Against All Odds: Will Golf’s 2020 Success Story Stay Strong?
WILL 2020’S SUCCESS STORY STAY STRONG IN 2021?
I remember the day The Great Pandemic dropped the hammer on golf. It was a sobering moment last March when we got the first inkling of how much COVID-19, whatever that was, might drastically change our lives.
It was Thursday, March 12. Call it Black Thursday.
Jordan Spieth remembers. He was midway through The Players Championship’s opening round at TPC Sawgrass when several fans called out, “We’re going to miss you guys this weekend!”
Spieth was irked, believing they were razzing him about potentially missing the cut. “I thought that was rude,” he said.
No, the spectators knew something he didn’t. While Spieth was on the course, the PGA TOUR announced it was banning fans and non-essential personnel for the remainder of the event and for several tournaments to come. The other shoe dropped later that evening after pro hockey and pro and college basketball schedules had already begun crumbling under the weight of public fear. The Players was canceled after one round.
Professional golf came to a sudden halt, and within weeks, recreational golf was shut down in most states. Our world shifted into panic mode. Restaurants, offices, schools and stores closed. Masks became standard dress code. By rule of law, we all hunkered down. You lived it, you know what happened.
The pandemic was the story of 2020, no doubt. It was a grim year.
Yet against all odds, golf became 2020’s success story. No one saw that coming. The pandemic wasn’t a nail in golf’s coffin. In a giant helping of irony, the pandemic saved golf. After courses reopened, recreational rounds played rose significantly, equipment sales jumped and confidence returned.
That’s why golf goes into 2021 with a little swagger in its step, although it will still tread carefully. Here’s the big question: Did the pandemic save golf, or did it merely save 2020 for golf?
The numbers don’t lie. Golf came roaring back after the calamitous spring shutdown, sparking optimism for 2021:
▪ Third-quarter golf sales surpassed $1 billion, a first according to Golf Datatech.
▪ August saw a 32 percent sales increase over the same month in 2019, the biggest jump since retail sales began being tracked in 1997.
▪ Rounds played were up 25.5 percent in September and 32 percent in October.
▪ Callaway Golf reported $476 million in third-quarter sales, the best third quarter in the company’s 38-year history. That included online apparel sales, which jumped 108 percent.
The second-half surge makes it hard to resist being bullish on golf for 2021.
The National Golf Foundation reports a dramatic rise in the number of golf facilities that feel they are in good financial shape. More than half of the public courses and two-thirds of private clubs claimed to be financially solid. Only eight percent of public courses rate themselves as being in financial distress, down from 25 percent in 2016 and 14 percent just a year ago.
The pandemic surge and unusually dry weather throughout the Midwest are two reasons for the startling gains. The extra play benefited public courses more because many private-facility rounds were played by existing members. Restrictions on guests also reduced guest fees and food and beverage sales at many private clubs.
The increased play, however, meant more wear-and-tear on courses and subsequently more maintenance expenses. That’s a good problem to have, much better than the alternative.
Joe Beditz, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation, is the voice of reason in golf. As much as he’d like to be bullish on 2021, he feels there are still too many unknowns and that it will require patience and a wait-and-see approach. Call him cautiously optimistic.
“Golf equipment sales were strong long into the year but they’re still going to end up about where they were in 2019,” Beditz said. “It was an apparent boom in equipment sales. It’s still unbelievable how quick and thorough the recovery was.
“The trend in golf has been relatively flat and stable, with maybe slow growth. Participation is flat, and equipment sales are still slow from the Great Recession. And we still have a necessary correction ongoing in supply. So our position is, we don’t see anything fundamentally changed in golf. If nothing changes, nothing changes.”
Where do the heads of the biggest equipment-makers stand on what 2021 holds? We don’t know. Representatives of four major clubmakers politely declined to be interviewed on this seemingly innocuous topic. It’s a highly competitive business, and apparently giving up insight about the upcoming year is considered leaking proprietary knowledge that might somehow benefit a competitor. At least, that’s why I assume they took a pass.
One executive who was willing to speak on record was David Glod, founder and president of equipment-maker Tour Edge.
“I think this is long term,” Glod said. “Now that these golfers have had the experience, it will continue to bear fruit for the entire industry.” New players who experimented with untraditional golf platforms such as Top Golf and others, Glod added, will hopefully be drawn into and welcomed into the traditional outdoor game.
Careful optimism remains the most logical expectation.
“If 2021 was normal, which I don’t expect it to be, it would probably look a lot like 2019,” Bediz said. “That’s what normal used to look like. The virus hasn’t ended. But golf will still be a haven from it. A lot of companies will reassess where things are with their budgets after the first quarter because of all the uncertainty. We’re going to have to be patient.”
Nothing about 2020 was normal or predictable. Why would 2021 be any different? We’re definitely not back to normal or predictable. Golf weathered the storm pretty well. Even the PGA Tour probably outperformed most other major sports. It was the first to return to action (not counting professional fighting), got sponsor support and drew better ratings because of the lack of televised competition. It was smart business done safely.
The Tour used extreme measures to protect its members, including providing chartered flights to the next tournament and player hotels. The plan worked so well that only a handful of players tested positive throughout the resumption of golf, and the Tour managed to play all but 10 of its originally scheduled 2020 events.
Dustin Johnson was symbolic of golf’s mixed-up year. He shot a stunning 30-under-par in Boston, went on to win the FedEx Cup, and then was forced to take a two-week break due to a positive COVID test. Johnson bounced back to win the first Masters played in November, with a record score of 20 under par.
He faced adversity, recovered quickly, finished strong and looked ahead to a promising 2021. Just like golf.