Golf courses across Minnesota got a boost in 2020 when avid players and those interested in taking up the sport descended on courses at a time when most indoor attractions were closed because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Activity this year is not at the record-breaking pace of 2020, with rounds played down 1.5% through the first nine months of the year as gyms and amateur sports leagues returned to full operation.

"It was very obvious on the very first day how excited people were to get out and do something," said Ben Disch, operations manager at Brookview, a golf and lawn bowling facility that is owned and operated by the city of Golden Valley. "And it hasn't stopped."

The pace of business helped private and public courses offset revenue lost because of canceled events and much lower food and beverage sales.

The record number of golfers on courses also sparked sales growth for Minnesota-based golf retailers and makers of internet-connected technology for golfers, pumping more money into the state's $1.5 billion golf economy that provides $740 million in wages and benefits to nearly 25,000 employees.

"It's been a shot in the arm for golf across the country," said Steve Whillock, director of golf and general manager at the Oak Marsh Golf Course in Oakdale and president of the Midwest Golf Course Owners Association.

For Brookview, rounds of golf played this year at the facility's 18-hole and nine-hole courses surpassed record-setting activity it saw in 2020, said Disch, who has worked at the facility for 22 years.

"It's a really exciting time for me to be in the business," he said.

Golfer turnout helps industry

Pandemic restrictions — and the desire of individuals to avoid indoor activities because of COVID-19 — led to a resurgence in popularity of many outdoor activities. Companies such as Polaris and Vista Outdoor have both seen big jumps in demand.

Rounds of golf in the state increased nearly 30% in 2020 when compared with 2019, according to a survey of 358 courses by the Minnesota Golf Association (MGA). From 2018 to 2019, the increase was less than 2%.

A typical round of golf costs $35 but could cost as little as $5.

Mark Severson, recreation facilities manager for the city of New Hope, said rounds played at the city-owned, nine-hole New Hope Village Golf Couse were up 30% in 2020 and traffic increased another 5% this year.

Despite a near nonexistent merchandise and indoor food and beverage sales segment in 2020, revenue at the course was up 45% in 2020, Serverson said. This year, with the course able to generate merchandise sales from its clubhouse, along with concession sales, revenue is up another 10% this year, giving the course its best streak of business since 2004, he said.

"To see a lot of people taking the sport on, it's great for the game of golf," he said.

The MGA gained about 4,000 more adult members during the pandemic for a total of 69,000, said Warren Ryan, communications director and editor for the group. Among youth golfers, membership for the Minnesota chapter of Youth on Course increased from 4,700 in 2019 to over 12,000 in 2021, Ryan added, which could be attributed to other youth leagues being canceled or postponed. Entering 2022, the MGA has almost 80,000 active members.

The state has not seen that many members since 2001, when numbers peaked at 95,000, Ryan said.

Retailers see upswing

Eden Prairie-based 2nd Swing, a new and used golf club and equipment retailer, operates five stores across the U.S., two of them in the Twin Cities. It plans to open a second in Scottsdale, Ariz., in March 2022.

Sales companywide were up 15% in 2020 and are on pace to increase 25% this year, said owner Simon Kallal, who anticipates another 10% bump next year.

"Because so many people were playing golf, it forced them to look into their [golf] bags," Kallal said.

Temporary store closures due to restrictions at the onset of the pandemic put a slight damper on sales last year, Kallal said.

But like other retailers, 2nd Swing leaned into online sales, which increased more than 60% last year. Kallal anticipates another 25% bump this year through e-commerce.

Among Minnesota addresses, 2nd Swing saw a 50% increase in orders last year and 35% more this year, he said.

"Unfortunately, a lot of my friends in small business have struggled in the pandemic with the industry they're in, but fortunately for us in golf, we've had some tailwind there," Kallal said. "With my end of the business, the equipment side of the business, we'll benefit when people play more rounds of golf because they want to change their clubs."

Tech accessories gaining popularity

The rising popularity of golfers is good news for Anoka-based Vista Outdoor, whose Bushnell brand of golf products consists of electronic measuring and accuracy devices and GPS trackers for golfers, as well as Bluetooth-connected audio devices that can be attached to golf carts.

Vista Outdoor, which also sells products like ammunition, reported revenue of $2.2 billion for its fiscal 2021, a 27% increase from the year-ago period.

"Historically, golfers have chased equipment to get better and play better," said Vishak Sankaran, president of the hunt, shoot and golf unit at Vista. "Consumers are increasingly figuring out they need technology's help to get the best out of their $3,000 golf set. That's a huge opportunity for tech to drive growth."

Earlier this year, Vista Outdoor made its largest acquisition deal ever in the $474 million purchase of golf technology company Foresight Sports. Foresight makes monitors and simulation equipment that help golfers by measuring launch angles, spin rates and clubhead speed. Foresight's products can be used on and off golf courses.

Of the expected 34 million active golfers in the U.S., only about 1 million use Foresight, Sankaran said. The company is bullish in that market opportunity, which includes winning over a younger generation of golfers already accustomed to tech-enabled devices. In addition to a younger consumer base, golf is also being played by more women and ethnic minorities, Sankaran said.

Vista Outdoor recently began selling a $3,000 Bushnell Launch Pro monitor that was developed with Foresight. The products uses cameras to capture and measure golf swings and can be used outdoors and indoors. The initial product run sold out in five minutes on Bushnell's website.

"Think of it as your own personal Top Golf in your basement," Sankaran said. "The biggest challenge with on-course golfing for the younger population, I would say 18 to 35, is they have kids. They don't have time to get 18 holes at any time. Now, you can play when you want, right there in your basement with your friends."

Special events back

While individual play at driving ranges and indoor simulators soared in 2020, fundraisers and private golf events, almost nonexistent in 2020, returned as well, a positive for nonprofits that depend on those events for funding.

The average Minnesota golf facility hosts 11 charitable events each year, which raises nearly $16,000 in net proceeds per event for charitable and nonprofit organizations, per a report of the state's golf economy by TEConomy. In 2016, fundraisers held at Minnesota golf courses generated $64 million in charitable proceeds.

When that occurs, public rounds are lower, said Whillock of Oak Marsh. Despite the uptick in the private events, rounds of golf at Oak Marsh were only down 2,000 from the 42,000 in 2020. The rounds in 2019 were 32,000.

"I think there's been a new appreciation of golf for people who came out and played," Whillock said. "People working at home has helped golf a lot, because people can schedule their time and work when it's dark and go play golf unless they're monitored by their company at their computer."