Golf resorts optimistic about quick return to greens

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The South course at Mauna Lani on the Island of Hawaii is perched spectacularly along the ocean.
The South course at Mauna Lani on the Island of Hawaii is perched spectacularly along the ocean.

The Mauna Lani resort on the Island of Hawaii had been reopened less than three months after a $200 million renovation when the Covid-19 outbreak forced the shutdown of its hotel and amenities, including its two 18-hole, oceanside golf courses. 

“We were off to an amazing start,” said Chris White, the resort’s executive director of marketing and brand experience. 

Now, like other destination golf resorts in the U.S. and around the world, Mauna Lani can do little but wait for the crisis to pass.

“Golf is the natural social distancing sport,” White said. “We’re pretty optimistic that we’re going to be able to get people back on the course.”

The Covid-19 crisis arrived just as many courses were preparing to launch their 2020 seasons. Now, the combination of stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and individual concerns about personal health have all but killed at least the first half of the summer season. 

But for all the losses that will surely afflict the destination golf industry, the nature of the game itself -- noncontact, individual and played on broad, outdoor landscapes -- is giving many industry participants reason for cautious optimism. 

“Golf is an activity that is played outside,” said Joe Cerino, owner of the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Sophisticated Golfer, a tour operator that sells upscale golf vacations with a focus on the Caribbean, Europe and Florida. “You don’t have to be close to anybody unless you want to be. But you still have to get on a plane and stay in a hotel.”

Reinforcing golf’s natural advantages during this strangest of times are the raw numbers. While most other recreational activities have come to a near halt in the U.S., 48% of U.S. golf courses remained open for play as of April 12, according to the National Golf Foundation. 

Among them are the large majority of courses in the Southeastern states other than Florida. Fifteen states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, had mandated course closures. But elsewhere, play continues, generally with safety measures in place, such as the removal of sand trap rakes and not allowing players to touch flagsticks. Some courses have gone to walking only. Those that haven’t are generally allowing only one person per cart. 

Some resort golf courses are among those that remain open. For example, the nine courses at the famed Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina are open for play, though lodging operations are shuttered. 

At the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Mo., the 358-room hotel and one of its two golf courses are open. 

COO Jim Cleary said occupancy at the hotel has been running at 20 rooms or less, with most of the customers in the area on medical business. But the lodge’s Cove golf course has been getting 40 to 80 players per day, which is about a quarter of the business the resort would expect for its golf operation at this time of year. 

“Golf has become a much bigger and more prominent draw for the business we have right now,” Cleary said. 

Of course, that’s not to suggest that the destination golf industry isn’t in a deep pause right now. The damage is likely to be especially acute in destinations that receive a heavy load of spring and summer international visitors, such as Scotland, Ireland and Portugal. Golf tour operators whose business relies on international bookings will also suffer disproportionately. 

In an attempt to help industry players manage the crisis, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, which has members in 101 countries, recently released eight pages of recommendations related to the handling of cancellations, trip postponements and new bookings. One recommendation: that golf courses and tour operators agree that trips can be postponed for up to 18 months. The association also recommended that booked prices for 2020 be honored for 2021, as long as the trip is rebooked for the same season. 

Cerino said that he was able to rebook most of his March and April clients for the fall. If life begins to open up by June, he said, he expects he and most of his colleagues will get through the crisis. But a major concern will be both the availability of air travel and the willingness of clients to get on a plane. 

Indeed, said Stuart Lindsay, owner of the Milwaukee-based golf industry research company Edgehill Golf Advisors, golf resorts near major drive markets will be the best positioned to rebound from the Covid-19 pause. That means resort areas such as Kohler, Wis., which is 150 miles from Chicago and features prestigious Whistling Straits as well as three other acclaimed resort courses, could fare well. 

Conversely, said Lindsay, regaining business is likely to be more challenging for a place such as Bandon Dunes, which is a bucket list destination for U.S. golfers but is located along the remote southern Oregon coastline. 

Steve Skinner, CEO of KemperSports, which counts the five Bandon courses among the more than 130 courses it manages nationwide, said he does expect early marketing efforts after the reopening to focus on the drive market. But Skinner also said he expects demand to be high through the fall, enough so that no discounting will be necessary.

He added that the nature of the Covid-19 crisis has the potential to boost the popularity of the sport.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for golf to be one of the first businesses to be opened up,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get some people who haven’t played for a while, and they’ll fall in love with it.”

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