Northeast Ohio golf courses are having ’90s flashbacks during pandemic-aided boom

Two key demographics often cited in past reports that studied golf’s decline — a drop in women and younger players — also have been on the rebound.

The National Golf Foundation said the number of kids in the 6-17 age group increased 20% in the second quarter of 2020. That could lead to a half-million bump in junior golfers by year’s end, the foundation said.

Hanlin said his 12-year-old son, Palmer, a baseball and basketball player who “never played golf at all,” completed 10 18-hole rounds in August.

“He got hooked,” the host of “18 Holes,” “Pin Shot” and “Swing Clinic” said.

Hanlin, who lives about 60 yards from the sixth green at Little Mountain, said he frequently rides around the course in the evening to chat with guests.

The biggest increases he’s seeing are in the numbers of women and kids. This year, Little Mountain had a new women’s league with 20-plus participants.

Gone, finally, are the “depressing” conversations about the industry, Hanlin said.

Instead, the talk has turned to how golf can maintain its COVID-aided boom.

Hanlin wonders if the industry, after months in which the golf business has far exceeded the events business, will adjust.

“From an expense standpoint, daily play, just running tee times, is easier,” Hanlin said. “It’s like Groundhog Day. It’s what you do every day. When you have a big group of 130 people showing up at the same time and you gotta feed ’em twice, that’s a lot more work and a lot more staff.”

Events can bring in significant revenue. The “tradeoff,” though, is the golf course might have to be shut down before and after, and with demand at its current level, the facilities can fill their time slots with regular play, said McCoy, the assistant manager and golf pro at Lost Nation.

“We’re more tee time-based this year,” said Thirion, the Turkeyfoot GM.

The majority of the Akron club’s events were canceled this year, Thirion said. The gaps, however, were filled in by golfers who might have been looking to get in a round between Zoom meetings or seeking an escape from their kids’ virtual schooling.

For the first time, Firestone Country Club in Akron is offering stay-and-play packages for nonmembers. Customers have the option of staying for one, two or three nights, which the ClubCorp-owned course thinks could lead to an increase in national memberships during a time in which corporate events and members hosting guests has been negatively impacted by the pandemic.

“I think that to a certain extent family memberships and family clubs will do a lot better moving forward because parents and kids have been reintroduced to the game as a family activity,” Firestone GM Jay Walkinshaw said.

But what happens when workers are back in offices and life eventually returns to some semblance of normal? Could the gains made in 2020 produce enough committed golfers to continue the momentum?

“Maybe it doesn’t sustain at this level because we’re at record-breaking times right now, but I really think it’s going to be a huge shot in the arm for the industry because people aren’t just playing,” Hanlin said. “They’re investing in the game.”

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