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When the dust settles from the coronavirus pandemic recreational golf may very well find itself at a crossroads. A week prior to Gov. Michelle Lujan Gresham’s order for New Mexico golf courses to close, the Albuquerque Journal ran a story about “golf courses experiencing (an) uptick in rounds because of virus outbreak.” That was encouraging, but then we joined other states that prohibited golf. Now, almost half of the nation’s golf courses are closed to play, either by edict from elected government leaders or by precautions taken by the facilities themselves.
Throughout the 1990s there was a golf course building boom, based on nothing more than the expanding popularity of golf, along with a “Field of Dreams” model. As early as 1988, The National Golf Foundation announced the industry goal of “a new golf course a day,” but that overly ambitious idea did not and could not foresee the ultra-rapid change in real estate, the economy, and golf’s decline in popularity a decade later.
Golf was peaking even when Tiger Woods became a young sports sensation. Baby Boomers were retiring and had lots of discretionary money to spend on things like golf. But golf course developers over-extended in dramatic fashion.
From 2004, when golf’s popularity started its decline, until 2016, more than 1,000 golf courses closed their doors. In 2014, a golf course was closing every two days! Much of that was due to the 2008 recession, coupled with changing adult lifestyles.
Locally, we felt the impact several ago, with Santa Teresa Country Club and White Sands Missile Range Golf Course both closing for good. In each of 2018 and 2019, some 200 golf courses closed for good. Those figures were in a rather robust economy.
At this juncture, the golfing world is doubtless facing another crisis. For years, industry leaders promoted the mantra “grow the game,” but now it may be a matter of “save the game.” We are looking at the highest unemployment since the Great Depression. We will be dealing with a recession, not due to bank failures from stupid mortgage loans, but instead due to one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – disease.
This is just reality. Despite billions earmarked for small-business relief, many small, independent businesses do not have enough cash reserves and will fail. Many golf courses in the Midwest, Northern Plains and the Northeast are coming off five months of no play and no cash flow, which means they have depended on a brisk opening season in April that’s not going to happen.
Starting in late March, they needed a normal number of rounds and revenue for the coming 30 to 35 weeks, and that is certainly in jeopardy due to what appears to be a protracted national shutdown.
My research indicates the ultra-high-end private golf clubs that are member owned with deep pockets will manage the storm. Private golf clubs throughout the country will sustain. And destination golf resorts should see a decline, but will likely survive. The Villages, a retirement community in central Florida, sports 32 square miles of property and 130,000 residents, 12 country clubs with championship courses and 40 nine-hole executive courses. Most of the residents have their own golf carts. Golf has not ceased there.
Last week, Butterfield Trail Golf Club (owned by El Paso Airport) announced it has closed permanently. Butterfield was on the list of “America’s Best New Courses” by Golf Digest in 2008, and “Best Municipal Course” by Links Magazine in 2011.
Golfers, like every other demographic in sports, is entering a new normal with broad ramifications for the game and the people the industry employs.
Dr. Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact Blanchard at email@example.com.