Published in Economic Development
Indian Trails Golf Course has had an “excellent year this year,” bouncing back in the summer months after being shut down early in the pandemic. Indian Trails Golf Course has had an “excellent year this year,” bouncing back in the summer months after being shut down early in the pandemic. COURTESY PHOTO

West Michigan golf courses bounce back from shutdown with banner summer

BY Sunday, October 11, 2020 06:00pm

Golf courses around West Michigan have experienced both ends of the spectrum in just the last six months.

After the COVID-19 pandemic completely shut down all 749 courses in Michigan in the middle of spring, most of them bounced back in a major way once given the green light to reopen from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The reopening allowed hoards of cabin fever-stricken golfers to hit the links for what has been a banner few months.

“We had an excellent year this year,” said Graham Rayburn, a manager at Indian Trails Golf Course, which is owned and operated by the city of Grand Rapids’ Parks and Recreation Department. “I would say, everything being equal, it was one of our busiest years.”

Because of the socially distant nature of the game, courses had a relatively easy time adapting to the various protocols to create a safe environment for their patrons and staff. But, that’s not to say it was business as usual.

Indian Trails, for instance, added several measures that limited the potential for transmitting COVID-19 among patrons. This included reducing club house capacity to four people, creating a walk-up window, eliminating rakes in the bunkers, not allowing people to take flag sticks out of holes and thoroughly sanitizing carts between use.

Despite the small changes, Rayburn said patrons were overwhelmingly happy to be golfing once again.

And, as a course that is friendly for beginners to the game, Rayburn said he saw a mix of avid golfers and people trying out the sport as something to do to keep themselves busy during the pandemic.

“I think there is a large segment of people that figured out (during the pandemic) that golf is not any more expensive than going to the movies or going out to dinner, while in the past, maybe they thought golf was cost prohibitive,” Rayburn said.

Golf explodes across state, country

Golf courses have undoubtedly seen an influx of greens fees unlike ever before this summer, but the prolonged shutdown of these businesses — especially in a more restrictive state like Michigan — has made year-to-date numbers look less impressive. In fact, Michigan is lagging behind its 2019 pace.

According to data released in “Q,” the official publication of the National Golf Foundation, Michigan saw an 11 percent jump in rounds played in August compared to August 2019. 

Michigan also had a year-over-year increase in rounds played in June and July, but the state is still down 3.7 percent year-to-date compared to 2019. That’s a deficit the state could climb out of before the season officially closes in about a month, depending on the weather.

When compared to nearby and less restrictive Indiana, the Hoosier state saw a 23.7 percent year-over-year increase for rounds played in August and is 15.7 percent higher year-to-date compared to 2019.

Nationally, rounds were up 20.6 percent in August compared to the same time last year, while the number of rounds year-to-date has increased 6.2 percent. Last year saw 441 million rounds of golf played nationwide. 

Another factor playing against golf courses: They lost a majority of revenue from banquets and golf outings, which have not been prevalent this season. 

For Rayburn and Indian Trails, that revenue isn’t as crucial and the organization was able to shift some golf outings to the fall. Still, it was certainly a casualty for other courses.

“Greens fee revenue is definitely the silver lining,” said Jada Paisley, executive director of the Michigan Golf Course Association. “It’s definitely up. And it’s the silver lining from losing 80 percent of banquet revenue and golf outing revenue. That’s going to be able to help a seasonal business such as a golf course be able to make it into 2021.”

Developing golfers

With a larger market of engaged golfers, the onus is now on the courses to turn them into recurring clients.

“Player development is always something that a golf course is looking to do, and I think people have realized that golf is truly a lifetime and a generational sport,” Paisley said. “You could be out there with your kids and grandkids. It’s just the only sport you can play from 5 to 85. I do think that there is an energized feeling that the golf courses have seen a resurgence of golf because it’s a fun sport.”

One way the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) has developed a new wave of golfers is through its Youth On Course Michigan program. Through the program, youths are able to play courses all around Michigan for just $5 while GAM subsidizes the greens fees in order to support participating courses.

GAM Executive Director Chris Whitten said more than 6,000 kids have signed up for the program.

Whitten said it’s also important to target golfers who may have been avid golfers in the past but have since stepped away from the sport. 

“We got to know what it was that made them leave golf the first time around and what we can do better as an industry to keep them here,” Whitten said. “I’m hoping that golf was the mental and physical respite from the stress we’re all under and people reconnect to being outdoors with friends.”

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