I can’t head up to my course and use their practice facilities without booking dedicated time and space. It’s a first-world problem and after spending a weekend this spring feeling grumpy about it, I stopped to look at the big picture and focused on my appreciation for simply being able to play the game in the midst of a global pandemic. And make no mistake, we as golfers are privileged. The decision in May (in Ontario) to open golf courses with certain protocols and restrictions made golf one of few recreational alternatives available to the public. And the impact? Wow, just try to call and get a tee time today at a course near you and you will see firsthand one of the positives from this situation, golf is booming in popularity. Here are some musings about the good, bad and ugly of Covid-19’s impact on golf.
- Grow the Game
The National Golf Course Owners Association of Canada published data from July of rounds played year of year from 2020 to 2019. “NGCOA Canada Rounds Played Reports for the month of July showed an increase of 25.5% nationally year-over-year. All provinces were up by double digits with Saskatchewan leading the charge with an impressive increase of 40.1% followed with BC at 38.9%, 24.6% in Ontario, 22.9% in Alberta, 21.7% in Atlantic, 19% in Quebec and 17.2% in Manitoba.” Using my course, in Burlington, Ontario, as an example, data is showing that despite a late start to the season the two courses are expected to see over 80,000 rounds played in 2020. Access to tee times? One course staff stated, “The tee sheet is completely packed, day after day”. I experienced an increased in juniors and young adult players in the summer, and continued engagement from new players early into the fall. It’s a boom across the country and it is good that golf has been able to provide an outlet for safe, healthy activity.
- Equipment Sales
Linked closely to the first point is a massive spike in equipment sales. Mike Statchura from Golf Digest reported July year-over-year equipment sales (data from @golfdatatech) is as follows: Balls: Up 27% in units; Putters: Up 32% in units; Wedges: Up 64% in units; Woods: Up 74% in units; and Irons: Up 83% in units. My stepson shared a story of a friend whose girlfriend, after enjoying positive experiences at a driving range, laid out considerable $ to be fully equipped to play. I am confident there are many stories like that.
Many feel golf is perceived as conservative, stubborn and slow to change and who am I to argue. And while we don’t play in tweed suits or use a niblick to hit a feathery anymore, certain aspects of the game do not lend themselves to innovation. Well, Covid-19 forced us all to relax our views and in some cases opened up opportunity for innovation. Some thoughts:
- Flag – Until we’re able to eradicate Covid, let’s just keep the flagstick in. Let’s be socially responsible.
- Rakes – Let’s get rid of them. It’s a hazard for a reason and if it’s a casual round with buddies move it from a footprint. Best yet, don’t leave footprints and play the ball as it lies
- Ball Cleaners – I hope they all end up in a museum. Let’s support a Canadian company like RollReady™ who have a convenient clip device which when damp can help keep your golf balls clean anytime.
- Cups – Raised Cups? No thank you. Pool Noodles? Sure, I suppose. Cup raising devices? Sign me up. Innovation such as Pin Caddy, developed by a Kitchener, ON company to make ball retrieval from the hole hands-free has generated (and rightfully so) some great press.
- Public Good – Canadian golf clothing company Levelwear pivoted to make masks for sale for the public with a portion of sales going to a number of golf and community related charities. Over $200,000 has been donated to date and the masks are fabulous – comfortable, safe and come in various styles.
Let me set some context here please. I accept the reality of this situation and am grateful to be playing golf. ‘Bad’ is a strong term, but it does fit the description on certain days.
- Just Golf – I mentioned that there are no longer any easy avenues for practice at my facility. The protocol has been clear and consistent since day 1; show up no more than 20 minutes from your tee time, proceed with a mask to the pro shop to pay for the round, proceed to the first tee (maybe the putting green if you have a couple minutes to spare). We’re all in the same boat. But the lack of a collective social component in the spring spelled the demise of my weekly Men’s Night, it was voted to postpone that for this season. The social aspect is just that important to some people, which I respect.
- Players Only – The Golf and Country Club quickly became a Golf Club, the extended social components governed by public health protocols. Even now, modifications are allowing for things like indoor dining and limited gatherings but things have changed and the situation remains fluid and could change again (and not for the better). For those who savour the social aspects of the game it is a tough time.
This pains me. My recent feature piece on Golf Superintendents gave me an insider’s look to the unique challenges of keeping a course playable and in as optimal condition as possible given constraints at a systems level. But there are stories of improper conduct by players which include things like vandalism, course damage, excessive alcohol consumption and more.
- Players Behaving Badly – There are websites which seemingly glorify reckless behavior on golf courses and Superintendents whom I have been in contact with or follow on Twitter have shared while there is a boom in play, it has brought out some recklessness. One Super stated in over 20 years he’s never seen it so bad. At the risk of belabouring the point, I would like to engage with people around real solutions that courses and course staff could put in place to deter and punish this kind of behavior. I don’t want to see Instagram moments of stupidity, recklessness or outright damage on a golf course. I’m no prude, but as we enjoy the boom in play perhaps we can look at what we can to protect our courses and our Supers’ sanity.
- Is there a policy on player conduct?
- Do Marshalls feel they are trained and empowered to address behavioural issues which may arise?
- What does our course suggest we do if someone is not adhering to standards?
- What would Course Owners and Superintendents suggest we do to improve behavior?
The 2020 golf season is one we will likely never forget. For better or for worse, the golf experience has changed but the game remains the same. And to all the new golfers out there, welcome to a game which I hope you will continue to play and enjoy for many years! Have fun. Play fast. Leave the course in better condition that when you arrived. Thanks for reading and here’s to a great fall season for golf in Canada!