Millennials take a swing at golf during COVID

Future of sport is bright as they get hooked on it

Most businesses took a financial hit when COVID-19 ran rough-shod over America. But there were some that not only were able to survive, but flourish – including golf courses.

During the early months of the pandemic in 2020, golf courses around Kitsap County saw an uptick in the number of people teeing it up.

Golf — an outdoor sport that easily lent itself to social distancing — was one of the first activities Gov. Jay Inslee opened up following the lockdown. It wasn’t long before people were itching to get outdoors again. Playing golf on wide-open fairways proved to be a solution for many tired of being housebound.

“Golf was the first thing to open up,” said Shawn Cucciardi, vice president of Columbia Hospitality, which manages the Gold Mountain golf complex in Bremerton. “If you played soccer, softball or basketball, you couldn’t play. People who did (other sports) were like, ‘Heck, let’s go out and give golf a try.’”

Bjorn Bjorke, general manager of McCormick Woods golf course in Port Orchard, said: “Golf was one of the ‘safe’ outdoor activities. Everyone flocked to it because it was an activity that provided exercise and got you out of the house.”

An explosion of interest in golf was evidenced by the increased number of rounds being played around the Kitsap Peninsula. “We were slammed,” Cucciardi said. “People were waiting in the parking lot early in the morning. Sunup to sundown, the course was just packed. All of the new demand for golf — it was a cataclysmic change literally overnight.”

Between pre-pandemic 2019 and 2021, the number of rounds played at Gold Mountain increased by nearly 27%; McCormick Woods experienced more than a 37% increase.

White Horse Golf Club general manager Bruce Christy reported his course in Kingston saw an increase of up to 20% in the number of golfers hitting the links. “It was certainly a shot in the arm. We needed it. Before, rounds were flat year to year,” Christy said.

Nearly 20 years of declining interest in golf was erased in a few months, according to the National Golf Foundation.

New golfers

Those who contributed to the golf boom fit into two main categories: Newcomers and those who previously played only a couple of times a year.

Many newbies who took to the sport to get out in the fresh air soon found themselves hooked, officials said. Those who played infrequently but then more often were driven by other motivations.

“Golf can be extremely frustrating,” Cucciardi said. “It’s not an easy game to learn. It takes repetition. Many people who golfed twice a year really couldn’t improve much. But when everything was closed for months, all they did is play golf. They got over the hurdle of only playing a few times, and their skills and enjoyment increased. They became golfers.”

Millennials make up most of the new golfers, Cucciardi said. Before the pandemic, he noted, if they lived in Bremerton or Port Orchard, they spent hours each day commuting to Pierce or King County. When they started working remotely from home, their commute disappeared, giving them more time to hit the course, he explained.

Had it not been for the pandemic, the millennials never would have experienced the challenge of keeping a drive in the fairway or getting out of a greenside sand trap. “Three years ago, I think [millennials] would have said about golf, ‘Oh, that’s for a bunch of old fogeys.’ Then they got a taste of it and said, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this is for me.’ Golf became super hip with millennials,” Cucciardi said.

Being outside and playing with friends appealed to that age group, Bjorke said. “A lot of millennials love outdoor activities — hiking, camping, things like that. Golf is that. And it’s a sport you don’t really need a team [to play], just a group of buddies. They can go out and compete with their friends on an equitable playing field since there is a handicap system.”

In addition to millennials, juniors and families also have taken up the sport. About a third more juniors, women and families are learning to drive, chip and putt these days, Cucciardi estimated.

Bright outlook

Local golf officials are ecstatic over the sport’s newfound popularity and optimistic about its future. Putting aside concerns about a recession eating into the disposable income of golfers, there are signs that interest in golf is still flourishing after COVID.

Driving ranges are where golfers bring their golf clubs and hit buckets of balls to improve their swing. The ranges at Gold Mountain, McCormick Woods and White Horse have all seen increased use. Use of the driving ranges at McCormick Woods and Gold Mountain is up 40% to 50%, course officials said.

“That is a good sign. It shows more people are working their game and improving,” Cucciardi said.

The number of folks taking golf lessons is also up.

“The more enjoyable the game is, the more likely people are going to stay with it. When I see that kind of increase in those working on their game, that is a really good sign of things to come,” Cucciardi said.

A par-3 at White Horse Golf Club. File Photos
The entrance to White Horse Golf Club.