Post-pandemic golf: Part 1 – Building on the boom

  • Boom
    Ben & Kelly Photography

    Many types of golf have surged in popularity since the pandemic, from traditional 18-hole rounds to alternative formats of the game, such as Topgolf, pictured

  • Boom

    The pandemic has heightened people's appreciation of outdoor activity, and golf is naturally socially distanced

  • Boom
    Tim Lobb

    While architect Tim Lobb (left, with Soma Bay's golf course superintendent Andrew Hughes) has managed to travel to Egypt this year, he expects that travel will remain difficult for some time

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Since GCA started publishing sixteen years ago, the overall story about golf has mostly been one of decline. Overbuilt and struggling for popularity against other, seemingly ‘cooler’ leisure activities, golf has been under constant pressure across the established golfing world. The golf magazines and websites have been filled with stories of courses closing and golfers giving up the game. The overall supply of golf courses has declined substantially since 2005, and the building of new ones, in established markets at least, has slowed to a tiny trickle, with golf course architects overwhelmingly making their living through renovations.

Then, in 2020, came the Covid-19 pandemic. For several months, much of the world was locked down, with hospitality, retail and leisure businesses shut down in many markets. Last summer, as the first wave of the pandemic declined, much of what had been closed in the severest lockdowns was able to open. Fairly early in the pandemic, researchers worked out that the virus found it vastly more difficult to spread in the outdoors than indoors; consequently, golf was typically one of the first leisure activities to restart. And, almost from the minute courses were allowed to open, across the golfing world they have been packed.

Andrew Martin, writing in the Financial Times late last year, put it well. “I like to think that my abiding memory of this summer will not be any moment of Covid fraughtness,” he wrote. “It will be the image of my lonely golf ball casting a shadow longer than itself on the last green of the links at Southwold, Suffolk. The sun is setting; gulls are wheeling overhead; my car is the last one in the car park beyond. I was apparently one of many who turned to golf as a corrective to stress. England Golf, the amateur governing body, reports that the number of rounds played in June and July was 60 per cent up on the same period last year. This is attributed partly to furloughed people having the time to play. But the figure may also reflect a new view of golf. Not so much the sport of backslapping chief executives, nineteenth-hole dealmakers or blazered Blimps obsessed with the definition of ‘smart-casual’, but a game played in wide-open spaces by widely spaced and perhaps meditative individuals. Golf is a naturally socially distanced sport, especially the way that I and my most regular partner play it, since he tends to hook while I slice. Golf’s aptness for a pandemic caused it to be released early from restrictions last time around and explains the delay and confusion over whether it would be a part of the new purdah.”

The reason for this boom is quite simple, according to Rob Day of land planners WATG: it is a new awareness of the value of time outside. “Gyms and everything indoors have been closed. People want to be outdoors, in nature. It’s one of few sports or exercise options that is available,” he says. “That was already happening, but it has been accelerated.” Day, who is based in Singapore, adds that the effect is all over the world: “Here, as everywhere else, they are totally packed.”

In the US, golf’s biggest market, the situation is similar. The number crunchers at Golf Datatech, an industry research company, have quantified what any recreational golfer in America could have told them: 2020 was a very busy year for golf courses. American golfers logged 13.9 per cent more rounds in 2020 than in 2019, according to Golf Datatech. Play rose significantly for the year in every state except for Hawaii, Nevada and South Carolina, which are heavily dependent upon tourism traffic, which has been curtailed during the pandemic.

The question that everyone in golf is asking is ‘will it last’? Rob Day says he believes it will. “It is an easy sport to enjoy, and it is a continuation of the trend towards experiences rather than consumption,” he explains. “The whole travel, adventure sports and so forth is very popular. Going shopping or sitting on a beach is out of fashion. Healthiness is in, and thus golf fits nicely, especially with the work from home trend. You can still be a regular golfer without having to play on a weekend anymore. That would be a very good trend for the golf industry, as it may help even out numbers. Life will be cheaper and healthier.”

Golf architects are asking a second question: will there be a consequent building boom? About this, Day is more cautious. “I’m not so sure about a boom in new developments,” he says. “They still have the same difficulties with land acquisition that they have always had. But we might see some changes. I think we will see larger outdoor spaces around clubhouses because people want to be outdoors. In golf communities, you’ll see a transition – as people work from anywhere, they can move to them permanently and full time. They’ll need more cafes and that sort of thing. Maybe golf clubs become more community facilities. Municipal courses – can they become social hubs? They are big open spaces that are pretty much underused. Golf communities will need to provide different amenities, as people living there will be younger. They will be less seasonal too, which should be a good thing.”

That said, a lot of architects are optimistic about the short-term future, according to a recent survey. The European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA) asked its members about the effect of the pandemic on turnover in 2020, compared to 2019 levels. Forty-eight per cent said their turnover had remained the same or was higher. Those with projects in the Middle East, Eastern or Central Europe, were more likely to have experienced a positive effect.

Looking to the future, 86 per cent felt the golf course design industry would stay the same or grow (51 per cent and 35 per cent respectively). To support this positive outlook, members were asked to consider their expected turnover in the coming six, twelve and twenty-four months, in comparison to 2019. In six to twelve months, 57 per cent expected turnover to remain at the same level or be higher, with members more optimistic about projects in Northern, Eastern and Central Europe, the Middle East, Africa and North America. Optimism for turnover to remain static or be higher, increased to 66 per cent of members when looking to 24 months ahead, with most positivity for projects in the Middle East, Africa and North America, followed by Central and Eastern Europe.

When asked about the challenges they face in the next twelve months, unsurprisingly, with projects scattered around the globe, members put travel at the top of the list. Over half of the respondents had concerns relating to safe travel, restrictions on the ability to meet clients face-to-face to progress works, and constraints on looking and bidding for future projects. Other key challenges included: golf clubs not proceeding with projects and being hesitant to invest for the future; and ensuring a Covid-safe workplace for employees. A handful of members cited the enviable challenge to some of how they would manage an increase in workload. Only two members cited Brexit as a challenge in the next twelve months.

“This survey shows that a feared long-term negative impact from the Covid pandemic on the golf industry has not been realised,” says EIGCA president Christoph Städler. “Although one-fifth of EIGCA members reported a reduction in turnover of more than 50 per cent compared to 2019, this is balanced by 48 per cent experiencing either no impact or one that has been positive. The optimism expressed by our members signifies that the industry has been adversely affected by the Covid-19 restrictions but will be stronger than before when the pandemic is over. We golf architects are in a strong position to seize the opportunities ahead.”

One golf architect in a good position to judge the situation is England-based, Australia-born Tim Lobb, whose practice has for many years been spread across a large range of countries. “I did an interview early in the pandemic in which I said, ‘by the end of the year I think they should be moving’. I think we can add a year to that!” says Lobb. “There are still delays on the bigger projects because of the pandemic. We haven’t been able to get stuck into them because we haven’t been able to travel to site. We have projects in Egypt and Poland that are moving slowly.”

But Lobb says that prospects for the future are bright. “We have been bidding for big new resort activity in Europe and North Africa. The number of leads this year has been huge. There’s still a bit of time to wait, but I think there is a boom coming. Whether it’s a traditional 18-hole course or something else, who knows? We have been getting enquiries for nine-hole projects, which hasn’t really happened in the past. Our local scene has been constant. Clubs are still committing investment to their courses. Last winter, clubs didn’t want any disruption to the limited amount of play that was possible, but now they’re getting back on track and scheduling in their plans. And we have had more enquiries for large renovation jobs within Europe.”

But Lobb sounds a note of caution, based on the continued difficulty of global travel. “I have been a couple of times to Egypt this year – to Hurghada and Cairo. I have clients wanting to do work, so I needed to be there. But it is quite a big decision to travel at the moment, with £500-600 worth of Covid testing, even if you don’t have to quarantine at all. I think that the way forward may be to merge trips together into longer, multi-country visits, something that was basically unheard of in the past.”

Part 2 of this article will be available online on 8 September. These pieces first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.