As black autumn clouds, ominous as the first fairway’s deep bunkers, crept across the morning sky over Jeffersonville Golf Club, dozens of undeterred golfers, their carts jammed bumper to bumper, lined up at the Montgomery County course’s opening tee.
“Look at this,” said Tom D’Angelo of Pottstown, clutching a shiny new TaylorMade driver. “School’s back, it’s not even 8 o’clock and it’s going to pour any minute, but this place is packed. Seems like wherever you go that’s the way it is anymore.”
For the last 18 months, ever since authorities eased the pandemic’s initial restrictions, golfers have been jamming area courses in numbers not seen since the Tiger Woods explosion of the late 1990s. At public facilities such as Jeffersonville, tee-time bookings are up 12% to 15%, making it increasingly difficult to land them, even on once-slow weekday mornings. The tee sheets also are unusually full at the area’s many private clubs, places where play and membership had long been contracting.
“There hasn’t been this much optimism and new activity in the golf business since the turn of the century,” Joe Beditz, National Golf Foundation president and CEO, told a golf-industry gathering earlier this year.
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In its annual report, the NGF called 2020 “an astonishing year,” and both nationally and locally that surge has continued through 2021. “We’re seeing great numbers again,” said Geoff Surrette, executive director of the Philadelphia Section of the PGA, which represents 900 area professionals.
According to the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP), through the first 10 months of 2021, its registered members at 300 public and private courses played 175,643 more rounds than in the same period a year earlier. And that comes after an even bigger jump of 258,177 rounds during the COVID-interrupted first 10 months of 2020.
This sudden increase of par-seekers has spilled over to the game’s $2.9 billion equipment industry. According to figures from Golf Datatech, 2020 was a record-setter. That July, more balls, clubs, and other paraphernalia were sold than in any other month ever.
However long it lasts, this unexpected wave has been a godsend for a sport that during the previous decade had experienced a steady erosion in numbers of both golf courses and participants. In 2018, there were 6.8 million fewer golfers than 15 years earlier, according to the NGF, and that year alone more than 200 U.S. courses closed.
But according to the NGF’s 2020 report, 24.8 million Americans golfed that year, a 2% increase over 2019 that was the largest annual bump in 17 years. Overall, there were 500 million rounds played, the most since 2007. From June through October, golfers played 50 million more rounds than during the same period a year earlier.
The phenomenon spanned geography and demographics. Each of the 48 continental states reported increased play. Newcomers and those returning to the game after a long layoff totaled 6.2 million, the most ever recorded. And the number of women, who now make up a quarter of all golfers, rose by 450,000.
“It’s been amazing. Just about every professional I talk to in our section says they haven’t seen numbers like this in 15 to 20 years,” said Surrette. “At public courses in this area, if you’re looking for a tee time on a Saturday or Sunday, good luck. You’ve got to try a couple of weeks in advance. It’s a really good time to be a golf operator.”
The renaissance, golf officials believe, was triggered by several factors: ongoing restrictions on competing entertainment options; the new flexibility enjoyed by stay-at-home workers, and, most notable, pent-up demand during the pandemic’s enforced isolation.
“Being locked up for a few months made people appreciate golf in a whole new way,” said Tom Coyne, who spent 2019 playing 295 U.S. courses for his new book, A Course Called America. “For someone who’s tangentially in that business, it’s been great. The golf excitement and the golf boom has been wonderful. Long may it last.”
A Waynesborough Country Club member, Coyne said the renewed fervor has been evident from the April day in 2020, when after being shuttered more than a month, Pennsylvania’s 665 golf courses reopened.
“It was like New Year’s Day,” Coyne said. “You felt like having a parade. I played at Waynesborough and everybody was there. There was a great spirit and excitement because, especially when you belong to a club, we’d always taken it for granted that we could play golf whenever we wanted.”
For Surrette, the suddenness of the turnaround was a clear indication that whatever problem had been ailing golf, it wasn’t the sport itself.
“It was all the other stuff that sometimes gets in the way,” Surrette said. “Golf is a niche game. Out of 300 million people, maybe 10% is our high-water mark. It’s not one of those games where you can just pick up a ball and throw it in the side yard or find a court and go play basketball. You need the space. You need the time. And there’s a little bit of expense.”
One of the most encouraging trends for golf’s future is the renewed interest among junior golfers, ages 6 through 17. The NGF survey found that more than 3.1 million participated in 2020, an increase of 650,000 over the previous year and the largest rise since 1997, when 21-year-old Woods won his first Masters.
“I think there were a lot of kids who took up golf just because their other sports weren’t available,” said Surrette, “These were kids you normally wouldn’t see on a course in the summer times. And as long as they’re introduced to golf, I think they’ll find their way back.”
While, nationally, activity at public courses rose 12% in 2020, according to the NGF, private clubs were up 20%. And after years of bottom-line challenges, more than two-thirds of those private facilities reported that they were now in “good financial health.”
That’s the case at French Creek Golf Club, an 18-year-old Gil Hanse-designed private course in Elverson, Chester County, where membership is up in 2021 and the on-course activity is surpassing 2020′s sky-high totals.
“We were up 30% in 2020 over 2019,” said club owner Thad Fortin. “There were 15,553 rounds played here in 2020, but for January through August of 2021, we’re up 58%.”
After years when it stagnated, French Creek’s membership, as is the case with the bulk of clubs nationally, has grown, with 100 new members signing on since the pandemic hit.
And it goes beyond golf. With ongoing travel and entertainment limits, many of these facilities have added such activities for members as pickleball, family movie nights, even book signings.
“People are looking for things to do,” Coyne said. “The clubs are getting more creative about their social calendars because they realize people aren’t flying to Scotland this year. Instead, a lot of people are coming out to hear a guy talk about his golf book. I’m used to talking to crowds of about 12. These days, I’m seeing 60 on some nights.”