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Golf Industry Sits and Waits to See When It Can Get the Ball Rolling

Dropped Shots

By George O’Brien

Ted Perez Jr. calls it a “non-winter.” And he’s seen more than a few during roughly a half-century of work at East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, where he’s now the president and head professional.

A non-winter is just what it sounds like — a winter that isn’t. And that’s what this region had in 2019-20, except for those few weeks in early December.

Thus, East Mountain, as it is whenever the weather allows, was open most days all through the first three and half months of this year, so much so that Perez said the club, built by his father in 1960, was on target for its best year in perhaps a few decades.

“Golf certainly isn’t what it was 25 years ago, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had a sustained good year,” he said, referring to a downturn that started with the Great Recession and has lingered since. “But we were on course to have as good a year as we’ve had in a very long time.”

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed things in a hurry. All courses in the state were ordered closed in late March, as well as their 19th hole and banquet facilities. By then, pretty much every banquet and event through March, April, and May had been cancelled or postponed anyway.

All this is bad, but what makes it far worse is that Perez and other course owners and managers can’t understand the order — golf is played outdoors, and it’s relatively easy to socially distance — and they can’t plan because no one knows if or when the ban on play will be lifted.

“A golf course is almost like a public park,” said Antillio Cardaropoli, owner of Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, a private club. “People can go out for a walk, and when you’re playing golf, the most people you have together is four, and they’re usually going in different directions on the course. This [ban] makes no sense to me.”

Perez agreed.

“I have 120 acres here — it’s very, very, very easy to maintain separation and keep six feet apart on the golf course,” he said. “I truly don’t understand why there’s even a discussion about it; there should be no debate about this whatsoever.”

To add insult to injury, if that’s the appropriate phrase, most other states, including neighboring Connecticut, have deemed that golf is essential. Well, they’re allowing the courses to open, let’s put it that way. And many in the Bay State are crossing over the line to play, said Cardaropoli.

“A golf course is almost like a public park. People can go out for a walk, and when you’re playing golf, the most people you have together is four, and they’re usually going in different directions on the course. This [ban] makes no sense to me.”

Overall, the pandemic has impacted every facet of the golf business, said Jesse Menachem, president of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., adding that this is a long list. It includes greens fees and cart rentals, obviously, but also fundraising tournaments, leagues, food and beverages (a huge component of every club’s revenue stream), those banquets, retail (if people aren’t playing, they’re not buying clubs, balls, and new shoes), and more.

“Depending on how long this goes … if we cannot allow for golf operations to exist for another four, six, or eight weeks, that’s going to put courses in a very tough position,” said Menachem in early April, noting that the golf industry creates 25,000 jobs and is a $2.7 billion business. “This is prime time, not just for daily access, but for acquiring golfers and getting new members for private clubs.”

The best hope for course owners and managers is that, as the state begins to turn its economy back on — and that won’t happen before May 4 — golf courses will be on the list of businesses that can begin operating, with restrictions, to be sure. If that’s the case, courses will have lost several important weeks of on-course revenue and who knows how many weeks or months of banquet and food and beverage revenue.

“That’s certainly not ideal,” said Perez, “but we can cope with that.”

However, if courses can’t reopen on May 4 or soon thereafter, then what has been a challenging time for the golf industry will reach a new, unprecedented level of pain.

“From this point on, every week is critical to lose,” said Perez, noting that courses in this part of the country make more than 75% of their revenue between mid-April and mid-September. “This is revenue you just can’t make up.”

No Course of Action

It’s called ‘Good Friday, Bad Golf.’ It’s an annual event at East Mountain, a start-of-the-season gathering staged when most people have the day off from work and they’re eager to take the sticks out of the basement.

“It’s a huge golf outing — 140 players — and prime-rib dinner, the whole nine yards; when you add everything up, the golf, the bar, the snack bar, the dinner … it’s a huge day,” said Perez, noting that it obviously wasn’t a big day this year. “That’s gone; that’s been wiped out, and I can’t make it up.”

The question on everyone’s mind, and the question that can’t be answered, is how much more will be wiped out during the 2020 season?

Indeed, golf, like many other businesses, is in a state of limbo, or suspended animation. Courses can be maintained — that work has been deemed essential — but no one can play on them. Some still try, but such covert activities have drawn the ire of elected officials, if not the course owners themselves; Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s very public threat to barricade the city’s two municipal golf courses to keep people off them made headlines across the state.

For those managing courses, they can deal with the present, and they are (more on that in a moment), but, as noted, they can’t plan for the future because they have no idea what it looks like.

Overall, it’s not a good place to be.

“You can’t give anyone any answers because no one knows what’s going to happen,” Cararopoli said. “The governor says it may be May 4. What it it isn’t? No one knows.”

Elaborating, he said the many question marks about the future are wreaking havoc on the banquet side of the ledger. “We’ve lost so many events already — weddings, bar mitzvahs, proms, showers, birthdays,” he noted. “And no one can rebook because they don’t know what’s going to transpire over the next few months.”

As for dealing with the present, club owners and managers are doing what they can to cope. Perez has filed an application for relief from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and received initial approval. He was quick to note that this money can mostly be used for payroll, so when it comes to his myriad other expenses, he’s cutting corners in any way he can.

“I’m penny-pinching everything I can,” he noted, adding quickly that he’s not sure when he’ll be getting his PPP loan, adding to his cash-flow anxiety.

At Twin Hills, Cardaropoli has had to lay off a number of staff members — mostly on the banquet and food and beverage side of the house — and is unsure what to tell employees when it comes to if or when they might return.

As for the members … well, they are in a state of limbo as well, said Cardaropoli, adding that overall membership numbers are understandably down as some who might normally commit in the late winter or early spring — and that’s when a good number do — are waiting to see what happens before they sign on the dotted line and write a check.

“It’s made a big difference — March and April are the biggest months for having new members sign on,” he explained. “Now, because of the situation, fewer are signing on because they don’t know when they can start to play; membership is at a standstill.”

As for those who have signed up and started paying … if the season starts soon, fees may not have to be adjusted much or at all, Cardaropoli said. But if courses stay closed for several more weeks or months, that will certainly change, he went on, adding that it is unknown at this time just what services clubs will be offer to offer to members in 2020.

These scenarios are playing out at public and private courses across the state, said Menachem, adding that his organization continues to monitor the situation and diplomatically lobby the governor to let the courses open.

“We absolutely want to continue to advocate for our business and allow for access to golfers and enable these businesses to operate,” he said. “But we want to be respectful and realistic given what’s going on in this state, the country, and the world.”

Like Perez, Cardaropoli, and all other course owners and managers, Menachem sees golf as solid exercise and good release for those who are cooped up in their homes, and a business that should be open.

He said it would be easy to make adjustments that would enable people to play and stay safe. These include limiting carts to one passenger each — or eliminating them altogether and requiring people to walk; spacing out tee times to eliminate large gatherings at the first tee and reduce the number of people on the course at one time; limiting payments to contact-less options; pulling the cups out of the holes an inch or two to keep the ball from falling in; and keeping the flagsticks in the hole or eliminating them as well.

Perez agreed.

“Typically, we get eight foursomes an hour — a group goes out every seven and a half minutes,” he told BusinessWest. “Make it so you only have five tee times, one every 12 minutes, so you get a little more separation on the golf course. These are some of the things other golf courses are doing.

“I have a friend in Connecticut … this is what she’s doing. She’s gone with no carts, and she said it couldn’t have gone any smoother,” he went on, noting that more than 40 states allow golf courses to be open, with some restrictions. “And she’s getting 140 to 150 golfers a day. If I could get 100 players a day, I could weather this storm; zero a day just doesn’t work.”

Bottom Line

Indeed, it doesn’t.

That’s the reality for area course owners and managers today. They’re guardedly optimistic that things will change soon, but they simply don’t know.

Golf, the game, is hard. Golf, the business, has been just as hard for the past several years. And now, it’s become even more difficult.