Golf exists in many ways and many places.
One extreme was recently on display with the return of live, competitive golf in sunny Southern Florida, where two team competitions raised more than $25 million for COVID-19 relief efforts.
TaylorMade Driving Relief and The Match II: Champions for Charity embraced one of the many elements that makes the game special – it’s charitable nature. The events were played at two of the most exclusive private courses in the world, Seminole Golf Club along the Atlantic Ocean in Juno Beach and the tony Medalist Golf Club in nearby Hobe Sound.
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 miles away, on a small island north of Ketchikan on Alaska’s inside passage, Muskeg Meadows held a noteworthy tournament of its own.
The 9-hole, community-built layout with artificial turf greens and teeing grounds hosted its first event of the season on May 23-24. The two-day, best ball tournament was sponsored by the local supermarket in the town of Wrangell. The entry fee was $25, cash.
At just under 3,000 yards from the back tees, Muskeg Meadows is a par 36 layout that winds through a temperate rain forest just off the mouth of the Stikine River. It’s also just one of more than 10,500 public golf facilities spread across the U.S. that are open to play for any golfer, and a welcome reminder that golf comes in a great many forms.
Fed by more than 50 glaciers, the Stikine is the fastest-flowing, navigable river in North America and the spring run of eulachon, a small, oily fish called “hooligan” by locals, draws thousands of bald eagles each April. It’s a spectacular scene — the second-largest concentration of its kind in the world — and it typically coincides with the golf course’s annual kickoff tournament.
Not this year though.
The combination of the coronavirus and poor weather have been a one-two punch for Muskeg Meadows, which derives about 10% of its annual revenue from cruise ship traffic. Muskeg is the Alaskan version of a swamp or bog, so two solid weeks of rain at the end of April weren’t beneficial for a golf course that doesn’t drain or dry quickly in the best of conditions. And the virus not only wiped out the course’s season-opening tournament, but forced the cancellation of an annual fundraiser and auction dinner that accounts for a much-needed $12,000 annually. With ports in Canada and Seattle closed to cruise traffic, operators aren’t expecting much of any revenue stream on that front this year.
“We have our local support,” Kristy Woodbury, a Wrangell resident and the course’s board secretary, says with pride. Woodbury, whose husband Brett is one of the founding members and helped build the course, for now is also the course’s acting director of golf, pro shop manager, business manager and grant writer.
“We’ve been open less than a month and we’ve sold more season passes to our locals than we did all of last year,” adds Woodbury, who has previous experience managing businesses and non-profits. “We’re one of the only things open, one of the only things that people can do. So, we’ve been busy. We keep our greens fees low and have actually lowered them. But that’s not how we keep our doors open, sadly. We really need the boost from tournaments, cruise ships and fundraising.”
Right now, Muskeg Meadows has two groundskeepers and one pro shop attendant working, in addition to Woodbury. When the pro shop is closed, there’s an orange lock box in which locals can drop cash attached to a green claim ticket with their name on it. A local could play all day for $30, while a full season pass for a single golfer is less than $400.
A PPP loan will help Muskeg Meadows, a 501©(3) non-profit, stay open through June. “After that, we don’t know,” says Woodbury, who is projecting a budget deficit of about $15,000. “There’s no way to plan for any of this.”
Closing for the season was a consideration, but as Woodbury notes, “a golf course is a beast that doesn’t rest.” The grounds crew would have to perform at least basic maintenance of the course throughout the summer, open or not. Insurance, licensing and utility bills would still get sent to the facility on ½ Mile Ishiayma Drive even if the doors are shut.
So, the course remains open.
And the first tournament of the year is open to anyone who wants to play, local or no. Prize money will be awarded and the ‘Raven Rule’ is in effect. While many of the eagles have left the area, the ravens are still prevalent, so the course’s local rule says any ball stolen by a raven may be replaced, with no penalty… provided there’s a witness.
Yes, Muskeg Meadows will probably never be confused with Seminole or Medalist.
One look at the sign that hangs on the clubhouse door backs that up, with the third rule of the coronavirus era being “no snot rockets.” And it’s only partially tongue-in-cheek, tacked on by Woodbury after she saw a golfer blowing his nose without a tissue or handkerchief after walking onto the grounds.
Says Woodbury, “I thought, ‘Oh no, that’s not going to fly during this pandemic.'”
But as far removed from each other — both geographically and socially — as those courses might be, the golfers who tee it up all share a common bond: a love for the game.
Indeed, golf exists in many ways and in many places.
Erik is the Editorial Director for the NGF. Before joining the National Golf Foundation, he spent more than two decades with Bloomberg News, both as a writer and editor, with a focus on sports business and the golf industry. The New Jersey resident has also written about golf for outlets that include Forbes, LINKS and the Met Golfer.