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Golf is booming in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic

It's a sport in which players can socially distance, and the number of rounds nationally and revenue from the purchase of golf equipment are both substantially up from last year.

Golfers Michael O’Brien of West Chester, Ohio (left) and Zach Barbin of Elkton, Md., drive their carts at the Lancaster Country Club during the Golf Association of Philadelphia BMW Philadelphia Amateur Championship match in June. The golfers were allowed to use carts instead of caddies due to the Golf Association of Philadelphia's COVID-19 social distancing rules.
Golfers Michael O’Brien of West Chester, Ohio (left) and Zach Barbin of Elkton, Md., drive their carts at the Lancaster Country Club during the Golf Association of Philadelphia BMW Philadelphia Amateur Championship match in June. The golfers were allowed to use carts instead of caddies due to the Golf Association of Philadelphia's COVID-19 social distancing rules.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

If you’re having difficulty finding a tee time at your local golf course, you’re not alone.

After local golf courses were required to close down for upwards of two months in March and April after the coronavirus pandemic swept into the United States, people of both genders and all ages have been coming out in droves to chase that little white ball around, both locally and nationally.

According to figures compiled by Golf Datatech, which provides the golf industry with specialized market research, the numbers of rounds played nationally in August were up 20.6% from the same month last year. After being down 18% for the first four months of 2020, the number has gotten out of the red and is now up 6% for the year through August, thanks to increases of 13.9% in June and 19.7% in July.

Depending on weather the remainder of the year, rounds are expected to exceed the record of 441 million in 2019 by 4 to 8%, according to National Golf Foundation research.

“There are several factors for this but I’d say No. 1, it’s certainly a great respite being outdoors so you can properly socially distance,” said Greg McLaughlin, CEO of the World Golf Foundation. “It was one of the few sports that you could do at the height of the pandemic when indoor space was closed. I think the health benefits as well as the mental well-being, that you could spend four hours of quality time with family and friends in a safe manner.”

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Rounds in the Philadelphia metropolitan area were up 26.8% in July, the most recent month those statistics were available. Golf Association of Philadelphia executive director Mark Peterson said the number of scores posted in 2020 by the organization’s member clubs to the Golf Handicap and Information Network have risen by more than 40% this summer to a total that is expected to reach 2 million by the end of September.

It’s to the point where tee sheets at local golf facilities can go for days without having a single blank space denoting an available starting time.

“We’re beyond busy,” said Duane Lent, director of golf at Honeybrook Golf Club in Chester County. “We average about 275 rounds a day now, and there’s tons of new golfers, tons of families involved in clinics and camps and lessons. We’re up over 5,000 rounds from last year already. We had a pretty mild winter up to when we closed on March 13 and that helped, but we’ve never seen numbers like this.”

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It didn’t look very encouraging earlier this year. Golf is an $85 billion industry, according to the PGA of America, so when its facilities and businesses shut down, no one knew when it would be safe to return, perhaps months, and the effect it would have on the bottom line. Courses in the Philadelphia area closed around mid-March, with the only activity coming from workers maintaining the grounds for the day they would reopen.

Nationwide, 20 million rounds were lost in the spring because of shutdowns and anxiety over the virus. Revenues at public courses such as Pennsauken Country Club in South Jersey and Paxon Hollow Golf Course in Broomall were down six figures by the time the facilities reopened in early May, but they have made up some ground thanks to tee sheets that are full daily.

“Did we go to Mass twice a day? Yes we did,” said Quentin Griffith III, Pennsauken head professional and golf course manager. “Mother Nature has been in a very good mood this summer. We were well behind the eight-ball as of the end of April so we’ve eaten into that loss of revenues, but we’re not quite back to even.”

Paxon Hollow head professional Dan Malley said his facility is down about 20% in revenue from last year, a result of being closed from March 16 to May 1 and the cancellation of most outings. Tee times, which were at 18-minute intervals when play resumed, are now at 12-minute intervals.

“It’s definitely better,” Malley said. “We were lucky that we were one of the businesses that could open relatively sooner rather than later. It’s not going to be the greatest year we’ve ever had, but we’re getting closer and closer to capacity and like we’ve been saying, it can’t hurt that more people are wanting to learn to golf and play golf for the long run.”

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As the time approached when golfers could return to the course, local and national golf organizations banded together to develop a road map of guidelines for facilities and customers alike.

The Pennsylvania Alliance of Golf, consisting of GAP, the Philadelphia Section PGA, the Pennsylvania Golf Association and related organizations, released recommendations including single-rider carts, tee times no closer than 15 minutes apart to prevent congregating, no ball washers or rakes on the course, flagsticks remaining in the cup, and no shared equipment.

Peterson said the proposal was presented to "as many avenues as we could obtain to have our golf voice heard.

“We took personal safety and employee safety and golf course operations at the forefront of our thinking,” he said. “From there, we just tried to do what was best for everybody involved, trying to make certain everybody understood what we were saying.”

Nationally, organizations such as the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, the U.S. Golf Association, the PGA of America, and the World Golf Foundation formed Back2Golf and a similar set of guidelines that were presented to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We were fortunate that we were able to get the CDC to bless what we were doing,” said McLaughlin, who also is president of The First Tee. "They provided a lot of really good input as part of it. What we were able to do was to open up in a really safe and responsible manner.”

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The resurgence of golf has introduced many new players to the game, especially junior players and women in addition to men who may have put the clubs away for a few years, or are taking up the game for the first time.

Geoff Surrette, executive director of the Philadelphia Section PGA, said 760 youths are in the association’s junior program, slightly more than last year even though the season began behind schedule in June.

“It’s been incredible,” he said. “We trailed last year’s numbers by over 200 members starting in June. Now, we’re past that. I think it’s one of those deals where it was the one thing people could do, they could get back out and play. Maybe some other summer sports weren’t happening and golf provided that outlet for folks to play.”

The influx of new players led to a rise in the purchase of golf equipment, an industry that came off the mat after three consecutive months of sharp sales declines, including a peak of 69.6% in April, according to Golf Datatech figures. The reversal hit its summit in July when a 53.4% hike from the same month of 2019 added up to a record figure of $388.6 million in sales.

“Junior clubs were literally sold out in many retailers and quickly became on back order more than ever before,” said Tom Stine, a partner at Datatech. “Bags were the biggest seller in terms of being over their normal market share. People that were taking up golf were buying a new bag. Others had a bag that was a bigger and heavier model that they put on a cart, but some had to walk when the courses first reopened, so they bought a new lightweight bag.”

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Locally, Eric McNamee, the PGA professional at Golf Galaxy in Montgomeryville, said he has seen many players introduce themselves to the game by the number of starter club sets he sells.

“We sell them like they were McDonald’s cheeseburgers,” said McNamee, who also mentioned pull carts, Titleist Pro VI golf balls, and junior sets as other items that have been flying off the shelves.

“We’re seeing people who previously played that kind of gave up the game getting back into it,” he said. “We’re seeing people who are now working from home that are probably sneaking out after a few conference calls in the morning, and they’re buying equipment. We’re seeing tons of repairs, too, a lot of regripping, lots of broken clubs, all that kind of stuff coming in just from more rounds being played.”

Golf has benefited from restrictions related to the pandemic. People have cut back on vacations, especially those that require airline travel. Youth sports have not been as active as in more typical years. And as McNamee said, “You can’t really go to a bar and you can’t go to an Eagles game, so all that adds up to a good year for golf for sure.”

However, assuming life will be on the road back to normalcy in the warm-weather months of 2021, the key for golf facilities and organizations is to retain the new players to get back to the golf course next year.

“I think everybody that’s in sport is welcoming every sport to reopen,” PGA of America president Suzy Whaley said. "We certainly want youth to have opportunities that are vast. But what these families have found is that golf can be a lifetime activity that your children are really enjoying. So whether a child goes back to field hockey or soccer or golf or tennis, whatever their sport of choice is, they will always have golf and we will welcome them.

“They’ve had a chance to get to know our professionals. They have built relationships at the facilities near their homes, and that means a lot to a family, to really have an experience they can do together. We just have to ensure that we are offering opportunities based on families' schedules and the experiences that they’ve enjoyed with us during this time and build those out so that they can continue to enjoy them in the same way that they’ve gotten accustomed to.”