WATERTOWN — Golf courses around the north country have seen their businesses turn from nonessential to allowed to be open — without indoor facilities — and now they’re figuring out how it’s all going to work.
“We hope to open but this could change in the next day,” said Doug McDavitt, a PGA golf pro at Willow Brook Golf Course in Pamelia. “In upstate New York, you’re cooped-up most of the winter. Now you’re outside in the sunshine, the sport lends itself a little bit to social distancing.”
New York golf courses are allowed to remain open, but they must implement all CDC and state mandates guidelines while promoting social distancing, according to the New York State Golf Association. There is to be no access to pro shops, locker rooms, indoor facilities, restaurants — unless for takeout — or bars. Players must stay at least six feet way from each other, they can’t shake hands before or after a round and flag sticks must be left in the hole. Rakes, ball washers and coolers can’t be used. There is no club sharing and carts are limited to one per person.
“We all know how bad last year was,” Mr. McDavitt said. “The spring was horrible. For most golf courses in the Northeast, it was a very tough financial season, so we really can’t afford another one.”
Mr. McDavitt said the Willow Brook course has four different entities generating revenue. There are memberships, tournaments, leagues and greens fees.
“Speaking for myself, we need all four of those to make it work,” he said. “And if we look at losing some of those, it’s going to be tough.”
And most of the tournaments the course does are for charities. Two years ago, there were 52 tournaments at Willow Brook, and the charities raised between $50,000 and $100,000.
“That’s a viable thing for the community,” he said. “It’s going to be tough. Those charities are looking for donations now.”
Courses still have time to make decisions. Seasons — which usually are kicked off when carts are made available — typically start at the end of April or beginning of May. But, by then, even if the spread of COVID-19 is curbed — it certainly could not be — will enough people have the means to golf?
“Are they going to have discretionary income to spend on golf?” Mr. McDavitt said. “I think it’s more important to feed your family.”
If Willow Brook is able to open, which it hopes to, they can allow people to golf, and purchasing of a round would likely be made through their takeout system. “I know we can still sell beer,” Mr. McDavitt said. “We have a hard time letting people bring their own alcohol due to insurance regulations, so I don’t foresee that happening.”
Above all, the golf world is in flux. Mr. McDavitt said he’s telling his employees a story one day while adding it could change the next.
“The last thing I’d want to do is try to keep the facility going and then get somebody sick for the cause of a few dollars,” he said. “But at the same time I think our club is a viable part of the community.”
Mike Sabatini, owner and president of Turin Highlands Golf Course, who also is a consultant for multiple others, including one in Whiteface, says this year will be a learning curve for all New York courses. Since takeout is allowed, the course could sell a six pack to a golfer and allow them to bring it on the course, he said. They could have other beverage carts and food carts as well. But, again, the ultimate factor is if people come out to play.
“I’ll try to maintain business as usual the best I can,” he said. “But it could get to the point where everybody does stay home. It’s going to be a struggle. It’s going to be a struggle for all of us.”
Robert Peluso, general manager of the Thousand Islands Country Club, said Saturday that the course will be open — as well as the pro shop.
“The pro shop will be open with steps in place to have people stay six feet apart while paying for their round,” he said in an email. “We will have takeout food and beverages for our guests, and we are hopeful we will be operational the last week of April.”
Mr. Peluso said he can understand why courses are closing for the season.
“We are in unchartered waters with this virus and it has put rightful fear into people all over our area,” he said. “This will impact golf courses in a tremendous way — loss of revenue, employees will lose jobs, staffs will be cut to a minimum, memberships will decline.”
The Thousand Islands club is in a particularly tough spot as half of its business comes from Canadians.
“And with laws in place,” he said, “they are still not allowed into the country and I do not see a change in that anytime soon.”
This year will be the most challenging season for north country courses to date, he said. Like so many other businesses, insurance, tax and utility bills will need to be paid regardless of whether they are open.
“This season will pave the way for future golf in the area as it may crumble some courses financially,” Mr. Peluso said. “Please take COVID-19 seriously and practice social distancing. Golf can still be played as long as we follow the guidelines, make it enjoyable yet safe for everyone.”