COVID's been very good for golf in the Charlotte area -

COVID’s been very good for golf in the Charlotte area

COVID’s been very good for golf in the Charlotte area

Aerial view taken with a drone of the lake during the Captains Visit for 2022 Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow Club on September 2021. Photo: Ben Jared/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

For much of the past two decades, the news around golf was grim. The sport saw a 22% drop in the number of golfers from 2003 to 2018, and more than 1,200 courses closed.

  • Traditional and stuffy courses were suddenly allowing people to wear jeans, play music — anything at all to attract a new generation to the limping sport.

Turns out all the game needed was a pandemic.

What’s happening: Golf, the sport of social distance and fresh air, is blowing up. In 2021 a record 3.2 million Americans played on a golf course for the first time in 2021, according to the National Golf Foundation.

  • Women golfers drove the surge, jumping 8% from 2019 to 2020.

Why it matters: Courses throughout North Carolina went from struggling to find golfers to struggling to keep up with demand. Pinehurst Resort, the state’s golf mecca located about two hours east of Charlotte, saw 400,000 rounds on its nine main courses in 2021, up from about 340,000 in 2019.

  • “It’s almost gotten to the point where, is that too many rounds?” Matt Barksdale, the head professional at Pinehurst Resort, tells me. “Are we able to maintain the integrity of the golf courses such as the turf conditions and the green conditions?”

A view from the tee on the 5th hole of Pinehurst No. 2. Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Driving the news: In a normal year Charlotte would be hosting the Wells Fargo Championship this weekend. But that tournament was moved to Washington to allow Quail Hollow time to prepare for a huge international event, the Presidents Cup, in the fall.

  • But if you’re looking to book a tee time today, good luck.

The state of play: Greens fees have increased 10-20% at Charlotte-area public courses, with the average weekend rate now $60+ across the region, says avid golfer Chris Beeman, who runs the website B-Man’s Guide to Golf and compiles our yearly list of top public golf courses in the Charlotte region.

  • “Courses are packed, even on weekday afternoons. Prime weekend tee times are booked as soon as the tee sheets open,” Beeman says.

That’s driven many golfers to private clubs. Clubs that in the mid-2010s were practically begging people to join now have queues of six moths or so.

It’s also tempted many semiprivate courses to go private.

  • Verdict Ridge, which Beeman ranked the No. 1 course in Charlotte three years straight, is now closed to the public on weekends.

Several courses in the area — Birkdale, Tradition, The Divide and the Harry Jones course — have taken the bump in revenue and invested in costly upgrades, with many joining the movement to go from cool-weather bentgrass to Bermuda or Zoysia, which hold up better in the summer.

Yes, but: Even most old-school clubs are keeping one trend from the pre-pandemic slump going — they’re embracing light-hearted approaches.

  • At Pinehurst, for instance, two of the most popular courses are an 18-hole putting course called Thistle Dhu, and the par-3 course The Cradle. Opened in 2017, the Cradle saw 60,000 rounds in 2021, up from about 40,000 in 2019.
  • “You have individuals out there that might be playing bare feet,” says Barksdale, the Pinehurst head pro. “The motto is fun. And what we’re trying to do here through that whole resurgence of golf is keep an eye on the past but also keep looking forward.”

Fun-ish fact: It isn’t the first time golf in North Carolina has seen a bump from a sweeping illness. One of the main reasons Pinehurst exists at all is tuberculosis.

Let me explain: In 1895, a soda fountain magnate from Boston named James Walker Tufts bought 5,000 acres in the rural Sandhills for $1.25 an acre. The sellers mocked him afterward, saying it “isn’t worth but 85 cents an acre.”

  • But in Boston, Tufts had seen scores of people acquire consumption, a disease that was to blame for nearly half of all deaths of people between 15 and 35 in the 1800s. Doctors later realized that consumption was tuberculosis.
  • At the time, fresh air was believed to be the best cure for the disease, so Tufts built up the property for Northerners who wanted a place to heal.

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