Teed off: Ottawa golf course operators say sport unfairly targeted in latest closures

Golf course stock photo

With golf clubs now shuttered across Ontario as part of stricter rules aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, local course operators say the provincially imposed closures miss the mark and are urging the government to reverse its decision.

Steve Spratt, general manager of Falcon Ridge Golf Club in south Gloucester, says the facility’s nine-hole course and driving range were booked solid in the first few weeks of the season as the warm early spring weather allowed the facility to get a jump on what was shaping up to be a big year. 

Members were calling the clubhouse last Friday trying to reserve slots as late as 9 p.m. in a bid to get one last round in before the shutdown began, he adds.

“They would have gone out with a flashlight if they could,” he says with a chuckle. 

As one of the few sports that naturally lends itself to physical distancing, golf has enjoyed a renaissance during the pandemic. 

Spratt, who’s been the GM at Falcon Ridge since 1998, says the 27-hole facility had its best financial year in almost a decade in 2020 despite hosting just a single wedding and losing out on at least $150,000 in business on the banquet side of the operation.

Booming golf revenues made up for that shortfall and then some, he says.

“We’re relying on the golf, and the golf itself has been good,” Spratt says. “Overall, we still had a great year.”  

Before the province issued its shutdown order late last week, Falcon Ridge was heading for record revenues in 2021, Spratt adds. He hopes an online petition that’s now garnered more than 83,000 signatures will help convince the government to reverse course quickly.

"We have 324 acres with 27 holes on it. (Players) certainly don’t have to be at each others’ heels."

“Golf is at an all-time high right now,” he says. “As long as this thing doesn’t drag on, it’ll be another great year. But we’d like to get it going as soon as we can.”

The longtime golf executive says hitting the links is a safe way to get fresh air and physical activity.

“We have 324 acres with 27 holes on it. (Players) certainly don’t have to be at each others’ heels.” 

Over at Gloucester’s Pine View Golf Course, co-owner Mike Copeland agrees. The 36-hole club was “nice and busy” before the new restrictions were imposed, he says, with memberships up more than 50 per cent over last year.

“If the sun was shining, we were full every day,” he says. “Even with the shutdown, it’s (likely) going to be a great season.”

Ontario is currently the only province where golf is prohibited. Copeland – who says more than 20 million rounds of golf were played in the province last year without being linked to a single reported case of COVID-19 – wonders what the government’s rationale is for the ban.

Grounds crews keeping busy

“I know what they’re trying to achieve, but if you’re allowed to leave your house to go for a walk, that walk can safely be on a golf course,” he says. 

“It’s my opinion that golf is safe and naturally designed for social distancing, and I think that as an industry, we proved last year that we can handle the reasonable restrictions placed on the sport. The data backs that up.”

Copeland says he expects the ban to be lifted before the current stay-at-home order – which will extend to at least May 20 ​– expires. In the meantime, he and his grounds crew are keeping busy doing routine maintenance that normally has to be squeezed in during off-peak hours. 

It’s not how he envisioned he’d be spending his time at this point in the season, but Copeland says he wants the course to be in “mint condition” when it reopens for business. 

“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” he says. “We’re trying to make the best of a really bad situation.”