Golf fever spreads during the coronavirus

Western New York

Back in the early days of the pandemic, when Gov. Cuomo was still waffling and the golf community was bracing itself for a lost season, Steve Bartkowski saw good times coming for the sport.

“I was doing calls with our pros, trying to figure out what was going on” recalled Bartkowski, the director of the Western New York PGA. “I said, once this goes and there’s no baseball and other stuff, you’re all going to get busy’.”

Most local golf pros weren’t so optimistic. They thought he was crazy. 

“We all thought we were going to have one of our worst years ever, ever, ever,” said Steve Carney, the long-time pro at Holiday Valley and PGA master professional. 

Bartkowski was right. Earlier this week, he was talking with one of those local pros whose spirits he’d tried to lift back in early spring.

“He said, ‘I thought you were drinking when you said that,’” Bartkowski said Wednesday. “He said ‘I can’t even breathe right now, because it’s so busy!’”

Yes, things got very busy in local golf once Cuomo had a change of heart and gave golf the go-ahead on April 20, with certain safety restrictions. A season that had begun with the promise of a topped tee shot turned into one of the most successful in recent years. 

“Because of the lack of things to do indoors, it seems like golf just took off,” Carney said. “On top of that, we have probably a perfect weather year. At Holiday Valley, we have not lost a weekend.”

Bartkowski said rounds were up 26.9 percent in the Northeast in July, according to the National Golf Foundation. Most courses had a slow start due to the coronavirus. But locally, he said play is up around 25 percent for the summer months. 

“Easy,” he said. “Oh, Absolutely.”

Carney, who has been involved with the local golf business for 50 years, said play at Holiday Valley was up 20-25 percent from June through September and will be ahead 10-15 percent for the year. 

“Golf has had some trying times lately, so to be up 10 to 15 percent on the year is outstanding,” Carney said. “I thought it was going to be a loser in May. I thought we were done. But everybody I’m talking to, public or private, is saying 10 to 20 percent up. 

“Memberships seem to be up,” he said. “I’ve heard a couple of the more prominent clubs say they’re going back to what their initiation fees were before, which were much higher. That’s the Western New York vibe, for sure.”

Rob Milbrand, who owns Holland Hills Golf Course, said it’s been his best season in at least five years. He estimated rounds are up 20-25 percent. Milbrand, who was especially vocal about Cuomo’s vacillations in early spring, said people are “coming out of the woodwork.” 

“Every weekend is sold out,” he said. “I’ve been booked the last five Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can’t get in here.”

Milbrand said there are two main reasons for the surge in golf participation. One, people didn’t travel nearly as much on vacations due to COVID-19 Two, the weather was gorgeous and conducive coming out to play. 

“The stay-cationers are going golfing,” Milbrand said. “I see a lot of couples and a lot of women, more than ever up here. Older ladies, too. Things are up. I told my wife, ‘Remember, Mother Nature is a woman. She’s been very good to us.’”

Jimbo McDonald, deputy commissioner of recreation for Erie County, said play was up at Grover Cleveland this summer, when it was near-impossible to get a tee time. He said Grover has already surpassed 2019, and the county intends to keep the courses open as long as weather allows.

Elma Meadows is down about 10 percent. McDonald said that was due to a major reconstruction project at Elma, wider tee time intervals, and a dip in play by seniors, a significant part of the clientele that was perhaps slow to come back due to COVID-19.

“But it’s been a good year,” McDonald said. “Many industries had negative effects through the coronavirus, but I think the golf industry definitely made it out on top.”

It’s been said that the pandemic has allowed people to rediscover the simple pleasures in life. The golf pros said there’s a real sense that people are reconnecting with the game, or discovering it for the first time. 

“I would absolutely agree with that,” Bartkowski said. “I sit on the First Tee Western New York board. There’s a doctor who said his kids had no interest in golf two or three years ago. Now he said he can’t get them off the golf course. My wife, who never liked golf, started playing a lot this summer. 

“We started a new program called Doubles Golf. It’s based on nine holes and more of the social aspect. I think that’s helping, too. People understanding you don’t have to go out and play 18 holes and spend four or five hours. You can play nine, or six or three.”

Carney said his lessons have doubled this season. He said it’s been largely couples, taking up the game together or trying to improve now that they have more time to play. Maybe that’s the biggest reason for the surge in play: People have time.

“We started off with everybody pretty much behind for two months,” Carney said, “but I think everybody’s going to end up the year with their numbers being ahead. We’re all trying to figure out now if it’s going to continue next year.”

Troy Licastro is a digital content producer who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here.

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