Ahwatukee Country Club

The links at Ahwatukee Country Club were not abandoned when the pandemic first hit Arizona in March.

When the virus forced lockdowns in March, Gov. Doug Ducey kept golf courses open, forcing only the closing of many indoor areas and facilities.

For the most part, courses saw their businesses thrive and even expand. 

Bob Sykora, the general manager of Mesa Country Club, said “We were already trending to grow in golf.

“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.”

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.

And for whatever reason, more Arizonans are playing golf in 2020 than many years past.

Clubs and courses across Arizona had to balance several economic and health-related factors. 

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

There are social events, tennis memberships and other perks for those who belong to a country club. Much of this business stalled in the pandemic.

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 significant revenue.

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. “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. 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.

Sun City Country Club pivoted to 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.”

Loegering added family-oriented practice programs that 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. … We’re actually growing our revenue even though we had a bump in March when schools closed.”

Even then, the older demographic typically associated with Sun City has not stopped playing.

Loegering explained, “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.”

McNichols said golf can adapt to even the most stringent social-distancing requirements.

 “We pulled bunker rakes, we pulled ball washers out there,” Sykora said. “We just minimized as much as we could people touching things.”

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.

“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 said that while COVID-19 protocols are making the game safer, they are not changing the way golf is played.

ASU student Trey Jordan has also

noticed the changes on courses where he plays.

He 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.”

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