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Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Course Correction

Melissa Aitken

Melissa Aitken says the surge in the sport, and business, of golf enjoyed during COVID continues four years later.


Golfers, regardless of their skill level, know the importance of getting off to a good start.

Indeed, often — but not always, obviously — the first few holes, and even the first few shots, will set the tone for an entire round.

And when it comes to the business of golf, and a specific season, the same is generally true. Usually — but, again, not always — a good start can pave the way to a solid year.

And in recent years, with winters ending early, area courses, especially those with the desire and the means to open before the grass starts growing in earnest, have been able to get off to great starts.

“We’ve had some early springs, and this one is even earlier, and that has helped a lot of courses; for most, this is bonus time,” said Jesse Menachem, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc. (MGA). For decades, he noted, players in this area set their watches to Master’s weekend (mid-April) for when to get the clubs out of the cellar and start hitting balls; in recent years, they’ve had to recalibrate and start in mid-March.

But fast starts in the spring, and even the late winter, are not the only things going right for a golf industry that was in many ways on the ropes in the years leading up to the pandemic. Indeed, a surge that resulted from COVID, when there was little else that people could do for exercise and socialization — they couldn’t even play tennis — has had real staying power, said Menachem and others we spoke with, with the MGA’s leader noting a 1% increase in the total number of rounds played last year. That’s a modest hike, to be sure, but the needle is still moving in the right direction.

Bobby Downs, head professional at the Country Club of Wilbraham, said the upswing that started during COVID has continued and even accelerated in some respects, with membership as high as it has been in many years.

“We could take in a few more people, but we’re at a point, just under 400, where we’re very satisfied with the number we have here,” he said, noting this number would have been a pipe dream just five years ago.

“We’ve had some early springs, and this one is even earlier, and that has helped a lot of courses; for most, this is bonus time.”

Melissa Aitken, CEO of the Country Club of Pittsfield, a Donald Ross course that can trace its roots to 1897, cited similar momentum.

“Our club is doing tremendously well,” she said. “We’ve seen a surge in membership, and last year our membership count was the highest it has been since 2008. Post-COVID, we’ve seen an increase of 21% in our membership level. Every year, more and more people are inquiring despite the dues increases that have been necessary since COVID changed the world.” 

Other factors benefiting the industry include everything from demographics — Baby Boomers are retiring in large numbers, and many are looking for things to do — to the younger generations embracing the game in some form (maybe not 18 holes every Saturday, but nine holes here and there and an hour of practice), to remote work schedules, which make it slightly easier to get out for a round than being in the office five days a week.

Tom Baron

Tom Baron says the Topgolf simulators at MGM Springfield have benefited from the recent surge in interest in the sport.

And these factors are benefiting not only courses, but other components of this business as well, from retail stores to the growing number of facilities with golf simulators; from driving ranges to mini-golf courses.

Dave DiRico, the mostly retired owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf in West Springfield and a former club pro, can speak to all aspects of the business and the current trends. He told BusinessWest that his simulators are booked solid in the winter months (not so much when people can play for real), and that those who took up the game during COVID or returned to it are sticking with it — and buying new equipment while they’re at it.

He’s also seeing and hearing that tee times have been nearly impossible to get in these early days of spring (and more difficult to get in general) and that private courses are at capacity and, in some cases, even have waiting lists.

“I see the game in a very healthy place,” he said. “The golf courses are busy, and the membership in most places is full — or, if they’re not full, they’re nearly full. Young people are getting into the game, and they’re staying with it. The signs are all very positive.”

All this is a far cry from where things were in the years leading up the pandemic. What was a struggling business now has a good lie, as they say in this sport, and it is looking to take full advantage and do some scoring. For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, we talked to representatives of many facets of the golf business about how the sport has rebounded and why they believe the good times will continue.


Out of the Rough

Tom Baron, senior manager of Food & Beverage at MGM Springfield, who oversees the Topgolf facility on the property, told BusinessWest that the simulators there can provide users with a seemingly endless stream of information to digest and analyze as they work to improve their games.

“They instantly give you the ball’s spin rate, the clubhead speed, whether the clubface was open or closed, the ball speed, the arc … it’s amazing,” he said.

Meanwhile, these simulators can enable users to play some of most renowned courses in the world, from Pebble Beach to Pinehurst No. 2 to the Old Course at St. Andrews, where they can even take a simulated walk over the famous Swilcan Bridge after hitting their drives on the 18th hole.

“I see the game in a very healthy place. The golf courses are busy, and the membership in most places is full — or, if they’re not full, they’re nearly full. Young people are getting into the game, and they’re staying with it. The signs are all very positive.”

Baron said Topgolf, which is open only on weekends, has become an increasingly popular attraction, and event space, at the casino complex, especially on Father’s Day, Master’s week (people play but also watch the tournament on the 12 TVs), and other times. It attracts players of all skill levels, from novices to those who bring their own clubs — and even their own golf shoes.

And, as noted, it enables them to work on their game while also playing courses they’ve only read about or seen on TV.

“The attention to detail on these simulators is amazing,” he said. “Like with the par 3s at Pebble Beach with the waves crashing around them — the technology makes you feel like you’re there.”

But the real surge in golf involves what’s happening at courses right here in the 413, and across the state and the country, for that matter — specifically the continuation of a rebirth that began not quite four years ago.

Indeed, while COVID was a dark time for businesses across all sectors — and it was for golf at the start as well, because courses were included in the wide state shutdown of businesses — it eventually became a blessing for the industry.

In the years leading up the pandemic, the game was suffering. Play was down across the board, at public courses and even at the most esteemed private courses, to the point where some were resorting to something they’d never done (or had to do) before — advertise on various media in the hopes of attracting more members. A few courses in the area actually closed, and others saw their existence threatened.

Dave DiRico, seen here with daughter Carrie Michael and son-in-law Drew Michael

The mostly retired Dave DiRico, seen here with daughter Carrie Michael and son-in-law Drew Michael, who now manage Dave DiRico’s Golf, says all aspects of the business have flourished recently, including retail.

“We were in a year-to-year situation,” said Downs as he recalled the years prior to COVID. “We were running on such a shoestring that we weren’t sure, at some points, if we were going to stay in existence.

“From 2005 until 2018 and 2019, you saw a steady decline in the number of rounds being played throughout the country,” he went on. “There was not a lot of new people coming into the game, and not a lot of engagement; people who had played the game when they were younger weren’t engaged anymore.”

For many, especially those of the younger generations, the game was too slow, too costly, and too time-consuming. When the pandemic hit, it was still all those things, but it was suddenly far more attractive — because there was little else to do for fun.

So many took up the game while others who had left it returned, sparking a renaissance of sorts. And while courses suffered through seemingly unending rain in 2021, oppressive heat in 2022, and an irritating pattern of rain on weekends in 2023, the arrow has continued to point up in most respects at both public and private courses.

This has been the case despite some persistent challenges that range from the workforce issues now common to virtually every sector of the economy to the rising cost of everything from fertilizer to the chicken served at the 19th hole or the club’s restaurant.

Aitken said there are many factors contributing to the growing popularity of the game — and better times for clubs like hers, everything from young people getting involved to a broad focus on fitness to families moving from larger urban centers to more rural areas like the Berkshires.

“Our membership is driven by our dual residents who join us from May to October every year, as they come back to their summer homes in the Berkshires,” she explained. “We’re primarily 65 years and over, but with COVID, many young families moved out of the city and made their way home to the Berkshires, so it’s been great to see the increase in young families not only at the club but in Berkshire County.

“I think the fitness and health-conscious mindset also plays a big part in our daily lives now, so many people are joining the club to be outdoors, get exercise, and be with their friends,” she went on. “I strive to make our club a home-away-from-home environment, and I think it’s that feeling of family and familiarity that makes our club really special in our area.”


Round Numbers

As for young people, while golf is still too slow for some, many are discovering the game and sticking with it, said Aitken, adding that this bodes well for the game long-term because people can play the sport into their 70s and 80s.

“I’ve seen a large increase in the interest of the younger generation,” she told BusinessWest. “My son is a freshman in high school, and they had more than 20 students try out for the golf team last year, which is higher than our town of Dalton has ever had. I think the popularity of younger golfers like Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, and Rory McIlroy have increased the desire for young students to try out the game of golf as well. Shows like the Netflix series Full Swing certainly don’t hurt either.”

Downs agreed, but noted that clubs must be proactive and try to bring young people into the game through youth programs, membership options, and more.

“One of the first things I did when I took over here seven years ago was get in touch with the town’s Recreation Department and try to create a good relationship with them,” he recalled. “We grew our PGA Junior League program from where there were maybe 15 kids involved to where, two years ago, there were more than 60.”

While more younger people are certainly finding the game, the current surge is essentially across the board, said those we spoke with. And it is manifesting itself into what could be called good problems to have for clubs — full membership and full tee sheets, for example — that have forced them to turn some people away.

Indeed, DiRico recalled being in his store one weekday earlier this month, talking with customers who struggled, in vain, to find a tee time at the courses that were open for business.

They will certainly have better luck as more clubs open their pro shops in the days to come, he said, but the pandemic boost has shown to be resilient thus far, enduring inflation and all that bad weather mentioned earlier.

And, as noted, the surge has trickled down to not only courses, but the many other facets of the game, including retail.

DiRico noted that, as soon as Golf Digest publishes its annual Hot List of the newest equipment, from drivers to irons to putters, good players, but also those at all levels, will come in to see and try what they’ve read about. But this annual spike has been helped by new players, and returnees, who have stuck with the game since COVID and now want to upgrade what’s in their bag.

“Over the past two or three years, there’s more golfers than ever before,” he said. “More people took up the game — spouses who had never played before, kids who never played took up the game. Now, these people have become repeat customers; those people who bought used clubs are now buying new clubs.”

That’s just one of many signs that a game that was certainly in the rough just a few years ago has found its way onto the green and, more importantly, on the path to a very solid future.

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Still on a Roll

Dan Burak, owner of Tekoa Country Club.

Dan Burak, owner of Tekoa Country Club.

The game of golf — and the business of golf — has enjoyed a resurgence since the start of the pandemic, with many people picking up the game or returning to it after pausing for one of many reasons. As the new season begins, there is optimism that the momentum gained will carry over into 2022, with an understanding that there are many challenges — from workforce issues and rising prices for just about everything to the very real possibility of a golf-ball shortage — that will have to be overcome.

As the 2022 golf season commences — earlier than what would be considered normal at many facilities — those operating courses are, to borrow language from the game, looking at both scoring opportunities and some potentially heavy rough.

Indeed, as courses across the region start to welcome players to their first tees — some have actually been open for weeks now — they are looking optimistically toward building off some pandemic-generated momentum for a sport (and a business) that was in the tall grass and struggling on many levels just a few years ago.

When the pandemic closed many indoor (and some outdoor) options when it came to sports and recreation, golf became an attractive alternative in the late spring and summer of 2020, and many of those who took up the game or returned to it after pausing for one of many reasons stayed with it in 2021, said Dan Burak, manager of a number of area commercial properties, who added Tekoa Country Club in Westfield to his portfolio in 2009.

“The golf side of the business has been phenomenal the past few years,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that the banquet side of the ledger has not recovered as quickly, but there are many positive signs there for 2022, which we’ll get to later. “We were almost too busy on the golf side. We had to say no to a lot of people and tell them that there were just no tee times available. We hated to say no, but it was a good problem to have.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem says some courses posted record years in 2021 as golf witnessed a resurgence, and he and others expect that momentum to carry into 2022.

Jesse Menachem, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., said courses across the state have seen significant increases in play over the past two years, with many of them recording record years in 2021, despite frequent rain that closed facilities for several days during the season.

“Last year saw a continuation of the demand, the increased level of interest and activity, from the latter part of 2020, the second half of that year,” he said. “It was really encouraging in terms of tee sheets being very full, merchandise sales being through the roof, and, in some cases, hitting some record numbers — membership levels being high, wait lists at many private clubs that had not experienced that in the past years … across the board, those trends are really solid.”

Looking ahead, course owners, managers, and pros alike are expecting those patterns to continue into 2022. But despite this generally upbeat outlook, there are many formidable challenges to overcome. These include everything from workforce issues — golf operations are in the same boat as almost all businesses in the broad recreation and hospitality category — to simply stocking golf balls in the pro shop; from sharp increases in the price of everything, from gas to food to fertilizer, to deciding how much of these increases can be passed on to the consumer.

The workforce crisis is being handled the same way it is in other sectors — by increasing wages when necessary and casting a wide net when it comes to recruitment, said Mike Fontaine, general manager of the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, a muncipally owned, semi-private facility.

“We’re trying to staff up, like everyone else, and the price of staffing is at a level that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “And we have to be creative with how we go about handling that; we’re getting more applicants, which is positive, but it’s still a challenge.”

As for supply matters, they were certainly an issue in 2021, and there are no signs of improvement on the horizon, as we’ll see, with course operators struggling to secure everything from mowers to golf gloves.

Meanwhile, and for all those reasons listed above, those who have taken up the game, returned to it, or kept with it all along will find playing a round to be expensive in 2022. The only question is how much more expensive.

“It’s inevitable,” said Menachem, citing the rising cost of practically everything needed to operate a course, from labor to weed killer. He added quickly, though, that while courses must account for the rising prices they’re facing, they have to be careful not to price out those who are discovering golf — or rediscovering it, as the case may be.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at what promises to be another solid year for the industry, but also the many challenges lurking down the fairway.

‘Hole’sale Improvement

Flashing back to the spring of 2020, Burak said it was a curious, challenging time for course owners and managers.

First, courses were allowed to open, and then they were ordered to close, even as many other states allowed them to operate. Then, when they were allowed to reopen, they couldn’t operate their restaurants or even allow customers to use the restrooms in the pro shop.

Courses adapted to the new landscape, and so did players, said Burak, noting that, with the 19th hole closed and players unable to buy alcohol at the course, many adopted a BYOB strategy.

And upon learning that this is a much cheaper option than buying at the course, many kept with that strategy even after the restrictions were limited.

Mike Fontaine

Mike Fontaine says that, while the golf business has been solid, there are stern challenges to be met, including workforce issues.

“When we opened the clubhouse … they were already in the habit of stopping at the package store and getting their beer there,” he said. “Some are a little more flagrant about it, with a cooler that’s visible, but some get very creative. It’s a problem.”

Overall, trying to police those players who ignore the large signs informing them that coolers are prohibited is just one of many challenges facing course owners and operators as the new season begins, and probably one of the minor ones.

The list of bigger concerns starts with workforce matters. Indeed, while Burak said he has had relatively good luck on that front, securing an adequate supply of workers for the course, the kitchen, and the ballroom in 2021, Menachem noted that most course operators were not as fortunate. And the forecast for 2022 is for more of the same.

“It’s a challenge, not only in our industry, but in many others in service, to support operations and fill out your staff for what’s needed to support a consistent and solid operation,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the challenges are not just with jobs at the lower end of the wage scale.

“We’re learning and hearing that clubs are struggling to fill assistant superintendent or assistant professional jobs,” he went on. “There’s many reasons for that, and I think the pandemic exposed it and in some ways expedited it. The days of the golf professional working seven days a week and being obligated and tied to the facility … that’s starting to change. Lifestyle, family activities, balance, quality of life, all that is really top of mind, and it’s something our industry has to be cognizant of.”

Beyond these changes, courses have to contend with a shortage of workers and immense competition for candidates who have no shortage of options.

“You might drive down the road and see a couple of restaurants or stores posting jobs for $18, $20, or even $25 an hour, and that’s competition to our facilities,” said Menachem. “The minimum wage, or the $15-an-hour rate to maintain a golf course and help serve on the maintenance crew, is probably a thing of the past.”

Attilo Cardaropoli

Attilo Cardaropoli says course owners and managers face a number of challenges, including long waits for new equipment and parts for everything from golf carts to refrigerators.

Fontaine concurred, speaking for nearly all course owners and managers when he said recruiting and retaining good help was a formidable, and expensive, challenge in 2021. But as he surveys the scene, he is seeing a somewhat improved hiring landscape for 2022, with the big issue being the price that will have to be paid for that help.

Attilio Cardaropoli, owner of Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, a private club, agreed.

“Last year was a nightmare — we couldn’t find anybody to work,” he told BusinessWest. “Things are somewhat better this year, and we’re hoping it gets better still as the summer comes along with returning college students that we use quite a bit. Overall, it’s starting to ease up a bit, but it’s still not where it should be.”

Par for the Course

Meanwhile, other challenges facing area courses include the rising cost of needed goods — again, that means everything from food to golf balls to landscaping equipment — and the short supplies of all the above. And, of course, these two issues go hand in hand. As supplies shrink (often as demand increases), prices go higher.

Burak put all this perspective by relaying his difficulties in securing a much-needed tractor.

“I want the same brand that I had before, because I have all the attachments for it,” he explained. “I went to the dealer, saw the model I wanted, and I said, ‘what’s the availability?’ He said, ‘I have none in stock, and I have seven on the waiting list that are already sold. The first one that comes in goes to the guy who’s been on the list the longest, and he put his order in last August.’ I probably won’t get the tractor in all season, the list is so long, and that’s just one dealer.”

Cardaropoli told a similar story with his efforts to secure a new fleet of golf carts.

“We were supposed to get them right now, but the dealer says they’re just not available yet,” he said. “We’re hoping that they’re just a few months late, but we just don’t know. We ordered them last year, and we’re still waiting. And for some of the older ones that we’re still using … they break down, and we can’t get parts for them. It’s a struggle.”

Fontaine concurred. “With fertilizer alone, we’re seeing increases from 75% to 135% — and that’s just going to be a huge hit,” he said, noting that some of the materials in those products come from Russia and Ukraine, meaning things are likely to get worse before they get anhy better.

But the problem extends to golf equipment as well, with those we spoke with, noting that it was difficult to keep gloves, bags, and especially balls in stock last year, and similar problems are expected for 2022.

SEE: List of Golf Courses in Western Mass.

“We were very fortunate that we got our big order of golf balls in the spring from Titleist,” said Burak, mentioning the top ball maker in the world as he talked about 2021. “And we ended up with more than we needed, actually, and the rep kept coming back, saying, ‘do you have any we can take back? We have customers begging for them.’”

Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, told BusinessWest that such problems are likely to continue into 2022.

“Titleist is saying that by mid-summer, they could be running out of golf balls,” he said, adding that talk within the industry is that the resin needed to manufacture balls comes from China, and it is in increasingly short supply. “That’s what the companies are telling us. With many of these things that come from China, the prices are jumping, or you just can’t get them.”

Golf bags are a good example of this, he said, adding that supplies are limited and prices are skyrocketing, with models that cost $119 last year going now for at least $160.

Going for the Green

Despite these many challenges, golf-course operators are expecting 2022 to be another good year, perhaps a record year.

As noted, many courses are already open, and most anticipate opening sooner than would be considered normal, if recent weather patterns continue. And a good start is always important, Menachem said.

“It’s always a big help because it gets people interested, and you can build momentum,” he explained. “You can also drive some shoulder-season revenue that is not always available.”

Meanwhile, all evidence is pointing toward a continuation of what was seen in 2020 in terms of tee sheets filling up and, at Tekoa at least, having to tell callers that there are no times available.

On the private-course side of the ledger, Cararopoli noted that membership at Twin Hills is at nearly full capacity despite a healthy increase in fees — an indication, he said, that the momentum generated over the past two years is sustainable.

Meanwhile, on the banquet side of the balance sheet — a huge part of the business for many operations — there are many signs of improvement as well. Indeed, after 2020 was almost a complete washout and 2021 saw events but certainly not a full slate, especially later in the year, 2022 looks to be something approaching normal.

“The phone is ringing off the hook on the banquet side,” Burak said. “And that’s been so quiet — it’s been killing us for two years.”

Cardaropoli agreed, noting a slower pace of improvement at Twin Hills, with the phone ringing far more often than it has the past few years, at least with people looking to book events.

“The banquet side is just starting to pick up now,” he said. “Our January and February were terrible, we picked up a few in March, and April looks a little better; it’s really starting to look good for the fall, especially for charity tournaments.”

Returning to the golf side of the business, while the outlook is certainly upbeat, one wild card when it comes to how well these courses do concerns what happens with pricing, said Menachem, noting that, while increases are inevitable, courses need to walk a fine line on this matter.

They no doubt need to raise prices to cover the increases they’re facing, but they should be careful not to raise them to the point where such hikes might discourage those getting into the game or becoming more serious about it.

“There has to be some caution and some balance,” he said. “With the way we’re seeing these trends with new golfers coming in and others coming back to the game, we want to make sure we’re not boxing them out or potentially losing them again. Ten to 15 years ago, we saw some similar trends, when golf was at its peak and we were getting new golfers. Prices were going up, and we lost some of those fringe golfers.”

Those we spoke with said they’ve had no choice but to raise fees given all the price increases they’ve been hit with — on the labor front and every other front, for that matter.

“We have to go up on our membership, and we have to raise our price on greens fees and cart fees just to stay stable and competitive with the market,” Fontaine said. “With COVID and now the war in Ukraine, people have become accustomed to seeing prices going up, but I’m not sure how much higher we can go.”

Burak agreed, noting that Tekoa has increased greens fees $3 across the board, with memberships going up as well. Those hikes, implemented last fall, probably don’t cover all the increases he’s facing, he said, but competition for the golf dollar is steep, and the somewhat modest increase he’s implemented reflects that.

But he was quick to note that further adjustments may be necessary if inflationary trends continue.

“We’re going to have to see what our expenses turn out to be once things really get going,” he said, adding that these sentiments are true on both the golf and banquet sides of the business.

Bottom Line

Summing up the outlook for 2022 and beyond, Menachem said there is plenty of room for optimism within the golf industry, but there are also some bunkers and water hazards, figuratively speaking, that present real challenges to progress — and profitability.

“With all the positivity or demand and interest, there’s definitely, on the flip side, things we need to be focused on,” he said, adding that, in most respects, those within the industry expect to build on the momentum that’s been generated and put up some good numbers.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

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.