Most golf courses on Oahu had something to celebrate in June.
It wasn’t on par with, say, a hole-in-one. It was more like a bogey-saving shot from the rough or sand trap.
According to a recent survey of Oahu’s 36 golf courses, the number of rounds played in June rose from the same month a year earlier at most — but not all — courses. The survey included private courses open for public play, private member’s-only courses, and municipal and military courses.
However, the industry as a whole isn’t booming because the drop in rounds at a minority of courses was so big that the total number of rounds islandwide in June was down. Also, neighbor island golf courses are generally doing much worse. Yet the survey revealed a bright spot in one of so many dim parts of Hawaii’s economy being hammered by COVID-19 and the efforts to reduce its spread.
Greg Nichols, who produced the survey and is general manager and director of golf at Ko Olina Golf Club, said the rise in play as high as 25% at some courses was driven by local residents with more time on their hands and fewer outdoor activity options.
“The reason cited was the large number of kamaaina that were either furloughed, laid off or were working from home and had free time,” Nichols said in the survey report. “Golf was also one of the only outdoor activities that was permitted under COVID-19 rules. Beaches, parks and bars were closed and were not allowed to reopen until June 19.”
Sam Ramsey is one of those players. The retiree from Kakaako said he’s been playing more golf since the novel coronavirus outbreak. Why? “Nothing else to do,” he said. “They closed the state beaches and parks on and off. You just want to get out.”
Wesley Wailehua, executive director and CEO of the PGA of America Aloha Section, said new players, former golfers resuming the sport and regular players playing more often are contributing to the uptick at select courses that in some cases is cushioning the blow from a huge loss of visitors.
“Kamaaina golf has always been the backbone of our industry,” he said.
Still, the loss of visitors playing golf has been particularly painful for some courses, which generally charge nonresidents a much higher rate than kamaaina.
For instance, Kapolei Golf Club charges visitors $185 compared with $75 for Hawaii residents for a round on weekdays before 1 p.m.
Some courses also have discounted rates to attract more business during the COVID-19 pandemic. At Olomana Golf Links, the weekday price before 2 p.m. was cut to $35 for everyone, down from $48 for residents and $105 for visitors.
Wailehua said many courses are struggling with the choke-hold on tourism, especially on the neighbor islands, where more golf courses are part of resorts.
“The neighbor islands are really suffering,” he said. “With every silver lining there are still rainy days ahead for our industry.”
Nichols said an increase in local players is helping offset the visitor downturn at Ko Olina, which neighbors two closed hotels: Disney’s Aulani and the Four Seasons Resort Oahu.
Typically, the Ko Olina golf customer mix is 75% to 80% visitors and 20% to 25% kamaaina. Yet despite the disappearance of tourists, the number of rounds played at the course is down only about 25%, Nichols said.
“We’ve been able to survive thanks to our kamaaina play,” he said. “We’re very grateful for all the residents who have been coming out.”
The survey by Nichols said 116,906 rounds were played in June. Nichols asked operators of all 36 courses on the island whether play was up or down from a year earlier but did not record a year-ago round count. Responses by individual golf courses were not disclosed except in the aggregate. All but one course responded, and one course was closed during the month.
Nichols said his goal for doing the survey was to get a good estimate of how many local golfers are playing the game. He estimated there are 142,000 golfers on Oahu ranging from beginners to seasoned players.
Both Nichols and Wailehua said they don’t want local government leaders to prohibit golf again, contending it is a healthy outdoor activity that can be done with appropriate social distancing.
Oahu golf courses were forced to close in April and were allowed to reopen in May. Local government officials recently tightened restrictions on social interactions and some outdoor activities, but no changes were made for golfing.