Air is essential. Water and food are essential. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been undeniably unalienable and almost certainly essential for the last 243 years and change.

And, during much of a year that seemed to last at least a decade, golf was essential — physically, mentally and, it should not be overlooked or forgotten, legally.

What a strange year 2020 was. When ballparks and stadiums remained shuttered, when offices shifted from downtown towers to webcams filming suburban guest rooms, when more than a billion swabs wriggled around more than a billion nostrils to search for COVID-19, golf courses developed into some sort of composite of a gym, a town hall, a community center and maybe even your favorite weeknight dinner spot — curbside delivery, of course.

“It was an amazing year,” KemperSports CEO Steven Skinner says. “There was so much pain, and there still is so much pain, and we’re very fortunate to have golf come back. It gave people some sanity, to get outside and exercise.”

Rounds played increased year-over-year every month from May through November, and quarterly equipment sales topped $1 billion for the first time since before the Great Recession. Agronomically, projected operating budgets are hitting record highs across all segments of the industry and superintendents are busier than ever.

What in the world just happened? Do all these facts and figures represent a blip or a boom? Where can — and where will — golf go from these pandemic peaks?

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THE YEAR IN REVIEW

There were fewer than 8,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Jan. 30, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. That same day, a Thursday, thousands of Golf Industry Show attendees walked out of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando after a week filled with seminars, sales pitches and small talk. Wonderful to catch up. See you again next year in Las Vegas.

There were more than 118,000 confirmed cases on March 11, when the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic. Much of the golf world was focused that week on the empty galleries at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, where Si Woo Kim finished three shots ahead of the field in the first round of The Players Championship. The PGA Tour suspended play, in line with the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball, the next day.

After that, everything happened in a blur. For golf, more courses closed within the week. The average shutdown, at least among our State of the Industry respondents, lasted more than 22 days.

“At the very beginning, you never thought they would get to the point of shutting businesses down, or shutting golf courses down, and at one point 75 or 80 percent of our courses were closed by government order,” Skinner says. “We really spent a lot of time working on protocols but also working with local governments, trying to get the facilities back open in a safe manner.”

People from every corner of the industry banded together in March, April, even May, in an effort to reopen courses. The game was designed with social distance in mind. (You ever try to swing a club with anybody within six feet of you?) Superintendents and executives and GCSAA leaders called mayors and governors and legislators to lobby for the game.

“We had several calls with some of the other big management companies, and I had never seen the groups come together,” Skinner says. “It really showed the value of having the national associations and everybody’s support of them.”

“Right when everything hit, for a week straight, I just called my contacts, from New Jersey, New York, Florida, Virginia, all my contacts back in Ohio, all my buddies here, a couple guys in Chicago, a couple guys out in Colorado, California,” says Ross Miller, superintendent at the Country Club of Detroit in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan. “We’ve got a pretty tight-knit group around Detroit here of about 12 of us, and we share quite a bit. Picking their brains, seeing what they were doing. More than anything, I wanted to listen and just get different thoughts.”

More than 46 percent of survey respondents reported labor cuts — from furloughs to layoffs — as belts tightened figuratively and perhaps literally. General managers hopped on mowers. Kitchen staff pitched in on sodding. So many turf pros described the weeks of empty courses as “eerie.”

When courses reopened in whatever modified capacity their city or state leaders allowed, most on-course touchpoints and shared cart rides had disappeared — anything to stop the spread of a virus we knew next to nothing about. Superintendents are an adaptable and inventive bunch. Best practices popped up everywhere.

“Our key principle was the safety of our staff. That was paramount,” Miller says. “We broke down to a four-on, three-off schedule for all of our staff, and then had only one day of overlap with the whole staff. If someone would get COVID on our team, I needed that separation. We saw an increase in productivity, and we saw a massive decrease in tardiness and called days off.”

Designed for physical health, the move will soon become permanent at least as much for mental health.

“We’re moving to a five-on, two-off schedule next year where half the crew gets Friday and Saturday off, half the team gets Sunday and Monday off,” Miller says. “Why should our industry be any different and not get two consecutive days off? It’s up to us to lose the badge of honor stuff and work on quality of life for our staff, which will increase the quality of product on the course.”

Thanks to a more global scope, Troon COO Bruce Glasco says the company, which manages nearly 600 golf facilities around the world after a recent acquisition of Indigo Golf Partners, was “fortunate enough to have a lens into what was happening. We were able to pass along what we were learning in some environments to environments that had not yet reached that point.”

California, for example, was among the earlier states to shut down. “We learned early on that having an action plan for reopening and the general safety of your members and guests was something they were going to mandate prior to your opening back up. Through that learning process in California, we took those lessons and pushed out the idea of having an action plan, company-wide, into all regions, so we were prepared in the event that other states followed California’s lead.”

Learning on the fly in California allowed the company to operate more efficiently elsewhere and figure out more quickly when other courses might be able to reopen.

And when those courses did open back up, golfers flooded the tee sheets.

BLIP OR BOOM?

Among the first Golfers-in-Chief, Woodrow Wilson played about 1,000 rounds during his eight years in the White House. He loved the game enough to prescribe regular rounds for World War I stress relief and later recommended the same during the now-famous flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 by playing nearly every day for weeks. Participation increased even as waves of that virus spread around the world.

The more things change, of course, the more they seem to remain the same. A little more than a century later, with another golf-loving President in the office, the game has become a balm for millions.

But will all these new golfers stick around after bars, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums and every other favorite social spot opens back up in 2021 or ’22? And will those golfers who played an extra round every week or two come back as often when golf is no longer the only escape? (For more on those questions, check out Break on through, starting on page 28.) In short, does this spike reflect the first boom for golf since the late 1990s? Or just a blip?

According to our survey results, rounds played in 2020 increased at 88 percent of all golf facilities — with 56 percent of that group reporting a bump of at least 20 percent — and 84 percent of respondents say they expect rounds to either increase again or at least remain the same this year. By itself, that is a strong indicator of at least another year of record or near-record numbers.

Beyond that, 91 percent of respondents say their maintenance budget will increase this year — to a record $1,043,755, up nearly 6 percent from last year — 82 percent rank their self-assessed job security 8 or higher on a 10-point scale, 79 percent say they are optimistic about their own facility’s long-term financial future, and 76 percent say they feel better about the overall health of the game compared to a year ago.

© danny o’leary

But perhaps it might be better to look at the year ahead in sections.

“We’ve really broken 2021 into two halves,” Skinner says. “The first half, we think there will be continued strong demand because there will continue to be restrictions on travel and activities. When the economy opens back up again and people start traveling, we’ll have a lot more competition for the recreational dollar. The industry has a real opportunity, and it’s incumbent on us on how we take these literally millions of new golfers and build a lifelong relationship with them.”

“I am quite bullish,” Glasco says. “I like the demographics of the golfers who are starting to play — not just the good junior numbers but there are quite a few college-aged golfers, which is a little bit new, those 20- to 25-year-olds.” Those twentysomething golfers are playing plenty of municipal and daily-fee courses, “and I think that bodes well for them sticking around. We as an industry have always been challenged to keep the people who come in every year.”

This year represents a potential turning point for the industry. After decades of not actively pursuing non-golfers, new organizations have popped up to attract women and younger golfers. There have to be at least a couple million folks among the 328 million or so who live in the United States who might come to the game and play a dozen rounds every year, right? Because even a couple million could make the difference in continuing a boom.

“I do think we’ve blown the dust off some clubs and bags among the fortysomething, well-to-do executive or middle manager” who had stepped away because of work and home demands, says Forrest Richardson, owner of Forrest Richardson & Associates and the current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. “And then we have new people into the game, and we haven’t lost the avid golfer, and we’ve put more kids on the course. So there is a positive. How big it will be, I don’t know. That’s not my department. But I have certainly been a cheerleader for my clients and the management companies: ‘This is an opportunity. Let’s build on this. Let’s build forward tees, let’s cater to kids and people who haven’t been on the course in a while.’”

“If we want to keep new golfers with us, then there should be a certain low- or no-cost instruction,” says Jan Bel Jan, owner of Jan Bel Jan Golf Course Design and the immediate past president of the ASGCA. “We need to celebrate all the successes — and sometimes the successes are the three shots that were stellar out of 50.”

THE FUTURE IS NOW

More than 1 million Americans received the first shot of the two-shot COVID-19 vaccine by Christmas Eve. Another 1 million received it by New Year’s Eve. And while few golfers and probably no superintendents were among those earliest few, everybody will have an opportunity to receive it should they desire as the line moves forward.

How quickly enough people can receive that vaccination is another quandary entirely.

“You can only vaccinate so many people so fast, so we’re cautiously optimistic about being able to claw our way out of this,” Glasco says. “But we don’t believe that Q1 will necessarily be a light-switch environment in which suddenly everything will change. We think it’s a slow, methodical process.

“We’re in a good position with the new golfers who have come into the game and we know the people who have played golf this year have a new appreciation for what the sport brings, the benefits it brings for health and wellness. We’re hopeful that Q2 really starts where the numbers support getting more back to normal.” That, Glasco says, is when clubhouses and event centers could finally return to some sense of the Before Times.

“That will allow us more freedoms in restaurants,” he says. “I think we will see more hard commits in the conference and business space, so our clients who are also hotel operators will start to get some firm commitments for future business. It’s hard for them right now because the restrictions keep changing. We’re hoping people will start thinking and start reacting in a more positive manner in Q2.

“And then, in a perfect world, we’ll be in a new renaissance for the sport by Q4 of next year.”

Renaissance might be the perfect word for golf in 2020 and beyond: These last nine months have represented a sort of rebirth, a revival, a renewed interest in the game. Through so many dark days, golf was essential.

“I was just talking with one of my superintendents and I was telling him how proud I was that we hung in there,” says Sean McHugh, executive director of golf operations for the Cleveland Metroparks’ eight Northeast Ohio courses. “We had a couple bumps, a couple glitches, but the team stuck together — from the golf pros to the superintendents, they kept it going. They knew there were furloughs in other departments in the park and they just kept plugging away. And he said, ‘It was almost a badge of honor that we were here, providing them good conditions.’

“Now the snow’s here, we’re starting to grind reels and work on maintenance equipment, and it’s like a little breath. Before you know it, March will be here and we’ll kick it off and get going again.”

Who knows what this year holds? Predictions and forecasts are such a volatile gambit that even the best meteorologists seldom venture out past 12 days, much less 12 months, but it is fair to say that rounds will still be higher than almost any year during the last couple decades, labor and weather will provide more consistent challenges than even a pandemic, and there are few places as meditative and cleansing to spend a few hours than a golf course.

Oh, and turf pros remain some of the more centered and resilient people on the planet.

“I hope people consider what they learned last year as a positive,” says Ryan Cummings, superintendent at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Indiana. “The last couple years, I tried to shrug things off. Yeah, 2020 was a pain in the rear, it was different, but I’m a much stronger golf course superintendent and manager than I was 12 months ago.”

Celebrate all the successes — essential and otherwise.

Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.