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COVID-19 Brings a Spike in Golf Outings in the Main Line Area

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With local clubs busier than ever, courses around the Main Line successfully adjust to COVID-19 restrictions by capping on memberships.

Without exception, COVID-19 impacted all of us in 2020—and most of the news was bad. But an unlikely upside of the pandemic was the resurgence of golf. According to the National Golf Foundation, play at private clubs increased 17 percent over 2019, while public courses enjoyed a 9 percent bump. That equates to about 10 million more rounds nationwide—a spike not witnessed since a young Tiger Woods took the world by storm over 20 years ago. “Our play was up 30 percent. Membership was capped, and we now have a waiting list for the first time in club history,” says Dave McNabb, head pro at Applebrook Golf Club in Malvern, Pa. “We were busier than ever, with caddies often doing multiple loops in a day.”

COVID Golfing

Kyle Ruane witnessed the same growth on his public courses. “All three saw close to a 30 percent increase in rounds and revenue, and our tee sheets were full every day” says Ruane, who’s director of golf at Gilbertsville, Pa.’s Bella Vista Golf Club.

The renewed interest in golf can be traced to a perfect storm of quarantine and pandemic policies, the outdoor and socially distant nature of the sport, schedules that were suddenly more flexible, and the pent-up demand of people being pent up. As luck would have it, even some of the new rules implemented prior to COVID-19—like the option to leave the flag stick in while putting—helped minimize surface contact. “Golf, by its nature, sets up for social distancing. I have a job because not everyone hits the ball down the middle of the fairway,” says Ruane with a chuckle. “We did a great job of making our golfers feel safe with our new policies and protocols, and the added safety of being outdoors made them comfortable enough to choose golf over other activities.”

John Cooper cites many reasons why his facility’s rounds increased from 12,000 to 18,000 during 2020, a record during his 11-year tenure. “Little League was shut down, the movies and malls were closed, kids couldn’t go to sleep-away camps, and parents had more flexibility with working from home,” says the head pro at Green Valley Country Club in Lafayette Hill, Pa. “So families returned to playing golf.”

The emergence of new golfers and the return of lapsed players translated into growth in other unexpected ways. Anthony Hollerback saw a lot of positives thanks to newbies. “All told, we were up over 5,000 rounds during the summer season, with more beginners and more multiple rounds by golfers per week,” says the head pro at Baywood Greens in Long Neck, Del. “We sold more golf balls and rental clubs than ever before. We even picked up overflow play from area private courses like The Peninsula and King’s Creek because they were so full.”

There was growth in other areas, too. “We’ve never seen more women and couples golf than during 2020,” says Frank Horton, managing partner of Golf Back Creek, which operates several courses in Delaware. “Husbands and wives have flexibility. They can get their work done from home and still have time to get out and play nine or 18 holes.”

Jim Smith concedes that his initial fears about the 2020 season were short-lived. “When the pandemic first hit, worries about massive attrition existed,” says the head pro at Philadelphia Cricket Club. “It turned out the club had the least attrition in 20 years, and the interest in membership is at an all-time high.”

This time last year, the outlook for the season was far from rosy. With great March and April weather, courses, clubhouses and their restaurants and grill rooms were ghost towns. When given the yellow light to re-open, managers were forced to deal with new sanitation rules, increased teetime intervals, two-person groups, single-rider carts, and a litany of ever-changing guidelines and state mandates. “We’d get ramped up, then clamped down,” says Applebrook’s McNabb. “We’d be walking on eggshells. Every day seemed like a new way of doing things, and no one saw any of this coming.”

Like most clubs in the First State, Baywood Greens was under slightly different guidelines than its Pennsylvania counterparts. “We lost all our critical April/May spring-getaway bookings— probably 2,000 rounds—because people couldn’t travel and we had to enforce no out-of-state play when we did resume,” says Hollerback.

At Back Creek Golf Club, Horton was used to planning for bad weather and worst-case scenarios. “But this was a whole new level of unknown,” he says. “And it seemed like Gov. Carney’s restrictions would change from Friday to Monday.”

Bella Vista Golf Club’s Kyle Ruane

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Montgomery County was the first region to close in Pennsylvania. “Golf helps drive our hotel sector, and when our occupancy rate dropped from 60 to 5 percent in a few days, we knew a major hit was coming,” says Mike Bowman, president of the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board. “But like all of us during the pandemic, we adapted.”

As courses adjusted to a new way of doing business, resilient golf pros leaned heavily on both technical and human resources. “We implemented a park-and-play strategy, adapting our online reservation system to take credit cards so players could pay in advance and not come into the pro shop,” says Dan Malley, head pro at Paxson Hollow Golf Club in Media, Pa. “I think a lot of clubs will be doing this permanently after the pandemic. It’s a better player experience, and it keeps our staff and customers safer.”

“Golf, by its nature, sets up for social distancing. I have a job because not everyone hits the ball down the middle of the fairway.”
—Bella Vista Golf Club’s Kyle Ruane

Obviously, safety was key to Jeff Robinson’s pandemic strategy. “We were so thorough in making sure everything was secured for the golfer’s safety—eliminating shared surfaces, reducing touch points, reducing cash transactions—that we had to be just as careful to protect our team,” says Robinson, who oversees club operations at Deerfield, Garrison’s Lake and Jonathon’s Landing, all in Delaware. “I was continually impressed by the determination and thoroughness our staff showed through the ups and downs.”

Differences in golfing now vs. before COVID

Golf’s unique business mix also generates much-needed revenue from weddings, tournaments and outings, pro shop sales, and food and beverage—all of which were impacted last season by capacity regulations. This season should begin with many of those same restrictions in place—but Horton sees some good signs. “We already have a demand for lessons and teaching clinics in the preseason, and I think we proved to the state at the end of last season that we were able to host golf events safely,” he says. “I know the nonprofits that generate a lot of their fundraising through outings are especially interested in getting back to having events again so they can make up for last year.”

In Pennsylvania, Bowman is looking forward to the easing of capacity restrictions governing indoor dining and outdoor gatherings. “I think 50 percent capacity is the magic number,” he says. “Once that happens, family reunions, weddings and events come back. We’re already seeing lots of golf outings getting pre-booked.”

Still, it seems a cruel and sad irony that years of initiatives to grow the game largely fell flat, while a devastating virus accomplished what golf’s keepers could not. But the sport’s new role in people’s lives is not to be diminished—and with it comes the most optimistic entry into a spring season in recent history. “It was very rewarding to see golf as a beacon of hope in such dark times for so many people,” says Eric Williams, director of golf at Hartefeld National in Avondale, Pa. “It turned into an outdoor therapy session for all of us, which was much needed during the onset of the pandemic.”

Deerfield Gold Club’s Jeff Robinson

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“The magic question is, ‘How much of the boom will we retain when the malls, movie theaters and cruise ships are full again?’”
—Deerfield Gold Club’s Jeff Robinson

Due to his club’s 30 percent increase in business over the prior year, Ryan Lagergren has hired more staff for 2021. “We saw people loving golf again, people interacting with each other, people taking time to enjoy the small things,” says the head pro at Stonewall in Elverson, Pa. “I don’t see any slowdown for us, we’re expecting to be just as busy—if not more.”

Robinson offers this level-headed perspective for his three Delaware golf courses. “The magic question is, ‘How much of the boom will we retain when the malls, movie theaters and cruise ships are full again?’” he poses. “I firmly believe most of those new (or renewed) players will be back in 2021. Our customers have rediscovered a lost love—we plan on not letting them make that same mistake again.”