Golf course design and construction can be a long game. Years certainly and sometimes even decades can pass from the first blueprints to the first rounds.
Which is one reason why architects and builders never seemed to worry much when work slowed down earlier this year as the rest of the nation and much of the world shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some projects were rushed through in an effort to beat anticipated lockdowns, others were postponed for undefined stretches. But plenty of clubs — and, in turn, all the people who create courses — pushed through a month or two of limited play or closures before returning far busier than before.
And some never stopped.
“We never really shut down,” says Nathan Crace, principal and golf course architect at Watermark Golf in Magee, Mississippi. “When the pandemic first hit, I had a couple of clients who said, ‘We’ve been putting these things off and now we’ve got some cash on hand. We don’t feel like this is going to be a permanent thing, so maybe we need to do some of this renovation while the course is slow and we can get these things knocked out.’” That seemed like a good plan, except that “three weeks later, not only were the courses not slow,” Crace says, “they were seeing huge increases in play. It was this weird roller coaster that, strangely enough, has been really, really good for golf.”
What a roller coaster. Rounds played have increased year over year every month since May, including a 20.6 percent bump in August, according to Golf Datatech. That works out to about 10 million more rounds in August 2020 than in August 2019 — or about two dozen more rounds per day at every course in the country. The total number of golfers will likely increase as well, from the 24 million people who played a course last year, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Those figures are why clubs are flush with cash, even after losing guaranteed revenue tied to outings and other events all spring. And that financial influx is sparking more course improvement projects.
Crace is working on a variety of projects and has fielded so many calls that his current count has at least doubled since late July. Same for Todd Quitno, senior project architect and VP of design at Lohmann Quitno Golf Course Architects in Chicagoland, and Jason Straka of Fry/Straka Golf Course Design in Dublin, Ohio. Both are balancing more projects than they anticipated in March, May, or even early July — and more than they have during recent years.
“I always wonder how busy some of our colleagues are,” Straka says, “and it sounds like people are doing pretty well overall.”
For what seems like the first time in forever, clubs are pouring more money back into the course than, say, operations. Some of those projects are major course designs and redesigns, but far more are focused on bunkers, greens, tees and even practice facilities.
“This workload is different because some are smaller jobs than before, but they just take so much more time,” Quitno says. “So it feels like we’re busier to me.”
Still, the ability for clubs to spend the money and for architects to provide their services is welcome.
“All of a sudden, they can finally go renovate those bunkers they’ve been talking about for 10 years,” Crace says. “They can justify it, and that’s a good thing, not only for the game, but it’s good for everybody all the way around.”
Crace recently wrapped up three years of work, from redesign through reconstruction, at The Refuge Golf Course in Flowood, Mississippi — a cause for celebration and a far cry from the early days of the pandemic. Back then, Crace would drive three and a half hours from his home to a work site in Alexandria, Louisiana.
“It was right after Mardi Gras and New Orleans had a huge outbreak,” he says. “To set my wife at ease, I would fill up my truck and pack a lunch and drive down there. We would have our site meetings outside, I would eat lunch in the truck and then I would drive back. I would get to Natchez, Mississippi before I would stop to get gas because nobody really knew anything then.”
While Crace was driving solo and brown-bagging out of his truck, Quitno and his design partner, Bob Lohmann, were unexpectedly slowing down after the delays of “a couple of good-sized projects that we were just trying to get the funding in place for.”
“We probably spent two months kind of waiting, not doing much, wondering what was going to happen,” he says. Work resumed in June on a par 3 in Wisconsin, “and then as the summer kept going, we just kept getting calls.” Since July, he says, “the calls have really flooded back in.”
The pandemic’s impact on golf has contrasted the Great Recession, an economic crisis that led to courses shutting down projects, or even shutting down completely.
“It was a huge market correction,” Crace says. “We had been building way too many courses, really almost mass producing them, and then people were building homes that they couldn’t afford so they got loans and, I mean, you know the story.”
Crace remembers the numbers so well: Nearly 500 courses opened one year, fewer than 50 the next. “It was literally a 90 percent cut and then it just kept going down from there. So that was a lot tougher.”
“And when we came out of the Recession, there was a such a backlog,” Straka says. “People had put a lot of things off, whether they ended up putting in new irrigation or updating their bunkers.”
The problem now, unlike in 2009, is not the backlog but the fact that “there’s no one to do the work,” Quitno says. “Everybody waited to see what was going to happen and it seems like their coffers are full of money, they want to get things done and there’s no one to do it.”
Normally, firms are able to plan more. “This year, it’s like the switch just got flipped on,” Quitno says, “and what would have been a year’s worth of work is being compressed into five or six months.” Some clubs seem to be in a rush to finish projects this calendar year, Quitno says, and “I’m actually suggesting they kind of pump the brakes. I’m not a huge fan of just flying into something.”
Builders are every bit as bullish — and perhaps even busier than architects. Quitno joked that “they’re probably running around like mad men right now.”
When Golf Course Builders Association of America executive director Justin Apel surveyed the association’s members just four months ago, he found that 38 percent said they expected things to stay the same or even increase after COVID-19 passed, and that another 22 percent were unsure but optimistic about the state of course construction. That the virus is still with us and work has picked up to an almost frenetic pace is incredible.
“There’s a lot of work that was questionable at the beginning of the year that now is active,” Apel says. “And it’s surprising. Even this fall, where work was tabled or shelved, it appears to be moving forward. I was just speaking to one of our rental companies and the volume of orders that they’re doing tells us that builders are moving ahead with those projects.”
Apel compared our current collective state to working and living not in a bubble but in a balloon. “The walls are soft, flexible and we all are learning how to work in a new environment. I look at our builders. They learned how much they can do with project managers, remote and on site, the ability to bid and to make adjustments and to change orders in a virtual setting. And now we’re going to ease ourselves back into in-person, and that happy medium with the technology is going to make all of us more efficient.”
But how sustainable is this construction market? In June, Apel said he was “really optimistic about the future of our game as long as we can evolve along with the changes society experiences” and predicted “a demand for quality construction work as long as golf courses continue to evolve.” Four months later, those statements seem prescient. Every corner of the game, architecture and construction among them, has adapted and moved forward.
Will all those cautiously bullish predictions about next year follow suit?