Golf courses close as COVID-19 chips away at business operations

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Berrien County golf courses, like others in Michigan, have fallen victim to the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

As restrictions continue to derail businesses, the golf industry is making strides to adapt to its new normal. 

With more than 650 public golf courses, Michigan is a $4 billion golf industry alone. 

Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 continue to surprise many, including Harbor Shores general manager Joshua Doxtator who took his position at the Benton Harbor golf course one year ago. 

“You deal with a lot in the hospitality or golf industry, but I don’t think anybody was ready or equipped to deal with something like this that we’re seeing today,” said Doxtator over the phone.

In Bridgman, Michigan, Lost Dunes Golf Club superintendent Greg Ellis is working with fewer employees trying to keep the course in the best shape as possible with the current constraints.

“Right now, we are just trying to sustain the property to where it doesn’t get out of control,” said Ellis during a phone call. 

For a golf facility, its biggest asset is the golf course, and as daily operations have to a halt, the main focus now is to maintain and protect the course to make sure it’s ready for when play resumes. 

Harbor Shores, a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course near Lake Michigan shut down all operations, including golf and its restaurant. Photo by: Regan Holgate

The golf economy

COVID-19’s hit to the United States economy extends to golf. 

Point O’ Woods club president J.B. Dougherty said over the phone, specifically with the golf industry, it’s all about discretionary income. If the economy moves into a downward spiral, this could have significant effects on the stability of golf facilities nationwide. 

“I don’t think people have the full appreciation for the amount of golf that is played in Michigan, the number of courses, and what a big part of our economy it is,” said Dougherty. 

For Lost Dunes, Ellis said the downturn of the golf economy reaches beyond Berrien County, and the people he’s most worried about are those who operate on a shoestring budget from year to year.

“Their revenue relies on those people coming through the door and spending their money to play a round of golf, and that’s just not happening right now,” said Ellis.

Point O’ Woods Golf and Country Club in Benton Harbor, Michigan is a private course, ranked among the top in the state. 

The Point O’ Woods driving range in May 2019. It is uncertain if the golf course will be open by May this year due to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. Photo by: Regan Holgate

For a club solely based on membership, POW has yet to experience a financial downturn, considering so little revenue comes in during April. 

POW head golf professional Matt Flaherty said during a phone call that many members have already paid their dues in full this year.

“When you hear membership, you would have thought this would be awful,” said Flaherty. “The fact we’ve only had one membership put on hold, and we are still getting inquiries, is a positive in my mind.”

The Senior PGA

The 2020 Kitchenaid Senior PGA Championship was scheduled to happen at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in May. 

The final call to cancel the tournament was made on April 1 by the PGA of America. 

Before the decision came, Doxtator said they were hoping for a piece of positive news for the community. 

“We are hopeful that we can still host a championship this year, and we’ll do whatever we can to make it happen,” said Doxtator. 

In conjunction with the Senior PGA, POW is supposed to host a Pro-Amateur, and now that the championship is canceled, they have lost that outing as well. 

Flaherty said this will not only be a loss for POW, but also the entire golf community that surrounds Berrien County. 

A safe haven

Golf is a way for people to clear their heads, and Dougherty said he thinks people are going to miss it during April. 

“Golf is a real way of life for me,” said Dougherty, “I love it. Personally, it’s been quite a shock to my system and quite a shock to my pattern of life, especially now that we’ve had to shut everything down.”

With more than 650 public golf courses, Michigan tops the list of states with the best golfing among the top in the nation according to Golf Advisor. 

According to Golf Digest, these are the top 25 ranked golf courses in Michigan for 2019. Two of which are located in Berrien County. Credit: Regan Holgate

Golf is a big deal in Michigan, so this will definitely have an impact,” said Dougherty. 

When it comes to thinking about the future, Flaherty said when all of this dissipates, golf is going to be a safer source of entertainment. 

“There’s a little bit of me that says golf might actually come out of this whole thing on the other side,” said Flaherty. 

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