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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.