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The Good Life

Golf in the Time of Covid

The pandemic has disrupted business after business, but recreational golf is booming the age of the coronavirus.
| By Jeff Williams | From The Rock, January/February 2021
Golf in the Time of Covid
Photo/Artmasa via Getty Images
In a time when masks are everywhere, the sport of golf allows for a quite pleasant form of social distancing.

When Matt Massei walks out on the veranda of the Pinehurst Resort Country Club near his office, there is a particularly satisfying sight—players who have finished their rounds sitting in the big rocking chairs, a cold beverage in hand and many puffing on a cigar. “We have 30 big rocking chairs out there,” says Massei. “Every afternoon you go out, there are several guys enjoying a cigar and taking in the environment. We love to see that.”

Massei is the executive vice president of Pinehurst, the golf mecca in North Carolina, and the crowds of eager players have become common on golf courses all around the United States. When the pandemic began to impact the U.S. in early 2020, Massei and other golf executives worried for the fate of the golf industry. But golf has become stronger than before, a welcome refuge and a distraction to the global chaos caused by Covid-19. 

After emerging from various shutdowns across the country in the spring, golfers have taken to the links in almost mind-boggling numbers. Golf courses were full all summer and fall. The National Golf Foundation reported a 32 percent increase in rounds of golf played in October 2020, compared to the same month the previous year. 

Despite a loss of about 20 million rounds due to lockdowns toward the start of the year, the rounds nationally were up by 10.8 percent as of October, with increases in every state. If golf were to stay on that upward track when the final numbers come in for the remainder of the year, the NGF predicted a best-case scenario of nearly 500 million rounds—50 million more than the record 441 million played in the U.S. in 2019.

“A startling turnaround following a disastrous start to the spring,” wrote Joseph F. Beditz, president and chief executive officer of the foundation. It’s been difficult to get tee times, especially at the most popular facilities, with online reservations selling out in what seems to be nanoseconds at public courses. Many private courses had to change their policies due to the demand, with some instituting weekday tee times for the first time in memory.

Sean McGaughlin, a teacher on Long Island, New York, is an avid golfer and coach of the high school golf team. He loves to play with his buddies at the Bethpage State Park complex, home of the iconic Black Course and a total of five altogether.

Getting a tee time, says McGlaughlin, is “incredibly difficult. New York City courses were closed and not in good shape, so all the city players are coming out to Long Island to play. Bethpage is selling out morning and early afternoon tee times in literally one second of being released a week ahead of time. If you don’t get in by 7 p.m. and one second, you are not going to get a tee time anywhere before 4 o’clock.”

And this isn’t a situation limited to the Black Course, which has hosted two U.S. Opens and has always been hard to play. “Now, every course is equally as challenging to get on,” says McGlaughlin. “I think Bethpage Yellow is now the toughest tee time to get because it’s the easiest course and new players want to play the easier courses.”

Bandon Dunes, on the Oregon coast halfway from nowhere, has been a bucket- list destination for 20 years. Remarkably, with all the travel required to get there, the numbers for 2020 have been staggering. “If you had asked me in March whether I would have taken a break-even result for the year, I would have said gladly, I’ll pay you,” says owner/operator Mike Keiser. “I figured no one would want to travel by air or whatever to Bandon Dunes. Lo and behold, we are having a record year on top of a record year.” In 2019, Bandon had a record 160,000 rounds. “We are on track to beat that by at least 10 percent,” Keiser says. “My headline is: Astonishingly people who were cooped up are tickled pink to travel to Bandon Dunes.”

Apparently, golfers everywhere are tickled pink that they can play. Even before some courses in California started to cautiously reopen in April, Patty Ellis, a retired financial controller from New Hope, Pennsylvania, who spends some of her winter in Palm Springs, was determined to play, despite the course being shut. She and a friend parked on the street, stepped over the low fence, and off they went. “The course was closed for golf but open for dog walking,” says Ellis. “We made it for probably 10 holes. He was carrying, I was wheeling, and then we got spoken to by a member of the greenskeeping staff and had to leave.” Undeterred, they returned the following day, with less gear. “We just took one club so we wouldn’t be so conspicuous, both 6-irons,” says Ellis. “Played the whole course with one club which was fascinating and fun…  I think we did it five times. And we never got spoken to again.”

Dana Schultz, general manager of the Champion Hills Country Club in Hendersonville, North Carolina, saw her private club become a haven. “Year to date, our rounds are up close to 30 percent over last year,” she says. “We have brought in 29 new members this year.” Shawn Cox, the director of golf at the Grand Del Mar Resort course in Del Mar, California, has been incredibly busy with his facility, which is both a private club and a resort course for guests at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Hotel. He says the rounds played are up about 30 percent over 2019 numbers. “You can’t call Friday night for a Saturday morning tee time. You have to plan ahead. We follow up on members and hotel guests so that one of our valuable tee times doesn’t go to waste with a no-show.”

 Cox has an apt description for the increase in play: “I call it the one-day-a- week golfers playing three days a week, the three-day-a-week guy is playing five days a week and the five-day-a-week person is playing every day,” he says. His driving range is continually busy with players warming up and new players warming up to the game, and lessons are booming. 

 Barry Chandler, the general manager of the Nissequogue Golf Club on Long Island, marveled at the amount of play this year that lingered well into a sunny November, the end of the golf season in the  Northeast. “Normally, we would get around 300 rounds of golf in November,” said Chandler. “This year, with the warm weather, we got between 1,600 and 1,700. Never saw anything like it.”

Golfers far and wide are looking at golf as a way out, a way outdoors, a safe haven in a viral storm. The game of golf has always had a considerable amount of built-in social distancing from tee to green. How close is anyone in your foursome to each other once you reach your tee shots, and how difficult is it to just stay a couple of club lengths apart all during a round? New protocols only add to the social distancing. There are changes in cart use (limiting golfers to one person per cart, plastic shields between the seats); many courses have removed bunker rakes; golfers no longer remove pinsticks, and some courses have contraptions to allow for hands-free removal of the ball from the cup. There is also extensive sanitizing, pro-shop and clubhouse limitations and pay-in-advance protocols to minimize contact. Many private clubs banned guests in the early days of the pandemic, and kept caddies off the course or limited their work to reading putts and raking bunkers, to limit contact with the player by pulling golf clubs. All the changes have made this outdoor sport all the more appealing to those hoping to get some recreation while staying safe.

The boom is hardly limited to more money spent on greens fees: people are buying more golf gear. According to reports by NGF and Golf Datatech, golf retail sales broke records in July and August. “Golf retail spiked 32 percent in August 2020 above the same period in 2019, reaching $331 million. The previous record for August had been $287 million in 2006 before the market crash that reversed years of golf’s growth. August’s robust retail numbers followed $389 million in sales in July, which was the highest for any month Golf Datatech has ever tracked.”

“We are seeing increase in play since the reset of roughly 20 percent year over year, which is absolutely terrific for golf,” says David Abeles, CEO of TaylorMade Golf. “As manufacturers we are seeing participation turn into consumption. We are seeing strong surges of growth in equipment sales as well as golf ball sales. Golf ball sales are always pegged to rounds of play so as rounds go up, golf ball sales go up . . . We are optimistic that not only are we seeing improved participation, but we think the participation will stick for the foreseeable future.”

The boom in golf comes at a needed time. Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association, which represents about 4,000 courses (25 percent of them private) was on pins and needles at the outset of the pandemic with facilities closed, greens fees drying up and operators in dire straits. “Going into this pandemic the economics around golf have generally been around cloudy skies since just before the [2008] recession,” says Karen. “We’ve had precipitous decline in golf participation, more courses closing than opening for 15 years. You look at that and say the sky is falling. You don’t have to be an economist to know that golf’s best days were in the ’90s. So when the pandemic was hitting, we were fighting to stay alive legislatively to allow golf courses to stay open. We were worried that hundreds, maybe 1,000 courses could go under if they couldn’t stay open for the season.”

When the pandemic began, Karen and others in the world of golf were extremely concerned. “The threat of Covid was, wow, we could be shut down all season,” she says. “We worked really hard to make the case to governors and mayors, and city councils all across the country that golf comports very well to social distancing and staying relatively safe while all these recreational options were closing down. People needed to get outside and still breathe clean air. What we proved was that golf could do those things safely.”

There are caveats, of course. Golf outings—many of them for charity—have been canceled. Group events at golf facilities like corporate functions, banquets and weddings have been canceled or postponed. Resorts with golf courses that require air travel have been hit hard, especially ones that don’t have a large resident golfing population. 

Tim Schantz is the CEO of Troon Golf, the Scottsdale, Arizona company that runs about 450 worldwide golf facilities. He stresses that the pandemic golf boom hasn’t been as impactful on resort courses. “I don’t want any implication that it is business as usual for resort courses—it’s not,” he says. “When Covid struck, food and beverage closed down and it was replaced by to-go and that got a big amount of buy-in by membership and it requires less people working, frankly. So the margins improved somewhat. That’s not sustainable long term. There are some pluses and minuses, and you can’t talk about the pluses without talking about the minuses.” Still, he has hope. “Glass half full, there has been more participation and I think that’s good for golf in the long-term,” says Schantz.

Bill Carson, a dedicated cigar smoker and frequenter of Cigar Aficionado’s Big Smoke Las Vegas, says the changes he’s seeing include a new type of clientele coming to the Windsor Golf Club and the Rooster Run Golf Club in Sonoma County, California, where he is director of operations. “Probably looking at 10 to 20 percent increase year-to-year in play over last year,” he says. “The most encouraging thing is that we are seeing a different demographic. I’m quite optimistic, hopeful about seeing first-timers, younger players. We are seeing a lot of new faces.”

Back at Pinehurst, things remain busy, even if it’s not in the traditional way. The resort’s nine courses (including No. 2, which has played host to U.S. Opens) have remained open, but Pinehurst had to shut down its three hotels for two months, reopening them in May. The resort’s corporate business evaporated. “The corporate business is still not there. It’s anemic and we anticipate it will be that way into the second quarter of 2021, but our transient social golfing guests have been very, very solid,” says Massei, adding that drive-in golfers have bulked up Pinehurst’s tee-sheets. “We added almost 80 new golf memberships since April. That’s a big number for us. We are seeing a lot of positivity as it relates to golf during this time.” 

Has the pandemic driven people to play the game for the very reasons it was first played, to be an outdoor pursuit among friends and friends-to-be? Has its certain inherent attributes, both of physical and mental health, resonated across a nation so greatly restrained by Covid-19? And is the trend more than a fad that might disappear when the vaccines loosen the virus’ reins on society?

“We’ve had an attrition problem,” says Karen. “Can we keep them this time, comparing it to the Tiger Affect of the 1990s? Tiger was a rock star, a young person of color athlete who has turned golf into an athletically inclined game. It brought so many people to the game . . . but it wasn’t sustainable. . . . The people didn’t become lifelong golfers. What I like about the surge in demand for golf right now is that people are discovering and coming to golf for the very reason that they stay lifelong golfers—getting outdoors, spending time with friends . . . That makes me a bit more bullish and optimistic that people coming to the game in 2020 will still be here 25 years from now.”

The game is persevering, perhaps beyond what, perhaps beyond what any in the industry might have imagined back in early 2020. There is hope, even cautious optimism, that golf will thrive and that the gains in rounds played and players lured to the game will stick.

Golf

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