Life was pretty good at Llanerch Country Club in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic. Membership was strong, and the Havertown club was seeing about 20,000 rounds of golf played annually. “We were in a good place,” says general manager Chris Wilkinson.
Then the pandemic tightened its grip on the area in Spring 2020, and nobody knew what to expect. “Everybody at the club feared things would go in the opposite direction,” Wilkinson says.
But as the weather warmed and people grew restless, they wanted to get outside. Then came the big news from Harrisburg: Golf was one of the few activities allowed during the pandemic. As it turns out, spending four hours or so on a 7,000-yard layout was a pretty good way to social-distance, particularly as duffers searched all over the place for their wayward shots.
Just like that, what looked like a catastrophe became a bonanza. Private and public courses alike experienced a surge in interest. The 2020 numbers were outstanding—and in 2021, things really took off. Llanerch hosted 25,000 rounds of golf last year and had to cap its membership. Over in Malvern, White Manor Country Club was “busier than ever,” according to its general manager, Bret Herspold. Geoffrey Surrette, the Philadelphia PGA sections executive director, reports a 20-30% increase in rounds of golf throughout the organization’s coverage area, which includes southeastern Pennsylvania, all of Delaware and southern New Jersey.
When Tiger Woods started winning majors in the late 1990s, it seemed like everybody was picking up a club. Courses sprung up everywhere—even in housing developments. But after the expansion came an inevitable contraction. As the 21st century dawned, courses closed by the hundreds across the country. The game wasn’t dying, but it was certainly reverting to the mean. “It’s been crazy to think that a global pandemic would have such an impact on golf,” says Surrette.
At White Manor, members have no doubt enjoyed playing more golf during the pandemic—and they should be even happier as they survey the amenities in the coming months. Thanks to the increased activity on the links and in the pro shop, the club has built a war chest devoted to making some capital improvements. Herspold notes that White Manor’s ballroom is getting an overhaul, as is the bar adjacent to it. The pool will look completely different, too. There have been tee box upgrades and new looks for the men’s and women’s locker rooms.
White Manor is part of the 22-club Concert Golf Partners concern that spreads from Boston to Palm Beach, Florida, to Denver—and just about all of the properties are experiencing bonanzas. “We’re allowing each of our clubs to make improvements,” Herspold says. “And more playing is allowing us to grow.”
There are other reasons for the recent golf boom, such as the increased flexibility built into people’s work schedules. In February 2020, just about everyone in the world was getting up early in the morning, suiting up for work and commuting to offices throughout the area. After COVID hit, Zoom meetings, casual dress and working from home became de rigueur. And that’s not likely to change. Head pro Eric Kennedy reports that members at Overbrook Country Club in Villanova were making tee times at 8 p.m. last summer to sneak in a couple holes. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “But we had members saying, ‘I just want to spend some time with my kids.’”
The new way of doing business allows for considerable multitasking on the course. Kennedy has seen players with Bluetooth devices in their ears hammering drives down the fairways, then stopping to chime in on a conference call. “It’s cool and unique,” he says.
The growth has led to some interesting changes in operations. At Paxon Hollow Country Club in Media, the increased demand has led Dan Malley, its director of golf operations, to institute fewer daily tee times. In the past, a full day could accommodate 250-260 golfers, but the club rarely reached that number. Now, with the reduced tee times, only 200-210 can play— and the docket is always full. The demand has led the township to plan a new facility on the first tee that will house offices and a restaurant, among other things. “All over the country, municipal courses are doing the same thing,” Malley says.
Will it last? No one knows for sure. The “Tiger boom” wasn’t sustainable, thanks to the glut of courses. But this one might hold. “Golf has reaped the benefits, and we’ll see it for a few years,” Surrette says.