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Golf plays through pandemic’s impact in Delaware

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Photo courtesy of Deerfield Golf Club

Golf has proved to be one of the few social and recreational respites from the coronavirus pandemic in the First State, but managers of Delaware’s courses have had to contend with shifting regulations and financial impacts.

Laura Heien, executive director of the Delaware State Golf Association (DSGA), said that the state’s courses have been fortunate to not have been closed completely through the pandemic, a fate that befell courses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.

When those neighboring states saw their courses close toward the end of March, Delaware’s courses reaped the bounty of out-of-state players.

“Play was through the roof because we were seeing that out-of-state traffic,” Heien said.

Subsequent Delaware regulations curtailed the ability for out-of-state residents to play courses in Delaware – unless they quarantined for 14 days – and even the use of golf carts was prohibited for in-state residents for most of April and into May, which led to a sizable drop in play, Heien said. Starting May 8, courses will be allowed to offer carts to one player at a time – a welcome step but one that cuts potential revenue from carts in half.

Through April, the DSGA recorded about a 40% decline in scores reported by players who carry handicaps versus last year. Although that doesn’t account for casual players who don’t record their scores, Heien said it’s a fairly accurate barometer for overall play at courses.

“You could say that 60% capacity might be a healthy number in the midst of a pandemic,” she said, noting courses in neighboring states recorded no revenue. “Certainly it’s not what our courses would hope for or what they budgeted for at the beginning of the year by any means, but it certainly could have been worse.”

Jeff Robinson, general manager of the state-owned Deerfield Golf Club in Pike Creek and Garrisons Lake Golf Club in Smyrna, and privately-owned Jonathan’s Landing Golf Course in Magnolia, said his courses benefitted from that initial out-of-state wave, selling out of tee times for about 10 days.

The increasing number of restrictions put a dent in that patronage though.

“With every new restriction came an impact on revenue,” he said, noting they’ve either limited the number of players able to tee off or dissuaded potential players. “We’re kind of just rolling with the punches in terms of how the rules change.”

Venue losses are biggest concern

Although golf clubs are seeing fewer players on the links in recent weeks, the clubs that are hurting the worst financially are those that depend upon a robust venue-rental business.

Robinson noted that Deerfield stood to incur revenue losses of $1 million or more this year, about 20% of its annual revenue, due to the prohibitions on large gatherings that likely won’t abate for a while. The crisis struck in prime event season with Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day events canceled and proms, weddings and fundraisers postponed.

“We do four times as much banquet business as we do golf business,” he said of Deerfield. “It’s been a massive challenge because you know that’s the bulk of our business, and it’s also probably going to be the piece of our business that takes the longest to come back.”

Sean Gradomski, general manager of Bayside Resort Golf Club in Selbyville, said that he considered his club lucky in many ways. It is building a new 29,000-square-foot clubhouse for such rentals, but it’s not due to be completed until this summer, with the first events scheduled for September. He said they’ve seen an uptick in interest as weddings and events look to switch venues after being postponed this spring or summer.

Heien, of DSGA, sympathized with courses like Deerfield that derive a large part of their revenue from venue rentals, noting that the hard part is being stuck in the “holding pattern” as revenue is moved to later in the year or wiped out completely.

“It’s very hard to plan when nobody knows exactly what the timeline would be and what the rules look like,” she said.

Another victim of the pandemic’s restrictions has been the charity golf outings that can bring 100 or more people to a course, Heien said.

“Our courses make a nice bit of revenue of those outings in the summer, and they also help support the work of many nonprofits in the state,” she noted. “Not being able to hold those events will cause a two-pronged hit to courses and charities, so we’ll be developing some best practice proposals to hopefully allow them to still happen.”

Private clubs not immune

Jerome Louie, general manager at Fieldstone Golf Club in Greenville, said that although his club only caters to paying members and their guests, it has definitely seen a decrease in play in recent weeks.

Louie said he has some members who only spend part of the year in Delaware who have delayed returning due to the coronavirus, while others have chosen to return earlier than planned to get out of other potential hotspots, like Florida.

“There’s been ebbs and flows through it all,” he said.

While some members have questioned the regulations that may be prohibiting them from playing at their club, Louie said that he hasn’t heard of calls for refunds. Fieldstone also bills members annually in January, which avoided the impact of players not renewing their memberships, Louie noted.

“Most of the members are very understanding that when you go into a private club, dues technically pay for the maintenance of the golf course and the upkeep of the clubhouse,” he said.

Louie said that Fieldstone stood to lose its most revenue upside from the decline in guest fees as well as the limits on charity golf outings.

Out-of-state play

All neighboring states have also reopened golf courses as of May 7, but Delaware continues to limit play to in-state players, barring a prohibitive two-week quarantine. That regulation is the one most golf courses are asking the state to repeal.

Gradomski said that Bayside has a large membership of out-of-state players from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York – primarily those who use the beach community as a second home.

Jim Davis, general manager of Greenville Country Club, told state officials Wednesday that upward of 20% of his members were out-of-state residents who couldn’t enjoy the property. Louie at Fieldstone has heard the same calls from members.

“I had a Pennsylvania member call me today and say, ‘I can take 10 steps and be across the state line, why can’t I come to the course?’” he said.

All golf course managers reached by Delaware Business Times questioned why small groups of out-of-state golfers couldn’t responsibly social distance on the course for a few hours, especially with safety measures put into place to limit shared touch points.

More changes could help

Gradomski and Robinson both said that the allowance of carts again starting May 8 was a positive step, but they had hoped to see an exception to the single-rider rule for same-household players.

“If everyone just takes 70 golf carts first-come, first-served, I could be out of carts by 9:30 a.m.,” Gradomski said. “For hours after that, players will have to walk the course or push a cart.”

Robinson agreed, and added that even an allowance for two bags per cart with a single rider would help drive some extra business to the courses.

He said he was also hoping for some leeway on gathering limits, perhaps computing the ratio by square footage rather than fire code.

“I’ve got five rooms and each of them has different square footage,” Robinson said, noting limits could be put into place to restrict movement of guests between parties.

Crisis drives course innovation

Despite the challenges, Heien, of DSGA, said that she’s been proud of the proactive efforts by Delaware’s courses, including limiting touch points like flag pins, rakes, ball washers and more, which has helped them stay open in some capacity through the crisis.

Louie said that Fieldstone had installed Golf Ball E-Z Lyfts, a device that allows a player to use their club to pull up the hole cup and retrieve their ball without touching a shared surface.

“As soon as we saw that we placed an order for it right away,” he said. “I knew that everybody was going to start ordering it so there would be a backlog.”

Robinson noted that his company, Forewinds Hospitality, was acquiring Buddy Shields, which are essentially plastic dividers for golf cart riders meant to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

“We grabbed a few while we could, not even knowing if they’re ever going to be permissible,” he explained. “But once they are, they’re going to be impossible to get.”

Jacob Owens

[email protected]

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