Covid’s Hole-in-One

Golf was struggling with millennial disinterest and course development, then the pandemic made it king again. Will that be enough to secure golf’s future?
Oakdale’s Oak Marsh Golf Course
Oakdale’s Oak Marsh Golf Course

Morning broke clear and crisp at Oak Marsh Golf Course in Oakdale, just east of St. Paul, on a Saturday in June. A steady stream of golfers checked in with starter Noah Reardon, an 18-year-old Hill-Murray School graduate bound for the University of North Dakota’s aviation school in the fall.

Except for an occasional chirping bird or the whir of an electric golf cart, the course was quiet, with a slight breeze keeping everyone comfortable. Reardon, tall and lanky in a green Hill-Murray golf shirt, sat in a cart near the first tee with a clipboard of several pages of groupings and tee times. Golfers gave their names to Reardon before heading to the tee. Anyone who showed up without a reservation was out of luck.

“It’s a full sheet, all the way until 6 or 7 tonight,” Reardon said.

The coronavirus pandemic ruined lots of businesses worldwide, and even more lives. But across the U.S. and especially Minnesota, the golf industry not only benefitted from Covid-19 but boomed. Throughout 2020, with theaters and clubs dark, restaurants restricted to takeout, and health clubs shuttered or severely limited, people turned or returned to golf. Courses were packed, reversing 15 years of declining usage and course closings.

Total rounds played on Minnesota courses jumped 29.7 percent over 2019, according to a Minnesota Golf Association (MGA) survey, more than double the 13.9 percent increase nationwide reported by Golf Datatech. The MGA survey included public, municipal, private, and resort courses. The previous year, local rounds barely increased at all—1.8 percent.

“Playing golf checked all the boxes and met each and every social distancing protocol,” MGA executive director Tom Ryan said in a statement. “It was outdoors, it was both a physically and mentally healthful activity, and it gave thousands of kids and their families something to do together.”

Many golfers simply played more often. Others dug dusty clubs out of the garage or the basement. Still others, especially millennials (ages 24-40) and juniors (6-17), took up the game for the first time. 

At Oak Marsh, director of golf Steve Whillock says the course booked 42,000 rounds in 2020, about 10,000 more than in 2019 and the most since it opened in 1996. That helped it survive a catastrophic falloff in its banquet business, with all 28 scheduled weddings cancelled due to Covid restrictions.

The golf boom statewide continued through the spring of 2021, as Covid vaccinations ramped up and the weather warmed. But in this post-pandemic world, with entertainment and recreational options returning to normal, can golf maintain its upward trajectory?

Boom and bust cycles

From 1996, when Tiger Woods turned pro, until roughly 2005, the golf industry rode the coattails of the greatest golfer of his generation. More people played more golf on more courses than any time in the history of the sport, which traces its origins to 15th-century Scotland. In Minnesota, even with new courses opening regularly, nailing down a weekend tee time meant calling the Wednesday before, at the latest.

“The late 1990s and the early 2000s were probably the real heyday,” says Larry Umphrey, director of golf for the City of Minneapolis.

But once the Tiger boom subsided, casual golfers began drifting away. At peak Tiger, about 30 million people in the U.S. golfed regularly. By 2015, numbers had settled back to about 24 million, roughly what it was before he came along, according to National Golf Foundation (NGF) figures.

More than 4,000 courses opened in the U.S. between 1985 and 2005, but by 2006, course closings were outpacing openings. Industry insiders blamed it on developers’ eagerness to use golf’s popularity to sell homes, only to discover there weren’t enough golfers to play these courses or buyers to support all the construction. The 2007-08 financial crisis and housing crash didn’t help, and rising real estate prices after the crash led to more land selloffs.

“If they hadn’t had this huge build nationally, the courses would be humming along,” says John Valliere, the former general manager of Braemar Golf Course in Edina and a national golf industry consultant.

On top of that, the world was changing.

Golf always has been time-consuming and expensive. It can take four to five hours to play 18 holes, even riding in electric carts. And in the midst of the Tiger Woods frenzy, the price of greens fees and equipment began to skyrocket. Today a round of golf on a weekend can cost $40 or higher, with a good set of clubs running more than $1,000. Add balls, clothing, and caps, and you’re talking serious money. Time-crunched millennials struggling to pay back college loans and support families found recreation elsewhere.

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“People in their late 20s through 40s are so busy raising a family that time is an issue and cost is an issue,” Valliere says. “That’s hurting golf.”

The Covid disruption

Then the pandemic hit. Faced with few options, golfers packed Minnesota courses once Gov. Tim Walz gave the go-ahead to open them April 18, 2020. Covid required special rules—more time and distance between groups, single-rider carts, no ball-washing devices, no rakes in sand traps, etc.—but golfers adjusted.

Don Berry, director of golf and head PGA pro at Edinburgh USA, the Scottish-themed public course in Brooklyn Park, says it saw a more than 20 percent bump in usage. The 41,552 rounds played were the second most since the course opened in 1987. Getting a tee time, Berry says, was nearly impossible.

“We were selling times at 7:40 at night,” he recalls. “It was insane. People were getting in five or six holes. They just wanted to get out, I think.”

Highland National golf course in St. Paul
St. Paul’s Highland National Golf Course

Municipal courses in Minneapolis and St. Paul were equally jammed. Rounds at the seven Minneapolis courses rose 30 percent, Umphrey says. Highland National in St. Paul, which has 18- and nine-hole courses, saw more than 3,700 more rounds played on its 18-hole course than in 2019, a 10.6 percent increase. The nine-hole course didn’t open until June 15, but once it did, it was packed as well. “We had days where we had no tee times—100 percent utilization,” says John Shimpach, the Highland National PGA pro.

Oak Marsh usually opens earlier in the season and closes later than most courses, a testament to the work of superintendent Brandon Gauster and his groundskeeping staff. It was already open when the pandemic took hold and had to close. Once Walz eased restrictions on outdoor activities, it remained open until Dec. 23, except for about a week following an October snowstorm. Oak Marsh went to single-rider carts to ensure social distancing, and it often ran out by noon.

“We had to rent more carts,” Whillock says.

Golf course or event center?

Private and public courses make money differently. Private courses primarily sell memberships. Courses open to the public rely on food and beverage sales to augment revenue from greens fees, equipment, and corporate golf events. On-site restaurants and banquet facilities hosting weddings, meetings, and parties keep the revenue flowing on days the weather doesn’t cooperate. Golfers expect such amenities. And at some courses, they’re the difference between turning a profit or not.

During the pandemic, golf revenue alone couldn’t carry Oak Marsh, Edinburgh, and other public courses running sizable facilities businesses. Covid shutdowns strained Oak Marsh in particular, which draws half its revenue from food and beverage.

Last year, according to Whillock, Oak Marsh food and beverage revenue fell 60 percent, while golf rose 20 percent. “Golf courses that did not have a food and beverage banquet facility connected had banner years,” Whillock says. “We found out how profitable food and beverage was compared to golf.

“Once you have the course ready for 10 players, it’s ready for anybody for the day,” he continues. “You could have 210 players and make a ton of money. It doesn’t cost you any more money for the extra 200 to play, other than wear and tear on carts maybe.

“On the food side, for every single soul who drinks and eats, 30 to 40 percent of that [earned] dollar is cost. Factor in labor, it’s almost half. The profitability for food and beverage is just not there. [But] it’s not a bad business if you get the [volume] high enough.”

More than 4,000 courses opened in the U.S. between 1985 and 2005, but by 2006, course closings were outpacing openings.

The breakthrough year?

So who was playing all these additional rounds? Established golfers for the most part, NGF surveys show.

“A lot of people are thinking a lot of new people got into golf, and I think that’s somewhat true,” Berry says. “[But] if you look at national golf studies, that core golfer is what we really saw here. Your good customer played more. Think of a guy who normally played 20 rounds a year. He played 30 or 40.”

Sand trap at Edinburgh USA
Sand trap at Edinburgh USA

One recent afternoon at Edinburgh, friends Bob Cobb and Dennis Spindler enjoyed post-round beverages on the shaded patio outside the Scottish manor-style clubhouse. Both say they played 25 to 30 percent more golf last year. “This was the only place you could come out and do something,” said Cobb, 66, of Woodbury.

Over at Oak Marsh, friends Chris Holthe, Paul Lambert, and Brian Vaske also reported a spike in their greens time. “I don’t know if I played 10 rounds in 2019,” recalled Holthe, 51, of Woodbury, as he finished a sandwich outside the Oak Marsh Grille. “I played 70 last year.” 

Woodbury resident Lambert, also 51, says in one stretch he played 25 out of 30 days by getting in nine holes in the morning. “Normally I don’t play that much, but there was not much else to do,” he says. “[Golf] and pickleball.”

While Whillock, Berry, and Shimpach attribute the pandemic bump to golfers of all ages, they did observe more millennials and juniors gravitating to the game. Nationally, the NGF reported 3 million people teed off for the first time in 2020—20 percent more than in 2019 and the largest increase on record. The number of juniors playing rose 24 percent, the highest since 1997. More women took up golf as well, surpassing 6 million nationwide for the first time since 2007. Overall, the sport saw its largest net increase of participants (about 500,000) since 2003.

Some courses are mindful of time constraints. Oak Marsh allows time-pinched golfers to play four holes for $5. In Minneapolis, Umphrey recently spent an early morning at Columbia Golf Course, where ongoing construction reduced play to nine holes. Because of that, he says Columbia is drawing a younger demographic—millennials who can get on and off the course in two hours. “I’m 46, and everyone I saw playing there was younger than me.”

Citywide, Umphrey said, golf lessons are in high demand among that younger crowd. “There’s a good amount of late 20s and late 30s taking lessons,” he said. “I also think we’ve seen an uptick in women in lessons and in rounds of golf.”

Added Shimpach: “I think it’s been a trend in the last two or three years. I’m an instructor, and I can’t tell you how many novices I’m getting going. That’s one of my jobs as a PGA professional, making sure that we introduce people to the game. And when we do introduce them, we want them to keep going.”

Total rounds played on Minnesota courses jumped 29.7% in 2020, according to a Minnesota Golf Association survey, more than double the 13.9% increase nationwide.

Data courtesy of Golf Datatech

Down the fairway

As Minnesota emerges from post-pandemic restrictions, golf cautiously moves ahead. Courses are still crowded. Oak Marsh is booking weddings in its banquet rooms, albeit on a smaller scale. Bartender Debbie Rice is back at the Oak Marsh Grille, calling her regulars “hon” as she fills drink and food orders.

“Wednesday, we had leagues,” she says. “Business was nonstop from 11 o’clock in the morning to 10 o’clock at night. Now everything’s on the up and up, hopefully for good.”

On the food and beverage side, yes. But with youth sports returning and on-site work returning, some hard-core golfers—the ones responsible for the 2020 resurgence—are pressed for time and cutting back. “I probably played 30 percent less this year because of work,” says Spindler, 55, an insurance executive.

The key will be how many millennial and junior beginners stick with it. On a late afternoon at Edinburgh, a slew of under-40s, mostly men but some couples, were practicing at the driving range in front of the clubhouse.

“Golf is just hot right now,” Berry says. “I was hoping that last year, all these people who played more said, ‘Hey, I had fun playing more golf, I’m going to play more next year.’ That’s kind of held true so far. I just feel it will kind of moderate at some point, but it hasn’t yet.”

At Oak Marsh, Dan Sutherland of Oakdale brought his daughter, Eloise, 9, to try out the new clubs he bought her. She had been using her brother’s. “Now I can bring both of them and they don’t fight over the clubs,” says Sutherland, 37. All three represent golf’s future.

Eloise hit balls for a while, then turned cartwheels while her dad spoke to a reporter about what’s ahead for the game they love.

He’s optimistic. “It’s a different time,” Sutherland says. “Everybody’s excited about being vaccinated and getting out. And yet, everybody is still cautious, which is good for the game.”

Pat Borzi is a Minneapolis writer whose work appears locally in MinnPost and nationally in The New York Times. His golf swing is a work in progress. 

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