Many clubs are relying on greens fees and takeout F&B service to help keep them afloat during a time of year when business generally ramps up across the country. But having to cancel or postpone large events is a growing concern. “From this point on, every week is critical to lose,” said Ted Perez, Jr., President and Head Professional of East Mountain CC in Westfield, Mass. “This is revenue you just can’t make up.”
As the golf industry is at a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, the cost of club and course closures has begun to add up for owners and operators.
Due to a mild winter, Ted Perez Jr., President and Head Professional at East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, Mass., told Business West his course was open most days through the first three and half months of this year and was on target for its best year in perhaps a few decades.
“Golf certainly isn’t what it was 25 years ago, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had a sustained good year,” he said, referring to a downturn that started with the Great Recession and has lingered since. “But we were on course to have as good a year as we’ve had in a very long time.”
Needless to say, COVID-19 has certainly changed things in a hurry, Business West reported. All courses in the state were ordered closed in late March, as well as their 19th hole and banquet facilities. By then, pretty much every banquet and event through March, April, and May had been cancelled or postponed anyway.
All this is bad, but what makes it far worse is that Perez and other course owners and managers can’t understand the order—golf is played outdoors, and it’s relatively easy to socially distance—and they can’t plan because no one knows if or when the ban on play will be lifted, Business West reported.
“A golf course is almost like a public park,” said Antillio Cardaropoli, owner of Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, Mass., a private club. “People can go out for a walk, and when you’re playing golf, the most people you have together is four, and they’re usually going in different directions on the course. This [ban] makes no sense to me.”
Many states, including neighboring Connecticut, have deemed that golf is “essential” – allowing the courses to open, Business West reported. And many in the Bay State are crossing over the line to play, Cardaropoli said.
Overall, the pandemic has impacted every facet of the golf business, said Jesse Menachem, president of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., adding that this is a long list, Business West reported. It includes greens fees and cart rentals, obviously, but also fundraising tournaments, leagues, food and beverages (a huge component of every club’s revenue stream), those banquets, retail (if people aren’t playing, they’re not buying clubs, balls, and new shoes), and more.
“Depending on how long this goes … if we cannot allow for golf operations to exist for another four, six, or eight weeks, that’s going to put courses in a very tough position,” said Menachem. “This is prime time, not just for daily access, but for acquiring golfers and getting new members for private clubs.”
If courses can’t reopen on May 4 or soon thereafter, then what has been a challenging time for the golf industry will reach a new, unprecedented level of pain, Business West reported.
“From this point on, every week is critical to lose,” said Perez, noting that courses in this part of the country make more than 75 percent of their revenue between mid-April and mid-September. “This is revenue you just can’t make up.”
For those managing courses, they can deal with the present, and they are, but they can’t plan for the future because they have no idea what it looks like, Business West reported. Overall, it’s not a good place to be.
“You can’t give anyone any answers because no one knows what’s going to happen,” Cararopoli said. “The governor says it may be May 4. What if it isn’t? No one knows.”
Elaborating, he said the many question marks about the future are wreaking havoc on the banquet side of the ledger. “We’ve lost so many events already—weddings, bar mitzvahs, proms, showers, birthdays,” he noted. “And no one can rebook because they don’t know what’s going to transpire over the next few months.”
As for dealing with the present, club owners and managers are doing what they can to cope. Perez has filed an application for relief from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and received initial approval, Business West reported. He was quick to note that this money can mostly be used for payroll, so when it comes to his myriad other expenses, he’s cutting corners in any way he can.
At Twin Hills, Cardaropoli has had to lay off a number of staff members—mostly on the banquet and food and beverage side of the house—and is unsure what to tell employees when it comes to if or when they might return, Business West reported.
As for the members … well, they are in a state of limbo as well, Cardaropoli told Business West.
“It’s made a big difference—March and April are the biggest months for having new members sign on,” he explained. “Now, because of the situation, fewer are signing on because they don’t know when they can start to play; membership is at a standstill.”
When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced on March 30 that his stay-at-home order because of COVID-19 would be in effect until June 10, many thought golf courses would be forced to close, but clarification allowed them to remain open with restrictions.
Richard Runyon, General Manager of Shenandoah Valley Golf Club in Front Royal, Va., believes there may come a time when clubs have to prepare themselves to shut down the rest of the year—they just hope life returns to normal sooner rather than later, The Winchester Star reported.
You can’t miss the “NO GATHERING ANYWHERE” signs that are posted around Rock Harbor Golf Course in Winchester, Va., The Star reported. General Manager Amy Adams put signs all over the club’s two 18-hole courses telling golfers to stay six feet away from each other.
“We’re trying to provide people with exercise opportunities, get some fresh air, and get rid of their cabin fever, while doing everything we can to protect our staff, our grounds crew, our members, and our golfers.”
Adams told The Star Rock Harbor’s sit-down clubhouse dining area is closed, but they have a food and beverage to-go station set up by one of the side windows on the porch. Only one person is allowed inside a restroom at a time, and the only way to get in is through the back door.
Rock Harbor cannot hold any group-based events for the duration of Northam’s stay-at-home order, which is usually an important source of income, The Star reported. For April, six major events were canceled while eight were postponed to later in the year. But with states like Maryland and Pennsylvania not permitting golf at all inside their borders, Adams said Rock Harbor is currently holding up well financially.
“It would normally be a very busy April for our corporate tournaments and charity events,” Adams said. “We’ve lost about six of those, which [could be around] $30,000, $40,000. But we’ve gotten that back from all of the golfers who have come from all over the place to play here. So for now, we’re doing fine.”
Located 12 miles from the center of Winchester, Shenandoah Valley Golf Club is a huge part of the area golf scene, The Star reported. It’s the home course for James Wood and Sherando high schools, and SVGC has been a longtime host of the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival golf tournament.
In the pro shop, only one person comes in at a time to check-in and pay for a round. SVGC is currently making it more affordable for people to do just that with a $19 per round offer through the end of April, The Star reported. To play with a cart prior to 2 p.m., the normal rate is $35 Monday through Thursday, $45 on Friday and $50 on weekends and holidays.
“I’m trying to help people that need the help,” Runyon said.
SVGC could use a lot more than just its golf income, though. Weddings and banquets are a big part of SVGC’s business, The Star reported. With Northam banning all gatherings of more than 10 people, Runyon said SVGC began canceling events in mid-March and is not holding any group events (including tournament golf) through the end of June, which is a loss of $575,000. Because there’s no end in sight to COVID-19, SVGC might cancel July events.
“It’s absolutely crazy how much business we’ve lost upstairs [in the banquet area],” said Runyon, whose club hasn’t laid off any employees. “How we can still keep the doors open … it’s day by day.
“I feel for all the people that have restaurants and small businesses. If we didn’t have golf, we’d be out of business right now. It’s tough on everybody.”
In addition to reduced golf rates, SVGC is also trying to help by selling products in the pro shop that a lot of people have had a hard time finding like bread and toiletries, The Star reported. SVGC even sells toilet paper, which is the biggest treasure of all in grocery stores these days.
Runyon wonders just how much SVGC is going to do with any aspect of its operation down the road, The Star reported.
“I think it’s going to be two, three, four months for people to get the confidence back to be able to go out and enjoy themselves and feel safe doing it,” Runyon said. “I think we better be prepared, at least in the golf business, to possibly shut down the rest of the year. I don’t know if we can weather the storm. I’m very optimistic, but I have to be reasonable.
“[COVID-19] is a game-changer. It’s not only changed the game of golf, but it’s definitely going to change the way we do business in the future as far as large weddings and large gatherings. I think this will resonate for a long time to come even after it’s over with.”
Winchester (Va.) Country Club is not allowing any guests and not allowing people to congregate in groups anywhere on its property, The Star reported. The clubhouse is closed to members.
General Manager Rick Grindeling said the club is doing all the necessary precautions to keep golfers safe. For food and beverage, there’s only curbside pickup, The Star reported, so members must wait in their cars and pop their trunks so WCC can place the items there.
Grindeling told The Star all group events and banquets are canceled through June 10.
“We take the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously and are going above and beyond to make sure our staff and members are safe, and I do believe they are grateful for that,” Grindeling said. “The members are pleased they can get out and get some needed exercise and have a little normalcy during these difficult times and at the same time feel safe and follow the social distancing guidelines.”
At Blue Ridge Shadows in Front Royal, Va., General Manager Brian Jones said his club is also doing the same things as other clubs, The Star reported. A bleach disinfectant is used to sanitize carts after each use, trap rakes, water coolers, and ball washers have been removed, sand bottles have been removed from carts, and spacers have been put in holes so balls won’t go all the way to the bottom and people won’t touch the flagsticks.
Financially, Blue Ridge is missing out on the people who travel from outside the area who book golf packages so they can play at various courses during a trip, The Star reported.
“With a lot of our outings, people are either postponing until later in the season [after June 10] or canceling altogether and just setting up for next year,” Jones said. “We have some outings in June and July that are in a holding pattern. Most of our August, September, October events, we haven’t had really had discussions with yet because they’re so far out.”