, and golfers would have to bring all the equipment they need with them.
They also must remain in their cars until 15 minutes before their tee times, Schmidt told the Union Leader.
During the second phase, courses could open restaurants and bars, but only with “diminished standing-room capacity,” and clubhouses would only open for use of restrooms, the Union Leader reported. The third phase would return most activity to pre-COVID-19 operations, except large clubhouse gatherings would be allowed under “limited physical distancing.”
New Hampshire’s golf industry employs 6,200 people who earn wages totaling $150 million a year, and the game generates another $91 million in tourism-related spending, Schmidt told the Union Leader.
—Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he isn’t yet ready to allow golf courses to reopen, saying he will leave the decision to the advisory group in charge of deciding the safest way to allow people return to public places following the coronavirus pandemic, CBS Boston reported. Golf courses remain among the businesses considered non-essential, and thus ordered to remain closed through at least May 18.
Baker was asked about the plan for golf courses during his April 29 press briefing, CBS Boston reported.
“I think generally I’m going to try to leave most of the decisions about safe openings to the work that’s being done by the Reopening Advisory Board, and certainly that’s something that I know they’ll hear from people about,” Baker said.
The governor said some states have opened golf courses for walking, which he called “an interesting idea,” CBS Boston reported
“We’ve always talked about making sure that people do get [outside for activity],” Baker said. “It’s one of the reasons we issued an advisory in the first place when it came to stay at home, and not an order – because we wanted people to recognize and understand that visiting a park, taking a walk, going for a run, those were all perfectly appropriate things to do and in fact we wanted people to do that.”
Mass Golf Association Executive Director Jesse Menachem said they’re working with Gov. Baker to get people back out on the course, CBS Boston reported.
“We want to be compared to running, hiking, walking, biking,” Menachem said. “That this is a safe outlet for residents in the Commonwealth to consider in the short term.”
Data: March Rounds Were Down
—U.S. rounds played in March were down 8.5 percent compared with the same month a year ago, according to Golf Datatech’s National Golf Rounds Played Report released April 29. The decline, attributed to the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on golf operations across much of the country, followed two consecutive months of double-digit gains in 2020 and a slight uptick in 2019.
Much of the Pacific Coast and southeast Florida were shut down in March, leading to big declines in those golf-rich areas. However, certain sections of the country, such as the Midwest and Northeast, benefitted from warmer weather to post significant gains. Despite the big national decline in March, the year-to-date number of rounds played still is 3.8 percent higher than for the first three months of 2019.
Newly Opened Courses Report Brisk Business
—For the first time since March 20, Costa Mesa (Calif.) Country Club opened its two public golf courses—Mesa Linda and Los Lagos—for walking play only, the Los Angeles Times reported. Those wishing to play needed to book a tee time before arriving, and club staff stopped arriving cars before entering the parking lot to check that they had done so.
If players arrived earlier than 15 minutes before their tee time, they were asked to remain in their parked cars until they were within the specified window, the Times reported. Director of Golf Kyle Wilson said that morale at the club was “super good.” He felt that even the best-laid plans could go awry, but he said that had not been the case.
“I didn’t expect it to run as smoothly as it has, so it’s been a lot better than I anticipated,” Wilson said. “Everybody is cooperating. For the most part, everybody understands. Everybody is doing their part. Everything has been good.”
Further precautions were put in place on the course, the Times reported. Lines of tape set six feet apart marked where members of the group waiting to tee off could stand.
Danny Lane, General Manager of Costa Mesa Country Club, added that the restrooms were open, but that a staff member was cleaning them every hour, as well as any touch points in the area, the Times reported. The driving range and putting green were closed, as was the clubhouse. Only the starter window was open.
Lane added that cups at the holes had been turned inside out, allowing players to sink their putts while still being able to pick their ball up with ease, the Times reported.
“I’m extremely grateful to the golfing public,” Lane said. “They’ve done a fantastic job adhering to all our guidelines, very thorough guidelines—not coming 15 minutes in advance, face coverings, social distancing. We’ve been very impressed with them, and that’s made it actually a very good start to us opening up.”
Both Costa Mesa Country Club and Mesa Verde Country Club, a private club that also opened again on April 29, took advantage of the stoppage in golf to aerate their greens, leaving their respective courses in pristine condition for golfers upon their return, the Times reported.
“We’re just happy to be here,” said Jeremy Samson, General Manager of Mesa Verde Country Club. “We’re happy to have our members back on the golf course, and we’ve developed a safety protocol that we’re following to a ‘T,’ and they’re obviously pretty happy to be back.
“We feel like we can continue to have them utilize the club in a limited capacity, and we’re moving forward. I look forward to helping Costa Mesa reopen as quickly and safely as possible.”
—Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hadn’t finished her speech last Friday morning when cars began arriving at Dunham Hills Golf Club in Hartland, Mich., the Livingston Daily reported. Whitmer announced that, as part of her revised stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic, golf courses could reopen.
“Right when she was speaking, literally as she was speaking, people were pulling into my parking lot,” said Lee Kempisty, General Manager of Dunham Hills. “It was hilarious. I was trying to do a fish fry to-go at the same time. I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to go. I guess we’re open.’”
It didn’t take long for Hawk Meadows Golf Course in Howell, Mich. to return to business, the Daily reported.
“We heard about it at 10 o’clock on the radio,” said Jim Ottinger, owner at Hawk Meadows. “I opened at 10:02. By 1 o’clock, we were pretty busy. I think guys must’ve been sitting in their houses with their golf clubs waiting to go.
“It’s fun. We’ve got human beings coming out here and enjoying the fresh air, getting away from ‘Coronaville.’ You can take a walk in your neighborhood and think about everything that’s going on, but on the golf course you think about why I shanked it in the woods.”
Whitmer said in her April 24 announcement that golf carts could not be used, but her executive order didn’t make that specification, the Daily reported. On April 27, it was clarified under the frequently asked questions section of the order that carts are not permitted.
Golfers were seen at Hawk Meadows using carts April 27 and 28, the Daily reported. Asked about his course’s policy on golf carts, Ottinger said: “We have authorization for handicapped players to use carts. One person per cart with safety measures.”
Golf course operators hope that restriction is eventually lifted, as well, the Daily reported.
“The difficulty we’re having is not having the ability to take a golf cart,” said Bill Fountain, Operating Partner of The Majestic at Walden Lake in Hartland, Mich.
“Every golf course is different. Ours is very spread out. It deters people from wanting to come and play, just because of the distance. We’re hoping the governor will reevaluate that in the near future. At least have one person per cart that’s been cleaned and sanitized. It’ll allow us to be a lot more successful. It’s such a spread-out golf course at our facility. Golfers are used to taking carts. The restriction is obviously affecting our bottom line.”
In lieu of being able to use golf carts, many golfers are using hand carts that hold their clubs, rather than carrying them, the Daily reported.
“Golfers are trying to go online and buy them and can’t find them,” Ottinger said. “There’s not a golf cart to be had online anywhere.”
Golf courses are changing the way they do business to accommodate golfers in a way that limits potential exposure, the Daily reported. Many courses are booking tee times online only, not allowing anyone in the clubhouse and limiting groups to no more than four golfers. Some are providing food and drinks which can be consumed outside.
“We just bought a new state-of-the-art point-of-sale system,” Fountain said. “We’re not doing any cash. Everybody can make tee times online. When they come in, they pop their head in the door, say, ‘I’m with the Smith foursome’ and we go, ‘Thanks for coming,’ and they walk right out to the tee. It’s very convenient. We do have our bathrooms open inside the clubhouse; we’re sanitizing them.
“We look at how Meijers [the supermarkets chain] is operating, wiping touch points. Obviously, a lot more people are going to Meijers on a daily basis than a golf course. You can’t be much safer than if you’re outside. We have 300 acres out here on the golf course. We’re putting 100 people on 300 acres in an eight- to 10-hour period.”
Tournament Golf Returns
As they set off down the fairway April 28 at Maridoe Golf Club in Carrollton, Texas, Davis Riley, Viktor Hovland and Parker Coody couldn’t help but crack a few jokes, Golf Channel reported.
“We’re all carrying our college bags, even Viktor and I, so you have a ‘Bama bag [Riley], Texas bag [Coody] and Oklahoma State bag [Hovland], and we’re like, ‘Well, this just feels like college golf all over again,’” Riley said. “It was funny.”
The April 28 round was the first tournament round that Scottie Scheffler’s played since the first round of The Players Championship, Golf Channel reported. He plans to tee it up at Colonial on June 11, which is the current restart date for the Tour, and make a run at the Tour Championship and Rookie of the Year honors.
The Maridoe event is closed to the public in accordance with the event’s social-distancing rules, which include no caddies or carts, virtual scorecard collecting, closed clubhouse and range, and mandatory temperature checks when players arrive each day, Golf Channel reported. After 18 holes, players have agreed that the precautions are working as tournament officials hope to make a statement that golf tournaments can be played safely.
“Maridoe is going about it the right way,” Riley said, “and I think it could show other organizations, like the PGA Tour, LPGA, Korn Ferry or whatever, that golf can get back sooner than maybe people think as long as everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to, and that’s what we’re doing, having fun while maintaining social distancing and doing all the right things, and we’re off to a good start. I think it’s going to be a great week.”
Adapting Golf Operations Webinar
—Tagmarshal hosted a capacity webinar attended by PGA professionals, course, club and resort operators. ‘Adapting Golf Operations for Success During COVID-19 and Beyond,’ was led by an expert panel of three PGA professionals—Matt Barksdale, PGA, Head Professional at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort; Drew Dunn, Director of Golf, at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Ga.; and Dennis Rye, the Director of Golf at Mizner Country Club in Delray Beach, Fla.—and moderated by Tagmarshal’s CEO Bodo Sieber, a data and optimization expert.
The webinar recording is now available to share with the golf community on tagmarshal.com.
“This webinar brought together the leadership of golf facilities to share insights, strategies and initiatives utilized during this challenging period,” Sieber said. “One of the most impactful outcomes from a survey conducted at the conclusion of the session was that 90 per cent of attendees being in lock-down at the time of the event, 80 per cent felt positive about the future of golf and 43 per cent anticipated that golf will see more than regular play, once restrictions are lifted.”
“I think there is going to be a high demand for a while,” Dunn said. “I don’t think there needs to be a reduction in guest [player] fees – it’s simple supply and demand.”
This sentiment was echoed by Rye, who said: “Once people are allowed to play golf, there is going to be a big surge in people wanting to play.”
Moreover, despite adapting to the challenges brought about by the pandemic, the panel, along with a vast majority of attendees, agreed that golf is resilient and overall successful in developing innovative plans to adapt to the post COVID-19 era.
Topics receiving strong attention by the panel and attendees, who presented questions to them during the session, included the need to provide a safe playing environment by ensuring the practice of six-foot social distancing, having fewer touch points on and off the course, and ensuring the availability of hand sanitizers as well as implementing cashless procedures.
Another key survey, named ‘How your course will adapt to a new and different world, post COVID-19,’ found that the top three priorities were providing a safer environment for players (89 percent), followed by finding ways to work with fewer touch points and resources (73 percent). More than 55 percent acknowledged the importance of technology at their courses and will consider using technology formats to achieve greater efficiencies at their facility in the future.
With safety and the ability to do more, with fewer touch points and resources being key priorities – it made sense that technology was a top-three priority, due to its ability to improve safety and efficiency, within golf operations. Other lower priorities were the promotion of walking golf (32 percent) and decreasing green fees/membership fees (5 percent) and increasing tee-time intervals (32 percent).
This last item led to a hotly debated discussion of whether to increase gap interval times between groups of players. Sieber noted the recommended safe distance between playing groups is the six-foot social distance marker – while most courses maintain a comfortable 10-minute interval (equating to approximately 300 yards).
“This constitutes a far greater distance than what leading experts have suggested,” Sieber said. “We caution that while player safety is paramount, adding any additional time over and above this, would have little to no impact on safety, yet would have a very negative impact on course capacity, and therefore, revenue. Courses looking to increase gap intervals should reconsider, and, instead, focus on maintaining and proactively managing effective intervals to ensure both a safe environment and commercial success.”
“We’ve remained constant at 10-minute intervals and feel that that is appropriate,” said Barksdale. “The most important thing is adhering to that 10 minutes at the start of each round.”
“Efficiency is the key to the survival and success of golf courses in the future,” Sieber added. “Many managers have recognized they can do more with less and that technology materially aids this objective.”
The panel members strongly endorsed this and cited various protocols they have been implementing, including requiring golfers to self-park rather than providing valet service, having players responsible for sanitizing their carts, and providing take away meals after the round.
Sieber also noted that courses with closed ranges and clubhouses should provide each group with Tagmarshal’s “Park and Play” roadmap ahead of time, to visually detail the route golfers need to adhere to from their auto to the mobile check-in area to the first or 10th tees.
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