COVID-19 has been driving Albertans to golf courses at an incredible clip in 2020.
"Courses are packed across the province. This is a very big golf boom that can be tied into the pandemic," said Kevin Smith, communications director for Alberta Golf. "Once courses opened, people wanted to get outside for their mental health."
Smith said a majority of the 300-plus courses across the province opened in May and most "say it's the busiest (they've) seen it for the past five-to-10 years."
Smith said despite delays due to the pandemic, only one Alberta Golf tournament has been cancelled.
“We usually have a dozen sanctioned tournaments and we were only forced to cancel one,” he said, adding “we had a high turnout at all of the events.”
Also, the McLennan Ross Junior Tour had the highest registration in a decade. Smith said “all 20 events have been sold out.”
At RedTail Landing Golf Club, head pro Joshua Davison reports tee sheet volume is up between 15 and 20 per cent over last year.
"Golf is thriving. People have nothing else to do," he said, adding, "We could have had an even better early season if it hadn't rained so much.
"Golfers are calling earlier to get a tee time. Other years, you could book last minute. Not this year."
Davison said the driving range at the club has been “just bonkers busy” since opening in late May.
Like all courses, RedTail — located just east of the Edmonton International Airport — opened with a long list of strict COVID-19 protocols, including no rakes in the bunkers and no touching the flagstick. In the clubhouses, masks are worn by all staff and tables are two metres apart.
Davison said golfers have been "very good" when it comes to following the guidelines. He said, "There has been nothing major, outside of the odd bro’ hug. Some guys forget.”
The golfing boom has been across all demographics, especially among junior golfers, said Davison. RedTail is one of 24 courses in Alberta partnered with the Youth on Course program, which allows anyone 18 and under to pay an initial fee of $49 and then play for $5 per round.
"There has been a huge increase in that program. We have had 1,400 rounds from about 90 kids and teens so far this year," said Davison.
And while the on-course activity has been robust, courses like RedTail have been hit by hard off the course — namely food and beverage and corporate events.
"We had a massive leg cut off. We had to cancel 28 large shotgun tournaments — each with 144 people," said Davison.
RedTail — which has a 250-seat banquet room — has been able to hold six smaller golf tournaments with a maximum of 50 people.
Like many other courses, RedTail took advantage of the federal government's wage subsidy program and has had only a small reduction in staff.
At Westlock Golf Club, 90 km north of Edmonton, the course was able to open in early May due in large part to a work bee by members and local residents volunteering to clean up the course after spring flooding.
“We had some challenging times even before we opened because several holes on the course were flooded," said Adam Pederson, head pro and GM, "At least a dozen people came out and helped us clean up the fairways and greens. They wanted to see the course open."
And once Westlock opened, the rush was on.
“The tee sheet has been full since we opened," said Pederson, adding, 'It has been good for everyone's mental health. They had all been stuck indoors for so long."
Westlock is taking a hit on the corporate and food and beverage side, but Pederson remains optimistic about the future.
"It has been a very challenging year, but we're doing OK. Everyone has pulled together."
RedTail's Davison said the renewed enthusiasm in golf has helped ease any downside due to COVID-19.
"There has definitely been a rekindled interest. There is a spark in the game of golf again."
Gary Poignant is a freelance writer and regular contributor to AlbertaPrimeTimes.com. This story was funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Supporting Local News Coverage of COVID-19 Program via the Local Media Foundation.