During the coronavirus pandemic that has seized the world over the last two-plus months, people have spent far more time indoors and away from people than they ever expected to. Now that there is some opportunity to start socializing, it still must come at a distance.
One of golf's great strengths is that while the clothes we wear and the tools we use to play have evolved over the centuries, the essential nature of the game remains the same:
Move a bumpy little sphere from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible. Try it over and over. Go home, have nightmares about the ordeal and come back excited to fall short of perfection yet again. Do this for the rest of your life.
In golf's little niche, the everyday game has changed in many minor ways, as I explored in Part 1 of this two-part look into the foggy future of the game. While important to all golfers, the typical round is in many ways an end result of the greater industry's many machinations. In order to put you on the first tee of your local course, individuals and companies had to build your clubs, make your golf shirt, design your golf cart, lay out the course you're playing and show you how to make at least occasionally solid club-ball contact. And of course someone or something had to inspire you to choose to learn to devote significant chunks of your leisure time to golf in the first place.
The pandemic has brought headwinds to golf and every other industry, but headwinds bring opportunity to creative thinkers, and while creativity has not been golf's historical forte, the pressure to push forward amid uncertainty is bound to wring some innovative solutions from industry leaders as a new normal comes into view.
“We certainly feel golf has the ability to come out of this crisis in a better position than most any other sport,” wrote South Florida PGA Executive Director Geoff Lofstead in his section’s annual report. “We will and we have had to change the way we administer the game but it has provided that needed distraction and recreational outlet that so many have been looking forward to over the past few months."
What could the new normal look like in various parts of the golf industry?
How will the coronavirus affect televised golf?
The PGA Tour is set to return next week with the Charles Schwab Championship at Colonial Country Club in Ft. Worth, Texas, after a nearly three-month layoff due to the pandemic. Tournaments will initially be held without spectators, lending a quiet and subdued feel to the proceedings. In order to maintain a safe environment for players' caddies and select personnel who will be on-site, rigorous testing protocols have been adopted, with other recommendations that range from traveling on a Tour-organized charter plane from tournament to tournament down to an admonition to "avoid spitting," per official communication to players.
TV viewers will notice the quieter environment, but the broadcast networks have plans in place to deliver high-quality coverage no matter what.
Golf Channel senior vice president and executive editor Geoff Russell said that May 16's TaylorMade Driving Relief broadcast operated with about 60 percent of the normal complement of support staff, including both in-studio and remote roles. (Note: Golf Channel and Golf Advisor are both part of NBC Sports Group.)
"To have the staff split up like that, some working in the building and others working outside the building, was unprecedented in my eight years at Golf Channel," he said. "And yet, the staff produced bumps, teases, a short feature, highlight segments featuring the course and the players, complete with graphics—in short, everything you’d see in a normal show."
Social distancing and increased remote work seem to be two long-running effects of the pandemic, and the various networks that broadcast golf figure to continue operating with leaner staffs going forward.
Will spectators be allowed at high-level tournaments anytime soon?
As of now, the first four returning PGA Tour events will be spectator-free. Fans will likely be allowed in limited numbers in the short and probably medium terms, as long as official recommendations about social distancing and large group gatherings remain strict.
Memorial Tournament officials are approaching the idea of spectator spaces around the Country Club at Muirfield Village as similar to restaurants and retail stores, meaning their capacity policy will likely reflect that of Ohio at the time of the tournament. Spectators may also be tracked while on the grounds via RFID chips implanted in their badges.
The NBA is not expected to return until at least July 31 and Major League Baseball has not nailed down a return date, which will give golf several weeks to find its footing and potentially set certain trends or expectations for other major American sport leagues.
Competitive amateur golf
Two down, one to go at the 94th Carolinas Women's Amateur Championship. @KathrynCarson18 holds the 36-hole lead and will look to fend off Morgan Ketchum, Kayla Smith, Rachel Kuehn and Nicole Adam among others in tomorrow's final round.— Carolinas Golf Assoc (@CGAgolf1909) June 3, 2020
Recap: https://t.co/JAfYUWrwtF… pic.twitter.com/Jlvjc2tygu
How will the pandemic affect national, state and local amateur golf tournaments?
The coronavirus pandemic has all but wiped out the year's slate of USGA championships. The U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open have been postponed to September and December, respectively. Neither they nor the U.S. Women's Amateur or U.S. Amateur will hold qualifying, a cornerstone of the entry process for some of America's most prestigious events. Hopefully this will be a one-year departure from the norm.
At the regional and state levels, the effect of the pandemic has been more of a mix between cancellations and reschedulings. State amateur tournaments are largely set to go ahead with qualifiers, owing to the far more concentrated pool of players they draw. In Florida, a rare December date for the state amateur will enable the event, normally held in June, to go forward with little to no threat of thunderstorms.
"Golf is back in a big way and tournament golf is following the rush back to public play," said Pete Wlodkowski, who runs AmateurGolf.com, a database of amateur golf tournaments in the United States that also reports on those events. "With so many tournaments being cancelled or postponed, the events that have decided to go forward are seeing a surge in demand."
"Golf courses have done a great job laying the groundwork for safe play," Wlodkowski said, but the individuals and associations who run tournaments "have to take it to the next level and provide smartphone scoring and other safety measures -- for example instructing players what to do in case of a rain delay -- to avoid unnecessary gatherings."
Will tournament scorecards fall out of use?
Digital scoring seems to be the way of the future, and removing the need to exchange and sign physical scorecards seems more likely than ever, especially as smartphone apps like Golf Genius make the process easier than ever. Several tournaments I've played in in the last couple years have included the option to keep score via smartphone in addition to the traditional scorecard. I would not be surprised if some associations and events go entirely paperless in the near future.
Is it okay to take a golf vacation again?
With the understanding that everyone needs to proceed in accordance with their own best judgment and medical advice, it does appear that golf trips are starting to happen again. But with the global slowdown in air travel, wandering golfers are increasingly trading wings for wheels and focusing on more regional trips for the foreseeable future. "I don't think people are getting onto planes right now to go play golf," said Michael Keiser, Jr. in a GOLF Magazine interview about Sand Valley Golf Resort, which he oversees.
That transatlantic trip to the UK from the US may have to wait until at least 2021.
This will create a different dynamic in several destinations. In places that have typically drawn high percentages of visitors who fly in, resorts will need to tap into the local and regional market more than ever, perhaps making the case for people to extend their normal drive-distance tolerances by a few hours in order to come visit. Reduced nightly stay rates can help ease some of the burden.
For drive destinations, however, the widespread aversion to flying may provide a compensatory bump to the already strong drive-in traffic.
My friend Matt stopped by yesterday for a social distancing selfie which isn't that easy. I thank him for his kind words which increased my hat size from 71/4 to 81/2. We had a breezy 8 yesterday. Happy for the north wind which keeps the oppressive heat down.@BandonDunesGolf pic.twitter.com/LGeGR33C7q— Shoe (@GolfShoeBandon) May 23, 2020
Will caddies still be available at the resorts that have typically offered them?
The trendiest golf resorts of the last couple decades have catered more to walkers than their predecessors, with strong caddie corps as key cogs in a more traditional environment. Places like Bandon Dunes, Streamsong and Erin Hills rely on their caddies to heighten the experience for guests, so they have been diligent in making sure the personalized, premium feel of caddie-golf can work with social distancing and increased hygiene protocols.
Bandon Dunes' comprehensive Safe Practices page lays out a sensible, clear list of adjustments to the normal caddie interaction that takes individual guest comfort into account. Among the directives: "Caddies will check in with guest on the comfort level of service and social distancing throughout the golf round" and "Caddies will wear a mask of their choice and will have latex gloves that they may wear at their discretion." With these precautions in place, caddies are back carrying bags at Bandon. At Erin Hills, a "touchless" approach to service dictates that caddies stick to forecaddying for the time being.
As ingrained as caddies are in the traditionalist corners of the game, it seem likely that they will be back carrying bags as they have in the past. That said, walking forecaddies may become a bit more prominent.
What will golf lessons be like going forward?
After a long layoff, serious golfers would do well to take a lesson to get back toward midseason form as quickly as possible. While a few things will be different, teachers and coaches are intent on making the process as similar as possible to before.
The hands-on aspects of one-on-one lessons will likely be gone for a while. Teachers used to positioning a golfer's body properly to illustrate a particular point will have to learn to communicate those concepts verbally while maintaining a safe distance.
In addition, online lessons will become more prevalent. Many teachers who lost access to their academies during lockdowns transitioned to online lessons, with students recording swings and submitting them for analysis.
"I'd never done a lot of them before, but with the ability to take your time with the lesson and manage how much [information] you give students, I thought it was great," said Jon Guntrum, the PGA director of golf at The Golf Path Academy in Richmond, Va. "It gave [students] something to work on in the backyard instead of just sitting around forgetting about golf."
In addition to simple video, the coronavirus pandemic should prompt instructors to integrate technology further into the lessons they give. In a survey conducted early in the pandemic by the Golf Business network, one instructor commented, "I am less 'hands on' with students. I'm working to keep my distance, not move their body into positions, less touching of their club to move it and create feels, etc. The use of my V1 video system has never been more valuable."
"The V1 platform acts as a business dashboard for pros and their book of clients," said Bryan Finnerty, CEO of V1 Sports. "When paired with V1 remote golf lessons, you have a solution that is extremely beneficial for golf businesses."
Golf equipment and other merchandise
Has the pandemic upset the normal golf equipment manufacturing business?
The main golf club and ball manufacturers rely on a steady stream of play, plus the megaphone of PGA Tour player performance and endorsement, to sell their wares. With lockdowns curtailing rounds for upwards of two months, and a nearly three-month break by the PGA Tour, not to mention logistics challenges brought on by the pandemic, these corporations have seen some significant headwinds.
Layoffs, furloughs and other restructuring as a result of economic upheaval has affected the flow of new product to market. Couple that with the fact that some golf brands generate as much as 50% of their yearly revenue from March through June and the result is a considerable amount of inventory that went unexpectedly unsold for much of April and May.
In an article on the pandemic's potential effects on the equipment business, MyGolfSpy.com editor Tony Covey wrote, "There’s a very real possibility that for golf equipment makers, 2020 will be lost – the season that never happened."
Golf's main demographic has not been immune to the rising unemployment and other financial challenges imposed by the crisis, but recent surveys of core golfers have suggested they are experiencing less hardship than average. Frugal golfers could benefit from deeper-than-normal discounts on late-model golf equipment. Longer-term, the pandemic may curb the recent increases in standard top-line equipment prices, as the newest drivers have surged past $500 and iron sets have crossed the $1,000 threshold in recent years.
New Level, a relative upstart direct-to-consumer golf club company, has discounted its clubs aggressively since the pandemic began. Their website touts potential savings of up to 52% on their product line, which includes wedges, irons and hybrid clubs. A set (4-PW) of their forged MODB-1 irons, normally priced at $805, is currently selling for $560. It's an opportunity to grab some market share from the big players and generate both buzz and goodwill among a category of consumer that has historically been averse to using equipment that doe not receive considerable endorsement by PGA Tour stars.
Those hungry for discounts on bigger-name equipment will likely need to wait until late 2020 or early 2021 to see just how aggressively the big OEMs slash prices in order to clear the decks for their 2021 lines. But that patience could be rewarded handsomely. "I’ll wager we’re going to see bigger discounts on current-year product than we’ve seen in recent memory – maybe ever," wrote Covey.
What will the custom clubfitting process be like?
In-person custom golf clubfitting has gained in popularity in recent years, but concerns over social distancing may make such a one-on-one, often indoor process, seem dangerous.
Nick Sherburne, founder of nationwide custom fitter Club Champion, says his company is ready to continue serving clients during and after the pandemic. Due to the intimate nature of a clubfitting, "your interaction with many people is minimal," he says. He also notes the relatively small number of "things that get touched in our stores, except our demos, [which] only get swung by the person getting fitted and not random people browsing."
This, combined with enhanced cleaning policies and mandatory masks for fitters, makes for a safer environment than golfers might have initially guessed.
"We are lucky in our model to basically be able to cater to any customers comfort level, to make them feel safe," Sherburne says. "It's unique because of the size and nature of our business. We see it as a strength, post-pandemic."
How are golf course pro shops coping with depressed merchandise sales?
Back at greengrass golf facilities, while everyday play is settling into its own new normal, there is still some uncertainty about how pro shop sales will catch up.
At my home courses of Sandridge Golf Club in Vero Beach, Fla., head pro Bela Nagy is a four-time South Florida PGA Merchandiser of the Year for public courses. The pandemic hit Florida at an inopportune time: the height of the late-winter snowbird season, and Indian River County shut the courses down on March 20.
"Being closed for 6 weeks, our merchandise sales are down 25% for the year," he said. "Prior to closing, our merchandise sales were up 8.8% over the previous year. We weren’t able to get rid of our normal clothing and outerwear at the end of the [winter] season, so we have a lot of apparel in the back right now."
The pro shop at Sandridge is open again, albeit with restrictions to number of occupants at any time. Nagy's prescription for the longer term calls for patience. "We have been sending back as much hard goods to manufacturers as we can and are going to adjust our buying for next year as our [county] Budget Director wants us to be cautious for fiscal year 2020-21," he says.
Golf course development
Will the pandemic further depress new golf course construction?
Since the effects of the 2008 recession are still being felt in the golf business, it stands to reason the economic issues caused by COVID-19 will not help. Busy golf course architects are nearly constantly traveling to project sites, often by plane. With limited air travel and other mandates, the in-person interactions that produce the best on-the-ground results for clients and golfers are harder than ever to come by.
In an interview with Golf Advisor's Jason Scott Deegan, Tom Doak admitted that lockdowns amid the pandemic added several months to the process of building his new St. Patrick's Golf Links in Ireland.
"We missed the grassing window for the spring, so I think we won't be able to finish that until summer, and I won't be back over until then," said Doak.
Growing the game
What are golf's long-term prospects for player development as a result of the pandemic?
While no one would have ever wished for the toll the pandemic has taken on the world in recent months, there are some indications that golf may emerge stronger than ever from the other side. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence supports the theory that golf has become both more precious to entrenched players and more attractive to non-golfers over the course of this ordeal.
A survey of lesson-taking golfers by golf instructor association Proponent Group revealed some encouraging trends. A total of 93% of respondents said they expect golf to be a primary recreational activity going forward. Pointing toward the future, 20% of respondents to the survey expect friends or family members who do not currently play golf to take it up soon.
Junior golf may be a stronger source of new players than ever before. With children involved in more extracurricular activities than ever, youth sports has been strong in recent years. But team sports like soccer and baseball require kids to be in close physical proximity, putting them at a disadvantage to golf now that social distancing is paramount. Though golf tends to be more expensive than other sports, some of that burden may be offset by the dropping of other activities that continue to be seen as riskier for kids.
Enthusiasm for competitive junior golf has surged in the wake of the pandemic, according to a recent Golf Digest article. Local tours like the San Diego Junior Golf Association and more regional and national competitive organizations like the Hurricane Junior Golf Tour and the American Junior Golf Association are reporting particularly strong interest as kids and parents look for safe ways to get out of the house now that state lockdowns have eased.
As with amateur competitive golf and travel, staying closer to home figures to be wiser in the months and years ahead. Look for state and regional junior golf offerings to blossom as long as golf maintains its momentum.
Certain stereotypes - understandable, to some extent - have long kept golf from transcending its status as an upscale niche activity to a more mainstream form of recreation. But the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping the way people see the world outside their homes in several ways, and golf suddenly looks a bit more like a viable form of outdoor recreation than an expensive and elitist hobby. To the extent that the various sides of the game and industry can continue to welcome new players while delighting avid adherents, there is little limit to how bright the future could be. A better-than-ever "new normal" could be just what golf needs to take its next big step.