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Now What?

After golf’s unexpected boom, the decisions facing once-struggling courses will impact the future of the game

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This is not a silver-lining story. A pandemic that kills more than 200,000 Americans doesn’t have an upside. But one undeniable fact of this unprecedented time is that golf—a game that knew social distancing long before facemasks—has become much more popular in the U.S. this year.

What began as anecdotal stories about increased traffic at local clubs is now backed up by real numbers. The Washington Post called 2020 golf’s “best summer in decades,” with June play up 14% year over year, and July play up 20%. Golf Datatech calculated that equipment sales in July topped $388 million—an industry record, more than 50% higher than the same month in 2019. A month later, it was shattered again.

Public courses that have struggled for years to increase play are suddenly flush with business, with many now sitting on more revenue than they’d originally budgeted. It’s a situation every golf course operator would prefer to have—but that doesn’t mean their new realities aren’t fraught.

As years of declining play pre-Covid show, this boomlet certainly won’t last forever. Or even a year from now. This adds up to a rare opportunity for courses to reinvest—to reinvent identities, restructure models, and position themselves to keep tee sheets busy even after post-round elbow bumps turn back into handshakes.

We surveyed a collection of thought leaders across the game—including architects, superintendents, head professionals, and even passionate muni-goers—to get a sense of where the industry stands now and what it could look like in the not-too-distant future.

The Donald Ross-designed greens at Vinny Links—a public course that’s home to Nashville’s First Tee chapter. Photo by Kevin D. Liles.

Tom Doak

Author and designer whose portfolio includes Pacific Dunes, Streamsong Blue and a slew of other highly regarded courses.

“My guess is that most golf courses are like most Americans: If they’re making money, they’re just paying off their debts and putting a little bit in the bank. For most courses, the best thing to address would be deferred maintenance—tree trimming and aerification, for example—but it’s hard to make time for those things when there are people lined up to play! Architecturally, having a golf course architect give a one-day consulting visit would be a wise investment. The first priority would probably be to build adequate tee space and better forward tees. After that, it’s probably bunker work—and that might include eliminating a few superfluous bunkers, to help keep maintenance costs down in the longer term.”

Rob Collins

Golf course architect who, along with partner Tad King, designed, built and managed Sweetens Cove in Tennessee.

“A lot of times, clubs waste money putting lipstick on a pig. An unnecessary bunker renovation doesn’t really change anything. I would caution a course to be very careful. For a place like a municipal course or a smaller daily-fee course, the money would be best spent in day-to-day operations: Maybe a little extra money for pre-emergent in the spring, or topdressing the surrounds, or aerifying the fairways for the first time. People will notice that you’re putting extra effort into those little things. But going and redoing your greens or bunkers—unless there’s a massive problem there—I just wouldn’t do it.”

Players make the short walk from the Purple Line to the first tee at Chicago’s Canal Shores. Photo by Christian Hafer.

Tony Frandria

Superintendent of Chicago’s community-maintained Canal Shores.

“Our move to a primarily walking course this summer (due to initial social distancing rules on carts) paid real benefits in terms of course pacing, golfer enjoyment, and brand differentiation for us. In fact, we continued to emphasize walking rounds even after carts were allowed. Although we’ve been up significantly—65% year-over-year—as a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization, the term “surplus” is one we’re not very familiar with!

However, we’ll be working to upgrade equipment, maintain the grounds, and improve our ever-important youth golf facilities. And last but not least, we’re offering “thank you” promotions to all the golfers who came out and kept us going this summer.”

Andy Staples

Golf course architect whose Community Links white paper urges municipal courses to reimagine themselves as hubs of city life.

“To me, the muni-owned courses will take the money and run. I do not think there will be any real movement to “do something” unless this play is sustained over a period of time. Even though the golf course might be making money now, most parks departments are still losing serious money. The golf course is again thought of as a bit of a savior, but overall the losses are real. 

What they should be doing is using this time to promote the values of the game as a safe and healthy means to get through these times, and begin to market their golf course as a positive. It’s incredible how, just a few months ago, this narrative was the opposite. If cities use this opportunity properly, I could see a time where the sentiment changes and more resources are placed toward their course. 

If a course was already planning to do work, then this situation has indeed made it a “must do.” And work has progressed. I’ve actually picked up two projects over this time, and more clubs are continuing to talk about getting work done in the future. I’m as busy now as I was pre-Covid.”

Sam Sinclair

San Felipe Muni devotee and unofficial course historian in Del Rio, Texas.

“I highly recommend that all public courses take a new approach to pace of play. This is a well-documented issue that is eating our game from the inside out. I recommend taking a proactive approach to marshalling groups on the course. Courses should inform golfers that by purchasing a green fee they agree to play the course in 4 hours or less, no exceptions. Marshals—yes, more than one—should monitor play and require groups that fall out of position to pick up, take their max handicap score on the hole, and move on to the next.

There should be no option for allowing a faster group to play through; groups must maintain their position on the course. Failure to maintain pace on a second occasion will result in the golfers being asked to leave the playing area. Offer them a free drink and a hotdog, a bucket of practice balls, or something else to soften the blow. This will only happen a limited number of times before slow players will adapt or go elsewhere. Slow play cannot be tolerated if we are to preserve our current golfers. Pace of play is the most damaging issue for public course reputation. I have walked off courses after realizing that a 4-plus hour round is at hand. If hiring marshals or cart GPS technology helps manage the pace of play, then please spend the funds.”

Groups get ready to peg it at the Bob-O-Link municipal golf course in Orchard Park, New York. Photo by Jared Wickerham.

Jaeger Kovich

Golf course architect who apprenticed with Tom Doak and Gil Hanse and now operates a solo practice.

“With increased play comes some other issues: I’ve seen a lot more cart traffic including plenty of 4-cart groups, and there are turf issues that come with that. Tees have also been taking a beating this year, especially on par 3s because there is so much more play. So expanding or adding tees where possible, and maybe adding some variety and angles when the option is there, is a good way to repair from heavy use, improve the conditions long-term and maybe offer a little something new at the same time.

Trees and grass lines [are the] kinds of big, bang-for-your-buck things that are always on the list if you have some extra money. Increasing sunlight, airflow, spreading out traffic, plus a little extra strategic width or even adding a new hole location via a green expansion is going to make the golf course play better strategically and improve the conditions. 

Practice facilities are also getting a lot more beat up this year. So ultimately, you’re probably looking at a combination of adding interest and variety, and also repairing infrastructure/helping the turf recover quicker. 

I think this year showed us the importance of the stuff outside versus the stuff inside. While not everything you can do is always going to be a high-value improvement to the golf course, it shows you the importance of what really matters: the 100 or 200 acres that these golf courses are on. People go to golf courses for golf, not for the other stuff.”

A volunteer pieces Goat Hill Park back together in Oceanside, California. Photo by Lauren Milner.

David Christenson

Director of Golf at Circling Raven Golf Club in Idaho.

“We have had a really strong golf season…I believe this will be the most rounds played at the course in the last 10-12 years. With any excess funds this season we will be looking at upgrading our practice facility. We see a great opportunity to expand our lesson programs and the upgrades on the range would allow for more of these opportunities. In short, we will be looking at projects that don’t impact play or revenues, but enhance the guests experience.”

Keith Rhebb

Golf course architect who, along with Riley Johns, performed the renovation of Winter Park Nine in Florida, and recently designed the new short course at Forest Dunes in Michigan.

“The people managing these courses could start by going to the pro shop and asking the pro, “What feedback are you getting?” There might just be one thing, or there might be multiple things to address.

It’s site-specific, but often, tree removal is a good place to start if you deal with shade issues and/or tree roots stealing nutrients from your turf. You can go get a new irrigation system, but if you don’t have those turf issues figured out, then you’re not gonna get much out of it.

Most places don’t need to spend money on benches and ball washers, or to re-do the pro shop. A lot of these places aren’t even able to use the indoor facilities right now. Take Forest Dunes, for example. Lew [Thompson, Forest Dunes’ owner] said that since they added the short course, they’ve been breaking records like crazy. Nowadays it’s more about getting out with your friends and being outdoors and feeling a little sense of normalcy and just disconnecting from everything that’s going on. Investing extra funds into courses that provide this escape is more important now than ever.”  

City Park Golf Course in New Orleans. Photo by Ryan Young.