Golf, whose slow pace, difficulty and cost has for years given way to speedier plays on the field or screen, now is reviving, seen as a fine way to stay virus-safe outdoors with friends.
The number of rounds played at Long Island state parks climbed by more than 42,000 from Jan. 1 this year to Sept. 20 versus a year ago, officials said.
“It’s not hard to understand,” Jim Koppenhaver, president of Pellucid Corp. of Buffalo, Illinois, “a golf industry information and insights provider,” said by telephone.
After all, an 18-hole golf course spread over one or two hundred acres is just about ideal for social distancing, he said.
“We are seeing a tremendous amount of beginners enter the game we’ve never seen before,” said Kelley Brooke, golf director at Bethpage State Park, whose roles include teaching and running the pro shop.
These increases are part of a national trend, which has accelerated since many golf courses — like countless other sports and activities — all were shut this spring, as the pandemic spiked.
The number of rounds played around the nation in August leapt nearly 21% from a year-ago, according to an analysis by the Jupiter, Florida-based National Golf Foundation’s chief executive, Joe Beditz.
That was “a record for the biggest increase in a peak season month,” Erik Matuszewski, editorial director, for the nonprofit foundation that researches and promotes the sport, said by email.
In July, this measure climbed about 20%, and in June, the rise was 13.9%.
“In total, this reflects about 27 million more rounds than the same three-month summer period in 2019,” foundation officials said.
Another yardstick is revealing: Sales of golf equipment in August leapt 32% to $331 million from a year-ago — a record for the month, the National Golf Foundation said.
Bethpage, whose five courses include the legendary Black Course, where last year’s PGA Championship was played, not surprisingly was the Island’s most popular.
The number of rounds tallied rose by 24,803, for a total of 162,779 as of Sept. 20, state park statistics show. Last year, rounds fell by 22,035 to 137,976 due to the championship.
Also perhaps not surprisingly, at least a few golfers struggling to land reservations, have speculated the Bethpage computer system had been rigged in favor of golf-playing park workers.
“I know it’s not the system; it has checks and balances in place, and if breached, an alarm goes off,” said Brooke.
It is not uncommon for golfers logging on at 7 p.m., when the reservation system opens, to find zero slots, golfers say. Yet, said Brooke, if they wait half an hour or so, they probably will be able to land a reservation as people change their plans. “People just start grabbing all the tee times and then they cancel them.”
Neither she or the park director have played — except when Brooke has taught — to give the public more playing time, she said.
And for decades Bethpage has honored the truly committed golfers: by nightfall, dozens of drivers line up in the parking lot; in the morning, they get “baker’s tickets,” like the ones bakeries and delicatessens offer, to ensure no one cuts the line, which allow them to get tee times.
Also, said Brooke, every hour each course offers a tee time to “walk ups,” golfers who just show up.
People also have rediscovered the fun — and sometimes frustration — of golf at Nassau’s public courses; Suffolk repeatedly declined to provide its data.
Nassau tallied 229,070 rounds — including driving ranges — from the start of the year to Sept. 7, versus 209,718 a year ago, Justine DiGiglio-Cifarelli, a county spokeswoman said by email.
Koppenhaver said nationally golf rounds may even top last year’s tallies — despite the punishing declines seen in March and April, when the total plunged by 19 million.
“The net is we think there’s a high probability that the industry will end the year net positive in rounds as a result of the summer surge and it’s impeccable timing in June and July, two months that account for about 26% of total annual rounds collectively.”
Later, he added: “On the revenue side it won’t be as much sunshine and lollipops but it appears we do have at least a 50/50 chance for the average course to fight their way back to even and live to fight another year.”
Now golf analysts are hoping the game’s upswing continues. The sport topped out at around 30 million rounds nationally in the early 2000s, driven by a buoyant economy and its dominant star — Tiger Woods — but many of those new golfers then found other pastimes.
“Traditional, on-course participation and play has been very stable now for the past six years or so at around 24 million Americans,” the National Golf Foundation said.
Joel Schuchmann, a PGA TOUR spokesman, pinned part of the rising interest on the resumption of televised championships, which began earlier for golf than other professional and collegiate sports, as well as the greater flexibility individuals working from home may have to fit in a round during the day and make up for the lost time by working earlier or later.
Bethpage’s Brooke looks for the new golfers to outlast the pandemic, partly due to the surge in lessons and partly due to its centuries old appeal. “It’s challenging and it’s outdoors, I think they are going to stick with it.”