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Metro Detroit golf courses try to make up for major lost revenue

Eric Coughlin
The Detroit News

Rich Morgan was mowing greens Friday at an empty Boulder Pointe Golf Club in Oxford when his phone chimed. A few moments later it chimed again, and again, and again.

“I got about 20 texts immediately from members, employees, people in my family,” said Morgan, the course's director of golf. “Everyone wanted to know when they could get golfing again.”

On Friday morning, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her latest executive order, extending the state’s stay-at-home order but immediately allowing the golf industry to open and sending the state’s course owners and managers scrambling back into the clubhouse.

Attorney Alan Latham (left) and Renee Gurber wear their protective face mask as they prepare for their tee time at Chandler Park Golf Course in Detroit on Saturday, April 25, 2020.

“I drove the mower back into the shop and got right back to work,” Morgan said. “It was my understanding that she was going to give notice, so we expected May 1 to be the day, not 11 a.m. on a Friday. It was a very sudden change. Many of us (course employees) had taken on other duties, but I immediately had to send all 95 members an email, let them know we’d be ready for them on Monday.

"We’ve had to flip the switch back to being open for golf.”

Flipping that switch this year may be harder than most considering the revenue the state’s courses lost after being shut down for most of April. Morgan believes Boulder Pointe lost at least $30,000 and that effect trickled down to its some 60 or 70 employees.

“The vast majority of our seasonal people just weren’t brought back yet," said Morgan, "and we laid off about six employees."

Kristy Reitzel, owner of the nine-hole Cherrywood Golf Club in Ottawa Lake, southwest of Monroe, also anticipated losing about $30,000 during the shutdown.

“It hurt us greatly,” Reitzel said. “We haven’t even been able to collect memberships. It’s a family owned business, just my husband and I, but right now we can’t hire in the clubhouse because we just don’t know what revenues are going to be like. We’re going to try to do it just ourselves for as long as we can.”

An extra disadvantage for Cherrywood lies in the fact it’s just over the border from Ohio, which has allowed golf with carts throughout the coronavirus shutdowns. Whitmer’s excecutive order does not allow carts, except for people with disabilities, though some courses acknowledge they are allowing carts anyway.

“Since we’re only nine holes we do get a lot of walkers, but it’s hard to compete,” Reitzel said. “We can do one person per cart if they’d let us. We’re doing everything we can to make everybody safe.”

Carts can make a significant difference, in terms of revenue. According to the National Golf Foundation, in 2018 golfers 65-and-over played more than three times as many rounds as golfers in the 18-34 age range, and older golfers are more likely to want or need a cart.

At Mack Mayfield Municipal in Westland, manager Joe Burton highlighted extra precautions they’re taking.

“We have a lot more rules now,” Burton said. “Flag sticks stay in, only two people are allowed in the shop, and that’s just to pay, and we’re sanitizing all the door handles.”

Burton says Mayfield lost about $20,000 in revenue during the shutdown. Allowing carts would help, but there’s not much else that can be done to make up for it.

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“Yeah, you can try to extend the season,” Burton said. “But if we go into November, our clientele stops playing when it gets cold. We’re trying to come up with more ideas and events, and we’ve have good numbers these first two days back because people have been cooped up.”

Mayfield said his course was able to pay everyone in April, but that wasn’t the case at Lincoln Hills in Birmingham, which normally hosts up to 3,200 golfers even in a bad-weather April.

“Revenues and membership sales are down,” general manager Jacky Brito said. “All our membership drives are in April, and people just don’t want to join not knowing if they’re going to be able to play. We normally carry five (workers) in the shop, and I’m just getting back on (Saturday) after being furloughed for a month.”   

Brito expressed frustration with the golf ban.

“I think we should have opened up earlier,” Brito said. “Golf is great recreation.”

Coronavirus came at a bad time for many in the golf industry — Moose Ridge in South Lyon estimates it lost nearly $200,000 — but especially for smaller, locally owned courses.

The peak of golf’s popularity, during Tiger Woods’ heyday, was well over 10 years ago. According to the NGF, since 2006 the U.S. golf course supply has contracted by 8 percent, which has been disproportionately concentrated in value-priced courses, defined by the foundation as less than $40 for 18-hole greens fees.

A triple-whammy of sorts has played out in Fort Gratiot, near Port Huron, at nine-hole Willow Ridge Golf Club, where owners Sue and Doug Papinaw lost two months last year when the course was flooded by the Black River.

“We were under water for two months, and it’s (the April shutdown) had the same effect,” Sue said. “When you lose a month out of five or six, you lose one-fifth or one-sixth of your income, and that’s a lot.”

Willow Ridge hasn’t laid anyone off permanently, but the walking-only restriction eliminated a large portion of its clientele.

“What are we to do? Play longer in the fall? Golfers are more likely to play in the spring in cold weather than they are in the fall,” Sue Papinaw said.

One thing was for sure. With Metro Detroiters going on almost two months of a stay-at-home order, if courses could get open over the weekend, they were busy.

“Everybody seems so happy just to get out of the house,” Burton said.

“They’re all very happy to be back out,” Sue Papinaw said.

“People are calling to get tee times, and we’ve been sold out,” Brito said. “There’s been so much activity, and it’s great to see so many faces, the members, and everybody’s cheerful. They have great attitudes about it. Thank god the governor spoke yesterday because now the people have hope.”

Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.