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PGN Feature: Courses Flourishing After COVID-19 Shutdown

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The familiar COVID-19 restriction signs haven't deterred area golfers from getting back at it. (Submitted photo)

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Josh DeNinno thought he had more time, but he was perfectly fine with less.

The general manager of Moon Golf Club, DeNinno had spoken with his staff on Friday, April 24 about preparing for a possible reopening date for Pennsylvania golf courses somewhere in the May 5-15 range.

But that following Monday, April 27, word came down from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office that golfers were OK to tee off on Friday, May 1. Due to the shock of that moment, DeNinno remembers exactly when he received the information.

“3:11 p.m.,” DeNinno said. “Four minutes later, my phone began to ring and didn’t stop for two days. We sold out our first day of tee times in 24 hours. Our second day took just two days to sell out.”

A recent visit to Moon Golf Club confirms that indeed the deluge of golfers hasn’t let up as we approach the official start of summer, and — at least anecdotally speaking — that high-traffic trend is being experienced throughout the region.

This phenomenon is several weeks old, but it’s not any less of a pleasant surprise for Pittsburgh’s proprietors of golf.

“Initially, if you told me we would have even more visitors and more revenue than last May and June,” DeNinno said, “I would’ve thought you had taken a golf ball off the noggin.”

That sentiment was echoed on the opposite side of town, at Pheasant Ridge Golf Club in Gibsonia.

“I had no idea this would happen,” course owner/GM Mike Reimer said. “I’m shocked at what’s going on. We’re way up.”

How far up? Reimer revealed that Pheasant Ridge’s year-to-year revenues are up 17 percent over 2019 at this time, despite that six-week dormant period from mid-March through the end of April.

At a time when almost every business in America has taken it on the chin from coronavirus, it appears golf is one of the few industries doing well.

If that sounds odd to your ear — didn’t these courses lose several prime playing weeks? — consider that the springtime is still usually pretty touch-and-go in the western Pennsylvania climate.

“Losing five or six weeks of the season would be to make up, but one of the positives was the time of season,” said Rick Gay, head professional at Greensburg’s Totteridge Golf Club. “We usually lose April days due to weather. If we were closed in June or July, the revenue loss would have been much higher.”

No doubt, the build-up of golfers who spent quarantine staring out the window with putter in hand goosed demand to unprecedented levels. Gay characterized the push from the public as “much higher than what we anticipated,” but the surge makes sense.

Let’s not overlook an obvious cause, though, one that goes beyond increased sunshine and simple economics. In light of the Centers for Disease Control’s edicts on maintaining social distancing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces, what better activity than golf to take advantage?

Outside of early restrictions regarding the number of people in a cart and the continued ban of touching flagsticks, it would take a trained eye to detect much difference between a 2020 round and one from previous years. Inside the clubhouse is a different story, but on the links we see a blissfully familiar scene.

“As I look back at the last six weeks or so, it makes sense that we’ve been doing so well,” DeNinno said. “People want to be out. They want to connect to others, be social, enjoy the beautiful spring weather.

“And the biggest factor of all, that I initially underestimated, is that they have the time to do it, with fewer work, school and familial obligations. Golf was ahead of the curve in being at the ready to serve as an important outlet for people.”

That goes for private courses, too. Although country clubs have the benefit of member dues to provide a financial buffer during unexpected economic downturns, a club membership might also be one of the first items considered non-essential by families rethinking their budgets.

On the other hand, private clubs also have the benefit of being a relatively self-contained space. Shannopin Country Club, located in Ben Avon Heights, has seen about 40 new members join over the past two months, a number general manager Mike Meissner called “very unusual for such a small window.”

The familiar 2020 sight of pool noodle foam in golf holes. (Photo: MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

Meissner added that Shannopin’s pool has been an enticing feature for fresh faces at the club, since the City of Pittsburgh and other surrounding municipalities are still uncertain about whether their pools will open this summer.

There’s also something else: Members can avoid the post-quarantine rush to the first tee. Business has been so good at Shannopin that the club has actually looked at rolling back its marketing efforts, solely as a consideration to existing members who expect a manageable level of traffic in the clubhouse and on the course.

“I think a lot of people have seen the normal public course and the backup,” Meissner said. “The interest has peaked for us now. People are calling to get a membership and come golf when they want. Same thing with the pool. One of the benefits then is that we can introduce them to golf … and that helps us out.

“We plan events that are more casual, geared toward our more social members, to get them on the course, introduce them to the game and have fun.”

How to keep the good times rolling? For Reimer at Pheasant Ridge, it’s about digging into the data provided by registration program TeeSnap to see how he might try to turn this boomlet into a bona fide bull market.

Per his database, Reimer said he’s seeing an influx of Generation-X players, whose school-aged kids aren’t participating in their usual sports leagues, thus boosting their parents’ weekend availability.

Then there’s the cohort of golfers who have less going on in general, from work to leisure, and have increased their previous once-a-week habit to two or three times a week. (Guilty!)

Whether this intelligence can be leveraged is another story, but Reimer said for the first time since he took over, Pheasant Ridge isn’t participating in any discounts or online coupon programs. He’s also bumped the prices a bit on weekdays and for seniors, as demand has stayed high.

Gay said something similar about Totteridge, although its price increases have come largely on weekend mornings. The course has leaned into more of a dynamic-pricing model overall, with open tee times getting a website discount starting from 36 hours prior.

“Prices will drop to get the tee sheet full,” Gay said. “We are hoping to train our customers to look for deals and book online. And also, while booking in advance, they will lock in the lowest rate.”

Golfers might be paying a little more overall, but they’re also generally getting a better value in terms of course conditions. Another hidden benefit of the coronavirus shutdown is that fairways and greens didn’t get any foot or cart traffic during a time of year that’s typically soggy.

The result is a playing field less pockmarked and scuffed than usual for mid-June. All four managers I spoke to for this story shouted out their superintendents for making the most of the open weeks, often with smaller staffs than usual due to budget concerns.

DeNinno noted a “high-volume” course like Moon GC seldom gets a peak-season opportunity for superintendent Jason Batchelor to sink his teeth into something long-term.

“Being able to tend to areas and projects without having to navigate high golf traffic was certainly a plus,” DeNinno said. “Weather-wise the spring was generally kind. We had our typical bumpy April, but nothing too severe. On the other hand, it was a very skeletal crew taking care of things, (so) that could also make it difficult to keep up with.”

By this point, several weeks into the rebooted golf season, cart tires have begun to do their yearly damage and ball marks are starting to proliferate. But, personally speaking, it’s been a treat to see so many of our region’s courses in their Sunday best.

You don’t get into the golf management business to get rich. The folks I interviewed tried to keep their heads out of the clouds regarding what the rest of the summer might hold, even as they exuded a general optimism.

“The weekends are packed,” Reimer said, “but I’m a realist. I know we’ll get back to normal levels of demand.”

Still, there’s been enough positive signs for the industry during this public-health crisis that someone like DeNinno can’t help but appreciate how golf has played an integral role in helping people keep their equilibrium, both mental and physical.

“We also wanted to convey how we were keeping people safe, through distancing, significantly reduced contact, sanitizing, et cetera, as this was certainly on folks’ minds,” DeNinno said. “Instead of just pursuing customers, we wanted to instead convey comfort and confidence in the process.

“But the game in general, and I’ll speak for our course in particular, holds an important place in people’s lives, one that we may have underestimated. … While we were closed, we may have underestimated how important is for people to be outdoors in this great game until we were able to do it again.”

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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