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'A bright spot in a rather unfortunate year': State's golf business, bleak in April, comes up aces

Tony Paul   | The Detroit News

Michigan's golf industry had one heck of a back nine in 2020.

The state's 600-plus courses were shut down in late March and couldn't reopen for several weeks because of the governor's orders early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Facilities lost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue early in a season whose window to make the green isn't exactly forgiving to begin with.

But since reopening in late April, courses have bounced back in a major and stunning way, with Michigan actually recording more rounds of golf this season than last — an increase of 1% from 2019, when there were about 22 million rounds played, according to figures from the National Golf Foundation. That percentage could still increase with unseasonably warm November weather, as experienced on crowded courses Thursday and Friday.

Nationally, rounds of golf are up 8.7% from 2019, with every state in the continental United States seeing some sort of increase.

"A startling turnaround following a disastrous start to the spring," Joseph Beditz, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation, said in an email to members.

Sizewise, Michigan's golf industry is no pitch-and-putt. With the third-most courses of any state in the nation, behind only California and Florida, it generates more than $4 billion in revenue annually and employs more than 60,000 workers, from the pro shop to the restaurants to the grounds crew. And it got off to a disastrous start in 2020, with rounds down 79.3% in April and 24% in May — a loss of about 2 million loops. May's decline was worst in the country, and April was top-five.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down non-essential businesses in late March, and despite some initial confusion, that included golf — amid significant outcry from owners, golfers and even some legislators. Courses were allowed to reopen in April, but without carts, a big moneymaker. Eventually, in late April, carts were permitted again.

June saw Michigan's first good month of golf, with rounds up slightly, year over year, at 0.7%. In July, that rose to 12.8%, then 11% in August and 27.3% in September. October and November numbers aren't out yet, but by all indications they also have had very strong showings.

Still, while the overall golf numbers don't tell the whole story about many courses' bottom lines — there still were significant lost revenues on the food and beverage side of things, with corporate outings scaled back and most weddings canceled — the season was a major success as a whole when compared to what it could've been, or looked like it would've been.

"On the golf side, it was probably our best year ever," said Bill Shortt, owner of Moose Ridge Golf Course in South Lyon. "Even missing all of April.

"We basically sold out the entire year."

Said Mark Stevenson, PGA pro at Tanglewood Golf Course in South Lyon: "After the April shutdown, we were preparing for the worst, but the opposite happened."

Both Moose Ridge and Tanglewood reported rounds were up 25% from 2019.

The three courses operated by the City of Detroit — Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods and River Rouge Golf Course and Chandler Park Golf Course in Detroit — reported rounds were up 18% from 2019. The three courses are at 112,000 rounds in 2020, up from 94,608 all of 2019, a city spokesman said.

Explaining the surge 

There are a number of reasons rounds of golf skyrocketed. For starters, there simply hasn't been much else to do. Fans haven't been allowed at professional or college sporting events since March. Movie theaters have been closed the majority of the year. Most indoor activities have been frowned upon, if not outright banned.

Golf, which is outdoors and greatly lends itself to social distancing, proved the perfect time killer in a year when there has been a lot of time to kill.

"It's been a bright spot in a rather unfortunate year, that's for sure," said Marcus Abdullah, 32, of St. Clair Shores, whose IT sales job shifted to home. That meant no more hour-long commute, allowing him to occasionally play nine in the morning or evening.

"I'm probably getting an extra nine to 27 holes in a week."

Ryan Wietchy, 26, of Madison Heights said he usually played around five rounds a year, but this year that number has risen to about 20.

He's a regular at Rackham in Huntington Woods.

"There's not much else to do," he said. "When the world is in chaos and uncertainty looms, golf is the one constant that people can count on to bring them joy.

"Even though it was a tough start to the year for a golf course, every time I golfed, it was packed."

Alex Ryktarsyk, 26, of Livonia is a wildlife biologist. Many of his field seasons were canceled amid the pandemic, and similarly he lost out on another job opportunity because of COVID-19.

So he went to work at Western Golf & Country Club in Redford. That allowed him to play almost daily, as much as 54 holes in a day. He figures he played more than 150 rounds.

"For me," said Ryktarsyk, "it was a comfortable way to see friends."

Ryan Dykas, 25, of Washington Township said he normally plays a "handful of times" because of his work schedule and college, but estimated this year he played 60.

That's easily his high-water mark.

"These crazy times did have a positive in terms of being able to play golf," Dykas said. "Being able to use golf as a distraction and an excuse to go enjoy the warm weather made it the ideal plan on the weekends."

Kyle Mazzola, 27, of St. Clair started a new job in February and kept the job amid the pandemic, but there was limited work that could be done. So at one point, he said he played 1,125 holes in 45 days, an average of almost a round-and-a-half every 24 hours.

The season didn't just lead to more rounds for the average avid golfer, but also brought people into the game for the first time — or brought them back.

Take Michael Bak, 28, of Saline, who said he never was into golf, but was furloughed in May.

"I gave it a whirl since nothing else was open," he said. "I loved it. I ended up golfing around two times a week from May until late August when my furlough ended."

Interestingly, the state's job crisis — unemployment numbers were huge in March, April and May, and still remain high — led to increased golf. With the additional $600 in weekly unemployment insurance through July's end, many unemployed workers were making more money than before they were laid off or furloughed.

The golf industry was a big beneficiary of that disposable income, an eye-opener for many public courses and private clubs who jumped at the opportunity for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds early in the pandemic.

Among the Metro Detroit courses and clubs that were approved for funds: Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township (between $1 million and $2 million), Fox Hills Golf & Banquet Center in Plymouth ($350,000-$1 million), Shenandoah Country Club in West Bloomfield ($350,000-$1 million), Tam-O-Shanter Country Club in West Bloomfield ($350,000-$1 million), Walnut Creek Country Club in South Lyon ($350,000-$1 million), Boulder Pointe Golf Club in Oxford ($150,000-$350,000), Greystone Golf & Banquet Center in Washington Township ($150,000-$350,000), Indianwood Golf & Country Club in Lake Orion ($150,000-$350,000), Shepherd's Hollow Golf Club in Clarkston ($150,000-$350,000) and Western in Redford ($150,000-$350,000).

Also, Carl's Golfland, the golf superstore with 180 employees combined at its locations in Bloomfield Hills and Plymouth, was approved for $1 million-$2 million, as it shifted heavily to online sales and curbside pickup during a time of year when many golfers are shopping for new equipment. (Carl's also raised and donated hundreds of thousands to organizations in need, locally and nationally.)

Some courses took the cash, others didn't. But they all braced for the worst, and never expected the best. Exceptional weather, including several warm days this month, played a huge factor, too.

"Really, it was kind of a surprise how much people wanted to play," said Shortt of Moose Ridge. "I think when you lock everybody up inside their houses, they want a reason to go outside.

"Obviously, golf is a safe place to do that."

Gauging the interest in golf in the area, particularly amid COVID-19, sports-media personalities Mike Sullivan and Kyle Bogenschutz launched the Metro Detroit Golfers Facebook page in May, and it quickly ballooned to 24,000 members. They've since launched a popular line of golf clothing and swag.

The passion for the game also was evident on the professional stage. While Michigan had some big cancellations, it did still hold the PGA Tour's Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit and the Champions Tour's Ally Challenge in Grand Blanc.

Even without fans, and thus ticket sales, the Rocket Mortgage Classic donated a record $2.7 million to Detroit-area charities, the Ally donated more than $800,000 to Flint-area charities, and the canceled Meijer LPGA Classic still pledged more than $1 million to Grand Rapids-area charities. Sponsors stuck with the tournaments in a big, big way.

Thriving, not surviving 

While most public and private courses weathered the storm as well as could be expected in 2020, it wasn't all birdies and eagles. Resorts had a tougher time given that people were leery about travel, or in some cases it was outright forbidden, and Michigan is a resort-heavy golf state. This explains why Michigan's increase in rounds still is well below the national average.

Non-essential travel from Canada has been banned most of the year, and will be through at least Dec. 21. Canadian rounds make up a significant chunk — 10% or more — at northern Michigan's resort courses, said Chris Whitten, executive director of the Golf Association of Michigan.

All courses, meanwhile, had to deal with ever-changing templates for bar and food service — banned at times and allowed at others, but usually with restrictions. Shortt estimated that bar and food service can account for 40% of Moose Ridge's yearly revenues. That makes sense when you start to consider at some courses, a six-pack of Bud Light can cost $20, plus tip. Moose Ridge never opened its restaurant this year.

But like with area restaurants, courses that could shift most of their hospitality operations outdoors did better.

"So we didn't take as much of a hit on the food and beverage side as some," said Stevenson of Tanglewood.

Still, if you had told the golf industry in late March that they would not only survive 2020, but thrive, they would've gladly taken it quicker than you could scoop up a conceded 4-foot putt.

No golf courses in Michigan have closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, a GAM spokesperson said. Two Metro Detroit courses did announce plans to shut down — including The Golf Club at Mt. Brighton, which is focusing solely on its ski business, and Salem Hills Golf Club in Northville, which has dated infrastructure. The owners want to keep it a golf course and are holding on to it in hopes of finding a buyer; there is progress on that front, co-owner Veronica Godwin said.

Even amid the course's uncertain future, rounds were up at Salem Hills, a popular track for weekend warriors that opened off Six Mile in 1963.

"It was wonderful," Godwin said of the season.

Similarly, while the GAM doesn't get specific numbers of rounds in Michigan, it does get indicators. For instance, it had 1.62 million scores posted for handicap purposes, up from 1.02 million in 2019.

Also, the GAM's youth-golf initiative saw a major surge. For a $5 membership fee, children age 6-18 can play a round of golf at more than 100 courses around the state for only $5. Membership was up to 7,000 in 2020, from 4,000 in 2019.

"That went bananas," Whitten said. "Other sports maybe didn't come back online until later, so they were able to start out with golf, and they got the bug and kept going."

Competitive amateur and professional golf proved a huge outlet, too. The GAM and PGA of Michigan operated near full schedules, aside from some early tournament cancellations.

David Sukenik runs the Mitten Golf Tour, an amateur tournament circuit. He said they sold out every tournament this year, with 55-60 two-man teams per event, up from 30-35, allowing the organization to increase its annual donation to The First Tee of West Michigan to $2,500, from $1,000. The tour spaced out carts and went to virtual scoring and award ceremonies, a small sacrifice to keep things moving.

That's a key golf mantra for anyone who's ever been backed up on a par-5 tee — keep it moving.

"People couldn't go to Tiger games, concerts, movie theaters, college football, etc., so they turned to golf," Stevenson said. "The golf business for public and private facilities in Michigan was fantastic."

Twitter: @tonypaul1984