Golf rising in popularity as Albertans flock to the greens for fresh air, socializing and sport

The global pandemic has created a surge in the popularity of golf, and that’s giving the beleaguered industry a boost.

Alberta golf industry seeing a boost during pandemic

Since being allowed to reopen, golf courses across Alberta are seeing a welcome boost in revenues. (John Robertson/CBC)

The global pandemic has created a surge in the popularity of golf, and that's giving the beleaguered golf industry a boost.

For the first time in years, demand for tee times is on the rise as people look for a socially distanced outdoor activity. 

"Right now, golf is one of those things that you can do," Phil Berube,the CEO of Alberta Golf told The Homestretch. "Throughout the province and across the country, it's just been a phenomenal year. From sun up to sun down, it's tough to get a tee time these days." 

As recently as last season, Berube was talking about the difficulties that golf faced as an industry, from courses shutting down or going bankrupt to reduced private membership numbers.

In the industry it was recognized that, in a fast-paced world, people often just can't commit the time.

"I think the operators aren't disillusioned," Berube said of the sudden surge. "I mean, we're lucky and we're fortunate to be in a sport that allows for that physical distance thing to occur quite easily. But you know this is an economic thing. We know that supply and demand issues exist out there."

The CEO of Alberta Golf, Phil Berube, says the industry is hoping to retain some of the newfound interest that it's seen during the pandemic. (Submitted by Paul Berube)

Berube said more young people are now taking up the sport, and that the junior golf circuit is sold out with more than double the number of kids as last year.

"We have 25 events on the McLennan Ross junior golf tour, and they're all sold out. Our average field for that tour might have been around 30 kids last year, this year they're all 72," he said.

"It's just phenomenal and I think every tour is experiencing the same thing, at the young entry level stage," he said. "But we're also seeing some people come out of the woodwork — you know, dusting off the old hooks and coming back out onto the golf course."

The experience has changed slightly, but Berube says everyone is adjusting.

"The operators, I think from day one, were really good about communicating what those protocols would be," he said. "You're not touching the flag, there are no rakes in the bunkers, and golfers have adjusted really well to that."

If anything, Berube said, the new protocols have sped up the experience.

Improved pace of play

"To be honest it's actually improved pace of play," he said. "A lot of places that you'll see a golfer walk onto the first tee at eight o'clock in the morning and then walk off before noon. So, still have their whole day in front of them, and that's been pretty consistent throughout the province."

The streamlined golf experience is not paying off at the clubhouse, however, with golfers skipping any before-and-after socializing.

"Certainly it's affected the food and beverage component," Berube said. "It's also impacted corporate tournaments, and other events that clubs would have hosted where there's a large gathering. The operators have really been serious about this. It's really health before anything else — so it's strictly tee times pretty much everywhere."

But the nice thing about the current protocols, he added, is that people are not as likely to blow off a tee time, even if the weather forecast is sketchy.

"People are kind of saying, 'Hey I've committed to being on the golf course that day.' And, as we know in Alberta, the weather changes. So we're seeing foursomes from sunup to sundown, and I think the operators are actually pleasantly surprised at how high the revenues are coming in."

Adding staff

Berube said golf professionals are entrepreneurial and are making the most of the situation. even adding staff to make sure they can follow all protocols while keeping up the pace.

"I think the industry and the 44,000 people that are employed in the industry are actually doing OK this year," he said. "We've had a phenomenal year weather-wise in terms of golf, and so if this weather continues through July and August, it's going to be a great year."

The next challenge will be to maintain this momentum in future seasons, Berube said, adding that the industry needs to focus on retention.

He said golf is a great group activity for people looking to find a safe, outdoor way to spend time together.

"We know that golf is one of those things, just like cycling or hiking: you want to spend time with friends and family, you're going to find something to do," he said.

"We think this pandemic is going to last a while, so we're trying to encourage that physical distancing. We're reminding people how important it is, and this is one of those things that we're looking at for the long term," he added. 

"So who knows what's going to happen next year? But we're hoping that our retention plan is going to stick."

With files from The Homestretch.


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