Not all businesses have been hurt by the pandemic. Golf has enjoyed a resurgence as people sought a safe place for outdoor activity away from the virus.
Nationally, according to Golf Datatech and its 2020 National Golf Performance Report, the number of golf rounds played last year in the United States increased by about 14 percent.
Most public courses in East Central Illinois reported similar gaudy increases, a reversal of a recent trend that had resulted in the closure of golf shops and golf courses like Railside in Gibson City, Blue Needles near Fairmount and Scovill in Decatur.
Lake of the Woods in Mahomet, operated by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, reported an 18 percent increase in play last year, reaching 33,620 rounds of golf, up from 28,458 in 2019 and 20,430 in 2018.
“We’re one of the few industries that was assisted by the pandemic,” said David Sebestik, the golf pro at Lake of the Woods. “We got a little bit of a bump last year, and we hope it sticks.”
At the city-owned Harrison Park in Danville, revenue from greens fees was up by double digits — from $86,289 in 2019 to more than $103,000 last year. Revenue from cart rentals and the driving range also increased.
“We’ve certainly had better years, but that period from June 1 to the end of October, I think that was probably one of our best since I’ve been the general manager,” said Brock Burton, who has been at the course for 19 years, the last 10 as general manager.
Harrison Park was either closed or operating with COVID-19 restrictions between March 26 and June 1, said Burton. But from June 1 to Oct. 31, the course brought in $95,853 in greens fees, up from $65,405 in the same period a year earlier.
Play at the two courses operated by the Decatur Park District was up 16 percent from the same eight-month period a year earlier. (The park district operates on a May 1 to April 30 fiscal year.)
The University of Illinois golf courses are publicly owned but privately managed, and their financials aren’t subject to the state open records act, according to the UI.
It wasn’t just the pandemic that brought in more golfers, said the course managers. Lake of the Woods was in the second year of a deeply discounted anniversary pass and had fully opened its renovated par-3 course, Sebestik said. Harrison Park was in the fourth year of a corporate membership drive, said Burton.
But the pandemic meant that many people were staying close to home and seeking some kind of outdoor entertainment and exercise.
“People weren’t leaving the area to travel on vacation or for a weekend, so they came out for one, two, three hours. It was one of the few things you could do outside with other people,” Sebestik said.
Can the momentum continue in a world with relaxed COVID-19 regulations this year?
“I don’t know if anybody knows if what we did last year can continue. The reason for that is that all the different sports programs and travel sports programs will be back again this summer, and so everybody who had time last year because their kids weren’t in baseball or softball or soccer, they’ll be busy again this summer,” Burton said. “I think time is not going to be as plentiful for those people.
“Now I do think that some of the people who took up the game last year because they had nothing else to do, I think we’ll gain from that. I think they have the itch to play golf, but I don’t know if they’ll be playing as much as they did last year.”
Sebestik is hopeful that Lake of the Woods can record between 33,000 and 36,000 rounds a year now.
“That would be a healthy number,” he said, although it would be well below the approximately 51,000 rounds recorded about 25 years ago when the Tiger Woods-inspired surge in golf began.
“When I started here in 2002,” said Harrison Park’s Burton, “golf was still very popular because of Tiger. He brought in a lot of people, and it was booming. But six, eight years later, that’s when golf started going downhill, a lot of courses started closing. But I think it’s picking back up now.
“What I saw last year which was good was we saw an increase in younger people playing. I had a lot of 18- to 25-year-olds take up the game. I think we can continue that with those kids.”
Sebestik has similar hopes and said that’s why the refurbished par-3 course is important.
“It was good to see moms dropping off their 9- or 10-year-old kids so they could get outside and play the par 3,” he said.