By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Before the state’s stay-at-home order was imposed, 78-year-old “Rich” Carbajal and his son Richard Jr., would tee it up six mornings a week at the Village Greens Golf Course in Port Orchard. This was the routine for the Port Orchard pair for nearly two years since they love the game and enjoy playing together. When the pandemic required golf courses to close, the news hit the twosome hard.
“We were pretty bummed,” admits the younger Carbajal, who works the swing shift as a truck driver at Miles Sand and Gravel, and is free to play mornings. “We could really only watch TV and shop for new clubs on the internet,” he said of the coronavirus lockdown.
When it was announced that courses would reopen May 5, the Carbajals were understandably elated. Richard jumped online to reserve a tee time.
“We were one of the first to play when the course reopened,” Richard Jr. beamed. Now, the father-son duo is back regularly swinging the sticks.
The Carbajals were not the only ones happy the six-week golf course shutdown has ended.
The number of golfers returning to local courses since the pandemic hit is up significantly. It seems that after folks had been stuck at home during winter and the lockdown, the idea of hitting the links offered a welcome change of scenery for longtime enthusiasts and those who wanted to take up the sport.
It helps that golf is ideally suited to the concept of social — or physical — distancing.
The number of golfers at the executive par-3 Village Greens course is up 25 percent over last year, according to the clubhouse manager Kaitlyn Spellman.
“In Port Orchard, there are not many activities to do now since the theater and bowling alley are closed,” she said.
“Everyone has been so grateful the course is open. It gives them a safe outdoor activity and an outlet to get out of the house.”
Being a shorter course consisting of mostly par-3 holes makes Village Greens quite family-friendly.
“We are a shorter course so it’s not as intimidating for kids to play an entire 18 holes. A lot of kids are coming out for the first time. It’s been really fun to see their faces. They are pretty excited to get out with their parents or grandparents and hit for the first time,” she said.
Many regulation (or longer) golf courses on the Kitsap Peninsula are also seeing an increase of people teeing it up.
“The course is as busy as I’ve ever seen it,” said John Sitton, golf operations manager at Gold Mountain Golf Club, who has worked in various capacities at the course over the past 20 years.
“Rounds are up! Last year through the end of July, our two courses had 43,000 rounds. This year, the number is 45,000 and that is with the course being closed for six weeks [due to the stay-at-home order],” Sitton said of the Bremerton club.
“We have a good product and honestly there are not too many options out there besides hiking and boating.”
Annual memberships at Gold Mountain this year have increased 15 to 20 percent, Sitton noted. In addition, the club’s men’s and women’s leagues are “as active as ever.”
At McCormick Woods, an 18-hole Port Orchard track that winds through firs and cedars, and around natural lakes, golf’s resurgent popularity has at times made finding a tee time challenging.
“We are seeing record numbers of people coming out to play. Daily rounds are up about 35 percent,” said Sheri Flood, golf operations manager at the course.
“A lot of people have more free time because they are working from home so [they] don’t have to commute and can play during the week.
“Golf is a social activity that you can do and not put you or others at risk,” Flood said.
Course operators are particularly pleased to see that new golfers are taking up the sport.
“First-time visitors are up about 30 percent,” Flood said.
Interestingly, individuals who played previously but moved away from the sport are now returning to the fairways.
“Many who were exposed to golf earlier but because of work or kids got away from it are now getting their clubs out again. They are rediscovering their love of the sport,” Flood said.
The shutdown and healthy adjustments
Golfing in the state came to a halt in March following Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order. Most courses closed in late March and remained shut for six weeks until May 5.
When courses reopened they had to operate under a number of new health guidelines aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19 by reducing touchpoints.
Cash transactions were eliminated to avoid the handling of money. Players were not to touch the flagstick, but instead leave it in while players putted. Rakes in sand traps, ball washers and water dispensers were eliminated. Holes were equipped with special liners to prevent a ball from dropping to the bottom of the cup. The devices allowed players to retrieve their ball without having to touch the inside of the cup.
Also, electric golf carts and rental pushcarts were required to be sanitized after each use. And finally, players were asked to come to the course close to their start time and promptly leave after finishing their round to avoid groups of players congregating.
Downside of COVID-19
While courses are enjoying a resurgence in play, the emergence of the virus has also had an impact on the often lucrative special events held at the properties.
Normally, McCormick Woods and Gold Mountain provide scenic settings for weddings and banquets. Such events, which often include food and beverage service, provide courses year-round revenue; golf activity by itself primarily runs seven months a year.
Health regulations prohibiting large gatherings have for the time being effectively ended such events at golf properties.
Gold Mountain normally booked 50 weddings a year, Sitton said. This year, however, the property will likely end up hosting 20, those having taken place prior to the shutdown.
McCormick Woods was hit even harder. Whereas the course would typically host approximately 25 weddings annually, this year that number will likely be close to zero, Flood said.
What happens after the pandemic?
While golf in the great outdoors is riding high during these COVID-19 times, the question in the minds of golf officials is what will happen when things get back to normal?
Supporters often say golf is the ideal lifetime sport. And the course managers are hoping new and experienced golfers will continue to seek the outdoors and hit the fairways.
“What happens after the virus? Will kids go back to playing video games and adults return to work?” McCormick Woods’ Flood wondered.
“My hope is the seed has been planted and people will keep golf as part of their life.
“How many things can people do that allows them to spend quality time together out in nature, interact with friends and family and not be distracted by a screen?”
Coronavirus notwithstanding, that’s the question lingering in the air at golf courses regionwide.