Online retailers, supermarkets, liquor stores, cleaning services, gardening suppliers, board game makers, streaming services and video-conferencing platforms are some of the businesses that have thrived during the coronavirus pandemic.
Another one is golf.
Early last March, as the initial shock waves of the pandemic were sweeping across America and the world, it was not looking good for public golf courses in Utah. Salt Lake City had just announced a weeklong closure of its six public courses to evaluate risks of spreading the virus, and public complaints about ongoing play at other courses around Utah were mounting.
Those developments had Cache Valley golf professionals Eric Kleven and Jeff John worried, and both men at the time expressed their strong belief that golf offered a relatively safe outdoor recreation alternative that would prove extremely beneficial and popular as residents were forced to spend much of the spring and summer indoors and close to home.
Kleven and John initiated a number of safety measures at their respective courses — Birch Creek and Logan River — and despite some community pressure to shut down, both were able to keep their facilities open. Now, six months later, they are looking back on the 2020 golf season as one of the busiest and most profitable ever.
And so far no employees at either course have contracted the virus.
“The first of the year when you couldn’t go to Bear Lake and you couldn’t go camping and you couldn’t do all those outdoor sports, golf was it,” John said, referring to the start of the golf season after snow had cleared in March and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” coronavirus safety program was launched. “Those first three months we killed it on the revenue side, and September was unbelievable. I imagine if we stay good weatherwise the rest of the year, we’ll do the same in October.”
Logan City Finance Director Rich Anderson said overall revenue at the course was up 12% for the fiscal year ending June 30 and up about 8% since then, and that’s while the course was losing money at its banquet room with cancellations of gatherings such as wedding receptions and class reunions.
“Golf courses have struggled for a long time, and so it’s wonderful that people are enjoying golf courses and being outside,” Anderson said.
The Birch Creek course has seen a 30% increase so far this year in both driving range revenue and the number of rounds played, and Kleven said he thinks the heightened interest will translate into long-term gains for the course with so many new people being introduced to the game.
“Honestly, COVID has had a huge impact on golf, and I believe golf will continue to thrive for the next few years as we are seeing more and more players coming to the golf course,” he said. “We are also seeing new faces and especially husbands and wives with their kids coming to the golf course. This has been great to see.”
The golf boom of 2020 has boosted course revenues nationwide. According to the National Golf Foundation, which tracks industry activity, 20% more golf rounds were played in the United States this August over last August, and other months have seen similar spikes.
An article in this month’s edition of Golf magazine noted the sport is uniquely suited for times like these.
“As we learned more about the virus and about our collective response, one thing became more and more clear: Golf had the potential to serve as an ideal quarantine outlet,” the article states. “The whys are fairly intuitive. We’ve learned that staying outdoors means a lower risk of transmission, and golf is entirely outdoors. We’ve learned that keeping other people at a distance helps, too, and golf requires no real proximity. You can play golf alone, and you can play without ever going inside, and there’s a good chance you can play without driving too far from your home, too.”
Ironically, at a time when the sport is booming, golf equipment has been hard to come by due to closure of many manufacturing plants that produce golf clubs and other accessories.
John said Logan River’s pro shop sold out of starter sets and pull carts early in the season and hasn’t been able to restock. Sales on high-end clubs have also lagged due to sparse inventory. “Three of my manufacturers are in the great state of California, and almost half of my inventory from those three companies didn’t come in,” he said.
Taking precautions against the spread of coronavirus has been an ongoing effort at the two local golf courses, where staff members disinfect golf carts after each use and regularly clean bathrooms and other surfaces. Employees working the counters wear face masks, and patrons are encouraged to wear masks inside the club houses.
At Logan River, the cups on each putting surface have been customized so players don’t have to touch the flagsticks to remove their balls after holing out. Birch Creek took a similar precaution early in the pandemic but has returned to traditional cups and flagstick use on its greens.