2020 has provided few easy decisions to make for American universities in both the classroom and with their athletic departments. The Big Ten and Pac-12 just announced they've suspended their fall sports to much uproar.
2020 was supposed to be a big year for collegiate golf courses. In early March, Golf Advisor Contributor Jay Revell reported on the brand new Florida State University Seminole Legacy Golf Club, a totally new course built on top of the old Don Veller Seminole Golf Course. It was designed by Jack Nicklaus and is a private, ClubCorp facility.
Also in the ACC, Birdwood Golf Club, home course of UVA and part of the Boar's Head Resort, reopened after an extensive renovation by Love Golf Design. (Non-university-affiliated green fees top out at $135 weekends.)
This summer in the Big Ten, Indiana University debuted a brand new course, the Pfau Golf Course at IU. Early reviews of the course have been quite good, including reviews from some of our Indiana and Midwestern Local Golf Advisors. Several years in the making, the golf course project has a reported cost of about $12 million and significantly elevates IU's golf course to a level among the NCAA's elite facilities, including rival Purdue's Birch Boilermaker Complex that was upgraded by Hoosier legend Pete Dye. Pfau green fees are $80-95 for the general public.
Steve Smyers was the architect who oversaw the transformation of the existing golf course. “It’s probably one of the nicer sites that I’ve had the pleasure work on, and I’ve worked around the world," he said. "There’s nothing of the original golf course left today. We totally rerouted the golf course.”
(You can view my interview with Pfau Golf Course architect Steve Smyers in the video above.)
Tumult for Ivy golf courses
There's another side to college golf facilities in 2020, however, and the Ivy League has felt the brunt of it. Connecticut was one of the 16 states that at some point this spring ordered the suspension of golf course operations as part of its stay-at-home order. Yale Golf Club still hasn't reopened and earlier this summer, reports surfaced of minimal maintenance being performed on the grounds. Yale is regarded as one of the best classic college courses in the country and among architect Seth Raynor's finest works. You don't have to be a Yale alum to show concern. The architecture aficionado community across the country grew aghast at pictures showing turf conditions deteriorating with little indication of how much maintenance was being performed.
Yale posted a projected opening date in August but that has since been pushed back to August 31st, according to the course website and local reports. Meanwhile, fellow Ivy League institution Darmouth decided to eliminate its golf program and close Hanover Country Club, a historic course that was established in 1899, permanently. New Hampshire was the last state to allow golf courses to reopen (May 8).
Also in the Ivy League, Brown University canceled its golf program.
One bright side in Ivy golf is Cornell University, which has a notable golf history and on May 24 reopened its course, designed by alumnus Robert Trent Jones Sr.
College golf courses that are open experience robust rounds played
It appears that universities who have kept their public-access courses open have enjoyed robust revenue.
In Michigan, for example, Eastern Michigan University's Eagle Crest Golf Club was forced to close March 25th by governor's mandate in March. Courses were permitted to reopen April 24th. Management reports that their golf revenue in May was nearly flat YoY despite walking only for the first part of the month and single-rider carts for the second half. By June, Eagle Crest reported tremendous growth in rounds booked (+40% YoY) and golf revenue (+35% YoY) and that continued into July, where rounds (+28%) and golf revenue (+23%) are up significantly.
Eastern Michigan is currently chugging along on a 20-year, $1-million improvement plan. At the time of my visit, they were rerouting the cart path on the par-5 16th hole and three greens have already been rebuilt in recent years.
In the North Carolina research triangle, GolfNow reports a surge in online rounds booked at NC State's Lonnie Poole Golf Course (+46% YoY), while Keith Hills, the home of Campbell University, is up 73% YoY in online rounds booked. UNC Finley is up 4% in online rounds booked. Duke University's stellar course is also open and allowing guest play.
College golf facilities across the country have received considerable investment in the past two decades. Golfers there should be fortunate, because it appears we're embarking on an era of belt-tightening in higher education. With fall football appearing to be canceled in at least two major conferences, that suddenly opens up 4+ hours on Saturday for other activities. Alumni and students may be swapping tailgating for tee times.