Golfers flock to area courses during pandemic as safe and fun place to be

Brandon Cooper of Cape Girardeau watches his drive on the 10th hole Tuesday, June 19, 2018 during the Missouri Amateur Championship at Dalhousie Golf Club.
Fred Lynch, Southeast Missourian file

Pandemic Oasis

Golfing in Southeast Missouri stands on the edge of what may be two record years, thanks to a boost from the coronavirus.

After an initial drop in 2020 due to COVID uncertainty, golf roared back with area courses logging record rounds, even surpassing the heyday of when Tiger Woods attracted new people to the sport. It was a trend matched nationally. According to the National Golf Foundation, compared to a year earlier, rounds played in the U.S. fell by 8.5% in March, then 42% in April, before rebounding to be up 13.9% for the entire year.

Area pros like Jack Connell at Dalhousie Golf Club in Cape Girardeau, Jim Davey at Kimbeland Country Club in Jackson and Kevin Collins at Fox Haven Country Club in Sikeston, explained that there were many reasons for the surge. Most of all, though, golf was perfectly positioned for individuals, friends and families to get out in the open air, have fun and do something not weighed down by the gloom of the pandemic. As a result, clubs like Dalhousie saw a 30% increase in rounds for the year (the highest ever) and a bevy of new members, Connell said. Cape Girardeau Country Club, also up in rounds, added 101 net new members, said Paul Belcher, its general manager. Davey estimated his increase in golf rounds was between 18% and 20% for the year, a particularly impressive number, given that Kimbeland is traditionally busy.

Also benefiting golf was a pullback in spending elsewhere. With players not taking family vacations, they invested funds and time locally, often turning a trip to the club into a family activity.

According to Connell, his junior and family golf grew dramatically. “There was no baseball and no soccer,” he explained. As a result, players that might have joined him for four or five junior tournaments in the past played in all eight last year.

Davey also saw an uptick in lessons, “To enjoy the game more, players try to get better. So my lessons actually increased once we could start giving lessons.”

In Sikeston: “We even saw families come out just to walk the course together and get exercise,” Collins said.

Remote work also benefited the clubs. More flexibility in work hours allowed people to slip out for a round of golf at times of the day that wasn’t possible before. Davey speculated that the stimulus checks probably helped, too, as there were more young players out on the links.

“The movies are closed and it’s 5 o’clock,” added Connell. “You want to do something, and you can get out in the fresh air and not worry about masks. That’s a good place to be. Low risk. Fun.”

All of the pros also witnessed an influx of golfers from outside the area, especially from St. Louis and Illinois, where clubs were sometimes shut down. Some experienced a bump in out-of-the-area membership, with most seeing more out-of-area guests in their tournaments, which filled up fast. Collins said one of his tournaments, the Beau’s and Belle’s Mixed Scramble, drew 48 golfers from just one small area of northwest St. Louis.

“In the past, we had a few who would come down for the tournament each year,” Collins said. “But in 2020, the word got out and it was a whole group.”

Not all was rosy because of the coronavirus, and the early months were fraught with worry and reacting. For most of the clubs, dining and event revenue took a big hit. Fox Haven lost several charity events early in the year, which weren’t rescheduled. And it stopped its popular buffets. Dining rooms were closed, especially early in the year, and weddings and other events were stopped or curtailed at all the venues.

To compensate, the Cape Girardeau Country Club, Dalhousie and others focused more on take-out dining and box lunches. Dalhousie even temporarily relaxed the monthly minimum that members were required to spend on dining.

Another area that took a hit was merchandise sales – like shirts and hats – mainly because most of the pro shops were closed out of an abundance of caution. Still, some clubs experienced an upswing in golf equipment sales, thanks to the increased play and new golfers.

With Kimbeland’s shop closed, Davey actually moved product to the first tee. “I would pack as much as I could in my car daily and drive it up to the first tee, and set up tables in a tent. Sales weren’t as good as normal, because I couldn’t take all the products out there. But the ‘wear and tear’ items like gloves, balls, shoes, things like that, sold well.”

At Dalhousie, Connell explained that there is often a misconception about the business arrangement for merchandising at golf clubs. “It’s not on consignment,” he said. “We actually have to buy the equipment from the manufacturer, so if something doesn’t sell, we can’t just send it back. We eat it. Sometimes, your rep can move it to another location, but the risk is on the pro shop.” That said, Connell explained that Dalhousie has three pros, each affiliated with a different manufacturer: Ping, TaylorMade and Callaway. And with the increased play, sales were good in 2020.

“People just like having the best equipment, which helps them play better,” he said. “It’s like anything else, when you do it better, you’re going to play it again, and you’re going to enjoy it more. And that’s our whole goal.”

At the Cape Girardeau Country Club, golf pro Jake Seabaugh started a Buyers Club for new equipment. After making an initial investment into the Buyer’s Club, members are guaranteed a rate of just 10% above cost.

Belcher, the manager at Cape Girardeau Country Club, is bullish about the overall future – thanks to the addition of new pickleball courts, improved bunkers, enhanced swimming pool and the continuation of a popular new executive chef, James Cain, which were paid for in part via a member bond campaign in preparation of the club’s 100th anniversary this year. He cites these improvements, as well as COVID-19, for the club’s new members.

All of the pros are looking forward to the 2021 season – optimistic about the future of golf. With the addition of new members – and more expected – without the uncertainty that plagued play in March and April last year, they believe there is a good chance that rounds could increase again this year.

“Last year was just weird,” said Collins. “I hope that this year will get back to a little more normal with the special events, dining room and the buffets. But with the golf course and in my shop, I think we’ll just be chugging along.”