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Golf Boom 2020: The Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected

by Bob Bostwick

During these dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we thought in our dark hearts of some dark humor, such as ‘What are the upsides of a pandemic?’ (Less traffic! Masks are a new fashion accessory! We’re not anti-social, we’re just social-distancing!)

But nobody predicted this particular upside: the game of golf has experienced a resurgence of almost historic proportions.

Golf courses in Washington were closed from late March until early May.

Oh, this lamentable year. 2020 didn’t come as a fabled experience in linear time, it came as a bloody infliction; it came as if planned by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty, creating and delivering a pandemic through spring and early summer, then providing expenses for Freddy and his move in August from Elm Street to Okanogan County.

It sucked, and tragically so. To be sure, the pandemic is far from over, so let’s not forget our regional brethren, having died by the thousands, and others stricken by the tens of thousands. Wildfires and forest fires spread across the coastal states, smoke from Oregon and California blending with that from blazes in the Columbia Basin and along the eastern Cascades.

Now throw in more of 2020. Everything shut down from late March to early May. No March Madness (compounded by Gonzaga as a potential champion), no baseball in the spring and no major league season until July, and only 60 games at that.

The smoke shut down golf again in August. Pac-12 football is still iffy as college games get canceled or postponed every week due to the virus. And the games that are played? Well, you can’t go there in person.

Meanwhile, you can’t sit on your favorite bar stool, and the political climate has left you suddenly unfriended on Facebook by your high school sweetheart and half of everyone you know from kindergarten on.

Saddening, all of it. Maddening? Maybe more so. Yet, the demographic we are part of, our saving grace, and our available and uninhibited access, has allowed us solace.

“We few, we happy few,” play golf.  We’re somewhat saved.

“Yes, in the midst of all this sadness, there’s a little something to make us happy,” said Bill Porter, PGA director of golf at The Links at Moses Pointe in Moses Lake, Wash. “Our play at Moses Pointe is up by about 20 percent over 2019. We have new players, and more playing twilight. There are a tremendous number of people who just want to get out. That’s half of it. At the same time, regular players are playing more.”

In fact, play is up everywhere. Washington Golf reports play up by 300,000 rounds this year over last in Washington. Across Eastern Washington, from Moses Lake to Walla Walla; from Spokane to Tri Cities, the sport and the business are booming.

Go figure. The same kind of numbers are true in Idaho, Oregon, British Columbia and across the U.S. and Canada.

It’s a year of golf and travel, to be sure, and much of it is coming from Western Washington. Golfers have been heading east, making stops at Moses Pointe, Spokane’s four city and three county courses, Circling Raven in Worley, Idaho, then on to Palouse Ridge in Pullman, and Wine Valley in Walla Walla.  That order can, of course, be reversed. One might throw in the Coeur d’Alene Resort or the Coeur d’Alene Public, and there are a slew of quality nine-hole courses in small towns across the Palouse and Columbia Basin.

Chris Isaacson, PGA director of golf at Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Wash.
Chris Isaacson, PGA director of golf at Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Wash.

“Golfers in the Northwest are like everyone else, a bit cooped up,” said Chris Isaacson, PGA director of golf at Wine Valley. “But it seems as if people aren’t set on big vacations and traveling great distances.  They are making shorter trips, traveling by car, and they are playing golf.”

Spokane’s Indian Canyon GC will see about 33,000 rounds, according to that course’s PGA Head Professional Doug Phares, and Indian Canyon closed prematurely after the second October snowstorm in two years dumped seven-plus inches in Spokane, closing courses temporarily or for the season in the city and county.

“We’ve had to cancel tournaments over protocols, and the annual Rosauers Open was among those,” Phares said. “But people want to play, and tee sheets have been filled at every course in every town.”

Spokane is commonly referred to as a “Golf Mecca,” and it is. Downriver Golf Course, the city’s first municipal course now in its 104th season, will have hosted some 43,000 rounds. Adding Esmeralda and The Creek at Qualchan, Spokane alone saw about 130,000 rounds. Add another 100,000 or more at Spokane County’s Hangman Valley, MeadowWood, and Liberty Lake. With Wandermere to the north and Fairways Golf Club in Cheney, total play in the Spokane area will easily pass 265,000 rounds.

Pros, clubhouse staff, and maintenance crews are taxed to their limits through it all, but business is good, maybe great, at every course on the map.

All of them are up by about 20 percent. Rather than any single reason for it, events of 2020 might be thought of as a perfect storm for golf. You can observe protocols – masks are required in the clubhouses; you can keep your social distances, including on the practice tees; and the traditional handshakes on the first tee and 18th green are replaced with fist bumps, elbow bumps, and “air fives.”

People are working at home, making it unnecessary to lie to the boss about a doctor’s appointment,     so just head for Indian Canyon and the Friday skins game. Courses report that once a month golfers are coming out twice a week, and bringing friends. People are playing more, and more people are playing.

Golf's Retail Boom

“Club manufacturers are out of stock,” said Hangman Valley PGA Head Professional Steve Nelke. “Everyone is having trouble keeping hard goods and soft goods in stock. Club sales and intro sets for new players are booming, and if you want a practice tee, take a number.”

Circling Raven, the course at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort in Worley, Idaho, stayed open while the rest of the resort temporarily closed down. Play there will top 25,000 rounds, a 20 percent climb over 2019.

“When all this hit, it looked dismal and we were about ready to shoot ourselves, but we were able to stay open when the resort didn’t,” said Circling Raven’s PGA Director of Golf Dave Christenson. “People came. People want to get outside. We were hosting a thousand rounds a week in April.”

All that, and no Canadians – fellow victims of pandemic blues (and the border closure) and a major tourism factor all over the Northwest. They not only boost numbers of rounds, they stay multiple days, playing multiple courses, eating in multiple restaurants, and sleeping in multiple hotels. What’s more, consider the beer sales.

Taking note of the “good news” amid all the “bad news,” Wine Valley, and those 150 wineries that inspired its name, might give extra reason for one of those two- and three-day vacations, more so considering Walla Walla was named America’s No. 1 wine country destination by USA Today newspaper.

Wine Valley, along with courses in the Tri-Cities, Moses Lake, Yakima and northeast Washington, have longer seasons, and remain flexible in changing weather over the winter. Spokane golfers will travel, and a pandemic year will, hopefully, not be so dramatically followed by another.

Don McManus, a Reardon native, member at Idaho’s Rock Creek, and regular player on all courses in the region, has 100 rounds under his belt, many of those rounds with equally avid player and friend, Fred Beaulac.

“I used common sense when interacting with people,” said McManus. “I tried to meet each individual with regard to social distancing and personal contact. Golf this year has been one outlet that allows us to ignore the pandemic.”

“I have played more this year than last year,” Beaulac said. “Protocols are really just common sense and they don’t affect the game.”

A barren downtown Spokane in April 2020.
A barren downtown Spokane in April 2020.

In Spokane, club pros tried a little of everything in 2020. What we saw here, players saw around the world: flags remained in place and untouched, bunkers remained rakeless and unraked. For a while, the game was played with twosomes only, one person to a cart, and five minutes between tee times, the last of those probably being the most difficult to maintain.

Through it all, the Spokane County Regional Health District reports no known COVID cases coming as a result of golf or business at golf courses. And, research shows any such case relationships to be few nationwide.

As for 2020, we can say goodbye in a few weeks, and good riddance.

(This article previously appeared in the November 2020 issue of Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine.)

Bob Bostwick is a former sportswriter and member of the Golf Writers Association of America, a TV news anchor, political reporter and editor, and a publicist. He has won numerous local, regional and national awards as a journalist and filmmaker.