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Golf’s 2020 Surge

CSGA (December 5, 2020) Connecticut golf had a great year in 2020. That’s the good news. 

The really good news is that it promises to continue. 

Season-ending reports confirm what anyone who’s attempted to book a tee time this summer already knew: Rounds have soared, sometimes to record levels, and play among both avid players and newcomers, often seeking a safe outdoor activity for their families, made it the best season in a decade.

At public courses, tee times were particularly tough to come by, especially in “border” counties where golfers from states where courses were closed—Massachusetts and New York, for example—drove into Connecticut to play. 

“I’ve been here seven years working inside and outside,” said Jeffrey Clang, manager of the pro shop at Connecticut National Golf Club, near the Massachusetts line, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Private courses, some restricting play to members only, nonetheless saw unheard of participation jumps as stay-at-home workers found time for stay-at-home play. Sometimes often. ”People's idea of working from home was a euphemism for, 'I'm on the tee at 10 o'clock every day,” joked Gene Mulak, Director of Golf at Silver Spring Country Club in Ridgefield, to CBS News.

Despite restrictions appropriate to the pandemic—single carts, cart dividers, walking only, limited shot gun starts, etc.—golf flourished. The CSGA’s rounds-posted statistics were striking evidence. Posted rounds rose 48 per cent, from 601,398 to 890,959. (Rounds posted by CSGA members were higher than that, but not all rounds in Fairfield Country are processed through the CSGA system). Given that golfers with GHIN handicaps tend to be avid players, the percentage increase overall may be lower. But many courses showed amazing jumps. 

“Our rounds were up 50 per cent,” said Judy Smith, owner of Orange Hills Country Club in Orange, which did about 35,000 rounds this year. “Our men’s golf association saw an increase in tournament participation for the entire season as well.”

Private clubs saw similar increases, not only in rounds played, but in the addition of new members.  

“Early on we allowed any family member living at home to be considered “Family Members,” said Bill Shaw, Brooklawn Country Club General Manager, “and gave them a place to come together with their families. They definitely appreciated all the club’s efforts to maintain safe and healthy COVID practices. These practices, I believe, were a factor in members coming more often as well. All junior camps were sold out as this became an opportunity to introduce the game to many children who would have been playing other sports this summer and fall.”  

Brooklawn rounds were up 42 per cent, from 19,754 to 28,177, Shaw reported. The challenge going forward, he said, was to manage the new interest and participation wisely so that club facilities are not overtaxed, with the club experience suffering. Compared to dire assessments of golf’s decline in recent years, it was a nice problem to have. 

Connecticut was not alone. “Golf started on a good note in terms of rounds in January and February, and then a ton of the things that compete with golf for time, attention and money—like trips and the plethora of leisure activities and work and personal commitments—were eliminated,” said David Lorentz, chief research officer for the National Golf Foundation. “Add in favorable weather and the COVID-induced demand for escape, and we've got the past five months.”

Latest NGF figures suggest that rounds played in the U.S. will increase by 50 million in 2020 despite extended closures COVID closures in the early spring. That’s an increase the industry hasn’t seen in almost 25 years.

Lobbying efforts by the CSGA, and the foresight of Connecticut governmental authorities in seeing golf as a sport that could be played safely, brought success here that other states in the East, dark for extended periods, did not see. 

“We were closed for three days in March—that was it,” said Head Professional Jim Becker of Blue Fox Run in Avon, where rounds rose from a 30,000 average year to about 37,000 this year. “We’re very lucky and very thankful to the governor for keeping it open. And to the CSGA and the PGA and everyone who worked and did a great job to get that done.”

Typically, equipment sales mirror participation; 2020 was no exception. Nationally, mid-season sales of balls, clubs and accessories was up about 30 per cent, with August, according to Golf Datatech, achieving a record $330 million in equipment sales. “I’ve never seen the golf industry so busy,” said Chris Cote of Chris Cote’s Golf Shops. He admits that it didn’t look that way back in early spring. “We had to shut down all of our locations for more than two months during the busiest months of the year—March, April and May. But I’m happy to share we are in the green and up for the year!” 

With the exception of food and beverage, where sales suffered due to closed or limited dining, it was a year when managers expressed renewed confidence in golf as a business. 

National Golf Foundation research confirms that increasingly confident mood at both private and public facilities. The NGF has surveyed course and club management in 2009, 2016 and again this year, asking them to report their sense of financial stability on a scale of 1-10. In 2009, 24 per cent of public courses and 21% of private courses reported that it was “poor” (0-4). 28% of public facilities and 39% of private facilities said it was “great” (8-10). In 2020, those numbers were stunningly different. Only 8% of public and 7% of private facilities fell into the “poor” category. 56% and 64% reported that their financial health looked “great.”

“The takeaway here is that the overall financial health of U.S. golf facilities has improved significantly since 2016—a function of stabilizing participation, an improved overall economy, the closing of many lower-performing courses, and now the surge in rounds played,” said the report, written by NGF President  and CEO Joseph Beditz. “And, with fewer facilities now financially ‘at risk,’ we should expect the rate of closures/conversions to slow down, and the marketplace to find its way closer to equilibrium.”

“If you’re not making money this year, you’re in the wrong business,” said Sterling Farms Head Professional Angela Aulenti back in July. After the down years of 2008 and 2009 and water-treading since, that is welcome news. It will be outstanding news if that renewed interest and appreciation for the game continues into 2021 and beyond. 

Judy Smith of Orange Hills thinks it will. “We had many people playing golf for the first time and I am certain that that percentage will be retained, if for no other reason than because the game is so addictive. We saw existing golfers from throughout the state playing Orange Hills for the first time, and they became repeat customers and new members. Golfers truly appreciated that golf courses were open and that they had a safe place to enjoy a little recreation during a challenging time,” said Smith. “They frequently thanked our staff and management for remaining open.”