Golf Faces Its Biggest Challenge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reed On The Greens March 26, 2020
Golf Facing Its Biggest Challenge

by Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioGolf.com

The biggest detriment to growing the game of golf has forever been economics, and most recently the time factor. But today, golf faces its biggest challenge: surviving the coronavirus pandemic.

Golf is a mental game which calls for playing one shot at a time. It’s a game of recovery shots, and about knowing that you’re one good shot from being hooked again.

Of course, during these unprecedented times, the only thing that matters is good health and helping our neighbours. But there are a lot of similarities between golf and life, in particular when it comes to adversity.

Every community sector, including the London and area golf industry, is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. News changes by the hour, and concurrently the unknown adds to our trepidation. Golf is not the most important element of our lives, but here in Southwestern Ontario, golf has always been a major factor in defining our lifestyles, boosting our economy and assisting not-for-profit groups.

But today, all of that has come to a complete stop, minus our hope for better times, all-important communication between industry partners and preparedness for the future.

Most area courses have not opened to the public or their members this early spring. But when the Ontario Government ordered all non-essential business operations to shut their doors as of midnight March 24, it ceased active operations at a handful of local courses – including East Park Golf in London, St. Marys Golf and Country Club, Caradoc Sands Golf Club in Strathroy and Pine Knot Golf and Country Club in Dorchester, all among about a dozen local courses who traditionally open early each spring.

GolfNorth Properties announced the closing of its stable of clubs on March 23. Earlier, Greenhills Golf Club had closed its popular indoor practice centre. And on March 16, the City of London announced the non-operation of its Fanshawe, Thames Valley and River Road clubs.

Here at LondonOntarioGolf.com, we’ve postponed the 10th annual Heart Award banquet honouring this year’s winner, Steve Bennett, director of London’s municipal golf system.

The pandemic has also all but erased any activity at our comprehensive 2020 golf survey which aims to assist the local golf industry in defining its customers and their spending and playing habits.

Our Golf Community

Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

In London and surrounding counties, local golfers have access to 13 private golf clubs, 123 semi-private and public clubs, 20 stand-alone outdoor golf practice centres, numerous golf ranges housed at local clubs plus a growing number of indoor golf simulators and practice centres.

Previous studies have shown that most local golfers are avid golfers, as opposed to casual golfers. Yet in most other communities, the reverse is true. The golf industry is a major contributor to the local economy. And, it helps define who we are in Southwestern Ontario.

The most often quoted local golf study stems from two sources. A 1991 City of London study, conducted by Canadian Golf Marketing, stated there were 81,000 golfers in London, 29,000 of whom were recreational golfers, and the balance avid golfers. That study reported, in most other municipalities, those numbers were reversed. The 1991 study indicated, more than 1,250,000 rounds of golf were played each year at London and area’s 20 courses.

Mike Olizarevitch, retired long-time head golf pro at Fanshawe Golf Club, produced a report for the City in 2003 indicating there were enough golf courses in and around London to support a population of 1,050,000 – more than three times London’s then population of about 330,000. The National Golf Foundation indicated, in order to sustain a viable trade, one golf course should be built for every 25,000 people.

The City’s golf courses conducted another survey in 1999 which drew about 400 responses. Developed in June ’99 by UnderPar Consulting Group at the Richard Ivey School of Business, the survey was shaped with assistance from Bob Neskas, then City of London Manager of Recreation Services and Attractions; and the City’s then three head golf pros – Olizarevitch, Andy Shaw of River Road, and Fred Kern, who was the long-time pro at Thames Valley Golf Club. Recently-retired City of London supervisor of golf operations, John Cowie, also had a hand in teeing up that survey.

Amongst the findings of that survey: golfers rated enjoyment of their golf experience very highly, but they said they were not always satisfied with the pace of play. We would all put up with slow play today, if it meant being out on the links.

Golf Spending, Charity

Photo: Make-A-Wish Charity Golf Classic

From golf balls and tees, to thousand-dollar trips to warm-weather golf destinations, Londoners spend millions each year on golf equipment, apparel, accessories, instruction and travel. With bricks and mortar shops all but closed, and face-to-face club fittings and lessons put on hold, online sales are the current lifelines of golf spending. But travel has halted, and without a doubt sales have dipped tremendously.

Then there’s the charity dollars portion of golf. The National Allied Golf Associations (NAGA) estimated that in 2013 there were nearly 37,000 charitable golf events hosted at Canadian golf clubs. NAGA’s member groups – Golf Canada, National Golf Course Owners Association, Canadian Society of Club Managers, PGA of Canada, Canadian Golf Industry Association and Canadian Golf Superintendents Association – estimated those events raised more than $533 million for charity. Without a doubt, that number grew over the past few years.

From small family-and-friend outings to mega fundraisers including local hospital foundations, there are an estimated 300-plus charity golf tournaments in London and area each summer. That means the competition for your dollars is as fierce as a U.S. Open playoff. And with countless causes competing for those dollars via social media platforms, it takes an entire team working 12 months of the year in order to operate a successful golf fundraiser.

But with golf shut down, so, too, are many of the hundreds of area charity golf tournaments which in many cases act as the sole or most important fundraising effort for those not-for-profits.

This year was to mark the 20th anniversary of the Lexus of London Golf Classic, which has raised more than $1.5 million for support research and patient care benefiting men with prostate cancer. But Lexus of London general manager Chris Pinelli said the March 24 decision to cancel this year’s two-day fundraising event was the only decision that could have been made.

“We depend so much on the generosity of small businesses in the community to support our fundraising efforts, because our event isn’t just a golf tournament,” Pinelli explained. “It’s a gala, golf tournament, silent auctions, donations and sponsor contributions. To go to independent businesses and our partners just wasn’t in our best interest right now. We’re all in survival mode.

“It was going to be a big year for us,” Pinelli added, “and we feel terrible that we won’t be able to support prostate cancer research and patient care this year. But we know this, too, shall pass, and there will be an opportunity for us to regroup. We’re excited about a great event in the future.”

Pinelli said he feared many of the smaller charity golf events in London will never recover. In fact, Dean Gocan, pro shop manager at Pine Knot, said he fears the same for some of the local public golf clubs who were already hanging on by a thin thread.

“The health concerns are the only concern right now, but the financial devastation will last a long time,” Gocan said. “We’re working on alternate dates for our charity golf tournaments. Same thing with our booked weddings. But (the pandemic) will force some courses to sell and some to develop the land, putting a lot of clubs over the edge. Yet, there is so much unknown.”

Gocan said the club phone lines have been “ringing off the hook with golfers who want tee times, even though we are closed. At this time of year, we get calls from as far away as Kitchener, and even Toronto.

“We believe we kept things safe when our course was open, and we’re even ready to go with further measures. We were ready to enforce walking only. We believe golf is just as safe as walking your dog.”

Measures taken by golf clubs all over the world who were open during the pandemic have included social distancing, one golfer per cart if not walking, no access to clubhouse, pro shops or washrooms, no contact with flags and special accessories to prevent picking up of holed golf balls.

But in the name of safety, golf’s governing bodies around the world have been pleading with golfers to stay home and not golf. NAGA released this statement yesterday:

Every golf association, including Golf Canada, PGA of Canada and Golf Ontario, are postponing or even cancelling events this year. There is still so much we don’t know about the future. With the PGA Tour and its world-wide tours shut down, that puts this year’s Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour Championship – the Canada Life Championship, slated for September 17-20 at Highland Country Club – in jeopardy.

This year, three contracts – including deals with Highland, tournament sponsor Canada Life and tour sponsor Mackenzie Investments – all expire, calling for new agreements.

And again, there is the large charity element affected by COVID-19. Since 2013, the Canada Life Championship (formerly Freedom 55 Financial Championship) has raised more than $200,000 for various charities in the London area with Childcan becoming the official charity in 2018. Last year, the Highland host committee raised $32,000 for Childcan.

On a larger scale, the PGA Tour and its world-wide tours have surpassed $3 billion in charity dollars.

While it’s too early to offer a definitive answer on the future of the Canada Life Championship, and at the same time not wise to do so given the volume of new information facing us on an hourly basis, Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour vice president Scott Pritchard provides a voice of reason while speaking passionately about the game he loves.

2020 Mackenzie Tour Order of Merit winner Paul Barjon. Photo: Claus Andersen/Mackenzie Tour.

“There are so many unknowns for me to comment officially. But my personal opinion is, please, stay home. Quite honestly, our future depends on it,” Pritchard said.

“You can make all of the arguments that (playing golf) is safe, and that precautions have been taken. But there are optics, telling people to stay home, but meanwhile you’re out playing golf. It’s mixed messaging.

“In terms of the event in London, we have time on our side,” explained Prichard, “but that could change rapidly. So we’re looking at a number of different scenarios. But the key message is, we’re in constant communication with the PGA Tour, who works closely with the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and other international health organizations as we navigate these tough times.”

The most recent Canadian Golf Consumer Behaviour Study, commissioned by NAGA, reported more Canadians golf than play hockey.

One can argue that golf is the heartbeat of Southwestern Ontario. More importantly – and now than ever before – we are fortunate to have world-class medical centres in London and area, and with them dedicated, unselfish doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.

But at the grassroots level, golf is a way of life for many of us. And the game will survive, hopefully stronger than ever, in the near future.

Golf is now facing its biggest challenge. But the golf community is resilient. We now rely on that trait as we prepare for better times.

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Jeffrey Reed is a multiple writing award winner from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada, and a three-time author who has written about golf for 40 years. Reach him at jeff@londonontariogolf.com.

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989.