Back in April, with golf courses in Wisconsin and much of the nation closed because of the coronavirus, owners and operators worried that 2020 would be a lost year. Many facilities laid off employees and tried to weather the viral storm on a shoestring budget, with no guarantee that golfers would return when, and if, the courses reopened.
Fast forward to September, and all that gloom and doom has been replaced by tee sheets filled from dawn to dusk and courses enjoying banner years in numbers of rounds played.
“We’re enjoying a very prosperous golf season, that’s for sure,” said Joel Barth, the PGA general manager and golf professional at Lake Arrowhead in Nekoosa.
“Rounds are up, significantly up,” said Mike Hammes, president of The Bog in Saukville. “There’s definitely been an uptick in golf.”
It’s a national trend. Golf Datatech, which provides the industry with specialized market research, reported that rounds were up 20 percent in July, outpacing June’s 14 percent gain over last year. The two-month rebound turned a year-to-date deficit of 16 percent on April 30 into a 3 percent gain over 2019 – and that figure doesn’t include August, which appears to have been another month of double-digit gains in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
“August was by far our best August in the 31 years I’ve owned the place,” said Greg Essig, proprietor of Western Lakes Golf Club in Pewaukee. “It was (packed) every day. It was non-stop. I didn’t want the month to run out. I wanted 35 days in August.”
Per Golf Datatech’s June report, equipment sales also were through the roof, with historical rises in units sold. The company reported that sales of irons were up 83 percent, setting a record for any month since Golf Datatech started tracking industry sales more than 20 years ago. Sales of woods were up 74 percent, putters were up 32 percent and balls were up 27 percent.
How has golf not only survived, but thrived while other businesses have struggled and while the nation remains gripped by the pandemic, which has resulted in more than 6 million confirmed cases and 184,000 deaths in the United States?
There are several factors:
• Golf was among the first activities deemed safe with proper protocols in place, and courses opened weeks before restrictions were lifted or eased on other activities and businesses.
• As an outdoor sport played on courses laid out over hundreds of acres, social distancing is easily achieved. Chad Cantwell, whose family owns Twin Lakes Country Club, said earlier this year that all 170,000 residents of Kenosha County, spaced six feet apart, could fit on his course.
• Golf attracted not only regular participants, but new players and families looking for something to do in the absence of county fairs, the State Fair and Summerfest, Brewers games, youth sports leagues, summer camps and other activities canceled or postponed by the coronavirus.
“There’s more people with more flexible schedules, working remotely or working from home,” said Todd Montaba, PGA professional at Quit Qui Oc Golf Club in Elkhart Lake. “I think the combination of that and some of the other activities that are not happening … I think golf has been an avenue for people to get outside and spend time with their kids. We see more families playing.”
Whatever the reasons, golf is booming.
Rounds are up 30 percent for the year at Edelweiss Chalet Country Club in New Glarus. At Bristol Oaks Golf Club in Bristol, “we’ve had days where we’ve been booked from the first tee time at 6 a.m. to the last tee time of the day,” said assistant professional Bill Below. At Lake Arrowhead, there have been “many days” when both the Lakes and Pines courses were booked solid, Barth said.
“August was a record-breaker,” he said. “We broke the record from last August, which was our best August ever. We were up 18 percent.”
Earlier this year, Barth said, there was some doubt that Lake Arrowhead would be able to go ahead with plans to replace its 42-year-old clubhouse. But with business booming, ground was broken just last week on the $6 million project.
“We were hoping to start that in June, but we kind of had to wait and see, get through the midpoint of the season and check our balance sheet and see if we could move forward,” he said. “We were a little bit uneasy about that in March and April, but when we got to the halfway point it was all systems go.”
At The Orchards at Egg Harbor in Door County, rounds also are up, according to managing partner Jack Jackson. Some of that, he said, may be due to the fact that the nearby Alpine Resort & Golf has been closed all summer.
“(We’re getting) some of those rounds that people would play there,” Jackson said. “We’re definitely up, but we’re not going to be like the city courses, where people are coming out of the woodwork. But I’m not complaining. Four months ago, I don’t know if any of us thought we would be open.”
It helps that, other than a few big rain events, the weather has largely cooperated this summer, with long stretches of hot, sunny days throughout Wisconsin.
“We’ve had nice, warm weather all summer,” Montaba said. “We’ve had our share of heavy rains. Every storm that comes through seems to dump a couple inches at a time. But having said that, we’ve had stretches of eight, nine, 10 days of beautiful, sunny weather. It’s been good for golf.”
If there’s a dark cloud blocking some of that sunshine, it’s that hundreds of outings were canceled at Wisconsin courses, especially earlier in the year, and food and beverage revenue is down almost without exception.
“We do weddings and a lot of golf outings,” Essig said. “I think we’re one of the top two or three in (Waukesha County). It was kind of a shock to us in the spring of the year. People didn’t want to do the banquet stuff, so therefore a lot of the group business had to cancel.”
Said Montaba, “We do a pretty significant number of charity events, company events, events from The Osthoff (Resort & Spa), weddings, and that’s way down to almost nothing. So that’s affected the restaurant and that kind of revenue.”
Hammes said The Bog, like many other courses, has had to adapt.
“With the two fire pits that we have, the two patios and beverage carts running consistently, we’ve been able to do as much as we can to take advantage of the rounds being played,” he said. “More rounds equates to more people having a drink or a sandwich.
“Being able to provide those amenities in a safe environment, letting people stay outside … if you have a patio and you can light a fire and have some music going on and have an outdoor bar or outdoor grill, and still be able to provide a burger or chicken sandwich, you can provide that experience and you don’t have to have people indoors.”
If the weather holds, courses in Wisconsin could be busy on September and October weekends because football won’t be played in the Big Ten Conference this fall – which means no games at Camp Randall in Madison – or in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. There’s no telling whether the Green Bay Packers will be able to play a full season and when, or if, spectators will be allowed at games. As of now, there will be no fans at the first two games at Lambeau Field.
“There’s still going to be people watching football (on TV), but I don’t think it will have the same intensity,” Essig said. “There’s a lot going on in this country and people need an escape. Normally, when the Packers schedule comes out, we go, ‘We’ll be pretty quiet.’ But I don’t know if that’s going to be the case this year. It’s a little early to tell. Call me back in a couple weeks and I’ll let you know.”
Said Barth, “I just looked at our next couple of weekends, the two following Labor Day weekend, and they look like they’re pretty robust as far as bookings. I think you hit it on the head. No traveling to Madison or Green Bay for football weekends. People will play golf if the weather cooperates.”
No matter what happens the rest of the season, course owners and operators are grateful that golf has rebounded to the degree it has, especially given the uncertainty and fear earlier this year.
“We didn’t know what to expect when the year began,” Barth said. “We’re more than pleasantly surprised.”