Is golf in Eagle County experiencing a new boom? Maybe |

Is golf in Eagle County experiencing a new boom? Maybe

Book your tee times early

Golf courses like Eagle Ranch are busy places these days because the sport is outside and has a natural ability to distance people as they chase their golf balls. Rounds played spiked in 2020, so book your tee times early in 2021.
Daily file photo

There is no tactful way to put this.

COVID-19 has been a terrific thing for golf, locally and nationally.

In the past year, everyone and their brother, at least it seemed like it, found golf to be a perfect activity during a global pandemic.

While the majority of local golfers ride carts instead of walking, the striking of a golf ball eventually leads to social distancing.

Gypsum Creek, traditionally the first public course to open in Eagle County, saw rounds increase from 17,200 in 2019 to 20,100 in 2020, according to Blake Scott, the course’s director of golf. Clark’s counterpart at Eagle Ranch, Jeff Boyer, reports a similar tale. Rounds on the Arnold Palmer course in Eagle rose from roughly 22,000 to 26,000. (The Vail Daily doesn’t have numbers for Vail and EagleVail, the county’s two other public loops, but tee times were scarce at both last season, not that the author, who loves his 7-iron, was looking to golf.)

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Keep in mind when looking at those figures that both Eagle and Gypsum courses were closed for late March and most of April, at least, last year. because of the initial reaction to the virus. There’s room for growth in 2021.

A quiet moment at Gypsum Creek’s ninth hole is rare. Like all golf courses in Eagle County, Gypsum Creek had an increase in play in 2020, seeing nearly 3,000 more rounds of golf.
Daily file photo

This is a terrific boost for golf, which nationally had been on the downswing since the 2008 recession. Everyone’s heard the death song of golf: It takes too long to play, is too hard, has too many rules, isn’t family-friendly, isn’t suited to the younger generation desiring instant gratification and so on. The pandemic fixed all that … for now.

But it brings up challenges for players as they plan for the season. What is tee time availability going to be like? What COVID-19 restrictions are still in effect? What are some unintended consequences of the pandemic?

COVID rules

It’s getting better, people. But there are still some guidelines:

  • When in doubt, book your tee time in advance. Both Gypsum Creek and Eagle Ranch have online booking sites and/or apps for the phone. Not only does this limit person-to-person contact, helpful in combatting COVID, but you just have a better chance of getting a time. “That is the key to your story,” Scott said. “Tee times are going to be scarce in this valley.”
  • Masks: They are still required in the pro shop, the 19th hole, in picking up food at the turn and in any generally populated era, say like the cart-loading/drop-off areas.
  • The pro shop: Gypsum Creek is still operating out of a window — it works very nicely — with its merchandise on the covered patio. Eagle Ranch’s pro shop is open, but limited in capacity. Please be patient.
  • Carts: Both Eagle Ranch and Gypsum Creek are back to two riders a cart after issuing carts to solo riders last season. If a golfer feels more comfortable riding solo, both courses will allow it, but with a surcharge. Eagle Ranch has introduced plastic dividers for players sharing a cart who want some space. “It’s basically a Velcro strap on the roof,” Boyer said. “It has about five straps to keep [the plastic] nice and tight. It takes about a minute to put in.”
  • Timing: When COVID-19 hit, courses were spreading out tee times to separate groups on the course (15 or 12 minutes between foursomes, instead of 10). Gypsum Creek is back to 10-minute intervals. Eagle Ranch decided to stick with 12-minute gaps. It will be interesting to watch how local golf courses handle tee-time spacing as pace of play is a major issue in the sport be it a foursome at Eagle Ranch, Gypsum Creek or Pebble Beach.

On the course

  • Last year was the year of, “Yeah, that putt would have not been in but for the pin,” because COVID rules didn’t allow anyone to touch the flag stick. You may now remove the flag, if so desired, but remember that the rules do still allow you to leave the stick in, and that might be a wiser policy simply out of consideration.
  • Rakes are back and water almost is. Since golfers seem to find bunkers more easily than fairways, every course removed the rakes from the sand last year, resulting often in a foot wedge to a smoother portion of the bunker (not legal, but could be justified) or a full-bodied kick of the ball out of the bunker (nope). Eagle Ranch has the rakes back in the bunkers and Gypsum Creek will have a rake in each cart, so clean up those bunkers people. (FYI, the courses are cleaning everything you can touch as a matter of standard operating procedure.)
  • Water coolers are being filled on course at Eagle Ranch and not yet at Gypsum Creek. So bring your water jugs. The beverage carts are also starting up, so that will help. Trash cans are touch-and-go, so please pretend you’re camping: Pack it in and pack it out.

And for the record, pandemic or not, bringing beer onto the golf course does not count as water.

Unintended consequences

In a world where we don’t know much about the future, golfers can probably count on crowded tee sheets for most of the summer.

Booking in advance is recommended.

“We’re busier than ever,” Scott said of Gypsum Creek. “We’ve stopped selling season passes. We are encouraging people to buy punch cards.”

Yes, season passes are selling out. Gypsum Creek, according to Scott, and EagleVail, according to its website, are sold out on season memberships for the year.

Meanwhile, Vail Golf Club, which shoots for a May opening, has already sold out its top-level pass for Vail Recreational District golfers.

This is a new phenomena, as is the equipment front. Yes, all of Eagle County seems to be golfing, but it’s the entire nation. Want the latest and greatest from Calloway, Titleist and/or TaylorMade? Good luck.

Since most of America apparently wants a new driver, putter, specialty wedge or set of irons, local golf course are having a hard time getting new clubs.

“We don’t have our demos and our rentals,” Boyer said. “They’re still trickling in one club at a time. I have [customers] still waiting. If you want to order, plan ahead.”

Tiger effect?

So if you have your clubs, a pass and/or tee times, you’re all set. The bigger question remains, “Will this last?”

The only comparable moment to now in recent golf history was Tiger Woods turning pro in 1996 and demolishing everyone during the 1997 Masters.

Woods made golf cool, opened up golf to more people, made television ratings and PGA revenues soar and spurred the building of golf courses all over the country.

No one is expecting companies to start breaking ground on new courses. In Eagle County, the land’s just too expensive for golf. Nationally, courses are closing to make room for housing. (See Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.)

But even if golf isn’t experiencing the full Tiger-effect — unlikely as Woods will not be on TV screens anytime soon — can golf get a bounce out of the pandemic? Will the newcomers of last summer continue to play and become life-long golfers, a boon for the sport, which desperately needs younger players?

While Scott is a bit younger than Boyer, Scott has a good perspective. He started at Gypsum Creek as a member of the Eagle Valley golf team (Class of 2002), turned that into a part-time job while in high school and eventually a career in Gypsum. He’s seen and done everything one can do at Gypsum Creek.

“This is my 18th year in the golf industry and I’ve seen the ups and downs,” Scott said. “I haven’t seen us up like this since the beginning of my career.”

Scott started at Gypsum Creek as a full-time employee after college in 2005, which just happened to be the year of Woods’ chip on No. 16 at the Masters.

Boyer’s been at Eagle Ranch since it opened in 2001. He was less hesitant to proclaim a new era of golf, but is looking at the trends.

“I have read some stuff about [a Tiger-like effect], but I wouldn’t be able to give you the [national] stats,” he said. “It’s definitely comparable. The increase in rounds? The last time I saw an increase of rounds close to last year was back in 1996 when Tiger turned pro.”

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