Though many of the country’s courses suffered as states slowed the opening of facilities, activity levels that haven’t been seen in more than a decade are now being reported. ClubCorp’s David Pillsbury said rounds at the management firm’s properties are “through the roof” and up 25 to 30 percent from 2019. “Our members are using the club more than ever before,” Pillsbury said. Some now even count golf among what has been reborn, along with things like American cheese and paper napkins, after having been thought to have been “killed off” by millennials.
Early signs of golf’s resurgence are encouraging as the country continues to slowly emerge from the nationwide lockdown initiated to slow the coronavirus pandemic. A decade-long trend in decreased play may be showing signs of reversing.
After weeks of sheltering in place and without their usual Mother’s Day options of lunch and a pedicure, The Washington Post reported that Linsey Chamberlin and her brother decided to introduce their mother to the game of golf by playing nine holes at Friend (Neb.) Country Club, a public course outside Lincoln, Neb.
“We’d been stuck in our house the last eight weeks, and we didn’t want to go to her house to just sit around,” said Chamberlin, who was on her high school golf team, but gave up playing in college after getting frustrated with the mental aspects of the game.
Despite safety precautions—no ball washers, no rakes in the sand traps, a foam pool-noodle ring for touchless ball retrieval from the hole, and a closed clubhouse—“we had a blast,” Chamberlin told The Post. “I didn’t play as terrible as I thought I would after not playing for eight years, and my mom played better than I did my first time out.”
Many courses are reporting increased demand, The Post reported.
“Our rounds are through the roof,” said David Pillsbury, the Chief Executive of ClubCorp, which owns or operates 173 private golf or country clubs nationally. “It’s up 25 to 30 percent over the prior year. Our members are using the club more than they’ve ever used it before.”
Across the country, Americans remain deeply divided about leaving the house for work and leisure activities, except, apparently, when it comes to golf, giving an unexpected jolt to a sport that has seen declining popularity, The Post reported.
It’s too early to say whether the heightened demand will continue, especially in the middle of an economic recession, or how much the cost of safety protocols will affect course revenue, The Post reported. But some in the golf industry are hoping that the interest in a relatively safe outdoor activity—and the expected return of the PGA Tour to television on June 11, at a time when there are few alternatives for watching live sports—could boost enthusiasm for the game.
“People are itching to get outside,” said Stuart Lindsay, a Principal with Edgehill Golf Advisors. “They can’t go to a bar. They can’t go to a restaurant. They can’t play softball. Golf is one of the few things they can do that’s a variation of riding a bike or walking the dog.”
After months of binging on Netflix and jogging around their neighborhoods, many Americans appear to see golf as an escape. It involves acres of outdoor expanses for natural social distancing, and advance tee time bookings help control the flow of people into all that open space, The Post reported.
In a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 41 percent of Americans supported their states allowing the reopening of golf courses, a greater percentage than for any other type of business measured in the poll.
Some data shows a big leap in demand for public golf courses, too, The Post reported. Between April 23 and May 5, the number of rounds sold online at public courses that remained open throughout the coronavirus pandemic were up 60 percent over the previous year, according to GolfNow, an online tee time reservations platform used at nearly 7,000 U.S. courses. “There’s just a massive amount of demand,” said GolfNow Senior Vice President Jeff Foster. “The big question is will that demand stay.”
If more people like Chamberlin and her family—first-timers, younger players, lapsed golfers—are playing more often, The Post reported, the sport might experience a boost after years of decline, some in the golf industry say.
In 2002, nearly 30 million people played golf at least once a year, according to Pellucid Corp. But that number had steadily declined, leveling off in the 21 million range starting in 2015. (The National Golf Foundation, an industry association, put the number of golf course players at 24.3 million people in 2019, with another 9.9 million who only use places like driving ranges or venues such as TopGolf.)
“We think this ultimately can actually be a real growth opportunity for the game,” Seth Waugh, the president of PGA of America, said in a conference call with reporters on May 5 announcing industry guidelines for safely returning to the game. “We think there’ll be obviously a lot of pent-up demand. But we also think that given those specific natural advantages that we have, that we may draw new and interested people.”
Adrian Stills, who runs the Osceola Municipal Golf Course in Pensacola, Fla., said he saw an 18 to 20 percent increase in rounds played during April, when Florida’s beaches were closed but golf courses remained open, The Post reported. Even when the beaches reopened, he said, he’s still up 10 percent over the previous year, with locals replacing snowbirds as customers.
“I started noticing a lot of new faces—a lot of younger new faces,” he said. “A lot of them had been in quarantine, working from home—they just wanted to get out and have an activity they could enjoy, and they chose the golf course. I’m hoping that continues.”
In San Francisco, a golf course offered a different kind of escape: The Presidio Golf Course, located within a former Army post, was converted into a public park for a time during the shutdown. “It was a unique opportunity for nongolfers to come check out what is a beautiful golf course,” said Mark Luthman, president of Touchstone Golf, which operates the course for the Presidio Trust.
Even as people flock to get back on the greens, the impact on golf courses could be uneven, depending on local restrictions and how reliant courses are on other forms of revenue, The Post reported.
Some safety measures require relatively little expense, such as no-touch precautions like removing ball washers and retrofitting cups to prevent handling the flags, The Post reported. But there are additional labor costs for doing extra sanitation of carts between players and positioning more workers on the course to ensure social distancing.
Other precautions may impinge on revenue by reducing the number of golfers, The Post reported. Courses in some states remained closed for weeks in March and April. To help control the flow of people onto the course, some states are requiring tee time intervals of 15 or 16 minutes upon reopening, rather than every seven to nine minutes. Some places, such as New Jersey, have limited groups to twosomes except for families isolating together.
Greens fees may be what drives revenue at public courses, but other sources of income, such as wedding receptions or banquets, have been postponed because of the virus, The Post reported. Shuttered pro shops and dining rooms that remain closed or at reduced capacity also are likely to ding sales.
Some resort-based or destination courses are bracing for a falloff in business, The Post reported. Golden’s agency projects a 61.5 percent drop in revenue for Myrtle Beach-area courses in the first five months of 2020 compared with 2019, despite remaining open.
Yet others predict that the flexibility of working from home, the lack of commitments to afternoon and weekend youth sports and less traveling overall could prompt golfers to play their local courses more often, The Post reported.
People probably won’t be “jumping on planes and traveling to Europe for the summer,” said Greg McLaughlin, Chief Executive of the World Golf Foundation, who added that open courses are seeing rounds at an “all-time high.” “People are working from home. Do you have an opportunity, potentially, in the afternoon to slip out and play nine holes if it’s light until 8 o’clock? We think it’s going to create another alternative.”
Few generations have been as choosy as millennials with their brand and product preferences, or with such wide effect, Ad Age reported. In recent years, the group has been blamed for “killing” a variety of items that struggled with sales declines as they fell out of favor. Golf was fine for older parents, but not hip enough to gain interest with younger generations. Millennials shied away from American cheese, too, because it was too processed.
But as the coronavirus changes consumer behavior, it’s altering purchase decisions, which is leading to a resurgence in several categories, Ad Age reported. The changes are fueled by a variety of factors, including price, availability and durability. Consumers making fewer trips to the grocery store are in need of food with a longer shelf life, for example. They also don’t want to be paralyzed by choice, according to Greg Portell, lead partner in the global consumer practice of Kearney, a strategy and management consulting firm.
“That simplification of the consumer perspective is why we’re seeing a lot of these categories come back,” he said. “The reality is the time pressures that we all dreamt would be taken away as part of this work-from-home [situation] are really magnified, so consumers are trying to simplify their lives at home and that’s leading into category choices.”
Golf was never the sport of choice for younger generations, which led to its decline in recent years, Ad Age reported. It was at odds with millennials’ values and preferences—the rules were overly complicated, the game took the time-starved group too long to play, and golf is not known for its environmental sustainability, according to Matt Powell, VP and senior industry advisor of sports at NPD Group. But now, golf is on an upswing—a trend that began last year as more boomers retired and tried the sport, and that is continuing during the pandemic. The no-contact sport is one of only a few mostly open for business during the lockdowns.
In March, sales of golf practice nets and screens increased 144 percent; swinging and putting mats were up 138 percent over last year, according to NPD.
“People are really clamoring to go out and do stuff and we could see golf take off again really quickly,” Powell told Ad Age.
If marketers pay attention now, and adjust supplies accordingly, they could continue to win in these areas post-pandemic, experts say. “It’s now creating a marketing opportunity,” said Andy Mantis, Chief Business Officer of 1010reveal at 1010data, which provides analytical intelligence to the financial and retail markets, noting that categories gaining ground now could be highlighted in marketing promotions. “It’s really providing a different insight to assortment planning and the associated marketing to get more share of customers’ wallets.”
In addition to golf and American cheese, Ad Age said paper napkins, cereal and beer have also enjoyed a renaissance during the pandemic.