Golf has been largely unaffected by pandemic

Golf has been largely unaffected by pandemic

By Nicholas Barker

Great weather, beautiful golf courses and the Waste Management Phoenix Open are some of the reasons why tourists are attracted to the Valley. 

Scottsdale, which is home to 51 courses, attracts millions of tourists, and 10% of those nearly 5 million people play golf during their stay.

It has been nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, causing massive shutdowns. Almost 100 million people have tested positive for the virus, 2 million of those in the United States. More than 400,000 lives have been lost in the United States. Businesses like restaurants, gyms, stadiums and arenas were closed in March of last year due to the number of growing cases, but one essential business has remained open since the pandemic started — and it is flourishing.

Golf courses, especially in Arizona, where golf is playable throughout the year, have seen an increase in the number of players, and business has continued to grow since the pandemic started.

One reason behind the increased business is golfers can easily maintain social distancing while on the course, where it is more difficult to contract the coronavirus.

Home to the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the TPC Scottsdale has seen steady business. TPC General Manager Doug Hodge says business was slow when the pandemic started, but it quickly started to ramp up.

“Business slowed from March through April, and it came to a stop basically,” Hodge says. “We closed our golf shops, and we were taking payments online, prepaid only, for six or seven weeks. As golf became a safe outlet and activity with social distancing and being outside, in May and June things started to ramp up and get busier. Since then, business has been good, and it’s no secret that golf has prospered quite a bit during the pandemic.”

In a 2014 UA study, golf courses brought in just over $1 billion in sales, and tourists added another $1 billion to the coffers.

Scottsdale is one of the best places to play golf in Arizona. Stephanie Pressler, Experience Scottsdale’s director of community affairs, says golf is a huge contributor to the city’s budget.

“It is just a great amenity to have visitors and residents who are here,” Pressler says. “Right now, especially with people trying to find ways to do activities safely, golf is such a great outlet for that. You can enjoy the outdoors, be outside and be doing something fun.”

TPC Scottsdale, which has won tournament of the year four of the last six years, isn’t a course where newbie golfers play. Returning golfers have flocked to the course.

“We’re seeing more people returning to the game, and those who haven’t played for a while,” Hodge says. “Throughout the area, you definitely hear a lot of stories of a lot of new golfers taking up the game and trying it. It has been a little bit different for us, rather than some other properties around town. But we have definitely seen a lot of people returning to the game that hadn’t played for a while.”

Obviously, health and safety are priorities for TPC Scottsdale management. Many government officials believed golf courses should be shut down for longer than they were, but that did not happen. Golf courses remain open, but new safety measures have been implemented around the course.

“We keep the flagsticks in, and we have an insert in the cup, so you don’t have to reach down and touch the flagstick and all that,” Hodge says. “For a while, we had removed bunker rakes, but after data came in that it was more airborne, we added rakes back. We sanitize the golf carts when they come in and before the round. If you know the group you are playing with, you can share the cart with them.”

While business is flourishing, Hodge did not expect to make it to this point. He and many of his colleagues say they believe golf would take a step back to ensure that the virus is the No. 1 concern.

“If you would have asked us in April what business would look like in the fall and winter months, I don’t think anybody would have really predicted that it would be like what it has been,” Hodge says. “It’s pretty surprising, and it’s just the way things have played out. Outdoor activities are where it’s at safety wise, and golf really checks a lot of the boxes for that.”

Many golf courses offer more than just a round of golf. There are clubs, events and other activities that go on as well. Much of those other events have vanished this past year and so far in 2021. The Waste Management Phoenix Open is still on for February 1 to February 7. But the accompanying Birds Nest was canceled. That is just one of many examples of how group business has been affected.

The Waste Management Phoenix Open, known for the record crowds and the electric 16th hole, will have a few thousand fans at the course this month.

“Normally, that is such an important event for our community with the economic impact it brings,” Pressler says. “Obviously, it is going to look a lot different this year, but we are happy that they are still able to move forward and really have safety at the forefront to ensure golfers and fans are able to enjoy it in a safe way.”

Hodge explains the loss of group business has been the hardest to conquer.

“Group business vanished, which is a pretty big piece of our business,” Hodge says. “It seems that you have to readjust your focus and your priority and just adapt a lot more than you usually normally would have. Like every business during the pandemic, we’ve had to change and evolve and look for their best opportunity. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

Anticipating how a business will perform is critical to its success. TPC Scottsdale might not have been 100% certain that it could handle a global pandemic, but the way it was able to adapt and adjust is one major reason it has remained successful during the last 10 months.

But nothing is given. The managers at the well-known Scottsdale course do not know exactly what the future holds and when things will return to normal. Hodge is ready for the challenge and looking forward to what is to come.

“We have been trying to predict a year in advance for the last 10 months or so,” Hodge says. “What will business look like and will we be able to have a large group or not? So that is the biggest challenge. There are a lot of unknowns for the next six to nine months. We don’t really know what the world will be like.”

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