How the pandemic reinvigorated suburban golf
For nearly a decade, many publicly owned suburban golf courses rarely met revenue goals and had to rely on additional tax dollars to cover costs.
Then came the pandemic.
"We definitely had a good year," said Dave Peterson, executive director of the Dundee Township Park District. "It far exceeded what we did last year. And I'd say even going back five years, this is probably the best year we've had, and that's even with the month of May when we were only letting two (golfers) go out at a time."
Peterson said golf revenues through September at the district's two courses have exceeded budgeted revenue goals by 20%, and the number of rounds played exceeded the district's anticipated number by the same margin.
As interest in the sport waned significantly after a boom in the 1990s, publicly owned golf courses throughout the suburbs saw a resurgence this year because it was one of the few athletic activities allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think this really put a spotlight on the game of golf, and we believe it was bringing out people who had never golfed before," said Brian Meyer, director of recreation and facilities at the Arlington Heights Park District. "I think it appealed to a lot of people who either wanted to take part in something new or have some sense of normalcy."
Meyer said the district, which operates an 18-hole course and nine-hole course, has seen 6,000 more rounds of golf played this year than in 2019, and its golf revenues are up roughly $300,000 over where they were expected to be.
That's a common refrain at other publicly owned courses. "We were able to exceed budget in just five months' time," said Kevin Carlson, director of golf at the Naperville Park District. "With the restrictions on other recreational opportunities, golf certainly benefitted."
Many golfers still working from home, rather than traditional office spaces, has only increased their abilities to get in a round this year.
"That has had a huge role," said Alex Eichman, superintendent of golf course management operations at the Lake County Forest Preserve District. "Golfers have told us that all season. More people working from home means more flexible schedules for many employees, and that means more time for golf."
The season usually begins in March for many suburban courses, but the pandemic essentially shut down all recreational opportunities throughout the state. It wasn't until May that state officials allowed golf courses to reopen, and then it was with severe capacity limitations.
Golf courses didn't have the same restrictions in Indiana and Wisconsin. But once June arrived, the state of Illinois loosened restrictions on golf courses and the golfers arrived in droves.
The Lake County Forest Preserve District's golf operations at its four 18-hole courses at three clubs had barely broken even the previous two years, according to its annual audits. This year, they're already somewhere between 25% and 30% above budget expectations.
"Golf is a sport that's very easy to socially distance yourself from others," Eichman said. "This has given golf the shot in the arm golf needed, and it's our job to keep that enthusiasm going."
Rory Spears, host of Golfers on Golf Radio on WCPT 820-AM, said the sport should be able to sustain the renewed interest. He cited a Golf Digest report noting how July had bested a 13-year-old golf equipment sales record, with retailers reporting $388.6 million in sales of balls, clubs and other items.
"If you don't have people spending a ton of money on other activities and events, they're going to have the time and resources to play golf," Spears said. "And who knows what's going to happen next spring?"
Yet, while golf has seen a boom, other park district activities have gone bust. The additional revenue being created by the golf resurgence isn't enough to cover losses elsewhere.
"We've eliminated five positions," Dundee Township Park District's Peterson said. "We're actually ahead financially because even though we didn't open up our aquatic center this summer, it saved us about $100,000 (in personnel costs) because that program is subsidized by tax dollars."
In Arlington Heights, Meyer said 400 staff members were furloughed at one point and the district has experienced layoffs as well.
Unbudgeted costs for safety equipment and cleaning supplies incurred by most golf operations ate into any profits.
But it was such a good year for golf, even the weather cooperated. A fairly dry spring and mild summer helped keep the links open with greater frequency than golfers had experienced over the past two years, experts agreed. And golf officials reported few problems with golfer behavior as tee times booked up and the courses filled with golfers.
"There are a lot of people who I know who said to me that if it takes five hours, that's great because I'm tired of being cooped up in my house," Spears said. "And they're out someplace where you don't have to wear a mask. I think everybody was just glad to be outside."