Even as golf courses throughout Arizona stayed open, COVID-19 robbed local golfers of some of the smaller delights of a day at the links.

For example, pulling the flagstick is a sign that a player is about to accomplish the challenging feat of completing a hole. However, many courses have placed a circular piece of foam in the cup to discourage this satisfying tradition to help limit exposure to the coronavirus.

The foam barriers placed in golf holes are one of many changes Arizona courses had to make to keep players and staff safe amid the pandemic.

When the virus forced lockdowns in March, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey kept golf courses open by declaring them as essential businesses. As part of his executive order, clubs had to close many indoor areas and facilities, but the courses themselves remained open for business.

For the most part, courses in the state did more than just stay open. Many saw their businesses thrive and even expand in some cases. Several courses have reported an increase in the number of rounds played since the onset of the virus earlier this year.

Golf is big business in the state. According to a 2016 study from the University of Arizona, golf contributes $3.9 billion to the state’s economy every year. And that number has likely increased, said Bob Sykora, the general manager of Mesa Country Club..

“We were already trending to grow in golf,” he said. “We are in a position to grow. We were in a position where we were looking to have accelerated growth in golf. … While the pandemic didn’t hurt us necessarily, we were already on that trajectory.”

According to the UA report, golf tourism, in which people come from out of state to either play or watch golf, is responsible for $1.1 billion of that nearly $3.9 billion output. In a year where people are traveling less and less, courses have had to rely on the business of locals for much of this year.

For whatever reason, whether it be curiosity, passion or mere boredom, more Arizonans are playing golf in 2020 than many years past.

Given the lift that the golf industry typically gives to Arizona’s economy, worth nearly $4 billion annually, it is not surprising that courses were allowed to stay open, despite calls from some local governments to temporarily close them.

In their quest to stay open and successful, clubs and courses all over Arizona had to balance several economic and health-related factors.

Courses innovate new money-making methods

Even as they continued accepting players, administrators at courses throughout the state had to get creative to keep the business viable.

For many country clubs, golf is just one piece of the overall experience. Under normal circumstances, members could spend much of their free time at the club without ever setting foot on the golf course.

There are social events, tennis memberships and other perks available to those who belong to a country club. Unfortunately, much of this business stalled when COVID-19 forced the indoor areas to be closed.

Sykora said the pandemic wiped out much of the club’s indoor-based business. He added that private events such as weddings and holiday parties typically provide much revenue for his club.

“We had a lot of weddings set for March and April,” Sykora said. “That’s prime season for weddings at our club. Some weddings just decided to cancel outright. Others rebooked with limited attendance. Under normal circumstances, we can have 400 people in our building. To get within CDC and local guidelines, we had to limit that number significantly.

“December is a big month for us because of Christmas parties and the like. Currently, no one is booking Christmas parties. You’re not going to do big 300-person weddings because you can only really do a certain percentage of whatever your occupancy is.”

Other local courses have also lost traditional revenue streams. Many clubs that host group events and tournaments saw those events erased from the calendar.

Bob McNichols, general manager of Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, said tournaments typically bring large groups of people to the course.

For example, Notre Dame’s women’s golf team hosts an annual tournament at Longbow every March. This past year, 16 Division I teams were on the course practicing when they were called back to their respective campuses.

“Every coach’s cell phone started to ring about the same time,” McNichols said. “They were getting calls from their athletic directors, or from the NCAA office, to get off the course, pack up and go home. … That led to other events being canceled.”

However, the cancellation of those events opened up more tee times for others.

“That really just opened up the gates for individual players,” McNichols said. “Right away, before it got too hot, we were able to offer many different ways for people to play.”

Those options included single-rider golf carts, push carts or even a GolfBoard, an electric scooter with space for clubs and an ice chest. McNichols added that Longbow has the largest fleet of GolfBoards in Arizona.

All of these options, along with greater tee time flexibility, helped Longbow have “more revenue and more rounds than usual” in 2020, McNichols said.

McNichols added that the course gives masks away as a courtesy to players and to increase awareness of COVID-19. So far, the course has distributed more than 4,000.

“People appreciate that, but we make them wear them when they come into the shop,” McNichols said. “If they forget one, we hand them one.”

Sun City Country Club has also come up with creative ways to increase revenue as many traditional avenues disappeared.

Much of its recent success came after pivoting toward family-friendly opportunities, club owner Tom Loegering said.

“Losing March is like losing your entire season,” Loegering said. “We looked to see what was going on and what the options were for other groups of people.”

According to Loegering, the club added family-oriented practice programs which got entire families out on the course together.

“That has gone over really big,” Loegering said.

Another unique generator of revenue is the Golf Program in Schools, or GPS, a program founded by Loegering that incorporates golf into physical education classes in local schools.

The curriculum, which has been taught to over 30,000 students in the area, is free for schools to adopt. Additionally, participants can play a free round of golf with a paying parent.

“We are trying to get these kids to come out and play with their parents,” Loegering said. “We work with kids, who then go and work with their parents or a family member that plays. … That’s been working out really well. We’re actually growing our revenue even though we had a bump in March when schools closed.”

Loegering added that GPS was not initially designed as a revenue-generating opportunity, but when COVID-19 hit in March it became an effective method to increase the number of people playing rounds at the course while teaching young people how to play the game.

Even then, the older demographic typically associated with Sun City has not stopped playing golf there despite their increased vulnerability to the coronavirus.

“Because of the safety procedures that we follow very religiously, most people that come to Sun City come because of golf,” Loegering said. “Only 44,000 people live here, but there are eight golf courses owned by the rec centers and three that are private entities. As long as we follow the protocols, which we will, Sun City residents are not likely to stop golfing.”

COVID-19 and golf: Mutually exclusive?

It’s no secret that golf is one of the most spaced-out games you can play, and that has helped courses thrive during the pandemic.

With mostly outdoor interactions and small playing groups, as well as the multiple ways to play explained by McNichols, golf can adapt to even the most stringent social-distancing requirements.

“It’s crazy what we started evolving to in order to minimize exposure,” said Sykora, the general manager at Mesa Country Club. “We pulled bunker rakes, we pulled ball washers out there. We just minimized as much as we could people touching things.

“Like a lot of clubs, we put a little pool noodle at the bottom of the cup. We highly recommended that people do not remove the flagstick, and around 99.5% of all our players just left the flagstick in.”

In essence, many courses like Mesa Country Club have removed objects that are often touched by multiple players without cleaning. Some are also encouraging players to bring their own clubs and not share with those outside their normal household.

While these are noticeable changes, they haven’t discouraged regular players from playing the same amount, or more, than they typically would.

“Being outside and golfing is kind of an individual’s game if you’re not sharing clubs or anything,” local golfer Jimmy Hlebak said. “I’d say that COVID didn’t make me change the way I was playing out there.”

Hlebak, who often plays at Aguila or the Legacy Golf Club, among other courses, added that  while COVID-19 protocols are making the game safer during the pandemic, they are not changing the way golf is played.

“The one thing out on the course that’s unique is probably the pins,” he said. “They are trying to limit people pulling the flags out, but the game itself doesn’t really change. The amenities at the course are limited, but the play does not change.”

ASU student Trey Jordan has also noticed the changes on courses where he plays.

“They scrub the carts and take all the other precautions just so that we can play golf,” Jordan said. “On the golf course, I usually just play with the people I am close with and see everyday anyways. You’re pretty spread out, so it doesn’t feel like that much of a worry. No one is touching the pins, and no one is touching anyone else’s clubs. Everyone just has their own thing and you stay spread out around the course.”

Jordan, who frequents Phoenix municipal courses like Encanto and Papago, also said that it is not surprising that golf has succeeded economically despite the pandemic.

“A lot of people around my age have started getting into golf recently,” he said. “Hopefully, if this pandemic ever ends, golf will keep getting better and bigger among younger people. Once you start playing, it’s pretty hard to stop. For me, it’s pretty addicting.”

How important is golf to Arizona’s economy?

Given the relative ease to implement public health protocols at golf courses, and the game’s overall economic impact on Arizona, it is hardly surprising that Ducey allowed courses to stay open as essential businesses. They may not be essential in the day-to-day lives of Arizonans, but they certainly are essential to the state’s economy.

“We’re up 32 golf members (at Mesa Country Club) than we were a year ago,” Sykora said. “We had more members that in the past were playing two to three times a week. Now, they were playing three to five times a week.”

One major event that Arizona did get to host was the annual Waste Management Phoenix Open, the state’s largest professional golf tournament. Based at TPC Scottsdale, the event contributes over $400 million to the local economy, according to the tourney’s website, which equates to one of the largest events for a single golf tournament in the United States.

This year’s event, won by Webb Simpson, was held in late January/early February, nearly a month before COVID-19 delayed the PGA Tour season. According to Waste Management, the tournament raised nearly $14 million for local charities on top of the $400 million base economic impact.

As of now, the tournament still plans to welcome a limited amount fans to TPC Scottsdale for 2021’s iteration of the event, currently scheduled for Feb. 1 through Feb. 7.

Nationwide, Arizona’s golf impact compares well to that of other golf-heavy states.

Of the 35 states included in the most recent economic reports from We Are Golf, a golf advocacy group, Arizona ranks 18th in the number of courses it holds. However, golf in the state ranks in the top 10  in many significant economic factors, including total economic output and jobs created.


Story by Nick Hedges, Cronkite News