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The piper calls: Golf courses see record-breaking rounds amid pandemic

By |  August 12, 2020 0 Comments
▶ This tee at Amherst CC’s 9-hole executive course, Ponemah Green, is too small to handle the excessive rounds put on it, says Superintendent Steve Wilson. (Photo: Amherst CC)

This tee at Amherst CC’s 9-hole executive course, Ponemah Green, is too small to handle the excessive rounds put on it, says Superintendent Steve Wilson. (Photo: Amherst CC)

North Hempstead CC in Long Island, N.Y., boasted 7,800 rounds of golf played in May and June, a 47 percent increase over normal years.

Amherst CC in Amherst, N.H., has seen three to four groups lined up on the first tee as early as 5:30 in the morning.

Creekmoor GC in Raymore, Mo., adjusted its tee times from every 18 minutes to 12 to accommodate for the higher volume of golfers.

Such anecdotes represent more than isolated instances — courses around the country have seen large upticks in rounds as golf provides an outlet as a safe and socially distant activity amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve been getting a lot of new golfers out there that we haven’t had in the past, and hopefully, that will keep those people coming back, even when the coronavirus goes away,” says Steve Wilson, superintendent at Amherst CC. “I definitely see the trend continuing for the rest of the season, when people are working from home and have some stimulus money to spend.”

The May rounds report from Golf Datatech showed play was up more than 6 percent nationally — about 2.4 million rounds more than in May of 2019 — translating to a bump of about $120 million in course revenue, according to Joseph F. Beditz, Ph.D., president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation (NGF) in a recent NGF newsletter. As of press time, the June and July reports were not yet available, but based on feedback from multiple sources, it seems those numbers should climb even higher.

“To see new faces playing and people playing multiple times, that’s definitely a big kick for us,” says Rolando Hernandez, head golf pro at Riverside GC in Victoria, Texas, which saw a 27 percent increase in rounds in May and June over last year due, in part, to the coronavirus. “It’s nice to be able to have the cash registers going, and overall revenues are pretty good because people are still going out and doing things, whether that’s going to the range or using our practice course.”

Challenges accepted

As the number of rounds increases, so do the challenges.

For instance, Amherst CC is currently operating with eight crew members, whereas it normally operates with 12, another result of the pandemic. The club also had to eliminate overtime hours, despite a 40 to 50 percent increase in rounds over last year.

Wilson notes that implementing daily safety screenings for employees adds another unusual element to the daily routine.

Daily temperature checks and increased sanitizing have become part of the daily routine at Amherst CC. (Photo: Amherst CC)

Daily temperature checks and increased sanitizing have become part of the daily routine at Amherst CC. (Photo: Amherst CC)

To make up for the changes, Amherst’s crew members work four days a week and a weekend shift or five days a week and no weekend shift. Wilson says crews also take advantage of every bit of daylight possible by adjusting the daily start time from 5 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.

“It’s just trying to get as much done as we possibly can ahead of play because it’s very difficult to get back in there after the golfers are on the course,” he says. “My guys work really hard and work well together, and we try to stay as organized and efficient as possible. We still get a fair amount of work done, but it’s definitely less than what we’ve done in the past.”

Amherst was closed for play for about five weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, but the crew was allowed to maintain the course at the time. Those five weeks of play-free maintenance set the crew up for success, but that lead time is starting to run out. “The amount of play we’ve been getting is starting to take a toll, and recovery is slow as we’re a pretty busy public golf course,” he says.

Creekmoor GC has also seen its fair share of struggles on the labor front, according to Superintendent Tim Nielsen.

To stretch the labor it does have, the golf course has eliminated a lot of detail work, performs mowing early in the mornings before play begins and focuses on hand watering the rest of the day. The club has also combined certain jobs to make crews more efficient.

“If that means a guy is mowing collars, because that’s a job that doesn’t take as long, we’ll also have him clean bathrooms and move the tee markers,” Nielsen says.

Driving range at Creekmoor GC (Photo: Creekmoor GC)

The driving range at Creekmoor GC offers golfers a safe and socially distant activity. (Photo: Creekmoor GC)

A saving grace for North Hempstead CC on the labor front was the golf course closing on Mondays because all of its 26 scheduled outings got canceled or postponed until the fall.

“I said, (golfers) can play as much golf as they want, and I can keep my man-hours down if you just give me Mondays to really pound out a lot of the work,” says Tom Kaplun, superintendent of North Hempstead CC. “And, they made it a green space day, so after 1:00 p.m., members can come out and walk, bring their kids, ride bikes, that sort of stuff. No golf though. It’s worked out.”

Another factor affecting maintenance is the higher number of golf carts. With the pandemic opening the door for single-rider carts, increased traffic has caused more wear and tear on turfgrass.

“That’s creating a lot of traffic issues on the golf course — to have twice as many golf carts out there just wears things down even faster,” Nielsen says.

Kaplun adds that even though his course put dividers in its carts, golfers prefer to take their own.

“People hated (the dividers) because they restricted airflow,” he says. “Every day I go out there, and it looks like we’re doing a double shotgun because we have so many carts out there!”

To keep the grass in the best condition possible considering the circumstances, some courses report topdressing and fertilizing tees a bit more to aid with recovery and performing core aerification in the fairways and roughs. Courses are also managing traffic with ropes and signage to try to change the traffic patterns from day to day.

In addition to the challenges associated with higher rounds, it’s important to note that while an increased number of rounds may mean an upswing in revenue and new golfers for public courses, that’s not the case at private and semiprivate clubs such as Creekmoor.

Practice facility at Creekmoor GC (Photo: Creekmoor GC)

While the semiprivate Creekmoor GC has remained extremely busy during the coronavirus pandemic, most tee times are taken by members, limiting the opportunity for additional revenue. (Photo: Creekmoor GC)

Rounds have skyrocketed at the course, but Nielsen says many of the club’s tee times — which run from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with 12 minutes in between — are taken up by members, leaving little to no room for additional revenue opportunities from public play or outside tournaments.

“Members obviously get preferential advanced tee times, so they end up taking all of our tee times,” he says. “So, 85 percent of our play is member play, whereas last year and previous years, member play was about 60 percent.”

Just happy to be out there

And yet, despite the challenges, superintendents glimpse the silver lining through the labor hardships, worn-down turf and additional safety checks.

“It’s great because you have people who were always on the fence about playing golf, because they didn’t have the time … they’ve come out to play golf,” Kaplun says. “And, you have younger people out playing as well.”

Wilson adds that golfers and crews alike have adopted the same positive attitude: Golfers have been thus far understanding and complimentary of course conditions, and despite the chaotic nature of this season so far, crew members are also happy to be out on the course working.

“Even though with the extra $600 per week per person for unemployment and the $1,200 per person check, guys might be making more money sitting around the house, they’d much rather be working, lucky enough for us,” he says.

Hernandez agrees.

“Our employees obviously want to work and be able to provide for their families, still keeping in mind with having a job and getting out of their house that everything else is quarantined,” he says. “Golfers definitely want to be able to play, no matter what — especially some of the die-hards — they’ll do anything to get out and play some golf. So, I’m definitely excited for us to be open and still kicking at this point.”

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About the Author: Sarah Webb

Sarah Webb is Golfdom's former managing editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at Golfdom, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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