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Golf: Making the Turn - Golf should see strong second half of 2020

Dan McDonald, golfballs.com, Daily Advertiser, July 9, 2020

Few people keep track of national and international golf trends as much as Tom Cox does.

The founder and CEO of Lafayette-based Golfballs.com, which bills itself as the “world leader in golf customization” for a reason, knows that the more data he has, the more he can apply it to the success of his business and for his nearly 100 employees.

That’s the way it’s been for 25 years, ever since Cox started the company in a 10x10 office reselling used golf balls online, and now oversees a firm that exceeded $33 million in annual sales with approximately 80 percent of its business being customized sales. Golfballs.com was recognized earlier this year as one of the top 100 businesses in golf by the National Golf Foundation, the industry’s most well-informed golf advocates and a group that boasts the world’s largest research team dedicated to golf.

(A fun fact that you can look up every week on the website: Golfballs.com sold 214,368 golf balls last week.)

 

Golfballs.com was also Louisiana’s first e-commerce business, providing customers as far back as 1995 with the then-revolutionary ability to make purchases online over the internet (yes, they were up and running before Amazon).

When Cox talks about the state of the golf industry, he’s speaking from experience. And right now, despite the coronavirus pandemic and social turmoil in the country, he thinks golf is in better shape than it’s been for years. And, naturally, he has the numbers to back that up.

“We know there’s a lot of new people entering the game, because they can’t do a lot of other things,” he said, citing the coronavirus issues. “New participation is climbing, and people that used to play are re-entering. And we think it’s probably going to stay that way for a while.”

The sheer numbers show a boom in the game, especially over the past two months, after a time in which many courses throughout the country were temporarily closed in the wake of the virus. GolfNow, the world’s largest online tee-time service, started listing course closures on March 16 when the pandemic first broke in a big way in the U.S. That week, 2.1 percent of the nation’s courses were closed, a number that zoomed to 23.2 percent one week later and hit a high of 51 percent of the nation’s courses closed on April 21.

Since then, course closings have gone down, and play numbers have skyrocketed. By June 1, only 5.4 percent of U.S. courses were still closed — many, Cox thinks, for reasons other than the pandemic — and right now those numbers are about 2 percent.

Course closures and other pandemic issues had a huge initial impact on golf rounds nationally. National Golf Foundation tallies showed golf in 2020 on its way to record-setting numbers, with double-digit growth in rounds played in January and February compared to the previous year. Then, the virus hit in mid-March, and rounds dropped 9 percent in March and a whopping 42 percent in April, as compared to 2019. Estimates are that rounds lost in that stretch due to course closures and golfer anxieties over the virus resulted in a loss of $1 billion in golf course revenues.

Since then, though, things have rebounded in a big way, especially since NGF statistics show that nearly half of the rounds played in the U.S. are played in the four months between May and August. May numbers of rounds played were up 6.2 percent over May of last year.

The numbers are even more positive in the South. In the NGF’s South Central Region — a division that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky in addition to Louisiana — the total number of rounds played in May was up an impressive 19.2 percent over May 2019.

Exact June figures aren’t available yet, but anecdotal reports of packed golf courses provide a good indication. Locally, some courses reported record numbers of rounds played in May and June.

Cox said he believes the June totals will be just as impressive.

“I think we’ll see the same for June,” he said. “We think the second half of the year is going to be very strong for golf, because there are less activities for people to do. Depending on what happens with football in the fall and other sports, I think we’re going to have a huge uptick in new participation.

“Plus, all the majors are now going to be played in the second half of the year. Tiger (Woods) hasn’t played in months, but he’s supposed to start playing the second half of July, and any time he’s there, people are watching on TV. And anytime people watch golf on TV, it drives engagement and makes people want to get out on the golf course.”

It’s no surprise that the increased play numbers have resulted in solid sales for Golfballs.com. The company’s retail store on Arnould Boulevard just off Johnston Street remains closed, as it has been since the pandemic began, but Cox said the online sales that make up the huge majority of the firm’s business have seen solid growth.

“Our consumer business has grown a lot over the last couple of months,” he said. “Really, e-commerce in general, the growth there as a percentage of overall retail sales, has grown. All of this has changed a lot of buying behavior, which was going to happen eventually but this accelerated that. There’s no question this pandemic has accelerated the growth of e-commerce.”

Plans to reopen the local retail outlet July 1 were shelved with the uptick in positive tests and hospitalizations locally. Cox said so far none of his nearly 100 employees has had a positive test, and he wants to keep it that way as long as possible.

“We didn’t want to invite people into our building except our employees,” he said. “I’ve had friends that have wanted to come by, but outside of taking everything that anyone touches and spraying it down, it’s darn near impossible. We’ve been very fortunate so far, and very diligent. We want to keep our people safe and we’ve put practices in place to keep them safe.”

Cox would like to see golfers on the course be just as careful as his business has been.

“Golf’s a fun, outdoor, safe, socially distanced activity,” he said. “It’s really the sport that can be as safe as you want to make it, but that doesn’t mean everybody does it safely. You can go on the golf course and never be within 30 or 40 feet of anyone else except at check-in. But if you’re high-fiving your buddies and hugging at the end of a round, that’s not the safest approach.”

“Making the Turn” appears each week in the Daily Advertiser through November. Clubs, courses and individuals with information about local golf events may email Dan McDonald, editorial director at Golfballs.com, at danmcdonald@cox.net, FAX to (337) 857-8763 or call (337) 857-8754 and leave a message with phone number.

Click here for Golf proving to be the best sport for social distancing (Dan's column last week).