Last year’s weather picture was not a pretty one. Above average rainfall in the Midwest and Northeast. Wildfires in the West. Volcanic explosions in Hawaii. Record rainfall totals in Florida, which in May experienced an unprecedented soaking that surpassed the golf-rich state’s previous high-water mark in 1895.
Rounds of golf in the U.S. were down, year-over-year, in 11 of 12 months in 2018, affected in large part by colder weather and heavier precipitation than normal during the busiest months for golf. April typically signifies the start of the golf season in many regions, and national rounds that month were off 13.5% from a year earlier as unusually cold temperatures delayed the start of spring. September, which is the last hurrah of summer and the start of the fall golf season in some regions, was down 7.2% because of significant precipitation increases. November saw the biggest year-over-year decrease in national rounds-played (-18.8%) of any month dating back to 2013.
ClubCorp CEO David Pillsbury, who leads the biggest operator of private clubs in the U.S., acknowledged just how tough last year was in terms of weather.
“We had around 55 more rain days or weather-impacted play days in 2018 than we had in 2017,” he said. “That’s almost two months more of poor weather. ‘18 was one of the most difficult years I’ve seen in 30 years.” Perhaps ominously, Pillsbury is also looking ahead at the possibility of 2019 being an El Nino year, which could potentially mean more extreme-weather events.
It was rain that caused the most headaches for E.J. Altobello, Director of Golf at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield, Massachusetts, 10 miles west of Springfield.
“We got off to a decent start in May and June, and July was warm but dry. Then in late July we started getting a ton of rain along with some heat, which really impacted us negatively as far as rounds played,” said Altobello, whose course averages about 29,000 rounds annually. “We’re going to be 3-4 percent down in rounds played from 2018 to 2017.”
Altobello said 20 entire days were lost to rain, double the average in a normal season, which lasts from April 1 to December 15.
“It was the third or fourth wettest summer since records have been kept,” he said. “It’s one of the most challenging summers a lot of us have seen up in this region.” Poor weather forced the rescheduling of many charity events, as the course hosts up to 80 annually. “People are committed to playing in those events and we didn’t lose any of them. So those helped us fare better than most.”
At Oxford Greens in Oxford, Connecticut, Superintendent Bryan Barrington and his team also had their hands full with rain.
“Of 218 available days for play this season, we had 88 with some amount of rain and 22 were complete washouts,” he said. “That’s a new record for us, and 20 more days of precipitation than in 2017. We even had the second-wettest November on record.”
The only silver lining was a dramatic decrease in water usage.
“From July 20 to Labor Day, on an average year since 2003, my water usage is around six million gallons,” said Barrington, who helped open Oxford Greens in 2004. “In that same time this year, it was 350,000 gallons. That’s pretty significant. In a normal year our overall use is between 15 and 17 million gallons. This year it’s about 11 million gallons and change.”
John Foster, the General Manager of the University of Notre Dame’s Warren Golf Course in South Bend, Indiana, said 2018 brought the worst weather he’s seen in his 17 years at the school.
“Normally our season starts the last week of March, but that month and April were horrible, as was the first half of May,” he said. “Summer was not bad for us from a rounds-played standpoint. But my superintendent (Matt Cielen) would have a different story. There were very trying conditions from a turf management standpoint in July and August. Kudos to Matt – golfers didn’t know he and his team were dragging hoses around until dark every night spot watering by hand.”
Business was fantastic in September thanks to four home football games for Notre Dame, but October was the worst one ever in Foster’s memory.
“It was an average of 10 to 12 degrees below normal every day,” Foster said. “We had 50 percent of our normal play that month. And October is a really big month for us because of all the activities around football season. That really hurt us. We normally get a few flurries in late October, but this year we had quite a bit. Even in November, we get 10 days when people could play, but this year we had nothing. It was just a short season.”
Foster said it was a “weird year,” but says he isn’t sure what normal is anymore when it comes to the weather.
“If it’s not too dry, it’s too wet. If it’s not too hot, it’s too cold. The past seven or eight years we have not had what one would call a normal golf season from a weather standpoint,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s global warming or what, but our weather patterns are just totally different than what one would think would be normal. It’s unpredictable.”
Foster desperately hopes that’s not the case this summer, when the course hosts the 2019 U.S. Senior Open (June 27-30).
“I’m going to jinx myself but, according to records going back 50 years, that week is the driest week of the whole year. From a temperature standpoint it’s an average of 80 degrees. If we could have chosen a week that should be ideal for the championship, that’s the one. But I probably should keep my mouth shut about that.”
Even in the Southwest, where sunshine is usually predominant year-round, stormy weather made an impact. On October 2nd, heavy rains caused major flooding that invaded the facilities at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Arizona, 20 miles south of Phoenix.
“We took on 3.96 inches of rain in under 24 hours,” said General Manager Brady Wilson. “That’s normally our total annual amount of rain. It was a 250-year rain event unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”
The timing wasn’t as bad as it could have been though, according to Wilson. “The course was scheduled to close on October 15th for the annual two-week overseeding process. So, overall, we lost 13 days of revenue. During that timeframe in 2017, we had 1,600 rounds played. In October we had 30.”
Kris Strauss, the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Troon Golf — the biggest third-party management company in the industry — said weather negatively impacted rounds-played at Troon properties in certain pockets of the U.S., such as the Eastern seaboard and Hawaii. Troon-managed courses in Hawaii also fell victim to volcanic eruptions on the Big Island that resulted in declines in hotel occupancy and thus golf occupancy, and saw the threat of hurricanes Olivia and Lane affect playable days.
“Thankfully, the volcanic eruption stopped and business is back to normal,” Strauss said, noting that Hawaii avoided further damage when the two hurricanes skirted the islands. “Year-end results look strong, so it’s great to have those weather events in our rear-view mirror.”
For Troon, the decline in rounds-played in particular markets was negated by the ability to drive rate – and thus recapture lost revenue – during periods of time with more favorable weather. “As such, many of our clients are realizing solid years financially,” Strauss said, adding that strong markets include Arizona (both in rounds and rate growth) and California (rate growth).
The total number of 2018 rounds-played at golf courses across the U.S. was down 4.8% from the previous year. Typically, the weather accounts for an annual fluctuation of approximately 2% to 3% either way. Based on the 456 million rounds-played in 2017, the year-end figure for 2018 would be around 434 million.
Tom is an Arizona-based freelance writer and former Senior Editor at GOLF Magazine. He is a frequent contributor to multiple golf publications, including Troon Golf & Travel, The Met Golfer, Golf Monthly UK and the USGA’s website.