Jun 3, 2022 - Sports

Golf rides a pandemic comeback in North Carolina

A golfer hits a golf ball into a background of pine trees.

Ryan Burnett of the University of North Carolina tees off on the 18th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 on March 02, 2021. Photo: Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images.

For much of the past two decades, the news around golf was grim. The sport saw a 22% drop in the number of recreational golfers from 2003 to 2018, and more than 1,200 courses closed.

  • Traditional and stuffy courses were suddenly allowing people to wear jeans, play music — anything at all to attract a new generation to the limping sport.

The pandemic, however, has driven a resurgence in the game, Axios' Michael Graff reports.

What's happening: Golf, the sport of social distance and fresh air, is blowing up.

Why it matters: Courses throughout North Carolina went from struggling to find golfers to struggling to keep up with demand. Pinehurst Resort, the state's golf mecca located about two hours east of Charlotte, saw 400,000 rounds played on its nine main courses in 2021, up from about 340,000 in 2019.

  • "It's almost gotten to the point where, is that too many rounds?" Matt Barksdale, the head professional at Pinehurst Resort, told Axios. "Are we able to maintain the integrity of the golf courses such as the turf conditions and the green conditions?"

Driving the news: North Carolina is entering a period when it will become an even bigger fixture in the world of golf.

  • This ​​weekend, Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C., is hosting the U.S. Women's Open. And the Korn Ferry Tour comes to the Country Club at Wakefield Plantation for the REX Hospital Open.
  • Quail Hollow in Charlotte will host the Presidents Cup in the fall.
  • And the USGA is moving some of its operations to Pinehurst No. 2, which will host U.S. Opens in 2024, 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047.

It's not just Pinehurst, though, that is seeing a surge in tee times. Courses across the state have seen more golfers.

  • Hillandale Golf Course, a public course in Durham, saw a 32% increase in rounds played in 2021 compared to 2018, Karl Kimball, director of golf operations at Hillandale, told Axios.

However, like many businesses, golf courses are feeling the effects of inflation, Kimball said.

  • Employee wages have increased by approximately 15% at Hillandale and rising fuel prices are impacting its ability to keep costs down.
  • "Short answer is this, the pandemic has increased rounds and activities," Kimball said. "Long answer is operators are trying to ensure facilities can be successful without making the game unaffordable for the lovers of our game due to the ever increasing costs we are facing."

Fun-ish fact: It isn't the first time golf in North Carolina has seen a bump from a sweeping illness. One of the main reasons Pinehurst exists at all is tuberculosis.

Let us explain: In 1895, a soda fountain magnate from Boston named James Walker Tufts bought 5,000 acres in the rural Sandhills for $1.25 an acre. The sellers mocked him afterward, saying it "isn't worth but 85 cents an acre."

  • But in Boston, Tufts had seen scores of people acquire consumption, the disease that was to blame for nearly half of all deaths of people between 15 and 35 in the 1800s. Doctors later realized that consumption was tuberculosis.
  • At the time, fresh air was believed to be the best cure for the disease, so Tufts built up the property for Northerners who wanted a place to heal.

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