As Calgary golfers ready fore the 2022 season, this year, perhaps more than ever, there’s a feeling they have earned it! It’s been two years of the pandemic scramble, a frigid winter, masks, vaxxing, social distancing, rules and lockdowns. From The Links of GlenEagles, McCall Lake and Confederation to Shaganappi Point, Priddis Greens and Springbank Links, Calgary golfers are over-ready.
Locally, and throughout Canada and the U.S., golfers golfing were one of the very few good news aspects of the unprecedented two-year story of disrupted lives.
“Golf naturally checked a lot of boxes of being a safe activity during COVID,” notes Slade King, COO of the innoivative Play Golf Calgary. “Golf being outside, individual or small groups with groups spaced out, lower touchpoints, individual equipment, courses allowed to stay open during COVID shutdowns with golfers and non-golfers being invited out to play by friends, family and co-workers, Calgary golf courses have enjoyed full tee sheets in the past two seasons.”
According to John Faber, the City of Calgary’s acting golf lead, responsible for for the City’s seven public courses, “Renewed interest in the game, new golfers or many golfers coming back to the game, impacted the whole industry, including the City’s facilities. Working from home likely allowed flexibility for many people to play perhaps more often than they did prior, and our team have worked hard adapting our operations to respond to changes in safety and healthy golf experience protocols.” Getting closer to the 2022 season, Faber points out that lesson programs are very popular and, in many cases, already with waitlists.
Although there isn’t one shred – not one – of positivity about the past two COVID years, Robert Rousselle, executive director of the Professional Golfers’ Association of Alberta highlights a suprisingly ironic factor about golfers “playing through” the good riddance, topsy-turvey two years: demographics.
Millenials and Gen Xers are embraciing the game. The business of golf analysts, like Golf Canada, point out that the average age of golfers has dropped by as much as three years. The numbers reflect that the overall number of golfers is up and the average age is coming down. Golf Canada stats show that 2020 saw a great number of new players finding the game.
As younger golfers come out to enjoy the game, experts like Calgary’s Slade King have gentle caution about changes to what is a notoriously tradition-driven game. “Looking at the big picture, golf is seeing the transition of aging baby boomers to younger millennials. Golf courses are juggling the needs of both demographics with more seasoned golfers attracted to the quiet traditions and friendly competition of the game, and newer golfers looking for more of a fun, music-filled, party environment while playing. It’s a fine line to add new technology, craft beers, trendy restaurant menus, relaxed dress codes, while not alienating your core golfers.”
If anything, all the commotion has boosted the popularity of golf. “Before crazy season kicked in, late 2018,” Rousselle notes, “the game was flat. It seemed one new golfer was introduced just as one was leaving the sport. The National Golf Course Owners Association data (NGCOA) data shows that, prior to the pandemic, from 2015 to 2017, the provincially average golf rounds per course was 25,038. The NGCOA numbers show that Alberta’s 2021 season average was 30,060 rounds per course, more than 25 per cent higher than the five-year average from 2016 to 2020.”
Faber also echos a spike in golf popularity. “In Calgary, 2021 was a record year for golf and the weather was a plus, even with the heat in summer. Average total rounds for all public courses prior to 2021 were approximately 220,000. Last year it was 256,000 rounds.”
Rousselle points out that golf is big business in Alberta. “There are a total of 308 courses, and 262 are 18 holes. Annually, the golf industry proudly generates $2.8 billion to the Alberta economy, employing over 34,000 people. We have been optimistic that golf can be part of the solution moving forward and be good for physical health, mental health and the economy. Year-to-date revenues are showing an increase over 2020 which exceeds the growth in rounds. The likely contributors are increased ancillary product sales over last year and improved average rates due to the maximization of tee sheets.”
One inconsistent and unpredictable factor of Calgary golf is – weather! “Spring in Calgary can be vastly different year over year,” King says. “We have been open in March with record temperatures, and we have had two feet of snow in March. For Play Golf Calgary courses, we plan for the first weekend in April while being incredibly flexible. We use the winter to plan and prepare, so when timelines move at the drop of a hat and we need to be ready if a Chinook rolls in and the snow melts.
“Prepping the course includes pulling the tarps on the greens, prepping the greens with a brush, roll and cut. Winter debris needs to be swept and blown, some sand traps may need to be pumped out and prepped, and quick cut of the fairways and tees will create a nice stripping pattern even though you are not necessarily cutting any grass. We pride ourselves on being one of the first courses to open and having a place for golf-hungry players to get outside after a long winter.”
‘Tis also the season for lots of prep work at Calgary’s seven public courses. “There are tarps to remove, spring debris to clean up, accessories to put out, initial mowing of all surfaces, irrigation system start up, clubhouse cleanups and installing a net along the right side of #8 at McCall Lake to protect adjacent properties,” Faber says. “It can change in a heartbeat but April 1 is the standing opening day we work to.”
Some things never change. It won’t be long until Calgary golfers again good-naturedly mumble about the sweltering heat and trying to get on to the crammed tee sheets. Or rave about the #16 par-3 hole at The Links of GlenEagles, with its panoramic view of the mountains from the tee and the 140-foot drop down to what looks like an island green. Or the #1 hole at HeatherGlen, a classic tree-lined par-4 with a gentle dogleg.
Despite the predictable and unpredictable speedbumps of the golf season, Rousselle is upbeat and optimistic. “The game and our love of the game has not changed. Some of the new challenges due to the demand will be reflected by busy tee sheets. But golf course demand is high and the respect of health rules to protect each guest at the course will be key. The biggest wild card facing our industry in the near future will be the progression of COVID and any variants.
“Calgary has always been a golf crazy city,” King adds with enthusiasm. “We have fantastic courses available to play with so many different styles and topography in and around Calgary. The game of golf offers so many great opportunities to get outside, socialize with friends and family, compete and exercise. Golf has seen a resurgence in the past few years with younger people taking up the sport. Golf courses, golf technology and a trend towards a fun and more relaxed atmosphere has made golf more popular than ever.”