If you've teed it up on a public golf course recently, you may have noticed a full parking lot. Markets throughout North America are enjoying surging demand as golfers flock to social-distance-approved fairways while many other time-suckers, from commuting to chauffeuring kids across town, are on hiatus.
What's particularly remarkable to see is that in states or counties where golf operations have been strictly regulated to throttle the number of players on any given day for social distancing, many facilities are nevertheless reporting more rounds booked year-over-year. It's challenging the notion of how many minutes between tee times there really need to be.
The municipal golf courses of Los Angeles, which once had 6-minute tee time intervals prior to 2016, have generally been plagued through the years by similar overcrowding woes as Chicago and New York City's public courses: too much demand, not enough access, and inevitably backed up tee sheets. After L.A. transitioned to 8-minute intervals in 2016 as it enacted its strategic plan, social distancing mandates in the spring of 2020 drove the spacing of the tee sheets at all 12 of their courses up to 12 minutes. Tee times were also now required. No more walk-up play, even at the par-3 courses.
You might think 12 minutes and mandatory advanced reservations would be a surefire formula for a drop in rounds played, right? In a recent interview with Laura Bauernfeind, the manager of the City of Los Angeles' 12 golf courses, seven of which are 18-hole regulation courses,, she confirmed to us recently that since they reopened following COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, they have seen nearly 20% increase in rounds played despite moving their tee time interval from 8 minutes to 12.
"Our first tee time right now is at 5:24 and we have solid reservations right through 6 o'clock at night on all of our golf courses," said Bauernfeind. "It's actually been a really nice break ... Golfers are experiencing some amazing pace of play."
It's worth noting that seven of L.A.'s facilities are regulation 18-hole layouts, while the other five are nine holes or short courses, so they can count more rounds daily at those facilities. And the overall experience is generally better for all involved at this point, which is reflective in recent Golf Advisor reviews of the city courses since they reopened in early May.
Pace of play was great. Tee boxes were mostly level. Fairways were lush and green. This course looks like a country club right now. The greens were medium speed but received shots very well. I highly recommend playing here right now.
Watch: City of L.A.'s Bauernfeind talks increased rounds, improved pace and maintenance in 2020
How does L.A.'s policy compare with its peer big cities? The Chicago Park District finally reopened most of its golf courses on June 8 and tee time intervals at this time are 10 minutes. New York City? Their 14 munis have yet to reopen.
Austin, Texas is the country's 11th largest city and after some touch-and-go with operations in April, settled into a 10-minute interval in May (up from their normal 8 minutes). New data shared by the city reveals their Year-over-Year rounds played in May 2020 at their 18-hole courses Morris Williams, Jimmy Clay, Roy Kizer, and Lions Municipal were all up for the month for an average of 8.2%. Lions already has a reputation as one of the Texas' busiest tee sheets, and yet it did 181 more rounds in the month at 10-minute spacing. (May also had favorable weather, as most rainfall from the month came at night.)
We'd all love fewer players and wide open fairways ahead of us - that's the exclusive, private club dream. But at some point, of course, supply is reduced to the point that a public golf course isn't a viable business, and keeping the books clean is something even non-profit golf enterprises will need to be keenly aware of as government budgets and tax revenues are decimated this year. Some states have had highly onerous regulations on not only tee time spacing (New Jersey was 16 minutes at one point) but group size (Illinois was twosomes only until May 29) and golf cart use (Massachusetts was one of numerous states that was walking-only for a considerable period).
The question is, as restrictions on golf courses are eventually loosened and the sport settles into a more normal rate of demand, what is the incentive for busy public facilities to return to their shorter, 6-8 minute intervals?
For some back-of-the-napkin math, let's consider a popular $40 golf course that has nine hours of "prime" tee times from 7am-4pm (a conservative time frame for getting in 18 holes in four hours during the summer season).
8 minute intervals: 68 tee times (276 golfers) in prime time ($11,040 potential revenue)
10 minute intervals: 56 tee times (224 golfers) in prime time ($8,960 potential revenue)
12 minute intervals: 45 tee times (180 golfers) in prime time ($7,200 potential revenue)
For the 12-minute interval to have the same revenue potential, the tee time would need to be over $61, while the 10-minute interval is just under $50. But if 8 minute intervals aren't 100% utilized, and a worse experience, it may keep golfers from returning as frequently. But management may be better off ignoring the 8-minute revenue potential and understand they may get more happy and repeat customers at 10 or possibly even 12.
Considering the market data we've seen from entities like GolfNow and the National Golf Foundation, courses are booking more tee times than last year and we can assume are often accommodating more golfers daily. Yet there is evidence golfers don't feel as crunched. Here at Golf Advisor, our community's May 2020 Overall Rating (over 18,000 reviews) out of 5.0 was just .02 points lower than in May 2019. May 2020's Pace of Play average rating crept .3 higher.
Golf course staff may learn in 2020 that fewer tee times, possibly at a nominally higher rate, ends up not only filling the tee sheets but leaves a more positive impression on its customers and makes them more likely to return.