A couple of days ago, the National Golf Foundation sent out a report detailing how the industry has been impacted by the rapid spread of COVID-19. The assumption might be that we would hear mostly negative news during this unprecedented time, but the update felt far more optimistic than what all of us have become accustomed to hearing in the past few weeks.
As of last Friday, roughly three-quarters of in-season U.S. golf courses remain open. Following a surge in rounds played across the country for January and February – 15.2 percent more rounds were played in those months compared to 2019 – there is optimism that some facilities could see that trend continue. More than 30 percent of course operators reported “above average play” for March, the majority attributing the increase to people searching for fresh air and a break from being inside. Most courses have shut down dining or other clubhouse facilities and developed innovative ways for players to avoid touching objects during their rounds.
“We’ll continue to poll courses in the weeks ahead so we can track these effects and as we more fully turn our attention to studying the human and business impacts of this pandemic,” National Golf Foundation CEO Joe Beditz said.
During a recent experimental round, this writer discovered (Fling Golf is) made for a social distancing world.
On the golf retail side, there is encouraging data about purchasing equipment. Between 38 and 45 percent of golfers said the outbreak would not affect whether they would or would not buy equipment, with well over 50 percent suggesting they would simply delay purchasing. Less than 5 percent said they would forgo buying golf equipment in light of coronavirus.
This includes the products for some companies that have – at least temporarily – benefited greatly from folks who wish to stay indoors while still getting their golf fix. FlightScope, the golf simulator company, reported a 15-20 percent sales increase over the past three weeks according to a representative who also mentioned that their customer service team is swamped with inquiries. With the #GolfAtHome trend inspiring trick-shot videos and practice on putting maps, those who aren’t able to play at local facilities appear eager to return to the course.
This isn’t to say that anyone is intending to push aside the grim reality of the situation. A dozen states have ordered golf courses to temporarily close, and that alone is an indication of how menacing a predicament the world is combating. It’s to be expected that enhanced restrictions will continue to limit golf in certain areas, even as demand to play seems to increase.
It’s been suggested that the coronavirus outbreak will dramatically alter our lives in the coming years, whether that comes in the form of more people working from home or a widespread improvement in hygiene. Perhaps this is a good moment for golf to focus on the positives of pent-up demand for the game and what can be done moving forward to push participation.
One lesson we’ve learned recently is that some coronavirus adjustments make the game faster.
If you have your own cart, as many facilities have made mandatory, or you carry/push your own bag, you go directly to your ball without stopping. Without rakes in the bunkers, the process of hitting out of one gets simpler. Without having to remove the flagstick – or in some cases without having to pick the ball up out of the hole at all – everything moves along just a little bit quicker.
Without meaning to state the obvious, golf is far more interesting and engaging when you aren’t waiting on each shot. Golf doesn’t have to implement these social distancing guidelines forever, but the concept of what is being done now can be incredibly effective in certain settings.
One of those settings is in an alternative form of the game. Most of us have heard of Foot Golf, which is a combination of soccer and golf that requires a larger hole and an overall shorter course. It’s a nice idea, but there is another competitor that may become far more mainstream in the long run – that would be Fling Golf, a lacrosse style game played with the same exact conditions as traditional golf.
During a recent experimental round, this writer discovered it’s made for a social distancing world. Everyone has one stick and walking is the only way to play. As the name suggests, you put your golf ball into a plastic catcher at the bottom and throw it as far as you can, using whatever style of swinging motion you want. It’s hard to fling the ball far enough off line to get into significant trouble. When you reach the putting green, you turn the stick to putt with the flat end of the catcher.
It takes some time to get used to – your first few throws are usually spikes straight into the turf – but once you learn where to release it, the ball flies quite easily.
“Literally the only difference is if you throw it into a bunker, you take one penalty stroke,” said Austin Ebersole, the head professional at American Classic Golf Club in Lewes, Del. “And that kind of makes it fun when you get on a green with bunkers around it.”
Ebersole has been running a Fling Golf league for the past year and routinely will have 15-20 people come out to play on weekdays. The typical age of a player is in the late 20s or early 30s, meaning some in those demographics who may not play much golf are very interested in this form of the game. Because the average person can only throw the ball about 125-150 yards, it’s an interesting possibility for pitch and putt courses or executive nine-hole facilities.
A lot of people in golf shudder at the thought of alternative forms of the game, but there used to be a time when standalone driving ranges across the country had mini putt courses right outside the golf shop. Some still do, but there have to be other ways for courses to attract people.
It won’t be for every country club, but it can be an added value for facilities that don’t need to worry much about those playing the game. There aren’t even any divots to clean up for the maintenance crew.
“It’s kind of an alternative to people who want to do something other than mini putt,” Ebersole said. “It’s an athletic thing to do and you don’t have to be a golfer to play. If you’ve played baseball or lacrosse or javelin or even if you’ve done a lot of fishing, you can pick this up within 10 minutes. Unlike golf, there’s really no right way to do it.”
As the golf industry changes over the coming months, it will be important to keep an open mind about what facilities can do to bring in people.
Any idea pitched (or flung) is worth understanding.
Top photo: Courtesy of Fling Golf
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