DECATUR — After not seeing a golfer on his course in April because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ironwood Golf Course manager/PGA professional Craig Onsrud was grateful when Friday arrived.
Golf returned to the state of Illinois on May 1 when courses were reopened by an executive order from Governor J.B. Pritzker. However, with several restrictions in place it seemed like anything but business as usual.
With only twosomes allowed every 15 minutes and no carts for the entire month, money won't be flowing into the cash register as usual.
"We'll make probably 10% that we usually do in May, but it's better than zero," said Onsrud about the Town of Normal course.
While the courses are taking a day-by-day approach and waiting to see what further changes will be made this summer, there is no escaping that budget projections likely won't be met.
Jason Wingate, the City of Bloomington's director of golf and a PGA professional, said Bloomington's fiscal year starts May 1, which may help minimize the damage of being limited during the month.
"For the next couple years we'll see the effects in our budgets. We don't have any big projects planned. I'm sure if we did, those would probably be moved out into the future," said Onsrud. "I haven't heard anything yet, but I'm sure the next couple years we'll see adjustments made to our budgets. The rest of this year we'll try to minimize as much as we can to survive and make the most of this year."
Though the courses missed more than a month of prime golfing, and not as many golfers are allowed on the course, limiting profit, there are plenty of golfers clamoring to get on the course.
“We were booked completely on Friday and Saturday,” said Ben Irwin, golf pro at Red Tail Run in Decatur. “(The first weekend) will be a pretty busy few days.”
Country Club of Decatur head golf professional Steve Orrick said the situation isn’t ideal, but it’s better than what it’s been.
“It has been frustrating not being able to play for these weeks but at least we get some sort of golf that is being allowed and obviously with how packed our tee schedule is, our members are excited to get out as well,” Orrick said. “It’s going to be a new thing for me and our staff operationally and also with the members, but at least we get some sort of golf.”
In Central Illinois and around the state, golfers were just happy to tee it up again.
"It's a little piece to getting back to normal," said Brian O'Kraski of Bloomington, who was out on the course Friday.
Chad Burrus of Decatur was also on the course Friday — at Red Tail Run in Decatur.
“In a perfect world, I’d be riding in a cart with three other guys, but we’ll take what we can get right now,” Burrus said. “After sitting through the whole winter, then being cooped up during all this, the best part was getting out there and enjoying something you love to do. It was a pretty awesome feeling.”
Golfers are glad to be back on the course, but not all of them agree with the restrictions.
“I understand where they're coming from, but some of it is too strict,” Burrus said. “I know they’re trying to be as safe as possible, but there are a few things that could be changed.”
Burrus said, in particular, he didn’t like not being allowed to use the putting green or driving range. Darryl Stock, president of the Decatur Golf Association, agreed.
“Some players can’t play without warming up,” Stock said. “And it’s easy to be socially distant at the driving range, because if you don’t stay six feet apart, you’re going to get hit in the head by a golf club.
“I promise you that’s an area that golfers would be taking advantage of, safely, if they could. Those are a big potential moneymaker.”
Burrus and Stock both also brought up country club members who own their own carts.
“You’re not going to let an elderly person who has their own court use it?” Burrus said. “Their own cart? That seems odd.”
Stock said he has several in his group of friends who play who aren’t able to play without a cart, and won’t go golfing until they know they can use one.
Debbie Boldig, co-owner of Meadowview in Mattoon as well as Timberlake in Sullivan, the Oaks in Springfield and Lakeshore in Taylorville, said her courses rented carts to anyone who said they needed one.
“We left it up to the golfers to tell us if they had a physical limitation because we feel like it is not our place to decide that for them,” Boldig said. “So if they told us they had a physical limitation, then we rented a cart.”
Stock said he hopes Illinois courses will soon follow the lead of other states that have further relaxed limitations on golf, such as allowing foursomes and less time between golfers teeing off.
Boldig said she’s just happy to be open, but agreed that there are loosening of the restrictions she’d like to see.
“We are OK with working with these restrictions for now if that is the best they can do,” Boldig said. “The thing I would change going forward eventually would be put the tee times closer together and allow foursomes. If there are only four people out there, they can social distance on a golf course a lot more than they can at a box store.”
Many courses have had to adjust staffing to accommodate the restrictions.
Most clubhouses and pro shops aren't open and aren't allowed to sell food and beverages, another drain on the bottom line. That means there's not a need to be fully staffed. Golfers are also supposed to make tee times either online or over the phone and not come into the clubhouse or pro shop.
"We're going to be very limited and have very much a skeleton crew at this point," said Weibring Golf Club at Illinois State PGA professional Tom Syzmoniak.
It’s the same situation at the Country Club of Decatur, according to Orrick.
“It will be myself and our assistant golf professional and probably just one that typically works in our bag room that will take care of the carts,” Orrick said. “Typically it would be the two of us, someone who works in the golf shop, and then we would have 2-3 bag shop staff members as well.”
At the Decatur Park District courses, Red Tail Run and Hickory Point, Irwin said full-time staff from other park district departments are going to be used to help at the courses.
“I imagine it will be us ironing out the process and working the kinks out to figure out how many people we will need (from the other departments)," Irwin said. "With the cart restrictions being for the handicapped or a person with physical limitations, I am going to need someone to clean and sanitize carts as well as monitoring what is going on out on the golf course and making sure people are keeping the social distancing aspect."
Weibring Golf Club usually relies on student part-time workers inside the pro shop. Many of those have already gone home with classes being held online through the summer. Szymoniak said the inside needs at least through May should be able to be handled by him and a part-time golf shop assistant.
Wingate said the same procedure figures to be in place at Highland Park, Prairie Vista and The Den at Fox Creek, the city's three courses. Instead of having at least two people inside, Wingate said they should be able to make due with one at each facility.
"We definitely want to make sure we stay as lean as possible," said Wingate. "At the same time this is something so new we want to make sure we have enough staff around if we need to talk to someone on course that may not be following instructions."
Wingate said most of the part-time inside staff during the summer includes college students who have already been hired. Many won't be needed during May.
"We're concerned during this shutdown to a large degree they'll look elsewhere for more hours," he said. "In the foreseeable future we may operate pretty lean."
Onsrud said he and Ironwood assistant manager Bryan Brucker have been assisting the maintenance crew during the shutdown. With golfers returning, "we'll have a couple more (workers inside) because we'll be open 14 hours a day."
Ironwood, Weibring and the Bloomington public courses have kept their regular full-time maintenance workers employed during the April shutdown. Some of the part-time maintenance workers will be added with golfers returning and more work needed on the courses besides the bare necessities of cutting fairways and greens during the shutdown.
At Meadowview in Mattoon, Boldig said her staffing won’t change much.
“We always have limited staffing to be honest,” Boldig said. “We operate with as little staffing as we can because golf is a tough business these days. We had a dedicated person sanitizing and washing golf carts all day long and turning them if we needed to get them back out. I would say it was the same number of staff people.”
Limited opportunities for revenue
Not only are fewer rounds being played because of the restrictions, but other avenues or revenue have been shut off by the quarantine as well, particularly outings and clubhouse sales.
Outings are a significant revenue source for public courses as well as many private and semi-private clubs. Those have been wiped out for May and, depending on what social distancing rules are in effect for the rest of the summer, other months could follow down the same path.
Syzmoniak said Weibring Golf Club has "for the most part" canceled all outings for 2020, especially because of university regulations about not holding campus events through July 31.
"Hopefully we'll try to promote tee times and get people out and keep their distance," he said. "That will enable us to operate a little more efficiently. We'll do the best we can with that. The sooner get back to normal the better obviously for the business."
Wingate, Onsrud and Orrick all said they haven't canceled any events or outings for June yet, although they know it's a possibility.
"Those outings are a big part of our business," said Wingate, who added 80% of earlier postponed outings have been rescheduled.
The course managers said they're working with their leagues — whether it's corporate, women or seniors — to see who is interested in continuing. They expect the fact that carts won't be available will make the decision for many golfers not just in leagues, but overall on the course. Wingate said 75% of golfers at the Bloomington courses typically use carts.
Irwin said the sheer numbers of golfers in their leagues keep the Decatur public courses from being able to hold leagues
“Teeing off that many people would take up several hours of tee times (with current restrictions in place),” Irwin said.
Sales in the clubhouse are a big part of how courses make money. Orrick said the Country Club of Decatur is selling things out of its clubhouse using curbside service. Irwin said the Decatur courses plan are looking into curbside sales.
“Even though the golf shop is closed to traffic going in and out, they can still purchase stuff from us and they will just let us know what it is — a dozen balls or a golf shirt — and we will bring it out to them," Orrick said.
Boldig said Meadowview operated a curbside operation as well.
“People could still get beverages but we sold them as curbside to-go and they could take them with them golfing,” Boldig said. “If someone needed golf balls or basic stuff, we would bring it out and sell that. We are trying to work within the directives as closely as possible.”
PHOTOS: Golfers return to the course
Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_benson
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