Signs of a Golf Renaissance Amid the Pandemic

Chris Latham
Senior Writer

As the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of Americans to spend more time indoors than they ever anticipated, golf is one pastime that has seen a renaissance beginning in 2020 and continuing well into 2021. Courses have experienced a strong increase in the number of rounds played, new golfers have been taking up the sport, golf equipment sales have surged, and innovative new golf entertainment venues have been popping up across the country.

As the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of Americans to spend more time indoors than they ever anticipated, golf is one pastime that has seen a renaissance beginning in 2020 and continuing well into 2021. Courses have experienced a strong increase in the number of rounds played, new golfers have been taking up the sport, golf equipment sales have surged, and innovative new golf entertainment venues have been popping up across the country.

Golf is one of the few outdoor activities that people can enjoy safely – though not inexpensively. The sport tends to attract well-off people who are willing and able to spend considerable sums of money as both players and spectators, throughout much of their lives. And high earners have been less adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning they still have the disposable income to indulge in “spoiling a good walk.” Yet the spread of COVID-19 also has hindered the ability of golf courses and tournaments to draw the same number of out-of-town guests who normally would fly in for golf events.

TEEING OFF, AT A DISTANCE

“If there’s ever a sport that social distancing can be practiced, it’s golf because of all the open space,” says Mark Brazil, tournament director for the PGA’s Wyndham Championship as well as for the upcoming Jackson T. Stephens Cup for college golfers. Brazil estimates that he played more golf last summer than in any prior year, continued playing a significant amount through the fall and winter, and has been playing more frequently again with the return of spring.

According to Brazil, the PGA of America and golf clubs around the country quickly instituted safety precautions starting in March 2020. These entailed urging players to wear masks when around other people, offering grab-and-go meals instead of indoor dining, frequent wiping down of golf carts, and seating only one person in carts instead of the usual two side by side.

These precautions have enabled golf tournaments nationwide to continue at both the professional and amateur levels. Much like most sports during the pandemic, in 2020 the PGA TOUR conducted their events mainly for television audiences. A handful of PGA TOUR events, including the Wyndham Championship, were allowed to have a very limited number of VIPs attend last year.

The Wyndham Championship tournament in Greensboro, N.C., is part of the PGA TOUR and professional golfers must qualify to compete. It began as the Greater Greensboro Open in 1938, and since 2008 has been held at the Sedgefield Country Club, which was built in 1925. Jim Herman beat 155 players to win the 2020 Wyndham Championship, which concluded August 16, when he took home earnings of $1.15 million. This year’s Championship will be held from August 10 to August 15.

“Recent tournaments in Florida have had 5,000 to 10,000 fans in attendance, so I’m very confident that by this August we’ll be able to have at least that many or maybe more in North Carolina,” Brazil says. “By that time, quite a few COVID restrictions probably will be lifted, due to the vaccinations going well and the number of cases going down.”

The Jackson T. Stephens Cup is scheduled to be held from Oct. 17 to Oct. 20 at The Alotian Club in Roland, Arkansas, in memory of the late Jack Stephens, who was CEO of Stephens Inc. from 1956 to 1986 and Chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club from 1991 to 1998. NCAA Division I National Championship-contending men’s and women’s teams will play in the annual collegiate golf tournament.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be the tournament director of the Wyndham Championship for 20 years now,” Brazil says. “I’m both honored and excited to be invited to be part of the Stephens Cup team. We are looking forward to the inaugural Stephens Cup, as we aim to create one of the premier collegiate events in the country.”

PLAYING MORE AND SPENDING BIG

According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), COVID-19 triggered big losses in rounds played for golfers last spring, but massive gains in subsequent months more than made up for them. Course shutdowns in many states for March and April eliminated 20 million rounds of golf compared to 2019. A rebound began in May, with NGF reporting 6.2% more rounds played that month compared with May 2019. Re-openings in June through October generated 50 million more rounds of golf played versus the previous year, according to NGF, reaching the highest level since Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997.

Total rounds of golf played across the U.S. in 2020 increased 13.9% over 2019, the NGF found, with rounds of golf played at public courses up 12.4% and rounds played at private courses up 19.9%. For the first two months of 2021, total play was up 7.8% compared with the same time last year, 4.8% higher at public courses and 16.5% higher at private courses. Equipment sales for items such as balls and clubs were 10.1% higher in 2020 than in 2019, according to the research firm Golf Datatech.

Callaway Golf Company ­– a leading seller of golf equipment, accessories, and apparel ­– reported a 20% increase in net sales to $375 million during the fourth quarter compared with the same time period in 2019. The company anticipated that first-quarter 2021 net sales would exceed first-quarter 2020 net sales. Yet full-year 2020 net sales fell 7%, to approximately $1.6 billion compared with the previous year due to COVID-19, and Callaway forecast that the pandemic would continue to hurt sales of its apparel brands.

On March 8, 2021, Callaway merged with Topgolf International, a global chain of high-tech golf experiences and entertainment venues. The equity-based deal values Topgolf, which had been privately held, at over $1.9 billion and diversifies the revenue streams of Callaway, which now operates as the parent company. Topgolf provides a diverse array of activities across its more than 60 locations in North America and Europe.

Large indoor and outdoor venues allow Topgolf guests of all skill levels to hit balls far into the outfield. Interactive digital screens and apps let players trace their club stroke and ball hits, engage in friendly competition, and play virtual simulations of famous golf courses. Some venues also offer high-quality restaurants, swimming pools and fire pits, as well as live musical  performances. The Topgolf venue under development in Morristown, N.J., is set to feature a menu by celebrity chef David Burke.

ADJUSTING TO TRAVEL CHANGES

The World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla., is part shrine, part museum, and part interactive experience. Its World Golf Hall of Fame showcases history and memorabilia from some of the greatest players and matches of the sport. The PGA TOUR Academy there uses cutting-edge technology to provide customized instruction to adult and junior players with group classes and private lessons.

Its biggest draws are the two golf courses that were co-designed by different pairs of World Golf Hall of Fame members. King & Bear is the only course co-designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Slammer & Squire was co-designed by prolific golf architect Bobby Weed with the help of Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen.

Lon Grundy, general manager of World Golf Village, has seen membership skyrocket but fewer non-member visitors due to COVID-19. “Our strong points for revenue and visibility are typically the first two quarters of the year, which comes from tournaments and events,” he says.

Memberships, which comprise approximately 20% of business, have been a bright spot. World Golf Village sold more than 50 new memberships last year compared with over 30 memberships in typical years, and sold 20 new memberships in the three months of 2021 alone, according to Grundy. “Members also are playing more rounds of golf. We anticipate that being a big part of our growth in 2021.”

On the non-membership side, Grundy says big decreases in air travel and hotel stays for northern Florida have limited the number of visitors. By increasing its appeal to local golfers, World Golf Village has been able to keep volume close to prepandemic levels, but revenues remained down throughout 2020 and into March 2021. That is largely because of charging lower rates to players as well as lower sales of food, beverages, apparel and accessories during the pandemic. In the last few months, its dine-in restaurant business has been thriving again, although weddings and other catering events have not yet returned, Grundy says.

Two annual tournaments that were cancelled last year are set to resume this spring. The Murray Bros. Caddyshack Charity Golf Tournament is scheduled for April 30 and the Rahm Celebrity Golf Tournament benefitting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is scheduled for June 5. Looking toward the second half of the year, Grundy anticipates a strong rebound thanks to pent-up demand for people connecting in person at one of the nation’s premier golf venues. He expects that this will attract guests from across the country.

FILLING THE VOID

As the second-largest state in the country by land mass, and one of the warmest by year-round temperatures, Texas has long been a haven for golf enthusiasts. The Texas Golf Association (TGA), which was founded in 1906, has approximately 122,000 individual members and works with 546 member clubs throughout the state to plan and run competitive events. It also provides members with discounted access to clubs as well as to equipment, apparel, and digital apps.

The TGA Fall Series established for college-age and amateur golfers allowed them to compete between October and November across Texas, filling the void from collegiate programs that suspended activities due to pandemic concerns. Once TGA determined that it could host these events safely, it opened the TGA Fall Series to any golfer looking for competition, by making tee times available for collegiate and post-college players in four 54-hole events.

“The TGA membership has grown fairly steadily over the last few years, but our growth in 2020 was much stronger than in previous years,” says Stacy Dennis, executive director for the Texas Golf Association. “Golfers experienced busier courses and more demand for tee times as a result of everyone playing more.”

Throughout 2021, the TGA has several tournaments on its calendar, with events occurring multiples times a month spanning into November. The North and South Regional Mid-Amateur Championships were held March 26 to 28 at The Golf Club at Twin Creeks in Allen and the Weiskopf Course at Bentwater Yacht & Country Club in Montgomery. Pandemic concerns prompted cancellations of the 2020 Championships.

The TGA also will offer new programs this year that make golf more accessible and inviting for junior players and new golfers, while maintaining COVID-related health and safety standards that enable organized golf outings to continue across Texas, Dennis says. On March 10, Texas ended statewide mask and occupancy restrictions on businesses.

PUTTING INTO THE FUTURE

With golfers flocking to the sport this year despite – and in some cases in response to – the pandemic, the golf industry is poised to build on that momentum as the nation regains a sense of normalcy. As vaccines enable millions of Americans to envision an end to the lockdowns, that could lead to many more players of all ages and skill levels heading to golf courses and golf-related entertainment complexes, along with a further uptick in sales of equipment and accessories.

The biggest unknowns remain how soon the vast majority of spectators will return to professional golf tournaments, and how soon the average golfer will travel long-distance by plane and stay at hotels in order to play at popular courses. However, whether those rebounds occur this year or in 2022, at some point it seems likely that U.S. fans also will help take golf to even greater heights.