Is the pandemic golf boom nearing the end?

While the boom has been great for the industry, it's been tougher on golfers looking for tee times.
The pandemic golf boom, which has packed driving ranges and courses, might be showing signs of slowing down.

I knew the momentum of the pandemic golf boom was slowing down in July, long before the stats were released last week by Golf Datatech.

I had an inside source: my tee time guy. Finding tee times during the COVID-19 era has been a chore for many of us. It's been especially tough for my foursome of Bay Area muni hackers. If we don't book 7 to 10 days out, we don't get to play.

The responsibility to surf through the competitive waters of finding a tee time fell to John, who had the time due to shifting responsibilities in a corporate merger. He was the first person to indicate to me the local tee time market was softening. The latest numbers from Golf Datatech vouch for his anecdotal evidence. Rounds were down 3.9% nationwide this July compared to July 2020. Overall, rounds remain strong, up 16.1% year to date compared to 2020, partially due to courses being closed for 6-8 weeks in spring of 2020. At GolfPass, we collected nearly 38,000 reviews in July 2020 compared to 30,000 this July, a 20-percent drop. Like the Golf Datatech numbers, our year-over-year statistics are still very strong.

You can probably blame bad weather in certain markets for July's slight downturn but not in the Bay Area. The smoke, heat and wildfires that ruined my summer last year have surrounded Lake Tahoe instead.

Part of me is ready to bid the pandemic golf boom goodbye. I miss the easier access to prime tee times of yesteryear. The days of discounted green fees to attract players have been replaced with price increases. Five-hour-plus rounds due to jammed courses, many with newer golfers, have become the norm.

"Even with the tee times spread (out)," lamented one California golfer in a July review on GolfPass. "There are too many 'new players' who have come into the game during the pandemic who have no idea what they’re doing."

But I also realize the boom must continue for the game I love to stay healthy. More players means fewer courses closing and more job security for me. We need to embrace the new players, even if they take a while to get up to speed with their skills and impact pace of play negatively. We were all there once, remember?

Illinois-based KemperSports, one of the largest golf operators in the country, recently released a survey about the positives seen from pandemic golf, including key stats that more younger and female golfers are playing.

“There’s no doubt that the pandemic reshaped the game of golf in many ways,” KemperSports CEO Steve Skinner said in a staement. “We saw increased play and participation from people of all ages and walks of life, including many beginners and lapsed golfers who returned to the game."

This boost in business has given many facilities the courage to reinvest in the game again. It's great to see.

I played this course a few years back and vowed never to return. There were gopher holes in the fairways, greens were ill maintained and brown patches everywhere. It was awful. However, in 2020 during the pandemic, the City of Hesperia moved to rejuvenate the course and boy does it show. No gopher holes in the now green and lush fairways, and the greens are clear of any and all damage.
GolfPass reviewer about the Hesperia Golf & Country Club in SoCal.

The energy surrounding golf is downright palpable right now. After decades of showing up at empty courses, I find it completely refreshing to see courses and ranges buzzing. Professional golf has never been more competitive with deep fields of talented players with compelling story lines and rivalries.

I have so many fond golf memories created by golf's return to glory. I mentored at least three dad-friends, transforming them from once-a-year golfers into once-a-week maniacs. My backyard, minutes from my local muni, became Deegan's Pub, where we still gather safely outdoors for post-round drinks and storytelling, even after the outdoor patio reopened at Santa Teresa Golf Club in San Jose.

Golfers at the Santa Teresa Golf Club in San Jose continue to relish the reopened outdoor patio.

I still am a big proponent of many of the changes the pandemic brought to the game. I still keep the flag in while putting, and I'm making more putts because of it. I might be in the minority here, but I didn't miss rakes for a minute. Unfortunately, they're back, but at least golfers aren't so bent out of shape by bad lies in unkempt bunkers. We have either adopted their own rules for how to proceed (free drop?) or learned to deal with them.

And of course, walking is in vogue again (check out this New York Times piece). Everyone in my foursome now owns a push cart. We laugh at the groups that take carts. We press 'Play' on our bluetooth speakers and get after it, one step and one crooked swing at a time. Good exercise, good times.

Fall could be an interesting transitional period for the game. Across the country, children are expected to get back into classrooms, sports to continue to ramp up at all levels with fans in the stands and employees will return to the office. The Delta variant, however, might have other ideas. Who knows what's next?

If (or when) life does move closer toward normalcy, will that signal the end of the pandemic golf boom? It might be over already, even if the pandemic isn't. Even with all the troubles it created in finding tee times, I'll miss it.

Is golf still booming in your town? Let us know in the comments below!

4 Min Read
September 3, 2020
The pandemic has changed golf, in many ways for the better.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
2 Comments
Commented on

Your topical discussion covers all the bases about trends generated by the pandemic in 2021. In the Northeast, I’ve found lots of activity almost everywhere I’ve gone in five states: no courses were quiet, none slow. Tee times aren’t as sparse as they may be in California, but there is definitely more competition for them. I can still get on most golf courses readily, given that I book a bit in advance in most cases.

I do think that slow play continues to be an issue, especially and as always, primarily because many courses don’t use marshals as they should. Even beginning players can learn to pick up the pace, and no round should exceed 4 hours, 20 minutes. I also don’t see enough golfers who respect simple golf etiquette by letting faster groups play through. Too many golfers are simply too deliberate (Is it from watching the pros (?), who, by the way, hit fewer shots).

After what’s happened with the two-year upswing in the golf market, it seems unlikely that participation in the sport will drop back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon--and perhaps not for several years.

Commented on

It's not totally the novice holding up the works, it's the guy with him who thinks he is a teaching pro introducing him to the game on the course instead of at the driving range.

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Is the pandemic golf boom nearing the end?