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The COVID-19 pandemic gave a boost to Norwich Golf Club revenues — how long will it last?

·8 min read

The Norwich Golf Club exceeded its revenue projections again this year as the city-owned golf course continues to benefit from a rise in the sport’s national popularity, largely triggered by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nationwide, 17 states ordered golf courses closed in the spring of 2020 as the COVID-19 virus spread across the country. But with the risk of outdoor transmission quickly discounted by public health officials, golfers returned to play, under social distancing guidelines, in record numbers.

By the end of last year, data collected by the National Golf Foundation showed 502 million rounds of golf played across the United States – a 14% increase from 2019. That total included an estimated 3 million people who played golf at a public or private golf course the first time – a record figure for the sport, according to the foundation.

Eric Kundahl, Norwich Golf Course grounds superintendent, says the 4 million gallon 3/4 acre irrigation pond saves the golf course between $50,000 to $100,000, depending on how much rain they get, in water fees they used to pay the city. His dog, Ruby, wades in the pond that fetches about 3,000 lost golf balls a year.
Eric Kundahl, Norwich Golf Course grounds superintendent, says the 4 million gallon 3/4 acre irrigation pond saves the golf course between $50,000 to $100,000, depending on how much rain they get, in water fees they used to pay the city. His dog, Ruby, wades in the pond that fetches about 3,000 lost golf balls a year.

Not surprisingly, the new wave of interest impacted the Norwich Golf Club budget.

As most businesses struggled to adapt under shifting public health orders, the city-owned course generated just over $1 million in total revenues in 2020 – a more than 15% increase from 2019.

The total number of rounds played at the Norwich Golf Club jumped from 3,800 in 2019 to more than 45,000 in 2020.

More: Norwich Golf Course groundskeepers keep course up to par

“We were fortunate that we were able to put things into place from a [state] mandate standpoint that allowed us to stay open,” said Norwich Golf Authority Chair Robert Malouf. “We had folks that came all the way from Massachusetts to play.”

Out of the states that opted to ban golf courses from operating during the pandemic’s initial wave of lockdowns, Massachusetts was the last to relax its public health orders and allow the sport’s return when it permitted public and private clubs to reopen with restrictions and under social distancing guidelines in early May.

Connecticut never completely shut down the sport, however, leaving public courses like the one at the Norwich Golf Club a ready option for Bay State golfers willing to make the trip.

"Unfortunately there were a lot of businesses that went out of business with COVID — but it really helped the outdoor business: the golf; the biking; the hiking; all of those things," said Head Professional and the course's general manager, Mike Svab.

Even with lower greens' fees resulting from two holes on the course being closed for most of the last summer, plus round revenue lost after the state's COVID-19 operating rules forced tee times to be spaced at least 10 minutes apart - up from the usual eight-minute gap used at the Norwich Golf Club, the city's course still turned a profit.

"We were the beneficiaries of a bad situation," Svab said Tuesday.

Mike Svab, head golf pro at Norwich Golf Course, left, and Barney Caulfield, chairman, talk about the course in Norwich Tuesday.
Mike Svab, head golf pro at Norwich Golf Course, left, and Barney Caulfield, chairman, talk about the course in Norwich Tuesday.

This year, those benefits continued as the course recorded more than 48,000 rounds. That helped revenues grow past $1.26 million through the end of October — a figure more than 17% higher than expected by the public body tasked with oversight of the municipal course, the Norwich Golf Authority.

Membership sales are also increasing, Svab pointed out, adding roughly $125,000 in revenues over the last two years.

Now, with questions lingering over how long the pandemic's effect on the game of golf will last, those tasked with running the public course in Norwich face familiar uncertainty as they look to the years ahead.

"Not to be the bearer of bad news," Svab explained, "but we are going to plateau somewhere and have a dead year, it's just the way this thing works."

History of the Norwich Golf Club

Played almost exclusively by an elite, all-white demographic, golf grew in the U.S. in the 1920s during a decade of prosperity which included a large increase in the amount of leisure time enjoyed by an emerging middle class.

The Journal of Sports History describes the opportunity found in the early 1900s by municipal leaders in establishing golf courses who “wished to protect public land for the benefit of future generations, stimulate the local economy, boost real estate values, and raise the prestige of their town.”

"Golf was the game of the textile industry,” said Norwich historian Dale Plummer, of the sport in Norwich specifically. “Many mill owners played golf and if you were a salesman you went to play golf to build relationships.”

Opened in 1925, the course at the Norwich Golf Club was privately owned by the Norwich Inn until the city purchased the approximately 160-acre land for $1.2 million in 1978, with about $900,000 in funding supplied by federal and state grants that specified the land be dedicated to “open space” uses, which could include recreation and conservation.

Technically classified as "open space," the course is used in winter months when it snows by families with sleds, as well as snowshoers and cross country skiers.

It also hosts an annual high school cross-country race and in the spring is the practice grounds for four local high school golf teams.

Eric Kundahl, left, Norwich Golf Course grounds superintendent, Barney Caulfield, chairman, and Mike Svab, head golf pro share a light moment on the first hole at the Norwich course Tuesday.
Eric Kundahl, left, Norwich Golf Course grounds superintendent, Barney Caulfield, chairman, and Mike Svab, head golf pro share a light moment on the first hole at the Norwich course Tuesday.

According to its charter, the Norwich Golf Club operates as an enterprise fund under the City of Norwich, meaning it operates similar to other businesses, explained Mitchell Nixon, an accountant working in the Norwich comptroller’s office.

But unlike a private entity, the course’s financial goals are not driven only by the search for revenues. It is just as much about access.

"I don't think our end goal is to make money, our end goal is to let golfers play," Svab said.

Not always a profitable business

In the head professional’s 10 years at Norwich, Svab recalled three times where expenditures at the course outpaced revenues. One of those came in 2018 when the club operated at a $150,000 loss, forcing the Norwich Golf Authority to pull from its reserve fund the following year.

Speaking to The Bulletin inside the clubhouse Tuesday, Svab said a number of factors contribute to the operating costs of the course -- the weather being primary -- and noted the “jolt” delivered to golf participation by the pandemic also took its toll on the club’s expenditures.

With better weather in March and more rounds played the last two summers amid the pandemic, more maintenance work was performed, adding labor hours and petroleum costs for machines along with a fleet of 70 carts for golfers to drive.

As a result of COVID-19 public health guidelines, each player was required to take an individual cart which staff needed to properly disinfect before quickly turning it around for waiting groups.

The Norwich Golf Course has a new roof and new awnings.
The Norwich Golf Course has a new roof and new awnings.

“We would be out and have 30 people waiting because when a cart came in, we sterilized it, sprayed it, had to wait 15 minutes, wash it and come back and only one person got in,” Svab recalled.

“That went on all the way to July, it was difficult for the staff,” he added.

Golf Course Superintendent Eric Kundahl had no problem sourcing fertilizers and seeds in 2020, but he said he early-ordered the course's supplies for next summer as lagging supply chains make the products increasingly expensive and scarce.

“Last year pretty much the manufacturers were all unaffected. Now they are affected, so it seems like there is a lag. Last year you could get whatever you wanted,” said Kundahl Tuesday.

The varying and unpredictable inputs to the course’s operational costs make any financial forecasting beyond two or three years difficult. It forces the club’s managers to take a conservative approach aimed at maintaining the infrastructure of the course.

“You have to take it year-by-year,” said Svab. “The last couple of years have really helped the cash reserve obviously – we are in much better shape now than we were three years ago.”

Well project helped with water bills

Part of the reason the course is in better shape now comes from a major water project finished last year. Two two deep wells were bored and used to fill a 4 million-gallon pond connected to the course's irrigation system.

Prior to the $795,890 project’s completion in June 2020, the course purchased treated water from Norwich Public Utilities, amounting to annual water bills ranging between $87,000 and $93,000, according to financial figures provided by the city’s accountant.

Now, sensors installed in the one-acre pond monitor changing water pressure as non-treated water is fed into a network of sprinklers across the course. When the water level drops, two pumps pulling over 200 gallons a minute replenish it.

The new system of water sourcing saw the course’s utility expense drop to $22,000 for 2020 and it is at $16,000 through the end of November this year.

Another major line improvement came with a bond purchasing plan approved last year allowing the club to purchase dozens of brand new pieces of equipment for crews to keep the course in playing condition.

More: Bond sought to replace Norwich Golf Course equipment

Svab knows a “plateau” will come eventually but noted the work done in recent years to set the Norwich Golf Club up in the years to come as they “ride the wave” of added revenues seen during the pandemic.

“Our equipment is in good shape, the water situation is in good shape,” he said. “We have set up the next generation to really come in, hopefully, to a much more stable financial situation.”

This article originally appeared on The Bulletin: Pandemic revenues for Norwich Golf Course weren't straightforward