Loggers Trail general manager Tim Matsche keeps his tongue in cheek when talking about the uptick in golf amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“For the golf industry, this is the best thing since Tiger Woods,” he said.
Since restrictions have been eased in Minnesota, courses throughout the Twin Cities metro area are as packed as they have ever been. Whether it’s city courses in Minneapolis and St. Paul, or suburban courses in Stillwater and Cottage Grove, nearly everyone is reporting an increase in activity over the past couple of months.
“We obviously don’t want people dying; that’s not what I’m saying at all,” Matsche said. “Just looking at the actual day-to-day stuff, though, we are seeing numbers like never before. … It’s across the board.”
Matsche has been at Loggers Trail for 17 years and the course is the busiest he’s ever seen it.
“It’s tee times. It’s lessons. It’s beer. It’s pop. It’s water. It’s divots. It’s everything,” he said. “In my opinion, what it boils down to is it’s the only thing people can do right now.”
River Oaks general manager Tyler Olson is reporting a similar trend over the past couple of months. The course already has done more than 15,000 rounds to date, more than 2,000 rounds more than last year at this time — despite opening a couple of weeks later than usual because of the pandemic.
“We have seen at least a 20 percent increase in rounds and revenue,” Olson said. “I personally believe that with a lot of other things being closed like restaurants, bars, sporting events, people want to get outside and feel normal for a few hours.”
This uptick isn’t surprising to John Shimpach, the PGA Professional at Highland National in St. Paul. He said it was almost expected after Minnesotans were cooped up months, first by winter and then by COVID-19.
“Plus, even before COVID-19 hit, I think with places like TopGolf opening, the game of golf was starting to get cool again,” Shimpach said. “Then, of course, COVID-19 hit and everything started to take off as soon as people were able to get back outside.
“There’s no reason a group of friends can’t go to the golf course and maintain social distancing the whole time. That’s why people are doing it.”
Looking specifically in St. Paul, public courses such as Highland National, Phalen and Como have started spacing tee times 10 minutes apart rather than the usual 8 minutes. While that cuts down on the number of tee times available on any given day, Highland National reported 14,757 rounds to date as of June 30 — only about 100 fewer rounds than last year at this time.
“If it’s nice weather, we are usually at capacity,” Shimpach said. “We have had 100 percent days where there isn’t a tee time to be had. That’s pretty neat for us. We are well over 90 percent most of the time.”
Across the river in Minneapolis, there’s been a noticeable increase in traffic at Columbia, Gross, Theodore Wirth, Hiawatha and Meadowbrook. On some days, you would be hard-pressed to find an available tee time at any of those courses.
In fact, according to Larry Umphrey, who oversees golf courses for Minneapolis Parks and Recreation, the courses have seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in revenue compared to last year at this time, with an increase of 8,000 rounds to date.
“I think the most encouraging thing is numbers have not dropped off even though other things have started opening up,” Umphrey said. “It’s clear a lot of people have rediscovered the game of golf and they are continuing to stick with it.”
There’s also a big group discovering golf for the first time. The Youth on Course program, which offers rounds to kids for $5 or less at various locations, has been flooded over the past couple of months.
That’s something that’s proven true at Loggers Trail.
“It’s staggering the amount of kids playing golf right now,” Matsche said. “We have already had a few times this year where more kids show up in a week than showed up in a month last year.
“I have a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old; my kids have both played more golf this year than ever before because they are used to playing baseball and softball and all that other stuff, and that isn’t an option right now.”
According to Minnesota Golf Association spokesperson Warren Ryan, as of July 1, Youth on Course memberships are up 142 percent compared to this time last year (9,683 vs. 4,000) and Youth on Course rounds are up 382 percent over that same period (28,423 vs. 5,890).
“I’d like to believe that will have a nice impact down the road,” Ryan said. “That’s the future. If kids start playing and decide they like it, they will keep on playing it. That’s a reason to be optimistic about it as a whole.”
As the year progresses, Shimpach is hopeful the interest continues across the board. Regardless, he will always remember the impact the coronavirus had on the game as a whole.
“I remember when it started, it was like, ‘Wow. Hopefully we get through this,’ ” Shimpach said. “There weren’t a lot of golf courses during the Spanish Flu in 1918, so there wasn’t a lot to compare it to. It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime situation. Now, that seems like a year ago that (golf courses) were worried about not making it.”
That said, Matsche is still trying his best to keep people aware that the coronavirus is far from over. As much as he wants golfers to enjoy themselves, he also wants them to follow the necessary protocols when out there.
“Now, it’s about reminding people: ‘Hey, we aren’t out of the woods yet,’ ” he said. “We don’t want to end up with an outbreak here. We still have to make sure we are being safe. That’s the most important thing right now.”