Unsettled. Fluid. Ever-changing. When it comes to discussion of how the global coronavirus pandemic is affecting every walk of life, these are oft-repeated descriptions.
Golf has been a welcome escape for some during uncertain times, providing an outlet where participants can get exercise outdoors while being able to avoid close interaction with others. With more golf courses throughout the U.S. than Starbucks stores and an appeal that that spans generations, the game has shown it can offer valuable physical and mental respite with safe operation and proper protocols.
That said, the situation is changing continually, and often rapidly.
As golf facilities nationwide implement unprecedented safety measures, an increasing number have suspended operations due to government mandates, local or otherwise, in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This has been particularly true among municipally-owned facilities, approximately two-thirds of which have temporarily halted golf play from coast to coast. More than half of golf courses in the U.S. are currently not open to play, either due to the coronavirus or weather.
In Nevada, where the governor mandated that all non-essential businesses shut down, “golf activities outside clubhouse settings” received an exemption. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, which faces a similar government order, the office of the Governor’s Counsel determined that golf is not permitted and the business of golf is considered a non-essential, recreational business. Similar state-wide restrictions on golf are in place in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, while some facilities in golf-rich states such as New York and California continue to operate despite stay at home orders.
Meanwhile, more than 4o% of golf facilities nationwide remain open and operators find themselves in uncharted territory, from extensive measures being implemented in an effort to ensure the safety of loyal customers and staffers to increased communication with those same groups to keep them informed and help allay fears.
The NGF is continuing to conduct facility-level research to determine the extent of temporary course shutdowns and the possible effect on rounds-played, while tracking the safety precautions being taken by facilities that are still operating.
Feedback thus far indicates that in growing number of instances, golf facilities that are open for play have shut down their clubhouse or food and beverage locations while drastically limiting other common touch points. In addition to the protocols that have been in place – extensive signage, staff education and frequent sanitizing efforts – many facilities are prohibiting cash transactions and the exchange of receipts, offering single-rider golf carts or requiring walking, not allowing staffers to touch or carry a guest’s bag or other belongings, and spacing out tee times more widely than usual.
On the course, operators have been encouraging flagsticks to be left in at all times and others have removed high-touch items, among them bunker rakes, water jugs, ball-washers or range-ball baskets. While some have halted all F&B services, others are offering grab-and-go fare or take-out delivered by staffers with sanitary gloves.
“The benefit that golf has is that it’s the perfect sport for social distancing. It’s relatively easy to keep your distance,” said KemperSports CEO Steve Skinner. As one of the industry’s most prolific management companies, KemperSports operates more than 120 courses, from well-known resorts such as Bandon Dunes (Oregon), Streamsong (Florida) and Sand Valley (Wisconsin) to successful municipal facilities on either coast.
“In our markets in the country where the weather is good, the golf courses have been very busy, which is really interesting,” Skinner said. “It’s an incredibly fluid situation that’s changing by the hour, with a lot of jurisdictions.”
The biggest challenge for operators may be how to successfully operate in an environment perhaps best described as ‘What’s-coming-next?’ The most common responses boil down to communication and flexibility. Operators cite a need to remain calm, be nimble in their responses, listen a lot, learn a lot and then pass that information along effectively.
“First and foremost, the health and safety of our associates, members, guests and all who visit our facilities remains our highest priority,” said Kris Strauss, a senior vice president for Troon Golf, which operates more than 450 facilities worldwide as the largest golf management company in the game.
“We are dealing with not only an unprecedented situation, but also a situation that is changing almost hourly. And those changes vary by state, county, and city.”
In major cities like San Francisco, Boston and Orlando, the fairways of a number of courses were full of golfers one day and then empty the next.
TPC Harding Park, the municipal facility in San Francisco scheduled to host this year’s (now-postponed) PGA Championship, shut down operations when six Bay Area counties were ordered to shelter in place through at least April 7. After Governor Gavin Newsom on March 19 ordered California’s 40 million residents to stay at home and restricted non-essential movements to control the spread of the coronavirus, play continued at some golf courses in the state, including at all of the municipal courses in Los Angeles. That has since changed, with golf operations now suspended at all municipal facilities in Los Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles and San Diego.
In Orlando, the popular Winter Park 9-hole course, a municipal facility, has been temporarily closed, while the four Walt Disney World golf courses remain open for play even though the theme park is shut down.
Other municipalities remain committed to keeping their public golf courses open to give residents of the local community an enjoyable outdoor activity that provides some exercise.
A number of municipal facilities have reported being directed by their local county officials to keep the golf course open to the public moving forward, even if restaurants or parts of the clubhouse are closed.
In Austin, Texas, all parks and recreation facilities are closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but walking-only golfers are still permitted to play at the city’s six municipal golf courses.
The pro shop, golf cart rentals, food concessions, restrooms and other on-site amenities are all closed, while golfers choosing to play are encouraged by city officials to practice social distancing from other golfers and use hand sanitizer when coming into contact with “course features.” Golfers are also discouraged from congregating in groups larger than 10 people.
The disclaimer, of course, is that this provision may change at any time by order of the health department or an authorized city official.
Away from the course, golf-entertainment venues like Topgolf have been among the fastest-growing forms of engagement with the game in recent years.
But many of the selling points of those popular venues, designed to promote social interaction both day and night, result in potentially higher risks than those found at green-grass golf facilities as it pertains to the transmission of the coronavirus.
In complying with all government-issued mandates on mass gatherings, Topgolf temporarily closed all 56 of its U.S. locations. Drive Shack has also shut down all of its venues.
Approximately 100 Golf Galaxy stores nationwide temporarily shut their doors as parent company DICK’S Sporting Goods temporarily closed all its retail locations. The stores continue to serve customers through its mobile app and online, and through a new contact-less curbside pickup service.
Worldwide Golf Shops has temporarily closed all 83 of its retail locations, which include The Golf Mart, Van’s Golf Shops, Roger Dunn Golf Shops, Golfers Warehouse, Edwin Watts Golf Shops, Las Vegas Golf Superstore and Uinta Golf shops.
PGA TOUR Superstore has also temporarily shut down all in-store shopping, but still sells through its website and continue to operate a “Curbside Caddie” service option for customers to place orders online and pick up outside the store.
“From its inception, golf has been a game that was meant to bring people together. It was true then. And it will be true long after these unprecedented times,” PGA TOUR Superstore CEO & President Dick Sullivan said in an email to customers. “While being sensitive to the issues at hand we hope golf can still help you find a few moments of distraction or maybe even an opportunity to step outside while staying close to home.”
Off course or on, golf is among a vast number of major businesses being greatly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with the potential for an even more significant impact if the threat continues to escalate and governments impose added restrictions on activities deemed non-essential.
That possibility has led to some uncertainty among staff at golf facilities around the country. It’s something that operators and others in the game may not only have to be merely cognizant of, but be prepared to take an active role in helping to offset.
“I know there is some federal legislation underway and it’s really incumbent on us as an industry to make sure golf is included in the relief,” said Skinner. “In the past, when there’s been hurricane relief bills and the like, sometimes golf has been excluded. As an industry, we’ve tried to champion that over the years — just like travel, leisure, hotels and other leisure activities.”
For operators seeking more information and industry resources that might help their facility, here are some additional links that could be helpful:
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