October 1, 2020

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Stroke of luck

Business is booming at local golf courses, something that seemed pretty unlikely in the early days of the pandemic

The local golf season — not unlike an errant tee shot that plunks a pine tree and miraculously bounces into the centre of the fairway — hasn't been lost, after all.

In fact, after a precarious start, it's primed for a solid finish.

City of Winnipeg golf courses

Rounds played (to Aug. 3):

Kildonan
2019 18,764
2020 19,412
Difference +648 (3%)

Rounds played (to Aug. 3):

Kildonan
2019 18,764
2020 19,412
Difference +648 (3%)

Windsor
2019 15,572
2020 18,217
Difference +2,645 (15%)

Crescent Drive
2019 8,911
2020 14,216
Difference +5,305 (37%)

Total
2019 43,247
2020 51,845
Difference +8,598 (17%)

While many Manitobans still wrestle with leaving the house for work and leisure activities during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they seem to have no difficulty getting in a game of golf, a sport with built-in social distancing that can be played safely during the global health crisis.

The local golf business continues to draw plenty of participants who have been faced with fewer alternatives for indoor and outdoor activities, and that's provided an unexpected boost to a sport that has seen declining popularity in recent years.

Golf Manitoba executive director Jared Ladobruk admits he didn't see it coming.

"It's not a conversation I thought we'd be having about how good a season it's been. There was so much uncertainty with health and safety at the forefront. Golf didn't seem like it should even be part of the discussion at that point." Ladobruk said Tuesday.

"It's not a conversation I thought we'd be having about how good a season it's been. " – Golf Manitoba executive director Jared Ladobruk

"But I think it's turned out so well and it's one of the sports that has allowed our community to be active, to socialize, to be outdoors, to compete for some and to be recreational for others — and to do it with family and friends.

"It's a miracle that we're even here. If we'd had that conversation in April, I would have said, 'No way.'"

Courses across the province opened for business May 4 under a series of stringent protocols — inside clubhouses/pro shops and on the course — meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

And golfers of all ages have responded during a relatively dry, sunny summer.

Jack Duncan tees off at Rossmere Golf and Country Club on Tuesday.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jack Duncan tees off at Rossmere Golf and Country Club on Tuesday.

"Anecdotally, we've heard a lot of clubs tell us their tee sheets are full, there's been an increase in memberships and green-fee play, which has been really good for the industry. That means we're seeing an injection of people playing golf that maybe were maybe fringe golfers before or even new to the sport that are participating, so that's been a good thing," said Ladobruk, who plays at Niakwa.

"At Golf Manitoba, we've seen great participation at our events, so that's a good sign that there's an appetite to play. But really, until the year is done and the clubs report to their boards, we won't truly know the overall effect."

At semi-private Rossmere Country Club in East Kildonan, general manager Scott Parker said the season has been a major hit, and he has the numbers to back it up.

"Our play is up somewhere between 15 (and) 20 per cent for the season. We were a pretty busy club to start with, so that's been a huge bump," he said. "We tried to forecast every scenario, right from how long we our club could survive without the doors being open to opening on May 1. Fortunately, (the province) let us open up and we haven't looked back since.

"We've had a little bit of everything. Our members are playing more, our guest play — our daily walk-up traffic — is also up and that's a bonus. Our junior program is up to 100 kids this year, and it's a lot of new players who might otherwise be in hockey through the summer or they'd be away with their families on vacation. At one point, we were 40-50 extra kids on the golf course each day, and that's great to see because that's definitely the future of your club."

Wayne Shimizu hits some balls at the driving range at Rossmere Golf and Country Club Tuesday.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wayne Shimizu hits some balls at the driving range at Rossmere Golf and Country Club Tuesday.

Courses operated by the City of Winnipeg are also seeing more traffic. A spokeswoman said even with a start date about a week later than usual, rounds played at Kildonan Park, Windsor Park and Crescent Drive totalled just shy of 52,000 as of Monday, an increase of 17 per cent from the same time frame last year.

Total revenue from the three facilities is up 22 per cent. "(The courses) are in good condition and weather has been favourable. Golfers have been following the COVID-19 guidelines, and tee time reservations have been fully booked most days this summer," the spokeswoman said via email.

There's been some minor changes to the game, in an effort to eliminate potentially dangerous virus-transmission touch points: flagsticks stay in the cup at all times; holes have been raised or devices have been inserted into each hole to eliminate the need to reach down to retrieve balls; and there are no bunker rakes, ball washers or water jugs, all to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

Leaving the flag in probably speeds up play, smoothing sand under the ball in bunkers (or dropping on the grass instead) is perfectly acceptable during recreational play, and it’s relatively easy to stay two metres apart from everybody else on tee boxes, fairways and greens — or while tramping through the bush hunting for poorly hit balls.

"People feel safe on the golf course. You're outside, getting fresh air and exercise." – Rossmere Country Club general manager Scott Parker

"People feel safe on the golf course. You're outside, getting fresh air and exercise. The details of the game are just semantics. You can adapt to anything you want. We had our club championship this weekend and people are used to the new rules, the new normal," added Parker.

One of Rossmere's longest-serving members had a 1:30 p.m. tee time Tuesday and was set to play the challenging first hole, a lengthy par-5 with homes along the right side. By his count, Jack Duncan, 74 and retired, is up to about 70 tours this year of the track he's played since he was 12.

Duncan said he's been worry-free at the club since his first game in early May.

"I've always felt safe here. I don't do a lot other than come here. I go to the odd restaurant but that's about it. I think they've done a really good job at Rossmere of social distancing and making sure there's hand sanitizer. And I also work one day a week in the pro shop, so I've gotta be conscious of that, too," he said.

"The game itself didn't give me any fears. It was just how the club was going to handle it, and this one did it all exceptionally well. I play four or five times a week now, and for me that's about average. But it's way more crowded, way more people. Memberships look like they're up. We got a lot of kids playing again. Families aren't going away, so they're looking for things to do."

By his count, Duncan, 74 and retired, is up to about 70 rounds this year of the course he has played since he was 12.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

By his count, Duncan, 74 and retired, is up to about 70 rounds this year of the course he has played since he was 12.

Ladobruk said bulk of Manitoba's competitive season — primarily a heavy July slate that includes the Manitoba women's and men's amateur championships, junior and senior championships — were staged without a hitch.

A Future Links tournament at Quarry Oaks for some of the premier juniors across Manitoba and Saskatchewan was cancelled in May and a provincial junior skills (drive, chip and putt) challenge was also scrapped.

Golf Manitoba's "golf in schools program," traditionally held April through June, was also cancelled. The previous year, local pros introduced the sport to nearly 10,000 students from 50 schools across the province.

"We didn't have that opportunity to deliver that program, so from a development and grassroots standpoint, that hurt us," Ladobruk said. "Hopefully, those kids that didn't see it from us were introduced to golf from a family member, a parent or a friend. But it's definitely on our radar to continue that again when things open up. It's a big part of what we do."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, August 4, 2020 at 7:38 PM CDT: Corrects typo in word operated

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