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Hitting the Links

Area golf course managers see increase
in number of golfers during COVID

The pandemic forced people to search
for outdoor activities such as golf



(May 2021) – Since its beginning last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many people to have more time on their hands. Encouraged by health officials to seek the safety of outdoor activities, area golf courses have seen a steady flow of people enjoying their offerings over the past year.
“Our business actually picked up toward the middle of the summer, once people got used to the way things were going to be,” said John Stark, co-owner of Cardinal Hills Golf Course, located at 335 Starks Lane in Bedford, Ky.
Luckily, he did not have to close the course and was able to remain open year-round. He said the only drawbacks for his golf course due to the pandemic were that “it was more costly for us.” Carts had to be sterilized every time they came in, people could not come in the shop (except to use the bathrooms), and the number of players had to be limited. Early on when social distancing rules were put in place, this required players to wear masks and not touch the flag sticks, and Stark could not put out ball washers, he said.

St. Anne's Golf Course

Photo provided

The City of North Vernon-owned St. Anne's Golf Courae stays busy throughout the year with many golf outings.


A trend he saw was that “a lot of people either had not played in a long time or were playing for the first time.” Since staying outdoors means a lower risk of transmission – and golf is entirely outdoors – it seemed to be the perfect recreational sport for many. There is no real proximity to another player in golf. It can even be played alone, so the chance of contacting or spreading COVID-19 was minimal, which was a plus for area golf courses.
Stark said the 18-hole course at Cardinal Hills Golf Course was built in 1968 by his father, Jerry Stark. Harold England designed the first nine holes, and years later, Jerry Stark designed the back nine holes. The course features 5,614 yards of golf from the longest tees for a par of 70. Stark manages the course and is co-owner with his brothers.
The golf course “was only able to hold one outing last year,” he said. They will host a Derby Day Scramble on May 1, which is always dependent upon the weather.
Stark said their largest scramble will be the Jerry Stark Memorial Tournament, scheduled for June 19. “This is one of our biggest ones.” This scramble that honors his father also gives out scholarships to students. He expects a turnout of about 75 players, a “comfortable number,” considering the recent pandemic.

Robin Brown

Brown


Jeff Bridgford is the golf pro at city–owned Sunrise Golf Course in Madison, Ind., located on Madison’s hilltop at 2136 Michigan Rd. It spans 160 acres and has 18 holes with a par of 72.
Bridgford said that at the pandemic outbreak in the spring, “we were on the brink of being opened. Flagsticks stayed in the hole, the rakes were taken away, we couldn’t put out drinking water on the course and only one person per cart.”
But even with all of these changes and new temporary rules “we were ultimately pretty busy,” he said. “Golf was about the only activity anybody could do.”
According to the PGA of America, golf is an $85 billion industry. “Nationwide, golf increased in numbers,” said Bridgford, who has been the pro at Sunrise for 27 years. “The industry seems to be pretty optimistic for 2021.”
He sees one downfall with the sport nationally in that “we create new golfers but can’t retain them.” Like Stark, Bridgford saw returning players and many new players over the last year. “I’m hoping we can retain a good percentage of new players.”
One advantage to his course is that many players live close, which enables them to drive their own carts to the course and the staff does not have to disinfect them. Many of the restrictions seen last year seem to be going away, he said. Overall, golf “is a pretty good recreational sport to socially distance.”
The Sunrise Golf Course features 6,245 yards of golf from the longest tees. The course was designed by Gilbert England and opened as nine holes in 1963. “The city took over in the early ’70s an added another nine holes,” Bridgford said.
Throughout the pandemic, “we’ve been open the whole time. It was touch and go for a couple of weeks. We have tried to abide by what came from the governor’s office.”
Sunrise did try to hold a few scrambles last year, but none were successful. Their first big scramble of the year will take place on Friday, May 7, with the Madison Area Chamber Annual Golf Scramble. Still adhering to COVID restrictions, there is a limit on the number of players and only one player per cart.
Robin Brown, the general manager at St. Anne’s Golf Course in North Vernon, Ind., since 2015, said, “We were a lot busier than normal last year.” And now that COVID restrictions are lifting, “it’s pretty much full speed ahead.”
The 18-hole course, located at 360 E County Rd. 350 North, features 6,323 yards of golf from the longest tees for a par of 71. Designed by Brent Hanger and Greg Bishop, the St. Anne’s course opened in 1998.
Brown said he saw lot more golfers from out of town playing the course. “I think more people became interested in the game.” There were many people that had just “taken up the game, maybe only played it at that time.” Like Bridgford, he said he hopes the new players will stick with it.
Although he never had to shut down, he used the pandemic time to make improvements to St. Anne’s. “It’s improved tremendously over the last year,” he said. One major project was the pond area, which was expanded to an acre and a half to provide more water for the greens.
The pro shop was also redone inside and out. The facility “is in the best shape it’s ever been in,” said Brown.
Built on 166 acres, the golf course is lined with rolling hills, trees and many beautiful water features. Practice facilities include a driving range and putting green, and St. Anne’s golf and teaching professionals are on hand seven days a week.
Throughout the season, St. Anne’s offers many member and guest events. One upcoming big event is their annual Shriner’s Scramble on May 15.

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