A golf renaissance is underway amid pandemic restrictions on other entertainment offerings

by | Oct 13, 2021 | Golf Clubs

As black autumn clouds, ominous as the deep bunkers of the first fairway, crept across the morning sky over Jeffersonville Golf Club, dozens of staunch golfers stood, their carts jammed bumper to bumper, lined up at the opening tee of the Montgomery County golf course.

“Take a look at this,” said Tom D’Angelo of Pottstown, clutching a shiny new TaylorMade driver. “School is back, it’s not even 8 o’clock and it will be pouring any minute, but this place is full. It seems like it is no longer that way, wherever you go. “

For the past 18 months since authorities eased initial restrictions on the pandemic, golfers have jammed at a number of golf courses in the area that have not been seen since the Tiger Woods explosion in the late 1990s. At public establishments like Jeffersonville, bookings for tee times are increasing by 12% to 15%, making it increasingly difficult to land them in the mornings, even on previously slow weekday mornings. The tees in the many private clubs in the area are also unusually full, in places where gaming and membership have long been in decline.

“There hasn’t been so much optimism and activity in the golf business since the turn of the century,” said Joe Beditz, President and CEO of the National Golf Foundation, at a golf industry meeting earlier this year.

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In its annual report, the NGF called 2020 “an amazing year,” and both nationally and locally this surge has continued through 2021. “We’re seeing big numbers again,” said Geoff Surrette, executive director of the Philadelphia Section of the PGA, which represents 900 area professionals.

According to the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP), its registered members played 175,643 rounds more than in the same period last year on 300 public and private courses in the first 10 months of 2021. And that after an even bigger jump of 258,177 laps during the COVID-interrupted first 10 months of 2020.

This sudden surge in par seekers has impacted the game’s $ 2.9 billion equipment industry. According to figures from Golf Datatech, 2020 was a record year. More balls, rackets, and other paraphernalia were sold this July than any other month.

As long as it lasts, this unexpected wave has been a godsend for a sport that has seen steady erosion of both golf courses and participants over the past decade. According to the NGF, there were 6.8 million fewer golfers in 2018 than 15 years earlier, and more than 200 US courses were closed this year alone.

But according to the NGF 2020 report, 24.8 million Americans played golf this year, a 2% increase from 2019 that was the largest annual increase in 17 years. A total of 500 million rounds were played, most of them since 2007. From June to October, golfers played 50 million more rounds than in the same period last year.

The phenomenon included geography and demography. Each of the 48 continental states reported increased play. Newcomers and those returning to the game after a long hiatus totaled 6.2 million, the highest number ever. And the number of women, who now make up a quarter of all golfers, rose by 450,000.

“It was amazing. Almost every professional I speak to in our section says they haven’t seen numbers like this in 15 to 20 years, ”said Surrette. “If you’re looking for a Saturday or Sunday tee time in public places in this area, good luck. You need to try a couple of weeks in advance. It’s a really good time to be a golf operator. “

The renaissance, golf officials believe, was sparked by several factors: persistent restrictions on competitive entertainment; the new flexibility homeworkers enjoy and, most importantly, the need to catch up during the enforced isolation of the pandemic.

“Being locked up for a few months has made people appreciate golf in a whole new way,” said Tom Coyne, who spent 2019 playing 295 US courses for his new book, A Course Called America. “For someone tangent in this business, it was great. The golf excitement and boom were wonderful. May it take a long time. “

Coyne, a member of the Waynesborough Country Club, said the renewed zeal had been evident since April 2020, when Pennsylvania’s 665 golf courses reopened after more than a month.

“It was like New Years Day,” said Coyne. “You wanted to go to a parade. I played in Waynesborough and everyone was there. There was a great atmosphere and enthusiasm, because especially when you belong to a club, it was always natural for us to be able to play golf whenever we wanted. “

For Surrette, the sudden turnaround was a clear indication that the problem of golf was not the sport itself.

“It was all the other things that get in the way sometimes,” said Surrette. “Golf is a niche game. Out of 300 million people, maybe 10% is our high-water brand. It’s not one of those games where you can just pick up a ball and throw it in the side courtyard or find a seat and play basketball. You need the space. You need the time. And there is a little cost. “

One of the most encouraging trends for the future of golf is the renewed interest of young golfers ages 6-17. The NGF poll found it had more than 3.1 million enrolled in 2020, an increase of 650,000 from the previous year and the largest increase since 1997. when 21-year-old Woods won his first Masters.

“I think there were a lot of kids who played golf just because their other sports weren’t available,” said Surrette. “They were children you don’t normally see on a golf course in the summer. And as long as they are familiar with golf, I think they will find their way back. “

While nationwide public course activity increased 12% in 2020, private clubs increased 20%, according to NGF. And after years of financial challenges, more than two-thirds of these private institutions said they were now in “good financial shape”.

Such is the case at French Creek Golf Club, an 18-year-old Gil Hanse-designed private course in Elverson, Chester County, where membership rose in 2021 and activity on the course surpasses the sky-high 2020 totals.

“We are up 30% in 2020 compared to 2019,” said club owner Thad Fortin. “In 2020, 15,553 rounds were played here, but from January to August 2021 we rose by 58%.”

After years of stagnation, like most clubs nationally, French Creek’s membership has grown, with 100 new members adding since the pandemic broke out.

And it goes beyond golf. Given the ongoing travel and entertainment restrictions, many of these facilities have added member activities like pickleball, family movie nights, and even book signing.

“People are looking for things to do,” Coyne said. “Clubs are getting more creative with their social calendars because they are finding that people are not going to Scotland this year. Instead, lots of people come out to hear a guy talk about his golf book. I’m used to talking to crowds of around 12. Nowadays I see 60 some evenings. “