North Shore Golf Course in Tacoma was busy in 2019 before the pandemic — and in 2020, amid a pandemic, it was even busier.
Rounds played there and at other courses throughout Puget Sound, the state, and the nation have risen since the pandemic early last year as customers flocked to a safe, socially distanced outdoor activity when other pastimes were shut down or sharply curtailed. Courses are reporting more rounds by regular players with more work-from-home time flexibility, more young people, and more women players — a healthy demographic mix that course managers hope to continue to entice as more activities reopen and compete for people’s time and money.
“I would say that our courses, just from a rounds perspective, 2020 versus 2019, were up between 20 and 40 percent, depending on kind of which golf course we’re looking at,” said Shawn Cucciardi, vice president of golf operations for Columbia Hospitality, which manages seven courses in the state, including North Shore, McCormick Woods Golf Club in Port Orchard, and Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton.ho
“That’s considering we were closed for six weeks,” Cucciardi said.
The trend has continued into 2021, he said. Comparing January 2021 to January 2020, which was pre-COVID-19, rounds were up 100 percent, Cucciardi said.
Looking at North Shore only, rounds in the first six months of its fi scal year — October 2020 through March 2021, essentially the off-season — were up 34 percent compared to the same six months spanning October 2019 to March 2020, he said. In March alone, rounds rose 41 percent over March 2020, a percentage increase consistent with what Columbia has seen since the onset of the pandemic, he said in April.
At Gold Mountain in Bremerton, the number of rounds in the first quarter of 2021 rose 49 percent compared to first quarter 2020. That’s coming off a 2020 that saw its rounds increase 31 percent from 2019. Even accounting for several weeks of course closures immediately after the pandemic last year, when large swaths of the country shut down, the number of rounds played nationally in 2020 rose 13.9 percent from 2019, according to figures from the National Golf Foundation (NGF) and Golf Datatech LLC.
The increase in rounds at public, private, and resort courses was the largest total year increase since Golf Datatech began collecting and projecting rounds played in 1998, topping the previous largest increase of 5.7 percent in 2012, the research firm said in news release earlier this year. Sales of golf equipment also rose, up 10.1 percent, it reported.
Through March this year, U.S. rounds were up 24.3 percent over first quarter last year. In Washington, rounds played increased 3.6 percent in 2020 over 2019 after being down almost 23 percent through June compared to the first half of 2019, according to Erik Matuszewski, NGF’s editorial director.
Through March this year, rounds in the state were up 64.2 percent for the first quarter of 2021, Golf Datatech said. Full-year 2020 data was not available for the Seattle region, loosely defined as the area roughly from Tacoma to Everett. But monthly play from August to December last year versus the same months in 2019 ranged from an increase of 19 percent in August to 88 percent in December. First-quarter 2021 data also wasn’t available, but individual courses were reporting big gains.
At Chambers Bay Golf Club in University Place, rounds played were up 80 percent in the first quarter versus 2020’s first quarter, when the last five days of March 2020 were lost to statewide COVID closures, which wasn’t enough to skew the big gains seen this year, said Zac Keener, general manager of the course owned by Pierce County and managed by KemperSports.
“It’s just kind of almost unfathomable the amount of activity over the prior year,” Keener said.
In fact, since July 2020 and through March 2021, Chambers Bay has set new monthly rounds records not only versus year prior, but going back to its opening in 2007, Keener said. Weather, typically a big factor in fourth- and first-quarter play, doesn’t seem to matter anymore, he said.
People whose time might have been occupied by attending Seahawks or Husky football games were available for things like golf, Keener said. Golf courses are enjoying welcoming new people to the game and working to retain as many gains as they can, but they know such sharp increases aren’t the new normal and that play will level off at some point, he said, and are trying to budget appropriately.
Keener believes Chambers Bay also is benefiting from redoing its putting greens, which debuted in April 2019.
Regarding the round activity records, “I certainly don’t think we would be setting as high a bar as we have if we hadn’t also seen course conditions now that we are extremely proud of and people love,” he said.
Chambers Bay is one of two courses KemperSports manages in Washington, along with Lake Spanaway Golf Course in Tacoma. Total combined rounds for those courses in 2020 rose more than 45 percent versus 2019. For the first quarter of 2021, total combined rounds were up by more than 55 percent versus first quarter 2020, the company said.
Columbia Hospitality’s Cucciardi also has seen gains at Columbia’s private courses, both in rounds played and memberships sold.
He also expects private clubs’ memberships to increase, with it being more difficult to book tee times at public facilities.
“I think you’re going to see that trend continue on the private side,” he said, noting that memberships for unlimited play at Columbia’s public courses also are up.
James Hochrine, general manager at Tacoma Country & Golf Club in Lakewood, said he’s seeing rounds increase across the board.
“If you’re a golf course right now and you don’t have increased rounds, it’s an anomaly for sure,” he said.
In the Pacific Northwest, golf courses had a really strong winter, he said.
“That’s where we saw the huge spike in rounds,” Hochrine said. “Normally, we calm down come November, and it didn’t — it just kept going. And I think all of us in the industry are excited. It’s great.”
At his club, resident memberships, those with equity, are full.
The private Tumble Creek Club at Suncadia sold 55 new memberships in 2020, well more than in 2019, and rounds played rose 39 percent, said Jared Jeffries, general manager.
At Suncadia’s two public courses, Prospector and Rope Rider, rounds increased 32 percent last year and they added 35 members, who get unlimited golf with their passes, according to Michael Jones, director of golf at the resort. Increased rounds were driven by more members, resort guests once the hotel was able to reopen last June, and public play, Jones said.
Tom Cade, senior director of communications for Federal Way-based Washington Golf, which represents golfers in the state for the U.S. Golf Association, said the surge in play is evident to players trying to make tee times.
“All you need to do, really, is just go online on any golf course website … just to see if you can book a tee time … and many times, you’ve got to book out two to three weeks ahead of time,” Cade said.
The state has about 276 golf facilities, which include driving ranges not attached to golf courses. Washington Golf and the Pacific Northwest Golf Association — comprising Washington Golf, and the Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia golf associations — have the same staff wearing two hats. They cooperatively own The Home Course in DuPont.
A lot of new golfers have come into the game since the pandemic, Cade said.
“The challenge for the golf industry now is, ‘OK; we’ve got this new interest and this new surge of popularity — how do we maintain their interest, and how do we keep the ball rolling, so to speak?’” Cade said, calling it the No. 1 challenge facing the industry.
Tacoma Country & Golf Club’s Hochrine agreed that retention is key, especially as more activities open back up to compete for people’s time.
“I think that’s where we’re switching gears in our industry,” he said. “It’s great that we’ve seen this boom; now, how do we retain all these people and keep them engaged and loving the sport? If we can do that, then golf’s going to be in a really, really good position long-term.”
Nationally, NGF’s Matuszewski said play increases were “significantly driven by a passionate cohort of existing golfers, who took full advantage of favorable weather, limited travel, remote working arrangements, and other transient factors.”
The number of junior golfers increased about 630,000, beginners about 570,000, and female golfers about 450,000, he said, but NGF golfer surveys indicate core golfers (defined as playing eight or more rounds) played more frequently last year and were the biggest driver of 2020’s surge in rounds, he said.
Many believe golf is becoming a primary sport for more younger people, rather than a secondary sport. The trendiness of today’s professionals helps, too, from their clothing style to equipment advancements.
Columbia’s Cucciardi sees that. He’s excited that of the new golfers coming to the sport last year, more are under 40, and see the sport as hip and cool.
“If you look at fashion trends in golf, I think that’s playing a big role in it,” he said of younger people coming into the game. “People enjoy kind of that look — it’s that casual look that you can wear into the office or wear onto the golf course, and that younger generation has really flocked to the game, and I think they’re starting to understand that this is a lifetime sport.”
Seattle-based rapper Macklemore, for example, recently launched his own golf apparel line, Bogey Boys, which helps expose the game to new audiences.
In a Forbes story in March, Macklemore said, “We hope to use this platform to open the floodgates, to make sure it’s accessible to all people. Obviously, it’s a pricey sport, but there are ways around that. There are great local municipal courses throughout the country, and I think that’s something Bogey Boys is going to be focused on in the months and years to come — how can we as a brand get more people involved, get more youth involved, and help assure that whoever wants to play this sport has the access to do so?”
That has to be music to golf course operators’ ears.
Want to swing a special golf trip? These courses are among state’s top-rated.
As far as we’re concerned, just about any golf course is a great experience because we’re playing golf. Beats working, right?
Of course, some people “work” while golfing, trying to establish a relationship for new business, encourage more business, perhaps entertain a client and thank them for their continued business, or treat colleagues for a job well done. That’s been part of the game for years.
But what if you’re looking for someplace extra special to play in Washington, whether for business or pleasure? We turned to ratings from Golf Magazine, Golfweek, Golf Digest, and Golfers’ Choice on GolfPass.com to see which courses make their top 10 or 15.
Keep in mind, some courses on the lists are private, so unless you know a member and get invited, or join, you’ll have to stick to the public venues — and there are many great ones from which to choose.
Some courses, like Gamble Sands in Brewster, Chambers Bay in University Place, and Wine Valley in Walla Walla showed up on all four lists we checked, but others appeared on multiple lists, too. They include the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Salish Cliffs Golf Club in Shelton, and private courses like Tumble Creek in Suncadia, and Aldarra Golf Club and Sahalee Country Club, both in Sammamish. Of course (no pun intended), there are many other courses that fall just outside making these ratings that are outstanding, as well.
Venturing farther afield, we’d be remiss not to mention Bandon Dunes in southwestern Oregon, which gets frequent national acclaim. The architect who designed it also designed Gamble Sands.
Washington Golf, one of the largest amateur golf associations in the U.S., has a directory of all courses in the state. The site allows users to click on a course for basic course details, plus its course and slope ratings, and the site includes course phone numbers and links to course websites for more information. It’s searchable by city or course name.