The golf gods can be a fickle bunch but they have nothing on Mother Nature, producer of the one element general managers or course superintendents can’t control.
The good news? Rounds played in the U.S. were up 1.5% last year over 2018, with an estimated 440 million overall rounds played on the books. The New England, Middle Atlantic and East North Central regions, which extend from Massachusetts to Michigan and accounts for almost half of national golf facilities and rounds, fared slightly better weather-wise in 2019. It’s a good indicator that the location of precipitation often matters more than the amount.
The not-so-good news? The second-wettest year on record in the U.S. dampened budgets at number of courses in other parts of the country.
Last year’s record rainfall totals were more concentrated in the Central and Plains states than 2018, which now ranks as the fourth-wettest year on record, yet it was the West and Mountain regions most affected by poor weather in terms of play, with rounds down 3.4% and 2.4%, respectively, from 2018. For Mike Woods, PGA director of golf at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento, California, it was all about the rain.
“When you’re used to 18 inches, getting 33 inches like we did throws a big monkey wrench into your golf operation,” he said. “The weather impact on rounds played in February, when we had 9.5 inches of rain (rather than the usual four inches), was a negative 36% from 2018. We also had 10 days where both of our courses were shut down completely due to hard rain. Usually, we only have three of those days a year.”
There’s also what Woods call the “lag effect.”
“Say it rained hard yesterday and today it’s sunny and beautiful, but no carts can come off the path,” he said. “People just decide to not play because they know it might be a swampy mess out there. So that’s not a playable day. People will just go skiing instead at Lake Tahoe, which is 90 minutes away from us. They had a phenomenal last winter up there with a record snowfall. You could ski and play golf on the 4th of July weekend, which is unheard of.”
Typically, the MacKenzie Course at Haggin Oaks averages 60,000 rounds annually, while 45,000 rounds are played on the adjacent Arcade Creek course. Last year’s wet weather was especially detrimental in January (overall rounds -8%), March (-9%) and December (-10%), with other months fluctuating 2% either way. “We were down about 8%, or 9,000 rounds, overall in 2019,” said Woods.
Play in Arizona held steady for the most part. Daryl Crawford, general manager at Papago Golf Course in Phoenix, attributed a good year to both positive weather and the opening of a new clubhouse (not to mention the closing of nearby ASU Karsten Golf Course in May).
Rounds last year were up over 2018 at Papago, which averages between 52,000 and 55,000 annually. Even during the intensely hot summer months, play was consistent. “We have such a large local following who have been playing here for decades,” said Crawford. “They know what’s it like to play in the summer. They play early in the morning or late in the afternoon to take advantage of the rates and to play quickly. Weekends then are still very busy and we often use double tee starts in the morning. We’re also trying to increase 9-hole rounds. We’re getting a lot more calls about that now and I think that’s a good thing.”
Although rounds in New England were up 3.7% overall in 2019, poor weather did take its toll in spots. No one knows that better than Robert Kemp, owner of Airways Golf Course in West Suffield, Connecticut.
“It was the worst year in the 24 years that I have been here, both weather-wise and business-wise,” he said. “The weather from January through April was unbelievable, breaking records that go back to 1905. We were eight inches above average for rain in April, when it rained part of 23 out of 30 days. We recovered pretty well in July, August and September, but December was one of our worst ever months due to snow. Overall we survived the year.”
The course, which opened in 1977 as a nine-holer before expanding to 18 holes in 1986, usually averages 29,000 rounds annually (green fee with cart is $24 weekdays and $30 weekends). “Last year we had about 26,500 rounds, so we were down by single digits, but it was still painful,” said Kemp.
It was the opposite story in San Antonio, Texas, according to Aaron Green, director of golf at La Cantera Resort & Spa. Rounds were up 11% overall last year on the two courses there, thanks to largely good weather.
“In 2018, we had a ton of rain from September all the way through December, and in 2019 the first quarter was a little rough, too,” he said. “But the second, third and fourth quarters were strong. We actually had more of a normal weather pattern (averaging 20 inches of rain annually) in 2019 as opposed to all the rain in 2018, which caused us to shut down on six days. That really was rare.”
Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minnesota, a two-course facility located three hours north of Minneapolis, experienced normal weather with a slight uptick above the usual 30,000 combined rounds played.
“The big change was a much milder winter coming into last season in terms of turf conditions than what we saw the previous year,” said Director of Golf John Kendall. “The previous winter produced a lot of winter damage from snow and ice which made us a couple of weeks late going into the 2018 season. We missed that this past year, but places to the south of us saw some of those conditions. There’s not a whole lot you can do to stop that.”
Rounds played in the golf-rich Southeast were up 3.4% over 2018.
Ron Tapper, general manager of The Links at Boynton Beach in Florida, much preferred his most recent fiscal year – from October 2018 through September 2019 – to the previous one at the municipal facility, which has a regulation 18-hole layout and a 9-hole executive course.
“We had 107 of what we call BWDs (Bad Weather Days) in 2017/2018, including 16 days in January 2018, which is the height of our season,” he said. “In 2019, we had just six BWDs in January and 69 overall, which is right at our annual average. In fact, it was a record year for us in terms of making money, with almost 70,000 rounds played.”
Other than an evacuation forced by Hurricane Dorian in early September, play at Wild Dunes Resort in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, was largely devoid of weather issues compared to previous years.
“That storm blew up our September right after Labor Day,” said Director of Sports Jeff Minton. “I’m glad it happened then though instead of busier months like October, March or April.” Overall play was up slightly at the resort, which usually sees around 30,000 rounds on its Links and Harbor courses. “The timing of the rain we did get totally worked in our favor,” added Minton. “It didn’t happen on weekends and it usually happened at night. We also didn’t get any crazy 3-, 4- or 5-day stretches of rain.”
For Troon Golf — the biggest third-party management company in the industry – overall weather impact on the company’s course portfolio varied by region. Kris Strauss, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, pointed to two extremes: the Gulf Shores region in Alabama and the Scottsdale/Southwest Region.
“More favorable weather in Gulf Shores led to our three courses there being up a combined 15,000 rounds over prior year,” said Strauss. “In Scottsdale and elsewhere in the Southwest region, we had some crazy and unseasonable weather in February (which included snow in the desert) that set many courses behind early in the year. However, they would ultimately catch up and have favorable years.”
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.
There were approximately 440 million rounds played nationally in 2019, an increase of 1.5% from 2018 despite the second-wettest year on record.
Last year’s record rainfall totals were more concentrated in the Central and Plains states than in 2018, which now ranks as the fourth-wettest year nationally.
Rounds in the Southeast were up 3.4% in 2019 from the previous year.
The New England and Middle Atlantic regions, which account for almost half of national golf facilities and rounds, fared slightly better weather-wise in 2019.