Prince might be gone, but the golf business is partying like it's 1999.
OK, that might be stretching things just a bit, but so far, 2021 looks awfully similar to 2020 when the game began to enjoy a covid-induced resurgence.
"It's crazy," said Chris Reverie, superintendent at Allentown Municipal Golf Course in Pennsylvania. "I've never seen play like this. A colleague told me it reminds him of golf back in the 1990s."
Increased popularity of a game that had been on a slow and steady decline for most of the past two decades is one good thing that has come out of the pandemic. It also has resulted in some superintendents changing the way they do some things so they can stay ahead of the game - literally.
As the owner of his own management company, Steven Scott has been the superintendent of Persimmon Hills Golf Course in Sharon, Tennessee (shown at right) since 2012. He bought the course last year, and since then 18-hole rounds played there have increased by 40 percent.
Scott mows and rolls five days a week. Before last year, he could start early in the morning on No. 9, because it is the closest hole to the maintenance shop, and work his way around the course without much interference. Now, he drives straight to No. 1 first thing in the morning so he can stay ahead of play.
"I have to be out at least 30 minutes before the shop opens, or they're going to catch up to me pretty quickly," Scott said. "When you're mowing greens, you don't want to get stopped. That makes for a headache all day."
At least Scott is able to mow right now. That is more than Reverie could say in the first few days after Allentown opened.
The course opened Sunday, and has been packed with up to 265 players every day. It also had frost delays every morning, meaning Reverie and his spartan team of four have not been unable to mow since the day before opening day.
"Other than changing cups, moving tees and picking up trash, there has been no time to mow or roll," Reverie said. "Fortunately, we had a couple of nice days right before we opened, so we were able to get out and cut and get things cleaned up."
It is not just people playing more golf. We are seeing substantially more people than ever before. It's absolutely unreal. This is a small town, so I'm pretty much familiar with our regular golfers. If I don't know their names, I know their faces. Right now, we are busy with people I've never seen before. We're getting people from Kentucky, from all over. And we're getting a lot of locals who have never played before until last year.
Even after the frost delays are a thing of the past, Reverie and his team will have their work cut out for them. Tee times will eventually back up to 6:30 a.m., meaning he and his crew might have to hit the course around 3-3:30 a.m. He also hasn't ruled out having someone come in to mow late in the day after the last group tees off.
"I usually start spraying at 3 a.m. Once we're out of this cold stretch, we'll be out there early every day," he said.
"I am trying to come up with a schedule that works for everyone."
In the few days Allentown has been open, it has been so busy that there is up to a 40-minute wait for an open tee on the practice range. Half of the facility's anticipated revenue for the year already is on the books thanks to 15 leagues that play there through the season, and the pro shop has had to adjust its open tee time policy so everyone who wants to play has a chance to do so.
"We are taking tee times only seven days in advance, and we're seeing people log in (to the course web site) at 12:04 in the morning on Saturdays to make tee times for the next weekend," Reverie said. "I know 20 or 30 regulars who haven't been able to get a tee time yet. Some have asked me, 'Hey Chris, is there anything you can do for me?' I can't do anything for them."
Play has been so heavy at Allentown (at right) that the city is considering expanding the parking lot.
"Let me just say I've seen some interesting parking the last couple of days," Reverie said. "We're just trying to figure out what will work. I've never seen anything like this.
"We're seeing a whole new dynamic as far as the golfers themselves. It's not just seniors or retirees or young kids. We're picking up people in their late 20s and early 30s. There are a lot more of them out on the course and especially on the driving range. I used to be able to go out there and I knew everybody. Now, I know maybe four or five people. I'm seeing a lot of new club sets."
There are so many newcomers to the game that Reverie adopted a tree management plan during the winter just to help promote pace of play.
"I took out some trees to open up more shots," he said. "The third hole, a par 5, had a choke point. We took some trees out of there, and play through there is much faster now."
We're seeing a whole new dynamic as far as the golfers themselves. It's not just seniors or retirees or young kids. We're picking up people in their late 20s and early 30s. There are a lot more of them out on the course and especially on the driving range. I used to be able to go out there and I knew everybody. Now, I know maybe four or five people. I'm seeing a lot of new club sets.
Persimmon Hills in rural Sharon, Tennessee is 130 miles from Memphis and 150 from Nashville. Right now, it seems like the center of the golf universe for Scott.
Membership sales are up more than 400 percent, which in rural Tennessee equates to about 37 people. Still, in relative terms that is a lot for a course with an owner operator and a handful of part-time retirees and high school kids that keep everything moving. The course owns 36 carts and wait times for a ride have been up to an hour on weekends.
"It is not just people playing more golf. We are seeing substantially more people than ever before. It's absolutely unreal," Scott said. "This is a small town, so I'm pretty much familiar with our regular golfers. If I don't know their names, I know their faces. Right now, we are busy with people I've never seen before. We're getting people from Kentucky, from all over. And we're getting a lot of locals who have never played before until last year."
The $64,000 question, of course, is how long does it last. The answer is anyone's guess.
"We are seeing the benefit of no travel baseball, soccer or basketball where people are pulled in 100 different directions," Scott said. "Now that things are starting back up, how many will stick with golf? How many are going to watch their grandkids play travel sports in Nashville or Memphis, and how many are going to continue to play golf with their regular group? We definitely have to make hay while the sun is shining."