Swinging in the Rain
Mike Fontaine has been working in the golf business for more than three decades now. As the general manager at the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, he speaks from experience when he says this season has been unlike anything course owners and managers have seen in a long while, if ever.
The rain has been almost constant, bringing with it lost rounds, lost days, damage to fairways and greens, logistical problems when it comes to all that has been postponed, additional expense on the course-maintenance side, and … well, you get the idea.
“It’s been a challenge at best,” said Fontaine, with a heavy dose of understatement in his voice. “In all my years in golf, this weather pattern has been the toughest I’ve seen. It was probably the wettest July on record, and August brought the humidity and more rain. And with no one wanting to work and it being very difficult to find people in all departments, not just food and beverage…”
His voice tailed off, but he got his key points across: 2021 has been a struggle, in every way.
But it hasn’t been a lost year by any means. Indeed, it’s been a solid season for many golf operations, especially those that are membership-based or are mostly private but allow public play. That’s because a good number of those who took up the game, or rediscovered it, during the pandemic, when there was seemingly nothing else to do, stayed with it.
At least … when the weather would allow them to.
“When we were open, it lived up to the expectations we had at the start of the year,” said Kevin Piecuch, head pro at Country Club of Greenfield, a quasi-public operation, noting that, based on last year’s strong numbers, the bar was set fairly high for 2021. “It wasn’t quite as busy as last year, but it has still been a solid year, although the weather has certainly hurt us.”
Fontaine concurred. “When it’s not raining, we’ve been packed.”
E.J. Altobello, head pro at Springfield Country Club, a private club in West Springfield, went further. He said that, despite the rain, which has taken five whole days from the calendar, by his count, and parts of countless others, the club is doing nearly as well as it did last year, and much better than the years immediately preceding the pandemic.
“When we were open, it lived up to the expectations we had at the start of the year.”
“We didn’t reach 2020 numbers, but we surpassed all our 2019 numbers,” he noted. “And we destroyed 2018 numbers — absolutely clobbered them.”
Like Fontaine and Piecuch, Altobello said the surge the game witnessed in 2020 appears to have staying power, manifesting itself in everything from those impressive numbers of rounds to a waiting list for membership, something this club, and most area clubs, haven’t seen in quite a while.
“We’re back to an initiation fee at the club, for the first time in 15 years or more,” he noted. “Every category is filled up. We’re still taking some social memberships and things like that, but everything else is full; we have 20 people on a waiting list trying to get in for 2022.”
The hope, of course, is that the rain subsides for the last few months of this year and courses continue to build momentum for 2022. But as everyone has seen this past summer, forecasting can be difficult.
Clouding the Issue
The 8th hole at Greenfield is a fairly short par 5, while the 9th is a stout par 4 of nearly 400 yards. There were times this year, though, when the former was a par 4 and the latter a par 3, because portions of those fairways were just too wet for play and adjustments had to be made, said Piecuch, who also has 30 years of experience under his belt and can say with hesitation that he’s never seen this much rain.
“We’ve had to flop some holes around and take some other steps,” he said, adding that there has been some shuffling of the schedule as well, especially with league play, which has seen a number of cancellations.
There have been adjustments like this at many area clubs over the course of the year, with the relentless rains taking their toll on courses that were soft most all of the time and waterlogged a good deal of the time.
At many courses, carts were not permitted on some days, and were only permitted on the cart paths on many others. Some holes were simply unplayable, and others had to be shortened. And those were some of the minor steps to be taken.
Indeed, following some of the many heavy downpours, especially those accompanying Hurricane Ida just before Labor Day weekend, courses had to close and dry out.
Fontaine, like others in the business, has kept careful count of the days, and rounds, lost to the weather. “It rained parts of 19 days in July, enough for us to lose revenue each one,” he said, adding that there were other days when it didn’t rain but the course was closed, at least part of the day, because it wasn’t playable.
“There was standing water on holes where we don’t have cart paths, or the cart paths were impassable, or trees came down,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, overall, the couse has held up well through it all.
Often, the rain came with heavy winds. Altobello said a rare microburst took down 17 trees on the Springfield Country Club property in late August.
The rain became more poignant, and even more of a story, because, as noted, this was supposed to be a big year for area courses, a time to build on the momentum gained last season, when, because almost everything done indoors was closed, golf saw a resurgence. It wasn’t like 1997, when Tiger Woods was fueling almost unprecedented interest in the game and new courses — like the Ledges — were conceptualized and built to capitalize on that surge.
But it was certainly, well … greener times for courses in a region that had seen some tracks close — Southwick Country Club and Hickory Ridge in Amherst, for example — and many private courses struggle to find members and actively market themselves (something rarely seen in years past) in search of more.
And while it would have been much better in a normal weather year, 2021 was decent in many respects. Those we talked with said it didn’t rain much on weekends, their most important days, and the clubs were able to salvage at least part of the most of the days when it did rain.
“On most all days, we were able to salvage half a day — play in the morning, get rained out in the afternoon, for example,” said Altobello, noting that, even at private clubs, rounds matter because they add up to cart and food and beverage revenues. “For the amount of rain we received, we did way better than we could have.”
Perhaps more important than the number of rounds recorded this year is the evidence collected that the resurgence the game saw in 2020 might have some legs.
“There’s a ton of interest — people who quit the game for years have gotten back into it,” he said, adding that this interest is across the board, young and old, men and women. “They’re still using it as a way to get out and spend time with people they like or love without being in an indoor setting.”
Piecuch agreed. He said that, as challenging as 2021 has been — and it has been a challenge — it has certainly maintained and in some ways built upon the momentum gained in 2021.
“We rely on our membership, and our membership is up 15% — it’s the highest it’s ever been,” he noted, adding that the pandemic certainly had something to do with this. “We’ve had a solid year overall, despite everything, and I think that bodes well for the future.”
When It Rains…
Looking ahead to next year, Fontaine said area courses will likely have considerable work to do to make sure fairways, tees, and greens are in good shape for the spring given all the rain in 2021.
“I think everyone is a little nicked up, a little banged up from all the sitting water on the fairways — when the sun comes out, that just burns the turf,” he explained. “So I’m sure most courses will be overseeding and praying for recovery; there’s going to be extra fertilizer put down and a lot of grass seed planted over the next few weeks.”
Meanwhile, a different kind of seed — a pandemic-fueled resurgence in the game — seems to have already taken root in this region. And it continues its growth spurt despite weather patterns that haven’t been seen in decades, if ever.
And that’s why the future of this business seems, well, sunny.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]