While nearly every sports organization had seasons shortened or nixed altogether by the COVID-19 pandemic, the West Virginia Golf Association soldiered on in 2020, playing through a worldwide pandemic while holding its full schedule of tournaments and series events.
Those events came with an influx of new protocols, the removal of shotgun starts, post-round handshakes and group post-round meals as social distancing became the norm on the golf course and in the world.
But the WVGA made it through, and with the start of its season looming in early April, past the seemingly never-ending string of winter storms pounding the Mountain State in recent days, the organization is looking forward to hopefully focusing on the game itself this time around.
“We made our way through it with the support of the clubs and players playing by the rules,” said WVGA executive director Brad Ullman. “As we are making plans for the upcoming season, we’re looking forward to cautiously going back to some shotgun starts in certain situations while still abiding by the rules. I think a sense of normalcy in the golf world will be back in 2021.”
Along the way, the WVGA learned some valuable lessons and of its own mettle.
“I think communication is a big one,” Ullman said. “Two, I think it showed a lot about the character of golf itself. We were very fortunate to have all of our major sponsors and partners back and had their full commitment and support even during a worldwide pandemic, and that meant the world to us.
“And it showed how golf can impact people’s lives in a positive way. We run golf tournaments for a living, but families were coming out to play golf last year as an opportunity to escape what was going on in the world.”
Indeed, while other industries felt the squeeze of COVID-19 and the resulting closures, golf experienced a boom of sorts. According to a report published by the National Golf Foundation, rounds at public courses in 2020 were up 12.4% as compared to 2019, and the number of rounds at private courses increased 19.9%.
Ullman said that growth was reflected in West Virginia as well, but whether or not that will stick in the years to come remains to be seen.
“If it helped grow the game, we’ll see,” Ullman said. “Some of our public golf courses and facilities across the state and country saw an influx of golfers, so we hope they had good enough experiences to come back.”
The future and the growth of the game are always at the forefront of the WVGA’s initiative, as proven again a year ago by the unveiling of the Callaway Junior Tour Rookie League, a new venture aimed at introducing young players at varying levels to competitive golf. That, along with its involvement in the National School Program as part of the First Tee of West Virginia and the Junior Tour itself, continue to bring the sport to young people in the state.
The results of those initiatives are beginning to show on the WVGA’s biggest stages. Ravenswood’s Alex Easthom won last year’s West Virginia Amateur at age 20, a year after Bridgeport’s Mason Williams pulled the trick as a 19-year-old. Both the Amateur and the West Virginia Open were decided on the final green last summer, with plenty of drama to spare.
Ullman thinks that will continue as the WVGA’s youth initiatives continue to introduce and develop youngsters through the game.
“It’s about as good as it’s been in the last 15 years,” Ullman said in terms of the competition level in the state’s Amateur and Open. “The thing you can attribute a good bit of this to is how much we as a golf association, our executive committee and the commitment of the West Virginia PGA chapter, to help us continue the Callaway Junior Tour. If you look at past champions the last 15 years, there’s a young contingency of golfers making charges at the state Open and a good bit of them if not all of them were graduates of the Callaway Tour and got their start there learning competitive golf.
“Programs like the First Tee, as we continue to dive into the National School program — we’re in 150 schools right now, with our eyes set on all of them in the next five years — there are significant opportunities for us to introduce the game of golf to elementary-aged students that might not otherwise ever put a club in their hands.”