We're essentially four months into pandemic golf.
We've all had more than a few rounds to thoroughly digest the game through the lens of safety protocols and procedures of COVID-19. How are you enjoying it?
Me? I'm loving it. I took up the game in the mid-1990s and rode the Tiger wave to become a golf writer and devoted lover of golf. These past few months feel even more impactful than those heady days. Maybe because the game was supposed to be dead this time around: a victim of video games, specialization in youth sports and the never-ending complaints that golf takes too much time, costs too much and is too difficult to play.
Nobody saw this resurrection coming, especially in March and April when roughly half of the country's courses were closed. It's been a surreal ride since with many courses and markets reporting record rounds. And how can you not love the energy and enthusiasm surrounding all things golf? When's the last time golf was this top of mind during a pending football season? Heading into fall, we've still got two majors coming up: the U.S. Open in September and the Masters in November. No fall tournaments with weak fields as the stars rest. Tiger, Phil, D.J. and Rory are all going to be draped across our TV screens the next two months.
As for the industry itself, the National Golf Foundation is projecting a 2- to 6-percent growth in rounds in 2020 vs. 2019. There hasn't been a five-percent jump year-over-year since 2012. Companies that sell all sorts of golf equipment - from balls to clubs, shoes and pushcarts - are experiencing record years.
Playing golf during COVID-19 is in many ways better
Although golf is less consumer-friendly in some ways - there are fewer deals to be had and it's harder to find tee times because they are filling up faster - neither have felt like a roadblock for me. In fact, I feel like the new surge has forced me to be more proactive with my schedule. If I want to play once a week, I need to book it. It puts something on my calendar to look forward to during these days of gloom-and-doom news broadcast nightly on the national networks. For millions, golf is serving as a brief escape from all the nasty election-year politics, civil unrest and protests in cities across the country, pandemic safety debates and the economic uncertainty that dominate daily life.
To me, the pandemic has stripped golf to its core. What I mean by that is the experience at the course is simply this: You show up and you play. There's no need to spend an hour hitting balls and practicing putts because many courses only want you to arrive no more than a half-hour before your tee time.
There's no loitering or shopping in the pro shop. Translation: No lines to wait in at check-in. Everything is very efficient. Pre-paid golf is on the rise. Many foursomes swipe one card and then Venmo each other to settle up. The same manner of efficiency applies on the course. I can leave the flagstick alone. I don't have to take it out for my partner's putt, and then put it back in for mine. I hope the "flagstick in" movement is here to stay. You don't have to worry about stepping in anybody's line to tend the stick. You don't have to worry about leaving it in or taking it out, depending on the length of the putt. It's a non-factor. It's just there.
Carts have been an issue for many golfers and courses: Should carts be single-rider only? Should there be a plastic divider between playing partners not from the same family/household? I play much of my golf at two great walking munis in California's San Francisco Bay Area, so I hope others learn to ditch the cart and play the game with two feet on the ground.
I also love that the bunker rakes have been ditched, too. I hope they never come back. I hated seeing a shot that hit a rake left outside a bunker only to get a bad bounce into the hazard. In the pre-pandemic days, if the bunker was supposed to be raked, and I ended up in a footprint, I would be ticked. Now, I could not care less. It's a hazard, so I've learned to embrace whatever the golf gods give me. If you just can't mentally handle the bad lie you'll inevitably get, negotiate with your foursome in advance for preferred lies or free drops. Whatever works for you is fine by me. COVID-19 has forced golf's rules to be relaxed, and that's a good thing.
I don't know about you and where you play, but I believe these two small things have led to better pace of play. Without messing around with the flagstick and raking bunkers, groups are moving at a consistent pace. Even with the supposed influx of new players and juniors, I'm not seeing the massive slowdowns during rounds. Maybe I'm just lucky.
With courses typically more crowded, I actually also think that helps pace of play. A steady stream of foursomes flows better than a day with twosomes and singles mixed in. Those smaller groups are generally looking to finish faster and play through, which leads to disjointed transitions and agitated customers.
I do have mixed emotions about the post-round beer. Social distancing has put the kibosh on the 19th-hole fellowship. Some days I miss it. Other days, I do not. It's nice to play golf and get home in less than five hours. That never seemed possible before.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, is the general enthusiasm for the game I'm witnessing from friends who are casual golfers at best. In the pre-pandemic days, they were too busy for golf. Now, everybody wants to play. I've got so many standing invitations from friends that I don't have enough time to share with everybody. With no football and no youth sports, everybody wants a piece of me and, in effect, the game. What a strange, and good, problem to have, and it's all because of COVID-19.
What's your experience been like during pandemic golf? Let us know in the comments below.