When it comes time for golfers to tee off in Greater Sudbury, they should expect the game to be played a bit differently this season, says local course owners and managers.
Several media outlets in Ontario said they expect Premier Doug Ford to announce Thursday golf courses can open, but it wasn’t clear if it would be in time for the long weekend.
However, Sam Yawney and Tom Arnott said when the courses do open, they know there will be a whole new set of protocols in place for golfers.
When the province closed non-essential businesses in March, golf courses were among them.
Arnott is the general manager at Idylwylde Golf and Country Club. He’s also past-president of the National Golf Course Owners Association, said it was a fight just to have the ability to prepare the courses for the upcoming season.
“When the province first came out with its list of essential business, maintenance work for golf courses wasn't even on there, so we had a big fight right from the beginning,” Arnott said. “We were lucky in Northern Ontario, because our courses weren't ready to be worked on yet, but we knew we would soon have to maintain it, so we needed to change the list of essential businesses to at least allow our maintenance staff to get the courses ready.”
They succeeded in that bid, and maintenance crews have been hard at work since then. Area courses wintered great, Yawney and Arnott said, they are in excellent shape, and likely would have been open already if it wasn’t for COVID-19.
“Conditions are probably the best I've ever seen them coming out of the winter,” said Yawney, co-owner of Golf Sudbury and owner of four golf courses in Greater Sudbury. “We're anxious to get going, and hopefully have a good rest of the season.”
Living in Northern Ontario, golfers haven’t really missed much, even if the courses had been open already, he said. The weather has brought snow and below-zero temperatures, not ideal weather for a round of golf.
Restrictions placed on golf courses because of COVID-19 will bring about a number of changes, including more time between tee times, limiting the number of riders per cart, no rakes in bunkers, no ball washers and attachments to flag sticks that don’t allow the golf ball to fall in the hole.
Golfers likely won’t be able to access clubhouses, either.
“It's definitely going to be a different vibe,” Arnott said. “Our clubhouse has always been vibrant and a great atmosphere, our members loved it, and now there won't be any of that.”
The restrictions could also increase the cost for some golfers, Arnott said.
For example, cart rentals could be costlier, as golfers usually split the cost. With only one golfer per cart, that golfer would have to foot the entire cost.
Arnott said he expects tee times to be the biggest sticking point with golfers.
“That’s what scares us most, the 20-minute tee-time intervals,” Arnott said. “Our members won't be happy, especially those golfers who like to play every day. If it’s three weeks with 20 minutes and then they start easing the restrictions, we'll live with it, we have no choice, but it's going to be completely different when we do open.”
Both Arnott and Yawney said their membership numbers have been affected as a result of COVID-19.
“Our members are faring better than you would think,” Arnott said. “I field a lot of phone calls, and I try to keep them updated with our newsletter and let them know where we are.”
He said the majority of members at IdylWylde pay in installments starting in October, and 70 per cent of the members are paid up. There have been some refunds for members who are experiencing cash-flow issues, “but for the most part, any of our members resigning are older members who are worried that, even when we do come out of this, COVID-19 will still be there, and they don't want to chance it until it's completely gone or there's a vaccine available.”
Yawney said there was some early concern from his members that golf courses were going to be closed for the entire season, and there were requests for refunds.
About 50 per cent of his members wait until the last minute to pay their fees, and they continue to wait until the courses open to pay up, but “at this point, I don't know how much of that 50 per cent will rejoin,” he said.
With no revenue coming in at the moment, Yawney said he has applied for any financial assistance for which his courses qualify under the federal and provincial governments’ financial aid packages for businesses.
“The light’s at the end of the tunnel, though, and we expect to be open soon.”
Yawney and Arnott said their operations have all seen a significant financial impact with the cancellation of weddings and events.
Idylwylde Golf and Country Club has already lost $200,000 in events and weddings, said Arnott.
“We were in a solid financial position this year, and we were putting away money to redo our clubhouse, and if we have to dip into that, I won't be happy,” Arnott said.
“We've seen significant growth over three years, and last year, we were up 7.4 per cent in membership. If we do drop down, I hope it isn't past the point we were when I started here in 2017. We've taken a lot of steps to change our membership categories to allow for that growth to happen, and if anything, it'll be a blip in the radar, and we'll quickly recover in 2021.
Likewise, at Timberwolf, some weddings that were scheduled in early summer have been scaled back from large gatherings to a small ceremony with only four people attending, Yawney said.
“Some have cancelled for this year and rebooked for 2021, some have rescheduled for later this year, but it all hinges on what happens between now and then,” he said. “It will be a very gradual opening, depending on the number of COVID-19 cases in Ontario. As the number of cases drops, more and more of Ontario will be opened up and larger and larger social gatherings will be allowed.”
Both men said they are eager to get open, and whatever fashion that may be, they are ready to welcome back their members.