The May day the Ontario government announced golf courses would reopen was the same day the website of TPC Toronto at Osprey Valley was crashed by a rush of people looking to book a tee time. Osprey Valley’s website recovered, fortunately, because demand has remained strong all summer at the Caledon, Ont.-based golf club. “We are, for all intents and purposes, fully booked every day,” Osprey Valley president Chris Humeniuk said in an interview on August 18.

The experience has been widespread, driving home the point that the pandemic hasn’t been bad for everyone. In fact, it’s been pretty good for the game of golf, a sport and industry that has had some recent struggles. Like other businesses, golf courses were forced to close when COVID-19 first struck. However, golf courses were on a relatively short list of recreational facilities that were included in the first wave of re-openings when governments began to ease their lockdowns.

The sport has some built-in advantages for a coronavirus-affected world, such as the fact that it is played outdoors and participants can easily keep a good distance from each other. Courses took added steps to satisfy health authorities, like forbidding players from touching the flag on the putting green.

It has been a mix of new and familiar faces hitting the course, but overall, people have been playing more. Humeniuk said that, as of July 31, the number of rounds played at Osprey Valley was up 15% compared to a year earlier, even though the club had opened up three weeks later than in 2019.

Data gathered by Golf Canada, the sport’s governing body, show people have been playing at around record levels in June, July and August. “It’s helped people feel normal,” Laurence Applebaum, Golf Canada’s chief executive, said in an interview.

The resurgence in popularity this summer is a welcome boost for an industry that has faced questions about its future. Statistics Canada reported last December that operating revenue for golf courses and country clubs increased by 1.8% to $2.6 billion in 2018. That was a bit better than the 0.9% increase in 2017, but not enough to keep the agency from concluding that “the industry is dealing with waning interest among millennials.”

From 2015 to 2017, the number of golf facilities in Canada declined from 2,346 to 2,298, according to Golf Canada’s research. Applebaum said 2017 was also the same year the game saw a bounce back and a streak of solid growth that was expected to continue this year even before the pandemic hit. “But we could have never expected, in the middle of August, to be looking back and seeing such growth in activity and play in such a challenging year,” Applebaum said.

It’s not all good news. Many golf courses count on banquets, weddings and other big events, and that revenue hasn’t yet come back.

Take the recent financial results of TWC Enterprises Ltd., Canada’s biggest owner, operator and manager of golf clubs via its ClubLink brand. TWC reported earlier this month that revenue from functions will be “minimal” for 2020, but that the decline also “enabled ClubLink to accommodate the overwhelming demand for tee times from members and customers.”

A surge has indeed shown up in the number of rounds being played and reported to the National Golf Course Owners Association. Canada-wide, those results are around 24% higher than this time a year ago, according to Jeff Calderwood, the association’s chief executive. “Golf was already the most played sport in Canada every year, so the 2020 boost in demand just further solidifies golf as the #1 participation sport,” Calderwood said in an email.

Now comes the matter of trying to keep the COVID-19-related rally for golf going as the economy continues to reopen and consumers find themselves with more ways to spend their time and money. Humeniuk said Osprey Valley has been offering teaching clinics, trying to help golfers improve their game, but he also suggested that the pandemic may just keep consumers outside more and more. “You can’t buy a bicycle right now, you can’t buy a boat right now, you can’t buy a Sea-Doo right now, because they’re all sold out,” Humeniuk said. “I think that this fundamental shift to outdoor socialization is going to stick with us for a while.”

Source: Financial Post