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A Slower Start to the Season

Many golfers embrace weather as part of the equation when they make the pilgrimage to play the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland; they’re committed to play no matter the conditions. At St. Andrews Golf & Country Club in West Chicago, an almost 100-year-old daily fee public facility with two 18-hole courses, the golfers (and the golf courses) aren’t as tolerant of harsh conditions when it comes to play.

This April was a particularly lousy one for what should be the start of the golf season in Chicago, which boasts the No. 3 metro area in the U.S. with about 850,000 golfers.

Bill Crouse, the General Manager at West Chicago’s St. Andrews, noted that not only was it much colder than usual, but they saw more rain in April than any time since 1942, with precipitation on almost 2/3 of days during the month. The impact was most notably felt on Saturdays and Sundays.

“We had about 40% play on three weekends during the month,” said Crouse.

The loss of weekend play was a blow for St. Andrews, with rounds for this April down about 38% compared to the same period a year ago. It wasn’t for a lack of demand, rather a lack of opportunity.

The club certainly wasn’t alone in and around Chicago, where April’s play was off 51% year-over-year, according to the monthly national rounds report from Golf Datatech and NGF. More broadly, Illinois, which ranks eighth nationally with almost 650 golf courses, saw a 47% drop off. It’s a change operators in that region attribute largely to unfavorable golf weather, even while noting the potential impacts of the economy, rising gas prices, and a consumer return to other activities.

The most prominent national declines in YOY play for April were seen in the upper Midwest.

The East North Central, one of eight geographic regions in the Golf Datatech report, saw play drop a collective 33% in Illinois as well as Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Overlay of regional rounds played information from Golf Datatech’s monthly report on a NOAA map of national state-by-state precipitation maps for April 2022

Play in the West North Central was down almost 35%, the weather-related declines felt most severely in Minnesota (-65%) – the region’s northern-most state, not to mention ranking 11th nationally in total supply with almost 480 courses. A good number of those, like Cleary Lake Golf Course, a municipal facility south of Minneapolis, ended up with far few playable days than a year ago.

Parts of the Northeast U.S. saw notable weather impact on April rounds as well.

A number of states were even hit by a powerful nor’easter midway through the month, bringing rain, heavy winds and even snow that wiped out a lot of weekend rounds.

Overall, precipitation was up 32% in the Mid Atlantic region and the average temperature was down 2 degrees compared to the same time last year. The result: almost 16% less play at New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania courses. The latter saw the biggest slip compared to 2021, with April rounds down about 23% and play off almost 27% year-to-date.

At Spring Hollow, a public facility about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, Chief Executive Officer Dave Basile says there’s no question it’s weather rather than golfer demand that’s the primary reason rounds are lower thus far.

“We had a cold spring, and rain on most weekends,” Basile said. “And the same conditions continued into May.”

Weather always has an impact on play. Just a one-inch increase of rain YOY can result in a 2.2% decrease in play, per the monthly rounds reports, which incorporate weather information from weathertrends 360. On the other hand, a 1-degree YOY increase in temperature results in a .76% increase in rounds.

These swings are felt most appreciably earlier in the season. It’s why the industry has experienced drops of -12% in January, -14% in March and -13% in April along with a 13% gain in February this year.

But the comparisons can also be challenging, especially in regard to 2021 and 2020, when Covid-related restrictions shut down half the golf courses in the country during the month of April. A year ago, April play saw an 81% jump as a result, part of a nationwide resurgence that saw more total rounds played than any year in history.

Despite dips early this season that can be largely attributed to weather, play is still trending ahead of recent pre-pandemic years. Simply looking at the YOY comparison, however, shows rounds are off 10% versus last year’s record-setting pace.

The months ahead will likely show a return to more normalized changes, as weather should have less of an effect and the volume of play increases. While the first four months of the year account for about 25% of play, it’s the May to August stretch that really sets the tone for the year, encompassing about 45% of play annually. The May rounds-played report will be available in late June.

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