Counter to many sports, golf continues to make gains during pandemic

If, as Greg Norman once opined, happiness is a long walk with a putter, then there are plenty of happy golfers out there.

“Golf is a little different,” allowed Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau (CTCSB) President Bob Murdock. “Covid affected golf less than it did a lot of other things.”

While many sports — particularly those played indoors — were at least temporarily canceled during the pandemic, Murdock continued, “Golf was there right from the beginning on March 25 (2020), when it was declared by Gov. (Ned) Lamont to be an essential business.”

The governor’s move was actually a reversal of a decision two days earlier, when golf courses were apparently included — the language was a little vague — in the “nonessential businesses” list, a ruling made official on March 24 when the state announced that golf courses would be closed except for maintenance.

However, the Connecticut State Golf Association swung into action, asking its members to reach out to Lamont and their representatives to redress the situation. Within a day, the state did just that.

Various “best practices” were established by the golf association in conjunction with the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), including the now-familiar 6-foot distance between players; the removal of high-touch equipment like ball washers, rakes and benches; and adjustment of flagsticks so that they need not be touched by players.

“With this announcement from DECD, golf can be played, and played safely in Connecticut during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the asociation declared. “But only if everyone follows these guidelines at all times — especially maintaining strict adherence to social distancing.

“It is also our opinion that any golfer who fails to abide by these guidelines should not be playing and courses would be justified in expelling those who fail to follow these guidelines,” the group added.

“Golf is pretty social distant to begin with,” Murdock noted. “You’re usually looking at between one and four people, maybe a fivesome.”

Where courses were hardest hit, Murdock said, were in their ancillary businesses like dining rooms — closed or restricted, in accordance with state rules about all restaurants — and awards ceremonies and fundraising events.

But tournaments mostly went ahead as planned in 2020, though big events like the PGA’s Travelers Championship in Cromwell, which usually brings in around 40,000 spectators, had essentially none on-site last June.

With hotel capacity restrictions, there have been concerns about out-of-state players coming to Connecticut, but Murdock noted some shifting of timetables has helped overcome part of that.

“If you have a golfer coming here from New Jersey, you can shift their start to the afternoon so they can drive in, play, then drive back home,” he said.

And while many players were reluctant to stay overnight at hotels during the early days of Covid, Murdock said, “over the season they started staying there much more.”

The CTCSB saw “extremely strong” numbers at chains such as Homewood Suites and Residence Inns, which come with kitchens “so that they can hunker down there after play,” he said.

Information from market research firm Golf Datatech found that, in terms of rounds played, the sport in 2019 saw a 1.5% year-over-year increase from 2018 — though New England witnessed a 9.5% drop off. In 2020, however, national rounds were up by 13.9% and New England’s by a whopping 101.1%.

January of this year, according to the most recent Datatech report, saw year-over-year increases of 21.4% nationally and of 26.3% in New England.

Murdock said that 2021 is already shaping up, with the Travelers set for June 21 to 27, and the USGA’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which was canceled last year, scheduled for July 29 to Aug. 1 at the Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield. The latter’s participants will include Annika Sörenstam, the 72-time LPGA winner who emerged from her 2008 retirement at the beginning of this year.

“I’m optimistic we’ll have fans at both, especially with the vaccines,” Murdock said. “It’s great exposure for the state, and the senior women’s event is good P.R. for Brooklawn and Fairfield.”

As of April 2, outdoor event venues will be allowed to increase their capacity to 50%, capped at 10,000 people.

The still-ailing convention business has a chance of rebounding this year as well, Murdock said. “We are definitely getting more inquiries about later this year,” he said. “People for the most part are looking to get out and meet again.

“I was at an event at Mohegan Sun a couple weeks ago,” he continued, “which was limited to 75 people — but it was exciting for me to see people in person again.”

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