'I’m turning people away': Ottawa golf, tennis facilities booming in COVID-19 era

Nicki Bridgland
Rideau Sports Club owner Nicki Bridgland says that although the club's tennis courts are booked solid, business at the facility's restaurant is down over last year. File photo

While thousands of businesses around the city continue to feel the pinch of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, Joe Warner has the good fortune of working in an industry where physical distancing comes naturally.

“It’s been our busiest year in quite a few years,” says Warner, the director of golf at Stonebridge Golf Club, an 18-hole public course in Ottawa’s south end.

“We’re packed every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., even 7:30 when we had the longest days of light. Almost every day, I’ve got people calling for tee times, and I’m already full and I’m turning people away. It’s an awesome problem to have.”

Warner isn’t the only local sports facility manager who’s been wishing the days were even longer this year. At golf courses and tennis clubs across the National Capital Region, business has been booming in the summer of COVID as stir-crazy Ottawans seek ways to enjoy the great outdoors while still taking all the necessary precautions to avoid getting infected.

When it comes to safe recreation, Warner says golf is just what the doctor ordered.

“Once you hit the ball and you’re out there walking around, it’s the one thing that you’re doing that feels as normal as it did before COVID,” he says. “Ultimately, golf is still the same.”

Industry insiders say it’s no surprise a sport tailor-made for physical distancing is enjoying a renaissance in 2020. 

“Once you hit the ball and you’re out there walking around, it’s the one thing that you’re doing that feels as normal as it did before COVID.”

“It’s a safe, healthy, outdoor activity,” says Jeff Calderwood, CEO of the Ottawa-based National Golf Course Owners Association, adding his group effectively lobbied to be part of the initial wave of businesses that were allowed to resume operations once measures aimed at combating the virus were eased.

“We were able to get golf open early in phase one in all provinces rather than having to wait. You throw in some of the good weather, (and) it's a nice combination overall.”

Calderwood has good reason to smile. He says that after going through a slump earlier in the decade when the number of rounds played dipped, participation levelled off and dozens of courses across the country shut down, golf is making a comeback that’s been accelerated by the pandemic. 

The overall number of rounds played at Ottawa-area courses is up about 20 per cent over last year, and clubs across the region are seeing a significant bump in players returning to the fairways after years of being absent. In addition, a whole new generation of customers is discovering the links in the absence of many other activities that are on pause.

'A lot of juniors'

“We’re seeing a lot of spouses taking up the game to get into it with their family and definitely a lot of juniors this year,” Warner explains. “All those organized sports that they’re usually playing all summer didn’t happen, so a lot of them turned to golf.”

At Gloucester’s Pine View Golf Course, co-owner Mike Copeland says the 36-hole club is so busy members have taken to logging on to Pine View’s online booking system at midnight a week in advance to reserve tee times.

Sunset golf

“What I would have thought was a good day last year is our average day now,” he says, estimating the number of rounds played at Pine View is up 20 per cent year-over-year. “And it doesn’t seem to matter what day of the week it is.”

Golf isn’t the only sport that’s winning over lockdown-fatigued recreation-seekers this summer.

At the Rideau Sports Centre east of downtown, owner Nicki Bridgland says the club’s outdoor tennis courts have been booked solid since the facility reopened in May.

“For many people, it’s like they’re re-falling in love with tennis,” she says. “They might have switched to hockey and that became their sport, but now they can’t play it (and) they’re reconnecting with tennis. It’s the perfect distance sport.”   

But the financial forecast isn’t sunny across the board for outdoor sports venues. While green fee revenues have been soaring at virtually all courses, food and beverage income has cratered as most clubhouse restaurants remained closed and big money-makers such as tournaments, wedding receptions and other social events were scrapped.

Wedding

Copeland says meetings, banquets and tournaments generally account for almost 20 per cent of Pine View’s annual revenues, and the course stands to lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from that side of the operation this year.

“Our location in the city means we have a very busy meeting and event schedule, and that’s been wiped out,” he says. “It’s a significant hit.”

Bridgland says that although the patio at her club has been busier than usual, overall restaurant revenues are down this summer.

Breaking even the goal

“The heartbreak for sure is not having the events business,” she says. “Really, it’s about getting to the other side. Break-even is the goal at this stage.”

Copeland says he expects the boost to his bottom line from all the extra rounds will make up for the losses in other parts of the business. Over at Stonebridge, Warner predicts it will be a banner year financially despite the expected drop in food and beverage income.

“The amount of play has greatly outweighed the amount that we’ve lost on (food and events),” he explains.

Any way you slice ​– or draw ​– it, golf is big business in Canada, employing 126,000 people across the country and generating $15 billion in annual economic activity. Course owners say they’re hoping the momentum from this summer carries over to future seasons. 

“If we can keep some of the people that came back to it just because it reignited an interest in the sport for them, that’s great,” says Warner. 

“I’m optimistic this will be a three- to five-year bump,” adds Copeland. “It could be very good for the industry.”