Golf Is Open in All 50 States, But It’s Not Business as Usual

As H&LA keeps abreast the continually changing impact of COVID-19 on the economy in general and hospitality sector in particular, we are sharing insights from industry experts and stakeholders with our clients and partners. This report from National Gold Foundations highlights that golf is green lit in every state, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the industry is back to normal. 

Published by: National Golf Foundation
Published date: May 2020

Golf courses are allowed to be open in all 50 states, but that doesn’t mean it’s back to “business as usual.”

Operational rules and safety protocols have varied from state to state and, in some instances, from county to county.

Washington and New Jersey recently ruled that foursomes are again permitted, while Illinois still allows only two-person groups and will likely continue to do so until beginning Phase Three of its state reopening plan on May 29. Tee time intervals can vary widely, with gaps between groups of as much as 15 minutes in Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Illinois. There are 16-minute spreads in New Jersey, which meant only about eight new golfers an hour before the restrictions were eased to allow foursomes again.

Massachusetts lifted its restriction on the use of golf carts on May 25, leaving Illinois as the only state with a ban in place, save in the case of those who have a physical disability. Many counties throughout New York state had similar limitations on the use of carts that were lifted on May 16. Illinois is expected to end its ban on carts later this week.

In some states, driving ranges and pro shops have to remain closed, while F&B operations are limited. In other states, pro shops are open for business and the beverage cart patrols the fairways.

The inconsistencies can be a point of frustration for golfers, but for now they’re realities that courses have to adjust to as operations are phased back in in places where golf had been shut down completely.

“People are generally just very happy to be back out on the golf course,” Rex Fullerton, the General Manager at Legion Memorial Golf Course, an 18-hole municipal facility in Everett, Washington, said before the May 15 Governor’s order cleared the way for foursomes to return. “There may have been some gripes about the twosomes, but we try to impress that golf is back for now and if people get out of line, it could quickly go back to ‘zero-somes.’”

In many cases, and places, it’s a period of adjustment for operators and golfers alike.

One rider per cart is increasingly commonplace in states where golf operations had been shut down. Food & beverage operations are frequently limited to take-out only. Driving ranges may still be shut down or have limited capacity due to social distancing spacing requirements. Golf instructors are often not permitted to give lessons. Golf outings, and the revenue they provide, are on hold.

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“Based on the guidelines they’ve given us, if the weather is anywhere near decent, we’re filled every day. But ‘filled’ is somewhere between 90 and 105 people,” said Dennis Johnsen, the Club Manager and head professional at Pine Meadow Golf Club in Mundelein, Illinois. The 18-hole daily fee course is less than an hour northwest of Chicago. “On weekends, normally we’d do 220, so that’s where you’re taking it on the chin. We’re losing rounds, plus the range and restaurant isn’t open, outings have been pushed back and I just had to pull the plug on our PGA Junior League program for the year. And I’ve been a big backer of the program; we were the first 13U team in Illinois and I started the 17U team in Illinois.”

“Other than that, we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got,” Johnsen added. “The encouraging this is that even with everything that’s happened, I’ve run as many rounds of golf at this time as we did last year, when the weather was god-awful. And since we’ve been open, I’ve had only one minor complaint. The biggest thing we get from golfers is that they don’t understand (the limitations). But we’re getting nothing but compliments – how we’re doing it, the condition of the golf course – and that’s nice to hear.”

Mike Ash, the General Manager at Boundary Oak Golf Club in Walnut Creek, California, said since his municipal course reopened for play on May 4, he can count the number of complaints he’s had on one hand.

“It’s been busy and it seems everybody has this pent-up interest,” said Ash, noting his operational modifications include foursomes with single-rider carts, cups sticking up an inch, limited F&B, and only one person in the golf shop at a time with a mask. “Everyone is just so excited to have the opportunity to be out. I’ve actually never seen faster rounds – people are scattering, going to balls, the bunkers aren’t in play and with just having to hit the cup liner, you can just ram it full speed. It’s been great. We did over 290 players three times in the last (week or so) and I haven’t seen any round over four hours, 15 minutes.”

The biggest question for operators in some areas is when restrictions will be further relaxed.

It’s been a gradual process for some, whether it’s the reintroduction of carts in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and New York, where they were initially prohibited, or the easing of limitations on F&B operations or pro shop access.

“Three weeks ago, we were walking-only for our first week after reopening. And no one could come into the pro shop to check in,” said Chad Donegan, the head pro at Landa Park, an 18-hole municipal course in New Braun, Texas. “After the governor changed orders, we went to single-rider carts and opened up the pro shop to four people at a time. But our F&B operation is still closed because of the (local) 51% rule. Because alcohol sales account for more half (of our F&B revenue), we’re considered a ‘bar’ and not a ‘restaurant.’”

The tee times at Landa Park have been booked “darn near solid every day” from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Donegan says. But while revenue from greens fees has been steady and golfers are complying with the new rules, revenue from carts and merchandise is down, and F&B has been produced nothing for the facility for seven weeks.

“We’re happy to be back and customers are happy to be back,” Donegan said. “But the big question for us is if the governor allows things to open up more.”

It’s a question that operators in many parts of the country continue to ask. And it’s one that may still present more questions to follow during these uncertain times.

“When we start going back to double-rider carts or shotgun starts,” muses Donegan, “how are we going to respond when (customers) want to go as a single-rider?”