Golf courses may be a beacon in this pandemic, but the industry is still suffering
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Golf courses may be a beacon in this pandemic, but the industry is still suffering



About 10 days ago, I played golf for the first time since Maryland Governor Larry Hogan closed golf courses statewide. I had to cross state lines to do it, playing at Stonewall Golf Club in northern Virginia.

Pulling in the parking lot, I felt something I’d describe as first-tee jitters. I was a little nervous because I hadn’t played golf in a month, and the only swings I had put on a ball were playing my backyard golf courses. Partial swings with a sand wedge, as fun as they are, aren’t exactly preparation for an adult-sized golf course. I was also wondering what golf was going to be like in this pandemic.

I’ve been keeping track of course openings and closings by states, scouring for rules and regulations that have now become commonplace musts for courses to remain open. I had committed them to memory at this point, but I hadn’t seen them in action. Would golf be, well, weird?

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I arrived to a nearly full parking lot. The tee sheet was clearly full — as full as it could be — and it was tremendous to see golf alive and well. The green fee was $80, and that included an optional cart rental, albeit with a catch. Only one person could ride in a cart, unless the passenger lived in the same home as the driver, and each group only got two carts to use. Odds were, at least two people in the group were walking.

The pro shop was selling all of the normal supplies for golf, and the staff outside were putting out balls for players instead of introducing our grubby hands into their process.

Golfers were to keep their CDC-recommended six feet of distance at all times, and everyone was expected to play pretty quickly and leave even faster when it was over.

For the 3 hours, 45 minutes it took us four to walk the course, it was though nothing had changed. Golf was still golf. I bought beers from the roving beverage cart on the 10th hole. Even when the wind kicked up and a small squall started with a few holes to play, it all felt normal, not ominous. When it was all done, though, the exit reminded me of an awkward goodbye. We didn’t shake hands (nice to have, but not a must-have). Instead, we waved at each other, got our bags and walked up the path to the clubhouse. Instead of walking inside to grab a beer or two and talk about stuff, we all marched to the parking lot, chatted with each other from our trunks for a few minutes as we changed shoes, and then we left. That was it.

While the end was awkward for us, it has to be heart-wrenching for course owners and operators to see golfer after golfer, group after group, scurry to the parking lot. There goes a beer or two per guy. Maybe a burger or a sandwich. The guys didn’t really want to drink anything during the round, and they certainly weren’t going to consider drinking much anyway given that they couldn’t just hang out after the round and wait for a buzz to wear off. It was smart for my guys, but it cost the course money.

The whole thing reminded me of the revenue golf courses nationwide are losing.

In Virginia, golf courses operate with the appropriate level of regulations and safety precautions. However, in other states, the rules are more strict. In some states, groups are limited to two people but can go out as a foursome if everyone in the group lives together or is romantically involved. Tee times have to be spaced out in some jurisdictions, as much as 16 minutes apart. If a course has to follow both of those rules in tandem, they’re effectively cutting off half the tee times and half the golfers, meaning they’re bringing in green fees at one-quarter capacity.

In several states, golfers are required to walk. Riding isn’t even an option. That means courses lose out on revenue from cart rentals. For as much as I prefer to walk, sometimes carts are necessary for me, and they’re certainly a reality for many people with mobility issues. Those folks are out of the game if they can’t take a cart.

It’s easy to imagine pro shop sales are down, particularly for logoed apparel. In many states, golfers can’t even go in a pro shop; they have to pay ahead and then show up to the first tee. In places where pro shops are open, they’ve effectively become turnstiles, where people pay and leave instead of having time to browse.

Then, of course, there’s all the food-and-beverage revenue lost from people not coming to the course early and not being able to stay afterward.

All of that adds up, and quickly. The golf industry, as fortunate as it is to be able to operate in most of the country, is suffering.

Take Myrtle Beach, S.C., as an example. Throughout part of March and all of April, area golf courses were closed off to travelers. Governor Henry McMaster wanted to discourage tourism, and he knew golf courses are a big draw to the Grand Strand. Only locals could play, albeit with restrictions. Even though golfers were coming out to play, they were doing so at often reduced green fees.

According to an estimate by the Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course Owners Association and Golf Tourism Solutions, which markets Myrtle Beach as a golf destination, the golf market lost $21 million in potential revenue from green fees and cart fees thanks to cancellations made through April 23 for trips that run throughout the area’s prime season. That’s just for green fees and cart fees, and it doesn’t include all the other ancillary purchases golfers might make in a day at the course during more normal times.

Even with some of that made up through local play and some chunk of tourists eventually returning to the area, the market’s 70-some courses are going to suffer. Assuming a golfer spends an additional 20 percent of their golf fees on other things at the course, that’s a $25 million hit that almost certainly will not be made up. More package rounds are cancelled each day, and more will come. Some 60 percent of rounds fell off the books.

That’s brutal for a destination that lives on tourism dollars, with impact fingering through to hotels, restaurants and other Myrtle Beach businesses.

Myrtle Beach is unique, yes, but imagine similar situations at golf resorts around the country. The impact in places like Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Florida have to be immense. It would be surprising to not see resorts start offering package credits for players who will pre-pay for their reservations now and given them ample time to book over the next 12-24 months. Offer great deals with golf, accommodations, meals and merch, and get the money in the door. It just makes sense to try to re-book groups that are cancelling by the day with a sweet deal for next year. The economy is unlikely to recover in a V-shape, meaning there will be some prolonged problems. Making a compromise deal will help.

Even for daily-fee local courses, many of which are packed with golfers who just want out of the house for a while, they’re mostly doing enough to keep the lights on and employees paid. However, for courses that rely — for better or worse, typically worse — on more player density, they may fall into a difficult economic situation even as the golfers keep paying. Hopefully as we gain a better handle on testing and contact tracing, and more states safely reignite portions of their economy, golf can prove it can operate more like it did pre-pandemic.

If the demand we’re seeing now continues even when more activities are allowed and more people return to work in some capacity, golf could be looking at a tremendous opportunity. Surviving the next 90-120 days, however, will have to come first.

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About the author

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Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com

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