Picture:123RF/DEKLPFENAK
Picture:123RF/DEKLPFENAK

As improbable as it may seem, golfing may yet emerge from the clutches of the Covid-19 pandemic not only with its reputation enhanced, but in a better position than before.

I can hear you all asking how that can be.

Well, statistical evidence suggests that with amateur team sports closed due to their greater risk of transmitting the virus, more people of all ages and genders have turned to golf — a sport that embraces wide open spaces and offers a good dose of healthy exercise. Golfers walk up to 7km in a full round of golf, pulling or carrying a heavy golf bag, while comfortably able to maintain adequate social distancing throughout.

This, together with the importance of saving jobs in the industry, was the message the GolfRSA team conveyed to government during the hard lockdown, accompanied by a comprehensive risk mitigation plan that included some innovative changes to the rules to limit transmission of the virus was put in place to ensure that all golfing facilities could open and operate safely.

And when government declared it safe to play golf in June last year, the industry breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Recent numbers published by Handicaps Network Africa, the operator of the SA golf handicap system, seem to back up the claim that the sport is booming. Despite 77 days of forced golf club closure during the hard lockdown, the number of rounds registered in 2020 was only marginally down on the previous year. By October 2020, the system had registered its highest ever number of monthly rounds — 383,458 — and in December the number passed 400,000 as holiday makers chose the relative safety of the course for their dose of exercise.

The stats show that not only are golfers playing more often, but there are more active golfers too, with a 7,2% increase on the number of golfers playing over the same month.

What the handicap system figures don’t show, however, is the number of unregistered — casual golfers, if you will — who are now playing the game more regularly. Many golf clubs are finding that lapsed golfers have been dusting off their clubs and getting back into the sport, while plenty of newcomers are trying their hand at golf for the first time.

Driving ranges, practice facilities and mashie courses are bursting at the seams with golfers and if you’ve tried to book a last-minute round at your local club recently, you will likely have discovered that it is becoming harder to reserve a tee time on popular golfing days.

For clubs, this is a lifeline.

Courses that are full, particularly with visitors, bring in cash not only through greenfees, but also at the bar, halfway house and pro shop. And any golf director worth his or her salt should be making a concerted effort to convert these guests into club members, ensuring they are brought into the golfing community.

The golfing retail industry has also bounced back after losing significant revenue during the lockdown. In a recent Business of Golf column, John Cockayne asked Jason Rowe, MD of The Golfers Club, whether the organisation had suffered financial losses due to the pandemic. The answer was somewhat surprising.

“As a retail operation, we had a terrific holiday season and the indications are that we are on track to be on par with our retail figures in 2019,” said Rowe. “Given the loss of seven trading weeks mid-2020, this is quite remarkable and means we are actually ahead in overall terms.”

Yet not all sectors of the industry have flourished despite golf’s recent surge in popularity. Caddies, who are considered independent contractors at most clubs and therefore have no access to unemployment benefits, missed out on 77 days of work during the hard lockdown.

Many golf clubs have made a concerted effort to support their caddies, either through food parcels or cash donations, while GolfRSA set up its Help Fund to assist caddies through the provision of over 4,000 food vouchers. Lately, the Sports Trust and the department of sport have made money available to caddies, but the rollout of this programme has highlighted the vulnerability of this section of the golf industry.

For many, even providing the required proof of identification and bank account proved to be too great a challenge.

The immediate future doesn’t look much better as, despite the lifting of lockdown restrictions, many caddies continue to struggle to get a bag. The reality is that golfers are understandably reluctant to allow another person to touch or carry their equipment.

With restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in one place, some of the bigger clubs have lost out on revenue from events and functions, while for most of 2020 corporate golf days — for so long the lifeblood of clubs — were nonexistent.

There are also some smaller clubs that, as a direct result of the lockdown, have been pushed ever closer to the precipice.

Operating on a shoestring budget, the sad reality is that some of these clubs will cease to operate and, as they are left to Mother Nature, they take with them an important part of the community.

But, with the country having moved to level 1 of the lockdown restrictions, there is the hope that as life gets back to “normal”, other recreational activities will start to reopen and this may yet save the handful of clubs still in dire straits.

One thing is certain — the golfing industry needs to do its level best to ensure that we retain the interest of all our new and returning golfers. This will ensure that the game of a lifetime continues its upward trajectory.

• Stander has been involved in the golf industry from grassroots to professional level for the past 23 years and is media manager of GolfRSA.

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