Can golf courses make up for lost rounds from April and May?

Play is up and some are hopeful the COVID boom will continue

After more than a decade of declines in play and participation, who could have imagined that a pandemic would revitalize U.S. golf operations? But that’s the world we’re in today: As COVID-19 ravages America, daily-fee golf is capitalizing on national misfortune.

From mid-April through the end of May, as states lifted their lockdowns, public courses posted numbers not seen since the days when players slept in golf-course parking lots to secure weekend rounds. The “boom,” as it’s been described, was completely unexpected, the result of a convergence between golfers desperate to flee from home confinement and an open-air sport that doesn’t involve physical contact, heavy breathing or shared equipment. Bloomberg has declared that golf is experiencing “a renaissance moment,” and Seth Waugh of the PGA of America thinks the pandemic might ultimately be “a real growth opportunity for the game.”

With demand peaking, Jay Karen of the National Golf Course Owners Association reports that the effective green fees at most public courses, which have for years trailed increases in the Consumer Price Index, are rising. Better yet, golfers aren’t complaining.

“Some [course] owners have told me that they’re hitting their budget targets in spite of the COVID troubles,” he said. “Some have even said that they’ve exceeded their budgets.”

This despite the shutdown in the spring. More than half of America’s courses were briefly closed in March and April, and the ones permitted to operate had to do so with limited tee times and other restrictions to ensure that golfers were social distancing. As a result, according to the National Golf Foundation, U.S. daily-fee courses lost 20 million rounds, a number that translates to a loss of $1 billion in green-fee and cart revenues alone. While acknowledging that its estimates are “fraught with uncertainty,” the foundation predicts that if the number of rounds played during the balance of this year equals the number posted in 2019, U.S. golf operations will finish 2020 down by 17.6 million rounds, a 4% decline. 

Given the impact of the surge, however, and seeing as how golf remains pretty much the only game in town, the NGF thinks it’s possible to finish 2020 at par with 2019. A break-even year is possible, it says, if the number of rounds played from May through December increases by 5%.

Those are significant “ifs,” of course, and most industry observers want to review performance data from May and June before they grade the NGF’s math.

“If the activity level remains high, we can certainly make up for the losses we’ve seen as a result of the pandemic,” Karen said. “But will we? It’s hard to say.”

Likewise, Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp., a long-time numbers cruncher, suspects that reclaiming 20 million rounds will be a challenge. Pellucid’s weather forecasts for 2020 indicate an increase of up to 2% in what it calls “golf playable hours,” but Koppenhaver fears that the coronavirus could make even the most meticulous calculations irrelevant.

“I won’t say the number isn’t recoverable, but it’s probably unlikely,” he said. “COVID is a completely unprecedented variable.”

If the lost rounds are recovered, it’ll be done without help from Myrtle Beach, a bellwether market that’s being suffocated by travel-related fears. Heading into 2020, the Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course Owners Association (MBAGCOA) expected to enjoy what Tracy Conner, the group’s executive director, calls “our strongest year in more than a decade.” Instead, as of mid-June, play at the association’s 77 18-hole courses was down by about 400,000 rounds.

In a typical season, the MBAGCOA welcomes more than 300,000 vacationing golfers, each of whom play, on average, 3.5 rounds. This year, Conner says, the number of rounds played fell by 54 percent in March, April and May, the months during which his members pocket 42 percent of their annual income. Bookings through the remainder of 2020 are up by 15%, as many of the cancelations have been rescheduled, but Conner has determined that the association’s annual revenues will be off by 16% even if every anticipated round is played.

“The bookings will help us recover,” he said. “But they won’t make us whole.”

What can’t easily be recovered is the money that disappeared when course owners were forced to close driving ranges, limit or discontinue food-and-beverage operations and cancel tournaments and special events. Koppenhaver estimates the national revenue loss to be between 8 and 10%.

“At the end of the day, revenues are all that matters,” he said. “Nobody takes rounds to the bank.”

Longer term, it may also be hard for owners and operators to sustain the recent surge, just as they couldn’t sustain the boom that Tiger Woods sparked in the late 1990s. Most observers are confident that core golfers will post their usual numbers this year, if not a bit more, and that the industry can squeeze some additional play from lapsed golfers who’ve returned to the sport. But if history is any guide, most of the newcomers who’ve been filling tee sheets may eventually be discouraged by golf’s difficulty. 

“We’re seeing people come to the game for the right reasons — for exercise, for social interaction — so we stand a good chance of keeping them around,” Karen said. “I’m optimistic, but I’m reticent about looking into a crystal ball. Nobody knows what the next six months will bring.”

Indeed, the coronavirus is unpredictable. But if courses can stay open, even at reduced capacity, golf operations should continue to flourish. 

Robert J. Vasilak is one of Golf, Inc.’s contributing editors. He tweets at @RJVasilakGolf.

Add new comment

If you enjoyed this article and would like to sign up for a FREE digital subscription, click here!