Local golf courses thriving during pandemic

Marlena Sloss
Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Michael Boots of Evansville, left, Zach Dove of Princeton and his brother, Matt, watch Andrew Schuler of Ferdinand putt at Sultan’s Run Golf Club in Jasper just before the pandemic hit in March. The friends, who play college sports, were on spring break from University of Evansville and the U.S. Military Academy and decided on a round of golf.

BY COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted some businesses and the economy. The Herald reported on Tuesday the Dubois County unemployment rate for June was up to 7.1%, higher than the 5.7% rate in May. The Herald added on Wednesday that Dubois County is now a hot spot for the virus with the most cases per capita of any county in the state.

However, local golf courses sure aren’t hurting during this time. In fact, courses like Buffalo Trace are seeing higher numbers this summer than they have seen in past years.

Buffalo Trace manager Kurt Uebelhor told The Herald in a Tuesday phone interview that the course has provided a safe environment for people to play — preaching social distancing and providing a safe environment for golfers to play. The course has also stayed on top of sanitizing everything, and requires employees to wear masks.

Uebelhor added that Buffalo Trace brought in $30,000 more in June 2020 than it did in 2019, and the course has also raked in more revenue this month than it did in July 2019.

“I’ve been up here for 26 years, and I haven’t seen this much play in the last few months in a long time,” Uebelhor said.

He hopes the pandemic fixes itself soon, but wants to see the numbers at Buffalo Trace continue to rise. Uebelhor has seen golfers turn out who hadn’t golfed in awhile, telling of how he worked last weekend as the activity keeps zipping along.

“It’s just nonstop; people keep on playing,” he said. “We have tee times every 10 minutes. We’re busy, busy, busy.”

It isn’t just Buffalo Trace that is seeing a larger turnout on the links. Huntingburg Country Club manager Angie Hasenour has seen good business, with the club dealing out golf cart specials for Monday through Thursday. Golfers may golf 18 holes for $18, or nine holes for $13, and Hasenour said people have been taking advantage of that.

“The course has actually been pretty full,” Hasenour said. “We’ve had some really good play.”

Hasenour estimates the course is entertaining a capacity of 80% to 90% during the weekdays, and nearly 100% during weekends. Weekend tee times start at 7:30 a.m., and run until 6:30 or 7 p.m.

“I think they see that golf is something you can do and do at a safe distance during this pandemic,” she said. “So, there are a lot of people that come out to enjoy the nice weather and just to get out of the house with everything that’s been going on with this pandemic because you’re so limited to what you can and can’t do.”

Sultan’s Run Golf Club has joined Buffalo Trace and the Huntingburg Country Club in increased turnout and revenue, and Sultan’s Run co-owner Chris Tretter thinks the pandemic has played its role in that.

“If you think about what options there were for entertainment, a family could not pack up for a weekend and go to St. Louis or Cincinnati and watch a couple of baseball games because Major League Baseball was not playing,” Tretter said.

Tretter finds it encouraging that people are turning to a safe form of exercise while other options are not available. He noted that the National Golf Foundation has reported a nationwide surge, and different groups of people helped fuel that increase at Sultan’s Run.

Younger golfers drove an uptick during the spring when school was out and spring sports were canceled. The Forest Park boys golf coach said youth rounds are up about 400 rounds year over year. He added that the members have been playing more, and out-of-town groups have been coming to Jasper in recent months as well.

However, not everything has been peachy for Sultan’s Run.

“We have a food and beverage business here that also includes an events center, and we have been hit pretty hard with that,” he said. “We have seen cancellation of anniversary celebrations, birthdays, weddings, wedding receptions — those kinds of things, and we’ve also seen cancellation of golf events, which, of course, affects our food and beverage component, too.”

Nevertheless, Tretter said the course is doing OK for itself despite that, and both co-owner Steve Braun and he are happy with where things stand.

All three venues have remained open the entire time, but all imposed restrictions. Huntingburg was open only to members before easing restrictions as time passed.

Cale Knies, the City of Jasper’s director of personnel, safety and loss control, told The Herald on Wednesday that there were no rakes or sand traps while overseeing Buffalo Trace. He added the course had a touchless ball retrieval that didn’t allow golf balls to go in. Holes were blocked and the ball would not go in. The person would pull a pin with a cup turned upside down. Balls that touched the cup were considered going in. Patrons were also barred from going into the clubhouse at one point.

The City of Jasper allowed one person per golf cart or to walk the course. Two people are allowed per cart now, or there is a small fee to ride one person per cart, but there hasn’t been push back on that, Knies said. He added that they are continuing to sanitize carts.

“We spaced out tee times whenever the pandemic really was hot and heavy,” Knies said. “We were at, I think, 20-minute tee times. Now we’re at 10, but I’ll be honest with you, I did not expect the rise in play. But after months of binging on Netflix or Hulu or people just kind of walking around their neighborhoods, it appears that people are using golf as their escape or go-to.

“Golf is a place you can go,” he later added. “It provides an environment where people can social distance and still have fun, still have camaraderie with friends and family. And to be able to set those tee times ahead of schedule or be able to book them in advance will help us control how many people are in the clubhouse, how many people are at the tee box, how many people are in the parking lot, because those are things as a city we’re concerned with to trying to make sure we keep people social distancing and we don’t have big groups at one time.”

Knies makes sure to follow up with golf staff on Monday mornings to see how the past weekend went, and on Thursday or Friday to see how the weekend will look like in order to make adjustments with staff and how the course will operate to ensure they are staffed accordingly to accommodate safety protocols.

As the 2020-21 school year is soon to commence and fall sports set to follow, there also could be a spike in cases as the weather turns to fall and winter. Huntingburg’s course is usually open until around November, but Hasenour said the course will obey protocol if things take a turn for the worse.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t get worse with the pandemic,” Hasenour said. “We’ll have to wait and see what the CDC guidelines are and act accordingly.”

“In terms of preparing for a second wave or potential mask mandate, we’ll comply with whatever we’re asked to comply with,” Tretter said. “In terms of rolling back into, let’s say, Stage Three or something like that. If we would be asked to do that, it would not take us long to do that.”




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