The number of rounds played hasn’t been this high in years—Elaine Feeney at Top of the World Golf Resort in Queensbury, N.Y. said every day there is now like a weekend—but club owners from Maine to Minnesota are still feeling the pinch of lost revenue because of restrictions on events and food-and-beverage operations.
From Maine to New York to Minnesota, golf courses continue to see an increase in play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Maine, golf course managers have enjoyed a boost that has helped offset being closed in April because of the pandemic, the Portland Press Herald reported. And, the influx of new and younger players could lead to some becoming hooked on a sport that lends itself to social distancing.
“Play is up, some clubs I’ve talked with are even 30 to 50 percent above on average, across the state, and that’s a phenomenal number,” said Brian Bickford, the executive director of the Maine State Golf Association. “It’s one of the few sports, with other adult sports or junior sports not being active, and golf has become one of those sports they can play.”
Bickford told the Press Herald there are exceptions in Maine, particularly at resort-style courses that rely on tourists staying in their hotels to fill the course.
“But the public golf courses, which are the majority of courses in Maine are seeing that, 30- to 50-percent increase,” Bickford said.
“We’re seeing more junior play and seeing more of the millennial play,” said Dan Hourihan, the General Manager and owner of Nonesuch River Golf Club in Scarborough, Maine. “You can just tell, people in their 20s that are athletes who obviously can’t play other sports, so they’re playing golf.”
Golf courses were among the first nonessential businesses allowed to reopen by Gov. Janet Mills after being forced to close during April, the Press Herald reported. Golf courses did have to adapt. For most of May, money-making add-ons like the driving range, the pro shop, and food-and-beverage service had to be closed. But people could go out and play.
“I think what we’re seeing is people are comfortable playing golf. There’s not much stress about getting in contact with someone else, and the courses are seeing more member play, and more daily fee play,” Hourihan said.
In addition to running Nonesuch, Hourihan owns a management company that oversees operations at Sanford Country Club, Fox Ridge Golf Club in Auburn and Bridgton Highlands Golf and Tennis Club, the Press Herald reported. He said average daily rounds are up at all four courses, reflecting a national and regional trend.
Golf Datatech, a market research firm based in Orlando, Florida, has tracked rounds played at 2,500 courses, both public and private, across the nation since 1999 to help gauge interest in the game.
“It is an accurate reflection. We monitor it closely,” said Tom Stine, Golf Datatech’s co-founder.
Stine said golf’s growth rate has been flat for several years, but nationally rounds were up 6.2 percent in May compared year-over-year, despite steep declines in tourism-dependent golf destinations like Hawaii (down 51 percent) and South Carolina (down 15 percent), the Press Herald reported. Play in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont (treated as a single entity) was up 10.2 percent in May.
Stine added that increased play has led to increased sales for equipment (clubs, balls, bags, gloves, shoes), but apparel is lagging, in large part because of the closure of pro shops, the Press Herald reported. The National Golf Foundation reported that Google searches for “golf balls” and “golf clubs” are up 20 percent over the previous five-year high.
The combination of significant COVID restrictions still limiting other activities and dry, comfortable weather had produced near-capacity play, the Press Herald reported.
“We have been very busy. All of our tee times have been booked pretty much every day,” said Ryan Scott, the General Manager of Riverside Golf Course’s 18-hole North and nine-hole South courses.
“I’ve never seen demand like this,” said Dave Pollard, the co-owner and Course Manager at Spring Meadows Golf Club in Gray, Maine, where play “for the months of May and June, we were certainly up in excess of 15 to 16 percent.”
Pollard said total “starts,” the term for both nine- and 18-hole rounds, were almost 8,200 per month, compared to 6,900-7,000 in 2019, the Press Herald reported.
The virus outbreak has forced many people to work from home. Pollard thinks that creates greater schedule flexibility, making it easier to work in a round of golf, the Press Herald reported. Pollard said Spring Meadows does not traditionally have a lot of junior players, but he has seen an increase in youth play, even within his own family.
“I’m heading out to play with my [12-year-old] grandson, who has pretty much been taken up with soccer in past years,” Pollard said.
Brunswick Golf Club already had a strong pre-pandemic batch of junior players, the Press Herald reported.
“But our junior membership is up probably 20-25 percent, easily,” said A.J. Kavanaugh, the course’s Director of Golf. “This pandemic has created a newfound passion for golf in our area.”
Brunswick, a member-owned, public-play course, was already busy with more than 30,000 total rounds in 2019, the Press Herald reported. Kavanaugh expects to easily surpass those numbers in 2020, partly because he has more than 400 members for the first time in at least 12 years and he’s booking tee times as late as 6:30 p.m., on a routine basis.
“Yes, we’re getting new golfers, but even the diehard golfers are playing more,” Kavanaugh said.
Nick Plummer, the Head Professional at Val Halla Golf Course in Cumberland, Maine, told the Press Herald junior membership is “almost double” that of 2019. He attributes it directly to parents seeking an outlet for their children while schools were forced to go to remote learning in the spring.
Gorham Country Club, a roughly 100-member club that is also open to the public, has been routinely seeing 170-200 players on a daily basis, the Press Herald reported.
“We have seen a significant increase because people have a lack of other opportunities and they feel this is a safer thing to do,” said Kathy Hawkes, the club’s General Manager.
Golf’s challenge will be to turn the short-term, pandemic-fueled growth into continued play, the Press Herald reported. Kavanaugh admits some of the new faces, particularly at the junior level, were initially playing golf just as a way to get out of the house.
“But I’m seeing them getting hooked and getting much better. I can tell you Brunswick High School’s prospects for their golf team got dramatically better,” Kavanaugh said. “They’re working hard and practicing and playing almost every day.”
The Post-Star of Glens Falls, N.Y. reported that many restaurants and tourist attractions have been devastated by COVID-19, but the pandemic has been a “provider” for golf courses.
“We’re breaking records almost weekly,” said Scot Smith, whose family has owned Queensbury Country Club in Lake George, N.Y. for decades.
Flanked by his wife, Debbie, and son Tayler, now the course superintendent, Smith talked about how busy the course has been and how careful they are being to be able to continue offering golf, The Post-Star reported. The Smiths and other course owners also spoke, however, about the lost restaurant and bar business and canceled golf parties caused by the pandemic. But all stressed that they aren’t complaining.
“We feel really fortunate. We’re very grateful we can do what we’re doing,” Debbie Smith said.
A couple of miles away at Queensbury, N.Y.’s Sunnyside Par 3, owner Whitney Russell was similarly talking about a busy course, The Post-Star reported, saying golfer outings are up at least 10 percent, which is about what the foods and drink numbers are down.
He, too, said he feels lucky to be able to still offer golfers some normalcy and is thinking up ways to attract more golfers, including $10 Friday night golfing under the lights, The Post-Star reported. And he was eager to talk about his new beverage cart creation, a replica 1924 Ford Model T Depot Hack made from a beat-up 1993 work golf cart.
It cost more, and took more time away from his wife’s to-do list than he would have liked, but he told The Post-Star he had read that a unique cart is a way to sell more beverages on a course.
“And I wanted it to be different, because I’m different,” he said, adding that people have already been asking for pictures with it.
Elaine Feeney at Top of the World Golf Resort in Queensbury said every day there is now like a weekend, The Post-Star reported. She, like others, said she’s seeing many new faces on the course, including a lot of families.
“It’s about all they can do,” she said of COVID-19 restrictions that have shut down other recreational opportunities.
Feeney told The Post-Star her restaurant, however, is essentially closed, with food offerings at the course reduced to light sandwiches Friday through Sunday. And while she repeatedly said she’s glad to be able to offer golfers the ability to play, she said trying to keep up with regulations is tough.
“It’s so stressful,” she said, explaining how carts are sanitized and masks are mandated for golfers coming in to pay or get drinks. “I’m always afraid I’m going to get in trouble for something,” she said.
Tyler St. Claire, General Manager at Skene Valley Country Club in Whitehall, N.Y., said his golfing numbers are also way up, in part because for a while courses in Vermont were shut down and they were coming over the border to Whitehall, The Post-Star reported. He, like Feeney, said he’s being very careful with social distancing, requiring masks in the clubhouse and encouraging paying by credit card. He said he’s happy to be providing golf for people and wants it to continue.
“I want our patrons to be safe and I want our staff to be safe,” he said.
After a late start to the year due to the coronavirus lockdown in Minnesota, numbers are back in line with previous years on the golf courses, The Chronotype, Rice Lake, Minn. reported. Turtleback Golf Course General Manager Kevin Carter said once the course opened, there was a slight delay for area golfers, but local players grew comfortable and started hitting the course.
“It didn’t take long for the locals to start playing and feeling comfortable and seeing that we’re taking the right precautions,” Carter said.
At LynnDale’s Golf Course in Rice Lake, John Wick, said numbers are up this year, The Chronotype reported. Because it’s easy to social distance on the open area of the course, golf has been the way people spend their free time, he said.
“I think it’s just because of the COVID,” he said of the high numbers. “There’s really not much else they can do. They can fish or golf.”
Once the middle of June hit and travel restrictions were eased, business on the courses has been especially strong, The Chronotype reported. Turtleback is matching the number of golfers it typically sees each summer. Other courses in Minnesota that are operated by the management company that owns Turtleback are seeing record number, Carter said.
“We’re kind of the black sheep a little bit right now because we’re about right on the number,” he said, “which I’m pretty happy with. Considering everything, it’s been great.”
Wick said members hit the course as soon as they opened after getting clearance from the state in April, The Chronotype reported. As for others, as time passed numbers slowly grew.
“It took a little while. But once it started rolling and the weather got a little nicer it was pretty steady,” Wick said of summer attendance.
Numbers in Turtleback and LynnDale’s leagues have also been strong, The Chronotype reported. At Turtleback, Carter said the men’s league has more competitors this year than last and the women’s league has good participation even with weather doing its best to cancel plenty of weekly Tuesday evening rounds.
Carter said they considered canceling the junior golf program this summer. Instead they downsized and added more instructors so groups could be smaller, The Chronotype reported. With some of the other youth sports activities being canceled this summer, golf was a sport that could be done following social distancing guidance.
“The parents have been overwhelmingly happy because they say that’s all the kids had to do this summer,” Carter said of the junior golf program. “I’m really glad we made the decision. We’ve had absolutely no negative fallout from anything we’ve done; everything has been very positive.”
Precautions to limit possible spread of COVID-19 at the courses and in the club houses are ongoing. Wick told The Chronotype people have been very understanding of the protocols in place. Most people are still riding in golf cart individually if there is enough for everyone, Carter said. The carts are sanitized after each use at both courses.
In the lower level of the Turtleback clubhouse, sanitation occurs each hour at the restaurant and bar, The Chronotype reported. At LynnDale’s there is a limit to the number of people allowed in the clubhouse at one time.
“We’re still being really careful because we do have so many travelers,” Carter said. “If it were just Rice Lake people it would be really back to normal.”
The space on the on the top level of the Turtleback clubhouse remains closed and that portion of the business that hosts banquets has been hurt, The Chronotype reported. Carter is optimistic that in August they can begin hosting banquets again, despite rising positive tests of the virus in recent weeks.
The Southwest Journal reported that more people are teeing it up at Minneapolis’ public golf courses this summer, as the COVID-19 pandemic limits other recreational and athletic activities.
“We’re on pace for our best year in a decade,” said Larry Umphrey, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s (MPRB) Director of Recreation Programs and Golf.
The Park Board reported that 80,596 rounds had been played as of June 30 on its five 18-hole and two nine-hole courses, which opened in April, the Southwest Journal reported. Umphrey said that MPRB courses are operating at “95%-plus capacity” on most Fridays and weekends and are slightly less busy Monday through Thursday.
Golf revenue is up roughly 15% over last year, despite limited beverage sales, he told the Southwest Journal.
MPRB golf courses are taking precautions to limit close contact between players and staff and to eliminate high-touch surfaces, the Southwest Journal reported. It has asked golfers to arrive at its courses no more than 20 minutes before tee times and is not allowing golfers to drive together on a golf cart unless they live in the same household. Club rentals are not available, and all water stations, ball washers, benches and rakes for sand traps have been removed from courses. The cups on the putting greens have been modified so golfers no longer need to touch the pin when retrieving their balls.
Umphrey said courses have generally been able to accommodate the additional demand for golf carts, the Southwest Journal reported. Tee times have been spaced eight minutes apart, like in past years, but courses have been blocking off spots on the tee sheet to ensure that groups stay spaced apart.
Umphrey said rounds were slow in the beginning of the year but have sped up since the Park Board began renting out golf carts, the Southwest Journal reported.
“We’re happy people are out playing golf,” he said. “We’re in a spot that no one wants to be in, but we’re navigating the best we can.”