June 9, 2020

Golf Operations Re-Opening to a Different World

By Vinnie Manginelli, PGA

Think back to this past winter – golf course and driving range owners and professionals in warmer areas of the country were working hard, anticipating a productive and profitable spring, followed by the respite that the hot summer season usually rewards. Golf professionals in the north were enjoying their annual downtime, but planning for a successful spring golf season and a fruitful 2020. How’d that work out for everyone?

As golf facilities that were forced to close during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to reopen, and those who were fortunate to remain open in some capacity rewrite their operating procedures, conducting “business as usual” is out and social distancing while ensuring a clean and healthy environment for golfers and employees is in. It’s a different time than we’re used to, as golf courses and stand-alone ranges across the country are altering their procedures to conform to the mandatory measures put forth by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health departments.

I recently spoke with Kevin Sprecher, PGA Director of Instruction at Sleepy Hollow Country Club, in Scarborough, New York. As we talked, the club was hosting a Member-Member event with 68 two-man teams. With shotgun starts out of the question, the event was reorganized with tee times. “You’re allowed to show up fifteen minutes before your tee time so you can hit balls on the range. And then when you’re done, you have to leave,” Sprecher detailed. It’s not the social affair for which many individuals join private clubs, but members appreciate the opportunity to play golf and compete, rather than endure the alternative.

Kevin Sprecher – 2018 PGA Metropolitan Section Teacher of the Year

In discussing his efforts to engage students during the pandemic when in-person instruction was not an option, Sprecher, the 2018 Teacher of the Year in the PGA’s Met Section commented, “I did a bunch of social media stuff, a couple of webinars or interviews.” He discussed the Facetime lessons he conducted with students, both locally and across the country. They’d send him swing videos to analyze, and he’d respond with a voiceover critique or chat live with them to provide his feedback, sharing screens via Zoom.

Rick Martino is a PGA Master Professional and instructor at Abacoa Golf Club, in Jupiter, Florida. After being closed for six weeks, the Palm Beach County club reopened recently with warm-up only stipulations on its practice range (though the range has since been opened for practice as well). Martino tells me their large range usually supports 40-45 golfers; however, it is currently set up to allow half that number. “The putting green was completely closed; and it is open again,” Martino adds. “The putting green has signage about social distancing, and there are no cups.”

Abacoa Golf Club implemented special measures to ensure social distancing and a clean space for members.

When asked about teaching, Martino commented that there are no clinics or groups – individual lessons only. “We’re fortunate that the Abacoa Golf Club Learning Center is on the other end of the range. So you get to the lesson area in a separate cart, park by yourself, bring your own equipment, and the instructor meets you on the lesson tee,” he detailed.

Many of these steps are being implemented at clubs and courses across the country. When it comes to golf leagues, some facilities are postponing them, while others are implementing measures that allow them to proceed with some notable changes. In an effort to keep their leagues in play, Colonie Golf & Country Club, in Voorheesville, New York, has gone from a 5:00 shotgun each Wednesday night to allow its 50+ players to play anytime during the day and turn in the result for league scoring.

Communication and a clear demonstration of the rules and regulations are important to maintain a healthy environment for golfers and employees.

Understanding that league nights are usually lucrative occasions for a facility’s food and beverage operation, Colonie G & CC does offer food-to-go options. “We’re actually looking to incorporate our food truck – our current caterer does have a food truck, and we’re trying to figure out how it would operate [with prescribed health and wellness measures],” says Kevin Cain, a PGA Assistant Professional at Colonie Golf & Country Club. Cain adds that they are scheduling tee time reservations twelve minutes apart and players are instructed to arrive shortly before their scheduled reservation to ensure there is no congregating occurring.

With most golf shops closed, payment of greens fees is being facilitated online or via phone at the time of reservation. This process, combined with golfers being required to place their own bags on carts and retail operations being moved online, is reducing the number of human interactions necessary to conduct business. This, of course, is the opposite of how we usually serve members and customers; but with the scenario in which we currently find ourselves, it is, unfortunately, the most prudent method of operation.

Chad Maes, PGA Head Professional at McGregor Links Golf Club, in Saratoga Springs, New York, limits one person into the golf shop at a time and addresses their needs in a swift manner. He also restricts practice green usage to the foursome “on the tee”. As the group concludes their practice and proceeds to begin their round, the next foursome is welcomed on the practice green. “Everyone has to bend – everything can’t stay the same,” he says, understanding that none of the measures mentioned here are ideal, however, they are what we have to do to conduct business, our new normal, to fall back on the cliché. In fact, he’s split his Tuesday men’s and women’s leagues into two nights, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with tee times on the 1st and 10th holes rather than the shotgun start that used to take place. This reduces the number of golfers on-site at any one time and ensures the social distancing that is currently required.

Despite its large size, there is a limit of four golfers at a time on the practice putting green at McGregor Links Country Club, a clear and prudent demonstration of “better safe than sorry”.

It seems that golf professionals at facilities large and small are doing their part to welcome back their members, students, and golfers – single-rider carts, taking in ball washers, water coolers, and bunker rakes, and spacing tee times further apart. Bill Castner, PGA Head Professional and GM at Plainfield West 9 Golf Club in Edison, New Jersey, says he has implemented 16-minute tee time intervals. It will take some time to get used to these changes, but doing what we have to do to welcome golfers back to the game they love is more important than ever – doing it with their health and wellness in mind is essential.