Golf will never be the same. And that just might be a good thing.
It is no great secret that the game and its industry are traditional, reverent of history and slow to change. But in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, golf may no longer have the luxury of deliberateness. Changes have come thick and fast in order to make the game safe and playable during a global public health crisis.
A shock to the system? Perhaps, but if the last couple months are any indication, golf seems to be up to the task of modernizing for a world that has never been more cognizant of hygiene, cleanliness and potentially fraught interpersonal contact.
Notions of a “new normal” surround practically every conversation that pertains to public life these days. Perspectives on how business is conducted and how we should spend our leisure time have evolved more in the last several weeks than we could have imagined. Although golf has some built-in advantages, the people who work at the thousands of courses around the world will have to change their behavior. Those of us who enjoy the game on a regular basis will have to change, too.
Social distancing and increased sanitation will touch every facet of the golf experience, from planning and booking a tee time to departing the course after the round, for the foreseeable future. Some of these changes will be permanent. And they might make golf better than ever. On a recent conference call, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said, “This can be a real growth opportunity for the game.”
In the early stages of post-lockdown course openings, there's reason to agree. Despite broadly similar mid-spring weather last year, GolfNow has tracked a year-over-year increase in rounds booked online of as much as 40% across the U.S. over the last few weeks.
General manager Brady Wilson has already noticed some encouraging signs at his Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club south of Phoenix, Ariz. “The PR buzz about golf, I think, is very positive," he said. "People [are] saying ‘Hey, lets go play golf. Why haven’t we tried it? Let’s go try it.’"
How’s that for a new normal?
Here is a rundown of what everyday golfers face in the months - and potentially years - to come.
Booking and showing up for a round of golf in the COVID-19 era
How will tee time booking procedures be different?
In the old days - as recently as two months ago - the normal procedure for booking a round of golf was to call a course or go online - a course website or any of several third-party tee time booking engines - and simply reserve a particular tee time for a particular day in advance. The only money due at that point would typically be a booking fee for a third-party tee time source. Or, at certain courses, golfers would simply show up and inquire with the pro shop about the next open spot on the day’s tee sheet.
Those days are over, at least temporarily. Social distancing and increased cleanliness require a rigid and controlled approach, to planning a round of golf.
To the benefit of most golfers, the process of booking a tee time has received a modernizing shot in the arm.
One new procedure many courses and platforms have adopted is pre-payment of green fees. This reduces - and in some cases eliminates - the need to potentially join a line at the pro shop desk, exchange cash or a credit card and be given a receipt or starter ticket.
Pearland Golf Club in suburban Houston reopened on April 30 after being closed due to a county-wide stay-home order. In preparation for reopening, general manager Richard Rogers switched the course to a pre-paid tee time booking scheme.
"Having our guests pre-pay has been a tremendous help so that we do not have to process so many transactions in our pro shop,” Rogers said.
This has prompted Rogers to institute a two-guest limit within the pro shop, which he recognizes would have been impossible to maintain before the advent of pre-paid tee times at his course.
"Check in has been smooth" with pre-paid bookings, he said, adding, "I do see Pearland Golf Club maintaining the pre-payment system after things return to normal."
The coronavirus pandemic has trained consumers to purchase more online and booking rounds of golf is no exception. At Delaware Golf Club outside of Columbus, Ohio, golfers booked 97 rounds through GolfNow in April 2019. In April 2020, that number ballooned to 495 rounds. (Editor's Note: Golf Advisor and GolfNow are owned by the same parent company.)
Will walk-up play still exist?
It is hard to envision that walk-ups will have much in the way of prospects when it comes to playing golf, at least in the near future. Spur-of-the-moment golfers will have to get used to jumping online before jumping in the car.
Several other courses outright demand that golfers arrive armed with a pre-arranged tee time.
It is not apparent when walk-up play will resume. For now, it's best to secure a tee time before heading to the course.
How will golf course arrival and check-in procedures change?
If you have played the occasional round at a higher-end public or resort course, you have probably noticed that as green fees escalate, several customer service touch points get added. You drive up to the bag drop and a gang of outside operations staff gladly lift your clubs out of your trunk and into a waiting golf cart. In some cases, a valet is waiting to jump in your car and whisk it away so you can head straight to the pro shop or locker room.
Convenient touches? Perhaps, but touches nonetheless in a literal sense. In the COVID-19 era, the main principles of social distancing and touchpoint minimization preclude these service features. Even at high-end golf courses, golfers will bus their own bags from the car to the first tee.
"[S]taff will not be handling golf bags or guests' possessions," reads the COVID-19 notice for TPC Scottsdale and its two upscale golf courses. "The staff will be present to assist guests, provide directions, and manage carts. Staff will not be cleaning guests' clubs."
Will pro shops become obsolete?
Because you will have already pre-paid for your tee time, you will probably no longer need to go into the pro shop prior to your round.
Having breezed through the pro shop or bypassed it altogether, you will likely interact with a pro or starter somewhere between the bag drop and the first tee. He or she will verify your tee time and direct you from there.
As a result of the pandemic, the ability of many pro shops to move merchandise is hampered, at least for the time being. Suggestions of the ultimate demise of the pro shop are exaggerated, however. Golfers will always need to stock up on supplies, and to accommodate this, many shops will be capping the maximum number of golfers inside at a given time.
Despite current pro shop closures, though, golf courses are still finding ways to move merchandise, albeit at a slower rate than normal. “We’re selling balls and gloves through the windows” of the pro shop, said Danny Lane, general manager of Costa Mesa Golf Course in Orange County, Calif. “We’ve set up with a few vendors [to] drop-ship directly to the customer” in the case of orders of clubs and other hard goods."
How will practice facilities function?
Because practice facilities are heavy congregation points on busy days, some clubs have left their driving ranges closed for the time being. It may well be the case that in the near to medium term, only a certain number of golfers will be allowed in either space at a time, and only those with a tee time within the next little while will be allowed to practice at all. You may not have the option to arrive an hour early in order to grind out a couple buckets on the range before teeing off. It may be more like 15 or 30 minutes, and only your foursome and a couple others will be allowed to practice before heading to the first tee.
The procedure for getting range balls is changing as well. The state of North Dakota currently has fewer than 2,000 coronavirus cases overall, but the Fargo Park District nevertheless instituted a comprehensive list of policies to keep golfers safe at its facilities, including cashless practice range transactions and separated hitting stations of 10 feet. Range ball dispenser machines at its Rose Creek, Osgood and Edgewood courses are equipped with credit card readers. Golfers can swipe their cards and collect their ammunition. Range baskets are being sanitized after use.
Automated range machines had already been gaining in popularity at public courses, and the pandemic should only hasten their adoption, making practice a bit more efficient.
Getting around the golf course
How will golfers get around the course?
Depending on where you are at the moment, golf carts are either restricted to a single rider, or they’re not allowed at all, out of concern over the many potential touchpoints they contain: steering wheel, cup holder, bag straps, seat armrests, GPS units, etc. On the more permissive end of the spectrum, courses are allowing golfers who rode to the course in the same car to share a cart.
“We’ve sold over five months of product in just over four weeks.”
If you do take a golf cart, though, chances are it could be one of four on the fairway at any time. Though there is comfort in having a cart to yourself rather than sharing with a buddy or a stranger, doubling the number of carts per foursome puts significant extra stress on the turf. Golf carts are heavy, and golfers are all too familiar with the wear that just two per foursome can leave on a course, especially at normal entry and exit points off cart paths.
Limiting carts to one golfer makes it more difficult and expensive for course operators to manage their golf cart fleets going forward, although help may be on the way as companies like Indiana-based Primex develop plastic dividers for traditional carts.
Although some have seemed like gimmicks since they started popping up, alternative golfer transport methods like GolfBoards, Finn Scooters and their competitors have been handed a golden opportunity to scoop up some market share. Vancouver-based Vantage, a relatively small manufacturer, is currently shipping its single-rider carts, which are scaled-down versions of the common two-seaters, to golf courses across North America.
If your locale is still restricting carts altogether, you may be walking your rounds for a while. This may be to your ultimate benefit. The pandemic has "retrained people about the beauty of walking,” says Lane. He added that prior to the course’s eight-week shutdown per city orders, demands on the cart fleet were causing shortages by mid-afternoon. But in the first week after allowing single-rider carts again, Costa Mesa didn’t run out once, with more people walking than ever, even when given the option to ride.
If you own a push cart, congratulations. They are the hottest commodity in golf right now. I’m talking Furby-during-Christmas-1998-hot. Manufacturers are out of inventory and are awaiting new product amid manufacturing and shipping delays, often from China. A secondary market is developing where older, used push carts are selling for multiples of their original purchase prices.
“We’ve sold over five months of product in just over four weeks,” said Craig Ramsbottom, president of BagBoy, which manufactures several models of push carts.
If you don’t have a push cart, perhaps you’ll be dusting off a slim, austere Sunday bag to tote around the course for a while. I have enjoyed my Titleist version, which holds all 14 clubs, since high school. GlobalGolf has PING’s lightweight, two-strapped Moon bag in stock at the moment.
Remember: regardless of whether you have access to a motorized cart or are walking, you will be asked to maintain the CDC’s social distancing standard of no less than six feet from anyone else in your group for a while to come.
Will groups be spaced out more?
Spacing between groups has also increased as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Facilities that previously crammed groups onto their courses at intervals of seven or eight minutes are now going to spacing of ten or more minutes between tee times, some as much as 16 or 20 minutes. This greatly decreased course congestion does have one positive effect for golfers: reduced pace of play. Overly condensed (eight minutes or less) tee times tend to make five-hour rounds inevitable. Lo and behold, 10- to 12-minute intervals open things up nicely.
This quicker pace may be short-lived, though, because part of the reason why courses use tee time intervals of less than 10 minutes comes down to revenue. If you go from eight- to 10-minute intervals, you lose two groups per hour. But if the strong demand that has come on the heels of the reopening of golf can be maintained, courses may find they’re able to bump their green fees a few dollars in order to make up for the shortfall in tee times amid better-paced rounds.
If facilities can make the numbers work, spread-out tee times and quicker rounds could be a major boon for golfers in the COVID-19 era.
“We’re a very busy public facility," said Lane of Costa Mesa Golf Course. “Our historic struggle has been fighting the slow play issue.” By increasing tee time separation from eight to 10 minutes and disallowing fivesomes, he says it's reduced round times by as much as an hour, and “We’re getting a lot of positive comments on that.”
He added that as long as demand for rounds remains, “We’re definitely going to maintain those intervals in the near future.”
Playing a round of golf
What will be missing from the normal golf round?
The COVID-19 era will be remembered as one of several types of loss, from the very real tragedy of human lives lost down to the relatively inconsequential losses like the ones we’ll note as we play our next rounds of golf.
Several on-course amenities are gone from the everyday golf experience, at least temporarily, and some may affect how we play and what we shoot. The removal of rakes from most courses’ bunkers - another touchpoint-reduction measure - is a somewhat controversial issue, as golfers used to prepared lies in the sand are now forced to reckon with the hazardous conditions that greeted their forebears on the first links. I for one think this represents an opportunity for courses to adopt a more naturalistic maintenance philosophy, which is both more sustainable and authentic. Bunkers should be spaces to be avoided, and the fear of a difficult lie should encourage golfers to play more strategically.
“Without bunker rakes, bunkers are really becoming the hazards that they were meant to be way back when," said Adam Moeller of the USGA's Green Section, which advises course operators on maintenance and operations practices.
"We might see bunker rakes - or at least fairway bunker rakes - go bye-bye for us because it’s really increased the pace of play," said Wilson.
Standing ball-washers have been removed from many golf courses, as they’re both non-essential and touched by many hands during a day. Keeping a towel with one damp end has always been wise, and will be more so in the future. It has never been a better time to come prepared to the course.
Benches have been plucked off of tee boxes until regulations are relaxed: another touchpoint down. Golf cart users won’t care, but the respite for walkers will be missed. Best to bring an extra towel for sitting on the ground if you need to put your feet up a minute.
Another casualty of touchpoint reduction: manual water jugs. The automated fountains that are popping up in airports and other public spaces seem a good alternative. Instead of touching a spigot, simply hold your bottle under the spout and water will flow when the motion sensor is activated.
Much like range machines, these efficient solutions have been appearing at golf courses since before the pandemic. They should become standard in the future.
What about the flagsticks?
Flagsticks are the most visible on-course touchpoint, so leaving them in while putting has become the norm at most courses. This practice, combined with creative cupping solutions like placing foam or PVC piping to enable golfers to pluck a ball from the cup without touching the flagstick. Other inventions have sought to let golfers lift a ball from the hole, eliminating even the possibility of a hand-to-flagstick touch.
Proponents of leaving the flagstick in since the USGA allowed it at the beginning of 2019 should be pleased, while purists will be anxious for the day they can pull pins again.
After the round
When can we shake hands after a round of golf?
The suspension of the post-round handshake has been perhaps the most awkward part of golf during the coronavirus pandemic because that gesture of camaraderie only feels natural after spending several hours on the course together. Timid elbow-bumps feel forced. But the prohibition goes along with both the prevailing social-distancing and touchpoint-reduction rules, so golfers must at least temporarily suspend this tradition.
Some have even argued the pandemic may “retire the handshake,” despite its long history in general society, well beyond golf. Once social-distancing guidelines are relaxed, perhaps we will be able to cap off a round in the traditionally friendly way once again.
When will the 19th Hole open back up?
Restaurants in certain states have begun to reopen, albeit at greatly reduced capacity, which bodes well for golf course restaurants. Still, a return to a crowded, convivial 19th Hole is still a ways off. For now, courses with on-site food operations will likely mirror the behavior of restaurants in the surrounding communities. Facilities with outdoor seating will be at some advantage, especially if they are able to spread tables out. If golfers are going to linger over a post-round beer, they had better do it at a remove of more than six feet or they’re tempting fate.
For many golfers, the next opportunity to clink glasses and debrief on the day's ups and downs will be a celebrated moment, newly cherished after many months of deprivation from normal post-round camaraderie.
Although rumors of golf's popular decline have surfaced seemingly every month in recent years, and understanding the economic effects of the pandemic will reach the golf industry, there is a case to be made that golf is as enticing as it has been in a long time. And if it takes a little less time and loses some of the distracting frills accrued over time, so much the better.
“We’re very bullish about the future of the game," said USGA Executive Director Mike Davis.
“I’m grateful for how strong business is now,” said Danny Lane.
“Anything you can do to encourage people to get out, put a golf club in their hand and get some exercise playing golf, I think that’s growing the game right now, and I think it can be positive,” said Brady Wilson.
Communion with nature, easy social distancing and exercise are attractive notions for those of us who have been cooped up indoors lately. Golf brings them all together. And even if the experience of playing a round might be different for a while, the game may see its fans through the crisis while picking up some new converts along the way.