- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2021

When a global pandemic shuts down normal life for more than a year, there are going to be economic winners and losers. Airlines, movie theaters and malls took it on the chin. Streaming services, drive-thru windows and home delivery? Through the roof.

Go ahead and add the booming sport of golf to the latter list. While COVID-19 torpedoed the Tokyo Olympics, staggered college football and wreaked havoc on team sports and youth athletics across the country, golf — a game where participants play outdoors, don’t share equipment and can easily socially distance — was quietly having a near-record year.

Stuck at home instead of in commuter traffic, golfers used their free time to play 60 million more rounds in 2020 compared to 2019. The number of golfers also rose, with total golf participation hitting 36.9 million in 2020 — up two million over the previous year.

“None of this is a positive in the sense of what a real positive is,” said Tim Schantz, president and CEO of Troon Golf, an international golf course management firm. “But if you’re talking realistically about what’s happened across different industries, golf was one that was fortunate in the way the COVID pandemic impacted it, on the whole.”

As the country reopens and golf again has to compete with activities that were limited for the past year, the question becomes: Can golf maintain this momentum?

The rise

By the middle of March 2020, as many businesses were shuttering amid the spreading pandemic, Greg Nathan and his coworkers at the Florida-based National Golf Foundation made hundreds of phone calls a week, surveying whether courses around the country were still open.

At the low point in mid-April, Mr. Nathan said roughly half the courses in the country were closed. That led to a spring decline of 20 million rounds compared to the year before.

But golf’s very nature as a sport made it uniquely suited for the demands of the pandemic. Small tweaks, like removing bunker rakes and adding pool noodles to cups so golfers don’t need to touch the flag to remove their ball, made local governments even more comfortable in allowing courses to reopen.

And once they opened, golfers new and old converged.

“Golf was perfectly positioned as a recreational activity well-suited to safe participation,” Mr. Nathan said. “Social distancing. You use your own equipment. You can have a social form of recreation outdoors that could be done.”

Despite starting the spring down 20 million rounds, 2020 ended with a 14% increase in rounds played year-over-year. Total golf participation rose by 8% compared to 2019, and the net gain of 500,000 on-course golfers was the largest jump in 17 years.

As rounds-played increased, so did equipment sales — particularly for high-end clubs and starter sets, Mr. Nathan said. Equipment sales in 2020 were 10.1% higher than in 2019, according to Golf Datatech.

Who played all those rounds? It was a mix of core golfers and newcomers. For passionate players, the ability to work from home and limited work travel made trips to the course more manageable. And there was a rise of 6.2 million new or returning golfers — with the number of junior golfers rising by 630,000, or 24%, compared to the previous year.

The Maryland State Golf Association (MSGA) can attest to the mounting interest in golf from kids. Through the organization’s Youth on Course program, members can play at about 20 courses around the state for $5, with MSGA subsidizing the difference. The program got started in 2018 and grew more in 2019.

“But 2020, it absolutely blew up,” said Kelly Newland, the executive director of the MSGA.

The association saw an increase from 2,716 rounds in 2019 to 5,004 rounds in 2020, and Newland expects those numbers to climb to at least 6,500 this year in Maryland and D.C.

“If anything, the pandemic from our perspective with the Youth on Course program, it had a big impact on getting the kids to play,” Mr. Newland said. “Which we’re excited about. Now we just need to make sure we can fund it all.”

Not all fairways

The gaudy numbers paint a positive view of the golf industry as it navigated the pandemic. They’re promising signs for the sport.

But while golf did better than many industries, there were problems.

For golf courses in tourist destinations, such as Hawaii, the outlook wasn’t as rosy. Most clubs couldn’t open dining rooms, losing on food and beverage sales. And with work trips canceled or held virtually, golf courses missed out on hosting marquee events.

“We limped our way through, ‘How do we operate?’” Mr. Schantz said. “But the good news, the silver lining for most locations, was there was some place to limp to.” 

Lessons learned

Mr. Schantz figures he’s asked the same question to 10,000-some people over the course of his career: “Are you a golfer?” And he guesses 9,995 of those people offer a similar response, immediately apologizing for their proficiency — or lack thereof.

“I don’t know what it is about golf that’s inherent in it that drives that in people,” Mr. Schantz said. “And I feel strongly that if we were able to address that so you didn’t feel like you had to apologize for your proficiency, there’d be a lot more golfers.”

With few options for recreation, Mr. Schantz said new golfers stuck with the sport despite the intimidation factor golf can have on newcomers. But as coronavirus restrictions across the country ease, the major challenge ahead of the sport is creating an environment that not only welcomes beginners, but encourages them to stay involved.

When Mr. Schantz broaches that subject with his colleagues at Troon, the suggestions often include loosening dress codes or allowing music to be played from carts. Those are legitimate options, but “the real magic is how much can you do without alienating the people who want the ‘traditional’ experience,” Mr. Schantz said. “I think there’s really room for both.”

That will be an easier line to straddle for private clubs that can more readily regulate specific time slots that may cater toward competitive golfers or those seeking a relaxed game.

According to the National Golf Foundation, 12.1 million people participated in off-course golf activities — be that Topgolf, ranges or simulators. The organization predicts that number may soon overtake on-course participants.

“My sense is those folks who found an interest in those activities who were new to golf will try to find their way onto the green grass,” said Brent Schneider, the CEO of Belmont Country Club and Golf Course in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s really difficult to do that on a traditional 18-hole course if you don’t have the instruction, if you don’t have the technique, if you don’t know the protocol.”

So in the redevelopment of Belmont — which opens to the public May 29 — Mr. Schneider and Love Golf Design tried to strike a balance.

There won’t be an 18-hole course. Instead, Belmont will provide a variety of options for golfers, from a 34,000-square-foot putting green to a 12-hole and 6-hole short course. Partnered with First Tee, a youth development program that introduces golf to kids, finding a way to make the course inviting was of paramount concern.

“I don’t know if the golf world will follow,” Mr. Schneider said. “But I know we have something that feels like it’s going to work, and we’re committed to creating that environment and culture to make it work.”

Mark Love, the president of Love Golf Design, said the trend for multi-dimensional courses extends beyond Belmont. The pandemic only reinforced the idea that the more amenities a course offers, the better.

“While we sort of intuitively thought that as designers and golf people,” Mr. Love said, “it wasn’t until the pandemic that it was like, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what people have proven in this resurgence of getting out on the golf course.”

Maintaining pace

The last time golf experienced an increase in rounds played at this level came in 1997, the year a 21-year-old Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament by a record 12 strokes. In 1998, the number of rounds played decreased by 3.4% — a leveling out after a 14.6% boom the year prior.

There could be a similar trend between 2020 and 2021. The 14% year-over-year increase experienced in 2020 likely won’t stay at that level once 2021 ends, particularly with more options opening as the nation’s grasp on the pandemic improves.

“Golf is not going to be able to sustain the magnitude of this surge, because one of the main drivers was the elimination of other choices,” Mr. Nathan said. “And those choices are going to come back.”

But at the same time, there’s reason for optimism around the sport.

In 2021 so far, the pace of rounds played has remained strong. And with the influx of new participants trying golf over the last year, there’s a belief some — if not most — will stick with the game even after the world returns to something more closely resembling normal.

If that can be coupled with lowered barriers of entry and a less intimidating environment, the surge seen in 2020 could be less an anomaly and more a sign of good things to come.

“I feel like the sport is well positioned,” Mr. Schantz said. “I think COVID has left a mark on people that’s meaningful. And golf is an activity that people found during COVID that they enjoy participating in, and that bodes well for the golf industry.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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