For many Canadians in 2020, golf turned out to be a bright light in a rather dark year
“What are toilet paper and tee times?”
“I’ll stay with ‘WTF 2020?’ for $600, Alex.”*
In a year of such overwhelming loss — late-great Jeopardy host Alex Trebek included — the game of golf unexpectedly saw enormous gains.
As summer approached and the world was shut down to fight COVID-19, golf courses began to open. Suddenly, professional players and weekend hackers alike had an escape from the solitude of lockdown and deluge of bad news. It meant being able to get outside, get some exercise, see friends, even have a casual drink. It meant, if just for a few hours, worrying about rising scorecard numbers instead rising case numbers.
It was like a cheat code to getting your life back. As courses got busy, one golfer friend of mine half-jokingly worried that the rest of the world had figured out our great secret.
“A lot of things that people love have been taken away, and that’s got to be brutal,” Phil Mickelson said at the Masters in November. “It’s even hard for me to fully empathize with that because I’ve been able to continue doing what I love, which is play golf, even if it was not in tournaments, just being able to play.”
Just being able to play was great, and Canadians — like our American neighbours — took golf to another level in 2020.
“Play was the most in our recorded history,” Golf Canada CEO Laurence Applebaum told Postmedia. “That’s nationwide, coast-to-coast.”
According to Golf Canada data, nearly 15,000 Canadians played more than 100 rounds of golf in 2020, a 50% increase over normal seasons.
“Through the summer months people just got out and they stayed out,” Applebaum said. “They were able to see people and interact safely, and golf was just such an amazing oasis for people.”
Was it business as usual on the golf course? Of course not.
There was nothing normal about 2020.
There were strict rules to adhere to from the parking lot to the first tee, there were masks, there was no sharing golf carts, no high fives, no drinks at the 19th hole. There were even contraptions to stop the ball from going in the hole, which, if you’re new to the sport, is fairly important.
None of that slowed Canadians down.
According to numbers released in December by Canada’s National Golf Course Owners Association, rounds played in 2020 was up 18.9% over the 2019 season. This is especially impressive considering rounds were down 25.9% at the end of May.
The story in the U.S. is much the same, where industry observers estimate golfers played 50 million extra rounds in 2020, an increase of roughly 12% over 2019. The only year that saw a greater increase in the U.S. was 1997, when Tiger Woods won his first Masters. That year, 68 million more rounds were played.
With record numbers on courses, and frankly, the fact we played any rounds at all, a big thank you is owed to golf course operators, superintendents, and all the employees who showed up for work while their lives got flipped from Caddyshack to Contagion overnight.
“It had been weeks and months of planning by golf course owners and associations across the country and working with the whole industry to be ready,” Applebaum said. “And then it was a capacity issue, which we haven’t faced since the Tiger Woods boom. Golf courses were at max capacity and trying to do it safely.”
For all the hurdles, golf had a number of things working in its favour. The most obvious being that it’s an outdoor, individual sport, played over hundreds of acres. But it wasn’t just the nature of golf that made it a pandemic winner, it was the nature of golfers.
“It’s a sport of rules, it’s a sport of protocol, so that leant itself very well to playing safely,” Applebaum said. “I cannot express my happiness and gratitude for how golf courses and golfers and everyone acted, interacted, and played in 2020.”
One very important figure actually declined from 2019 to 2020, according to Golf Canada data.
“The average age has dropped by three years in a year,” Applebaum said. “So the avid players played more than ever before, and the overall number went up, and the age is coming down. For golf that’s really welcoming news.”
There have been plenty of doom and gloom stories written focusing on golf’s aging population and young people choosing other pastimes, but 2020 saw a great number of new players find the game. Almost every golfer in 2020 has a story of a non-golfer asking them about the game, or asking to be taken to the course or driving range.
“Kudos to the golfers who love the game, brought new people, introduced to their sons and daughter and friends, and they just did it in such a great way,” Applebaum said. “I’m really optimistic for golf in the years ahead.”
The years ahead are where the focus of the golf industry must turn. Any business that saw a bump during the pandemic is busy right now figuring out how to keep it going.
“I think golf’s been a refuge for a lot of people,” Rory McIlroy said. “Hopefully it’s not just something that people pick up in the middle of a pandemic and then they set it aside. Hopefully people continue to play golf and realize what a wonderful game it is.”