Greg Wetzel was just 14 when he got his first job as a golf course attendant back in Montana. His professional connection to the sport lasted more than 35 years, turning into a career working with community developers to build and manage clubs.
Then, at 50 years old, Wetzel decided to make a change. He earned a JD and now practices property law for a firm in Naples. But he couldn’t stay away from the links for long. While golf is no longer his job, he does engage in weekly games with a group of a dozen neighbors in Olde Cypress. These get-togethers continued even earlier this year, during a time when it seemed every other social engagement had been canceled.
Wetzel, like many other Neapolitans, realized that taking a whack at a small dimpled ball is compatible with socializing done six feet apart. He and his pals would each get their own cart and remain a good distance from one another for the round. Instead of heading to the clubhouse at the end for nineteenth-hole pints, they’d gather by their carts for cooled cans they’d brought from home.
“They were all really embracing the chance to get outside and have any kind of recreation,” Wetzel says. “We don’t have the opportunity to meet socially in many other instances.”
While many sports seem impossible in these days of limited contact, golf is seeing some of its best times in years, maybe in a generation. This seems true in Naples and on the national level. In May, 86 percent of golfers surveyed by the National Golf Foundation said they played at least once in the last two weeks and would again in the next two. Another positive indicator for Naples Golf from the NGF is that rounds in Orlando were up 39 percent this June versus June 2019.
A few changes at courses meant a smooth transition to social distancing–approved play, and many local clubs say they’ve had big upticks this year as lapsed players return, new players sprout, and entire families show up together to play.
With this city already known as the Golf Capital of the World, we have to wonder: Are we entering a new golden age of Naples golf?
The New 18-Hole Normal
Not too long ago, sports writers were crafting a different narrative around golf. They argued that the country had too many courses and younger people just weren’t playing like they used to. Other gripes were golf took too long or was too hard. Industry leaders offered solutions like shortening the game from 18 holes to 9, or even quadrupling the diameter of the cup to 15 inches.
Before the pandemic, the inventory of available tee times had outpaced demand, says Doug Burnham, general manager of Quail Run Golf Club since 2015. Sure, winter months filled up, but in the summer, courses had far too many empty slots.
That all changed dramatically in April. While the stay-at-home orders shuttered many outdoor activities, golf courses thrived. It was one of the only sports allowed under local quarantine rules and among the only activities friends could do together, albeit about two clubs’ lengths apart. Golf courses in Naples generally turned to the PGA for guidance, and many that stayed open through the outbreak incorporated minor changes to make the game pandemic-approved. Single players drove freshly disinfected golf carts, foam inserts in cups meant players no longer had to remove flags or reach into the hole to retrieve balls, and rakes were removed from bunkers. Players now mostly use apps to track strokes and putts rather than course-provided paper scorecards and pencils. Enthusiasts quickly adjusted to the commonsense protocols for the love of the game and showed up in droves, ready to play.
Then it snowed in New England and the Midwest, bringing more golfers into town who would normally be gone in the warmer spring months. And some golfers on the east coast of Florida drove across the peninsula for reprieve from daunting COVID-19 numbers. It got so busy that Quail Run had to shut down for three days to regroup and re-evaluate procedures, explains Burnham.
During the pandemic, local courses saw whole families playing together for maybe the first time, considering it was among the few outdoor activities everyone could do. That’s an upward trend Geoff Lofstead, executive director of the South Florida PGA Section, wants to see continue.
For the most part, it wasn’t hugely stressful for golf courses to adjust to the new ways we all live, says Kevin DeDonato, general manager of Tiburón Golf Club. “Golf is definitely matched for some of the changes that have occurred because of COVID-19, and the industry has done a good job of adjusting on the fly to make golf more accessible during these times,” he says. “It can be a touchless experience.”
Given Tiburón’s relationship with a hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, one might have predicted a decrease in play. Instead, its members came out more frequently, even though hotel guests were noticeably absent. “People have been happy to just have a distraction during these challenging times,” DeDonato says. In late June, Tiburón was one of the few local courses that would allow non-members and non-guests to play.
The way golfers think of their sport has changed, observes Lofstead. Players and hackers seem to be finding enjoyment in even the tougher parts of the game, he notes, such as chipping. “For those of us who play a lot, the normal frustrations you might have if you’re not playing the way you’d like to play sort of get forgotten by the pure joy of just getting outside.”
But the question now for the golf courses is: Will it continue?
The Winter Will Tell
At the end of June, Bonita Bay Club held the region’s first major tournament since the pandemic began. In early August, the Florida Junior Tour hosted a tournament for players aged 16 to 18 at the Golf Club of the Everglades. And aside from a few new logistics,
tournament play has gotten a grip on setting up a competition that’s safe in the days of social distancing, says E.J. McDonnell, the PGA director of golf at Bonita Bay. The course’s employees did need to rethink some basic things. There were no paper scorecards, and the players had set tee times, something previously abnormal for a tournament. At junior tournaments, youth players now bring their own snacks and drinks in their golf bags, rather than relying on provided provisions.
But when the 150 or so pros showed up for the South Florida Open in June, McDonnell notes that the goal was to make it all feel a whole lot like it used to, albeit a bit safer. “It’s going to be our new regular, our new normal,” he says. “Everybody has their own sensitivity to it and what they feel like doing, and we want to make sure they all feel comfortable with it.”
It’s also likely that all of these changes will remain, even after there’s a vaccination forthe virus and life returns to pre-COVID normal. When that happens, McDonnell says many of the changes will seem like second nature. At driving ranges, for instance, buckets have been replaced with sterilized bags of balls, something that’s just more sanitary. “We are not going torush back to the old normal too fast,” McDonnell says.
Whether all these changes will coincide with a long-term uptick for golf is still uncertain. Jeff Jackson, the head pro at Eagle Creek Golf and Country Club, says his course rode a roller coaster already this year. With “a wave of members returning North” in March, Eagle Creek initially saw a decrease in play. Then, in April, the club had a 15 percent increase in rounds, and an even bigger increase in May and June, when member play was up 1,800 rounds. Since clubs weren’t honoring reciprocal play benefits like they do most summers, when members of one club can play at several others, Eagle Creek saw the overall number of rounds for the summer stay about the same from previous years.
“Our main concern heading into fall would be when and if our Canadian membership returns,” Jackson says. “With the insurance concerns of contracting the virus in the United States, this could delay their return to the Sunshine State. That said, with the safety protocols that we have in place here at Eagle Creek we are confident that we can provide a safe golfing experience. At the end of the day, I feel one of the safest places is outside enjoying fresh air and our beautiful course.”
It’s hard to determine what this fall and winter will look like, says Burnham, the GM at Quail Run. With the beach, restaurants, and other activities open and bustling in mid-July, Burnham believes the challenge for golf is to retain all those people who came out during the quarantine.
The courses will also need to find a way to financially support the new rules. If they continue with the one-person-per-cart mandate, courses may have to buy more carts or figure out how to add dividers between the seats, before everyone shows up in the winter months. The staggered tee times many courses used to spread people out during the pandemic may also not be tenable in the busiest part of the season, Burnham says.
“Has it created an uptick? Maybe right now it has,” Burnham adds. In regards to golf course management, he notes that “unless you’ve geared yourself up for the winter months, you are not going to be prepared.”
One thing likely to assist local coursesis the way in which the quarantine affected how we think of daily life, says Wetzel. Like many people nowadays, some in his group of a dozen neighbors who play regularly have found themselves with more flexible work schedules and a new appreciation for the moments they can share together.
“When they send out their group email, there’s usually a comment like, ‘thank goodness we can get out and do this,’” Wetzel says. “There’s more of a balance of recreation and work after COVID, and that’s going to help golf.”