Golf After Coronavirus – A Look into the Future

Golf is an activity where habits and traditions don’t die easily.  It’s largely a social activity for many and a world of social distancing suggests golf will look different in the future, regardless of the level of distancing that persists.  We’ve already been introduced to single-rider carts, raised cups, leaving the flag in and the removal of water coolers, ball washers and other accessories on the course.  In those areas where courses are closed, we’re hitting into nets in our yards.

At most courses and clubs one of the first decisions (often dictated by the club) a player makes is whether to walk or ride a golf cart and at some clubs if he/she will hire a caddy.  Sometimes, the option of using a push or pull cart (trolley) exists, either personally owned or provided/rented by the club. Many players also choose, when permitted, to walk and carry their bag.

Mandatory or not, the considerations that contribute to this decision will change.

Already, golf carts have become limited to one player per cart and walking has been encouraged wherever practical and possible.  Will some forms of social distancing persist in the long term? Will this promote a long-term return to more players walking the course?

My take is that golf “transportation” will change.  Three years ago, I penned a post in this space called “Getting Around The Course” discussing the various ways we transport ourselves and clubs around the golf course.  With the National Golf Foundation estimating that approximately 2/3 of golfers ride a cart, social distancing guidelines could change that.  Some questions raised by our social distancing practices that could directly affect the way we play golf include:

  • Will (all or some) social distancing practices endure long term?
  • Will cart usage decline due to the encouragement of walking?
  • Will golf cart manufacturers respond with single-player carts efficient enough to be economically feasible.
  • Will caddies fade away (temporarily or permanently) as golfers avoid others handling their equipment?
  • Will courses and clubs cease to provide push/pull carts (trolleys) and encourage golfers to use personally owned units?
  • Will golf boards and other recently introduced forms of transportation grow in popularity?
  • Will foursomes and more become a thing of the past in favor of twosomes and threesomes?

For years, there have been numerous programs encouraging golfers to walk the course.  If walking becomes more popular it will change the economics of golf.  Golf carts are a big revenue generator.  At some of the more traditional clubs, where caddies are the norm, decisions will be required on continuing mandatory use of caddies.  No doubt, it’s a nice way to play golf, but how much risk will clubs and golfers be willing to assume after months of staying at home and watching reports of thousands of deaths.  Are the cart revenues and caddy traditions worth that risk?

For sure, not all golfers can walk the course.  Carts will continue to be a part of the landscape, but one wonders in what form.  Will social distancing practices continue long term to the point where carts will have to be limited to one player? How will clubs and courses ensure proper sanitizing?  Provisions will be needed to keep the more social players in the game and accommodate golf courses where the terrain is too difficult for most to walk.

A substitute for caddies is much easier, and already available.  The wheel.

Trolleys have been around for a long time.  Sometimes eschewed by upscale clubs because of a perceived stigma that they tarnish the “optics” of the club and make it appear like a municipal course, push/pull carts are now more widely accepted.  Avoiding using a cart that’s been handled by vast numbers of players would seem to minimize the impact of any negative “optics” on a club’s prestige and I expect to see more and more private clubs allow, if not encourage personally owned units.  Whether manually operated or powered, trolleys allow golfers to walk the course while avoiding the physically ill-advised practice of carrying one’s bag.  They are widely used in the UK and around the world and at some clubs even the caddies use trolleys.  The technology of powered trolleys have advanced considerably and having used one I’ve felt for years that they could be a big part of the future of golf.

If (and nobody knows the answer to this) social distancing becomes a long-term practice, expect activity inside the clubhouse to change as well.  We’ve all heard how restaurants may reopen soon, but with fewer tables and more space in between.  The club bar may no longer be a place to congregate in close groups like we’ve become used to. Just yesterday, I received an email from a frequent golfing partner in Florida.  His comments included the following:    The only thing left on the course are the flag sticks. We also reduced the number of tee times for both spacing and to allow for cleaning of carts.  Obviously only one person per cart. No shot gun starts. After a round members empty their carts of stuff. Bag guys don’t approach the cart until you have moved away. Bag guys have gloves and masks  No gathering is permitted before or after a round.  Pro shop and locker room open but rest of clubhouse closed. No food or beverage in locker room. Club is doing takeout food.   All pretty unsocial but we were playing. Hope you and yours are well.  Hopefully the gov will bend a bit and we can all go out and play some unsocial golf!

In some cases, where courses are open, enforcing social distancing has been a challenge, as described by a course owner who wrote to me this morning:  Course closed for play in March – too many patrons totally ignoring the social distancing and any other public health instructions.  Staff were getting very concerned for their own health.  Actually the Governor has not closed golf courses, much to my dismay as an epidemiologist, and ABC is open and fairly busy according to my staff.  Our patrons were literally shaking hands and laughing about how the whole social distancing rule was ridiculous.  Not good.  Even now we have folks doing things like playing soccer on the fairways, so way too many people just don’t get it.  Unless someone they know gets really sick or dies from Covid-19, the response will be “not my problem”.

Nobody knows how long the current guidelines will last.  Only time will tell how the concept of social distancing impacts our lives long term and what practices continue.  Despite the often heard comment “when things get back to normal”, it seems as though we should prepare for a new “normal”, even though we don’t really know what to expect.  As I write this, I’m texting with a college buddy about the prospects for a Penn State football season this year.  Will there be one?  Some people are worried about their next meal, next day at work and next paycheck.  Worse yet, some are concerned about or already have the COVID-19 infection.  Some are even worried about burying their loved ones.  We all want this to be over but health and safety are Job 1.  Can golf be played safely?  I think the answer is yes.  Will it look different int he future?  Probably.

The questions raised above are by no means comprehensive and I’m sure there will be others.  It stands to reason, however that golf and the economics of operating a golf course or a private club will be changed.  If those changes result in restrictions to generating revenues, the value of golf courses and clubs will be impacted.  How much still remains to be seen based on behaviors, customs and practices developed at various facilities and in various regions.