After some understandable limitations on golf travel the past two years, particularly in 2020 after the initial coronavirus outbreak, it appears buddies’ trips and golf getaways are headed for a big year. That bodes well for U.S. golf destinations from Pebble Beach to Pinehurst and points in between.
According to a recent survey of “Core golfers” by the National Golf Foundation, approximately 80% said they plan to take a dedicated golf trip in 2022. This is up fairly significantly from a year ago, when golf travel was in the cards for two-thirds of this dedicated pool of participants (the roughly 13 million Americans who play at least eight rounds of golf annually). Meanwhile, an NGF survey of 75 U.S. resort facilities found that advance bookings for golf trips are up 12% over the same period last year, and almost 20% versus before the pandemic.
“It’s all good news and it keeps getting better,” said Ken Griffin, the Director of Golf Sales and Marketing for Boyne Golf, which operates 10 golf courses at three Northern Michigan resorts. “We’re ahead of where we were last year on room nights and even further ahead in terms of tee time and (golf) package revenue.”
The momentum is similarly encouraging elsewhere in the $20 billion U.S. golf travel industry, including in popular warm-weather destinations that already have several months of golf trips under the belt.
“We’ve had a strong spring and we’re probably in the busiest week of the spring right now,” said Steve Mays, the President of Founders Group, which owns 21 golf courses and two golf package companies in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“During the summer, golf becomes more of an amenity rather than a driver of vacationers who often come for all of the summer activities in Myrtle Beach. But our pre-bookings look strong. Last year was one of the best Fall seasons Myrtle Beach has had in a long time, but I think we will match or exceed what we did last year just based on the momentum we’re seeing in the market.”
At Destination Kohler in Wisconsin, which has four championship courses including 2021 Ryder Cup host venue Whistling Straits, the golf season may be just getting started but tee sheets and rooms are filling fast for the summer and fall months.
“Rounds, packages and group events bookings are all as strong as we have ever seen in our history,” said Mike O’Reilly, Kohler’s Director of Golf and Operations Manager. “We are starting to see increased bookings from overseas, Europe specifically. Hosting the Ryder Cup certainly impacted the amount of players that want to come to Kohler, but we also feel the overall golf offering in the state of Wisconsin has made us one of the best golf destinations in the world.”
And whether it’s the Midwest or the year-round sunnier spots like Myrtle Beach, Florida and Arizona, another travel boost for U.S. golf resorts is the return of Canadian golfers. Consider that U.S. golf courses saw more play in 2021 than any time in history even without significant help from their northern neighbors.
“In a typical summer, we had been at about 20% of our guests being Canadian and coming out of Ontario,” said Boyne’s Griffin. “We’re coming off two record years without Canadian play. Now this summer we get Canadians back. They’re booking (golf trips) and the border restrictions right now have lessened, so it’s more reasonable for them to come across. That’s going to be a sheer gain because we had basically written them off for two years.”
Meanwhile, some golf destinations, particularly those with a strong drive-in market like Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Missouri, are keeping a close eye on how rising gas prices might affect summer travel. Big Cedar, which has a diverse mix of five courses at its sprawling outdoor-focused resort (including the newest from Tiger Woods and his design team), currently has bookings for 2022 that are almost identical to 2021.
“We are having a lot of buddies’ groups coming (16+ players) and a lot of small groups (2-8),” said Matt McQueary, Big Cedar Golf’s Director of Sales & Marketing. “Corporate groups and outings are still down, as they have been since the start of the pandemic, but we’re noticing they are starting to come back as corporations are lifting their travel restrictions to their employees for work events and retreats.”
Over the past two years, golf has been a popular mental and physical escape for millions. And the vast majority of those rounds have been played in golfers’ own backyards, at courses close to home. But with travel showing signs of returning to pre-pandemic levels – and Americans seemingly eager to get out and about – it appears the golf destination market is poised for a strong year.
“We’re not hearing of anything slowing down,” Mays said of the golf-rich Myrtle Beach market. “After what we’ve been through the past two years, it’s always a little worrisome to look into the future because we know it can change so quickly. But we haven’t seen any negative impacts. I feel really good where we’re going.”