As economy tumbles, golf industry does the opposite

By Brody Dryden/El Inde

Just up the road from Davis Monthan Air Force Base, the soft desert wind blows through the Fred Enke Golf Course at the perfect speed to annoy local golfers without turning them away.

Across the parking lot from the clubhouse, the driving range is lined with a diverse array of athletes, from young kids to elderly adults.

At the end of the driving range is Bobby Saavedra, a PGA Professional Instructor who is a resident golf coach at Fred Enke Golf Course.

Saavedra teaches amateur golfers how to add distance on their drives, adding spin to their chips, and knocking strokes off their round with better butting techniques.

“Business has grown,” Saavedra said, referring to how Fred Enke has been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Golf has been a great outlet for a lot of people. It’s a safe environment and social distancing is pretty easy to practice through golf.” 

Why golf? In the middle of a global pandemic, “social distancing” has become the universal rule for how the world must interact with one another.

Golf is perfect for social distancing. Per CDC guidelines, gatherings with more than ten people should not happen. In golf, groups are traditionally sent out in four or less and do not require anyone to be within six-feet of one another at any time.

For close-contact sports like football and basketball, social distancing is basically impossible due to the constant collisions and very much ‘within six-feet of one another’ nature of the sports.

Through the arrival of the pandemic in March and the following months, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey placed the ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected’ executive order that most Arizonans would probably refer to as “the shutdown.”

This was the order that dawned the term “essential” over businesses and workers that were authorized to remain open during the shutdown, while all other businesses and workers were ordered to close up and stay home.

Under this policy, essential activities include: Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running, biking or golfing, but only if appropriate physical distancing practices are used.

At the time, the common thought amongst Americans was that there were “fourteen days to flatten the curve.” Going on ten months of significant community spread of COVID-19, there is not much hope that we will be putting a permanent stop to it any time soon.

Saavedra did not feel safe to continue his instruction at the height of the pandemic.

“Personally, I wasn’t following what Ducey was saying. I took two months off at the peak of it,” he said.

With good reason. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, COVID-19 cases in the state surged to nearly 20,000 in the time from March 7 to May 31.

Despite Saavedra taking a leave of absence when things were perhaps most risky, his golf course came away from everything unscathed.

“From what I know, not a single person contracted COVID playing golf. There wasn’t one person that contracted it from our pro shop. [Fred Enke Golf Course] set up protocols to create a no-touch environment,” he said.

Protocols include taking sand bunker rakes out of the course, making a no-touch rule on flags that stood in the cup of each green, and placing PVC pipe in the cups so that when golfers make their putts, they do not need to reach into a hole in the ground where germs may have been passed into.

As for others in Saavedra’s position? “My fellow instructor buddies were able to stay safe throughout it. They practiced the distance. Even more so than six feet. When you’re teaching someone how to play golf, you don’t need to get that close to them.”

For Saavedra, the decision was easy: He did not want COVID-19, so he took some time off of golf instruction. However, there are some in the golf industry who decided to cash out on the increased interest in the sport.

“In March, we didn’t shut down,” said co-owner of local business Golf Stop, Beth Stone.

Stone is a Tucson resident of more than 40 years after a run on the University of Oklahoma’s golf team and the LPGA tour. “All the big stores just shut. If we shut down for all that time, we probably would have been out of business.”

Big-box sporting goods and golf stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods, PGA Superstore, and Big 5 could not stay open due to pressures and corporate safety protocols set in place due to the pandemic.

Beth Stone of Golf Stop. Photo by Brody Dryden/El Inde.

Golf Stop has been a local Tucson institution since 1982. Stone, along with two other LPGA members, have owned and operated the store at three different locations in its history and offer a wide range of golf products and services.

“We decided to stay open and see how it went,” Stone said. To her surprise, there was actually an increase in customers during the height of the pandemic. “We were just besieged with customers because people decided during that time that since they didn’t have to go to work, ‘Well we’re going to play golf.’”

If COVID-19 measures did force Golf Stop to shutter their store, Tucson would have been left without one of the more unique and classic golf shops that Southern Arizona has to offer.

Since before Tucson’s first PGA Tour event in 1945, to the currently held Cologaurd Classic, where legends of the game venture to Tucson every year, to the Accenture Match Play tournament that was held just north of Tucson for many seasons; golf continues to thrive and be a staple in local Tucson culture.