COVID leads to improvements at local golf courses

COVID-19 had plenty of negative impacts but some positive ones as well – like providing golfers in Kitsap County with smoother putting greens, better fairway lies, new electric golf carts and improved driving ranges.

The pandemic stifled many businesses but actually was a boon to the sport of golf. The healthcare emergency led to an increase in business at local courses by as much as 30%.

More folks getting tee times led to increased revenue that enabled several Kitsap Peninsula courses to make capital improvements that had been put off for years, officials said.

“We are finally able to reinvest and bring things up to a standard where we want them and where our customers appreciate it as well,” said Shawn Cucciardi, vice president of golf operations at Columbia Hospitality, which manages the Gold Mountain golf courses in Bremerton, and McCormick Woods in Port Orchard.

Income from green fees and sales of golf equipment helped several courses to purchase high-cost maintenance equipment – like commercial lawnmowers – to groom lush fairways and rolling greens. High-tech mowers do more than simply cut grass. The machines also improve the quality of turf golfers hit off of, officials said.

“With modern technology, the quality of the cut [of new mowers] is a big deal. An older mower moving across the fairway doesn’t necessarily catch every blade. It may catch 80 percent. With new mowers the cut is perfect. When you have that uniformity – whether it’s on the putting green, the rough or the fairway – it creates more consistent play conditions,” Cucciardi said.

Trophy Lake and Casting golf course in Port Orchard general manager Brian Catalli agreed. “We got some new green mowers where we can keep the cut uniform. Same thing with mowers for the rough. [The grass] is more uniform out there. You are not getting weird high patches.”

Replacing outdated maintenance equipment was a luxury many courses were unable to afford pre-pandemic. “Golf course (maintenance) equipment is expensive. A greens mower is $60,000 to $70,000. A fairway mower can run $100,000. And, there are multiple types of rough mowers,” Cucciardi said.

The Gold Mountain courses, McCormick Woods and Trophy Lake all upgraded their mowers.

The new maintenance equipment also grooms courses in less time.

“If you can reduce mowing fairways from eight hours to six hours that means we have two additional labor hours to make other improvements – like doing little detail stuff that we simply didn’t have time to do before. This can be edging around trees and cart paths and beautification work with flowers,” Cucciardi said.

Catalli said the new equipment increased the productivity of his maintenance staff. “With the increased efficiency on the mowers, we have more hours to get out there and do the detail stuff. The bunkers and tee boxes are in better shape,” he said.

The surge in new golfers taking to tree-lined doglegs and challenging par 3’s has also financed other improvements.

McCormick Woods recently installed a practice area that gives players the opportunity to improve their short game. A new bunker provides a way for golfers to practice getting out of “the beach.” The course also installed artificial turf on the driving range to provide a suitable practice area for year-round use. Trophy Lake enhanced its curb appeal with parking lot improvements, landscaping work and a fresh coat of paint on the clubhouse.

Each of the three Kitsap courses also purchased new golf carts.

During COVID, golf experienced growth everywhere. Nationally, the sport attracted 3 million new golfers in 2020, 3.2 million in 2021 and 3.3 million in 2022, said Erik Matuszewski, editorial director of the National Golf Foundation.

“When the pandemic hit in Washington, golf was the very first business authorized to reopen,” Cucciardi said. “You couldn’t go fishing. You couldn’t play baseball. You couldn’t play soccer. So many people wanted to get outdoors, so they flooded to golf. People who play a little bit of golf played a lot more golf. People who had never golfed began to play.

“Participation significantly increased during COVID to the tune of 20 to 30% locally,” Cucciardi said. Rounds played at the two Gold Mountain courses – Olympic and Cascade – soared from 76,124 in 2020 to 93,600 in 2021, a 23% increase, he noted.

Demand also increased for those wanting to join Meadowmeer Golf and Country Club in Bainbridge Island, said Katy Goldsberry, general manager of the semi-private course. “COVID created a demand for full-memberships. Now we have a waitlist for people wanting to get in,” she said, adding that demand at the club’s restaurants and pro shop sales increased op to 15 percent.

Calls to management at White Horse Golf Club, in Kingston, for this article were not returned.

Meanwhile, the Trophy Lake and Casting golf course in Port Orchard experienced a 25% increase, Catalli said.

While the pandemic helped drive up interest in golf now course managers need to make sure they continue to return to the tee boxes.

“We are fighting for people’s free time and money. People ask themselves, am I going to go out on a boat or play pickleball, or whatever? We need to elevate our guests’ experiences,” Cucciardi said. “The moment you relax or stop innovating then people can become bored and choose to do other things.”