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Local golf courses have flourished during coronavirus pandemic

Business is booming at local golf courses, reaching levels not seen in years. Some courses have even been forced to turn golfers away by the dozens on weekend days.

Numbers of rounds are up significantly, and memberships are on the rise.

There's basically been nonstop traffic since late March, when the coronavirus pandemic shutdown began, but most area golf courses remained open.

"Golf is the pandemic sport," said Chris Hedden, a teaching pro at Elmridge Golf Course in Stonington, while standing behind the front desk in the pro shop on a busy afternoon. "It's been nuts all year. It's great for the industry. ... I can't keep up with the traffic. The phone is ringing off the hook."

The same bustling scene can be found at just about any local course, from Shennecossett in Groton to River Ridge in Griswold.

"It's literally been more than 10 years since we've seen business like this," said Alan Rustici, who owns Elmridge and Cedar Ridge in East Lyme.

Golf is one of the few recreational sports that have thrived during the pandemic. A summer filled with days of warm, dry weather also has helped fuel the game's growth spurt.

"There's definitely more people playing," Norwich Golf Course pro Mike Svab said. "The weather has been ridiculous. I don't think it's ever going to rain again. We've had a lot go in our favor this year. Unfortunately, COVID is not in everyone's favor."

The surge began in late March.

Golfers from out of state, especially Massachusetts, where courses were closed at first, made the drive to Connecticut. Rhode Island limited its courses to residents only early on.

Pequot Golf Club in Stonington saw as many as 250 golfers show up on a weekend spring day.

The trend continued as people searched for safe outdoor activities to temporarily escape the quarantine life.

Golfers quickly adjusted to the new safety guidelines and protocols.

"This is an outside event," River Ridge pro Mark Klotz said. "You can come out and have no problem, be comfortable and social distance. You don't have to worry about too much. We sanitize the carts and keep them clean. You tell people to pay attention. Most of the guys are good. They're truly happy to be outside."

And golf pros are truly happy with the game's resurgence.

Business at Norwich Golf Course has increased 10% to 12% from last season, according to Svab.

Numbers are even higher at some other courses despite the fact that outings and charity tournaments have been either canceled or postponed due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

Elmridge and Cedar Ridge, a par-3 course, are up about 20% over last year.

"It's consistent at both of my courses," Rustici said. "We lost some business in the spring from outings because everybody canceled that was having a tournament because the rules on not gathering and dining and so forth. But we picked up a tremendous amount of off-the-street play.

"The best news for golf is we're seeing a demographic that we haven't seen too much of in the last decade or so, which is younger people and most couples and women playing."

More golfers mean more crowded courses.

To secure a tee time on a Saturday at Shennecossett Golf Course in Groton, golfers must call a week ahead of time, according to Casey Roan, who works in the pro shop.

Weekdays also are busy.

"It's nonstop every day," Roan said. "It kept going and it hasn't stopped. COVID has been bad for a lot of businesses but not for the golf industry. Nobody saw this coming. We didn't know what to expect at first, but it's crazy."

Membership is soaring, too.

Shennecossett has added 50 new members. River Ridge has seen a 20% rise and Norwich is up 10%.

Black Hall Club, a private club in Old Lyme, also has seen an uptick in membership, according to pro Andrew Campbell.

"Our current membership is playing more, and we're definitely getting new members," Campbell said. "Since May, we've added 20 new members, which is a lot."

Business is also busier than usual for teaching pros, like Hedden.

Hedden has benefited from newcomers taking up the sport. He's also seen an increase in out-of-staters taking lessons.

"Since mid-June until now is when I've seen a lot of new golfers," Hedden said. "I've worked with more people this year from Manhattan than in my life."

The remaining couple of months of golf season look promising as well.

Tournaments rescheduled from the spring will tee off. Norwich has approximately a dozen outings lined up.

The burning question is, will the COVID-related bump in business have a positive long-term impact on golf courses?

Golf pros are optimistic about the future.

"Optimistically, it's so nice to see new people out," Svab said. "I don't think it can hurt us. I guess the thing everyone in the golf business is talking about right now is: do people commit to the game or is it a temporary solution and when other recreational opportunities become available do people go back to them? That's the big unknown.

"I don't think in any way, shape or form that it can hurt us in the long run. It can only help."

Rustici said: "We're all hoping. We'll find out next year."

g.keefe@theday.com

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