At 8:00 pm on September 24,, the Carolinas Golf Association opened the online entry portal for a four-ball event it was hosting on November 11 at Tobacco Road Golf Club. The 50-team field filled up within 60 seconds. One team that registered at 8:03 was told it was #38 on the waiting list. The South Carolina Golf Association’s annual four-ball event, held in August at Bulls Bay Golf Club outside Charleston, eventually accrued a waiting list of more teams than the 64 that ultimately made the field.
In short, it was harder to get into some golf tournaments than the hippest, most sought-after restaurants in the world in a normal year.
This phenomenon was part of a spike in support for local and regional competitive golf, part of the game’s unexpected resurgence amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
My own home county tournament, the Treasure Coast Amateur on December 5 and 6 at Sandridge Golf Club in Vero Beach, Fla., saw its own fortunes reversed after recent years with fewer than 50 entrants. The 2020 field was maxed out at 78 players of all handicaps and ages, with a healthy waiting list of its own by the time the event began.
It also showed a willingness for players from farther afield than normal to heed the call of competitive golf. Event champion Jon Cross drove more than an hour from his home in Jupiter, Fla. each morning to play, and other players came from as far away as Lake City, four hours north of Vero Beach.
Regional event series prospered as well. “Our first six events were wait-listed a month in advance,” said Jordan Schneider, the executive director of Florida’s Palm Beach County Golf Association (PBCGA), which runs between 15 and 20 events each summer. “Typically, we’ll fill them two weeks out.”
I played in five PBCGA events this summer and several of my playing partners expressed renewed excitement about the opportunity to play more competitive golf than usual. Faced with more time to practice because working from home had granted them more schedule flexibility, some of them were returning to tournament play for the first time in several years. For me, the ability to play more tournament golf than usual was therapeutic, especially as I was unable to travel for work like I have in recent years. It was a valuable approximation of “normalcy” until the real thing arrives alongside a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.
Lasting impacts of COVID on competitive golf
Competition is part of the soul of golf, and the game’s natural tendency toward social distancing lent itself well to safe play, with little loss in normal tournament trappings. In fact, several of the changes in protocol made the experience better in key ways. More limited fields meant comfortable spacing in tee times, and prohibitions about large gatherings meant final-round shotgun starts fell by the wayside in favor of tee times. Both of these factors kept pace of play brisker than usual. Tournament organizers would do well to carry these COVID-mandated changes into the post-pandemic age.
Another casualty of the pandemic’s effect on competitive golf: the traditional scoring system. Limiting contact means doing away with the traditional one-scorer, one-marker scorecard-exchange paradigm, and the continued integration of technology into the game led to widespread adoption of apps like Golf Genius as the main ways to keep score.
Paper scorecards are still being used for verification purposes, but they have often included every player in the group. Compared to past years, “people are paying more attention as they’re reading each of their scores to the rules officials, so we haven’t had as many scoring issues,” said Schneider.
While paper scorecards will likely continue to have their place, this brand of no-contact scoring may well outlast the pandemic and become more commonplace in competitive golf.
As access to COVID vaccines becomes more widespread through 2021, it will be interesting to see whether golf associations and local tournament organizers can maintain the increased popularity they found in 2020. Here are three recommendations I would put forth to keep the momentum going:
Market like crazy
A couple decades ago, all that was necessary to get the word out about the local city or county championship was an ad in the sports section of the local newspaper. But since people get their news from all different sources nowadays, marketing a golf tournament is a more involved process. Serious players check sites like AmateurGolf.com, but savvy courses also pin posts to their Facebook pages and will even dedicate a section of their websites to the annual tournaments, in addition to alerting the local papers.
Grassroots efforts are important, too. A well-placed flyer by the pro shop of the host course is a must, but those flyers should also be sent around to other local courses, including private clubs, whose annual club championship competitors should want to see how their game stacks up against other area players. I have seen roving photographers hired for the day to take pictures of the action. When courses make a big deal of an event, golfers tend to treat it like a big deal.
Sponsorships are also a nice opportunity. Local businesspeople tend to love golf, and whether it’s a local group of car dealerships or restaurants, a tournament sponsor can be leveraged into some nice return on investment and local goodwill.
A single annual tournament is great for locals to look forward to, but if surrounding towns and counties have their own similar events, they could be lumped together into an annual series, if not a local “tour” of sorts. Not all locals play at a state- or regionally-competitive level, but if there are a small handful of similarly fun, competitive opportunities during the year, they will regard them as something to work toward.
Be serious about making it fun
The local city or county amateur may seem like small potatoes, but for the golfers who compete in it, it might as well be the Masters. The best versions of these events are held at peak times of year and are run like big-time tournaments. Pin sheets, spray-painted cup linings and tournament-specific flags (which can double as prizes for top finishers) can add greatly to the atmosphere, and they show golfers that courses care about showing off for the event.
Generous payouts are another way of raising the profile of an event. One year, I won a tournament but went home with less in pro shop credit than the cost of my entry. On the other hand, this year’s Treasure Coast Amateur winner’s take was an impressive $500 against an entry fee of $125. That’s the sign of a tournament that sees attracting a quality field as the goal, rather than short-term profit. An annual tournament should be a celebration of golf in the community.