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Rob Larocque, director of golf at Bear Mountain, on the course in Langford, B.C., on April 30, 2020.

CHAD HIPOLITO/GM

As provinces start taking baby steps toward opening their economies, the golf industry finds itself in an enviable position: Courses are among the first businesses allowed to reopen.

In New Brunswick, players can squeeze in 18 holes or hit a bucket of balls at the driving range, albeit with strict physical distancing rules in place. Prince Edward Island allowed courses to return Friday, Alberta on Saturday and Manitoba will follow suit on Monday. And in British Columbia, courses were never ordered to shut down, with some opting to stay open even as COVID-19 cases accelerated in the province.

For the Canadian golf industry, which counts nearly 2,300 courses across the country, the coming weeks are a golden opportunity to lure in new or casual players who are eager to get outdoors as the weather warms. With many recreational activities still prohibited by governments, golf is a sport where physical distancing is easy to maintain.

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But even with a head start, the coming year could be rough. Much of what brings in money for a golf club – from restaurant and merchandise sales, to corporate events and tournaments – remains shut down or highly restricted, ensuring that a full rebound hinges on widespread easing of regulations.

“Obviously the COVID-19 crisis has hit every part of the economy, and no one’s been immune to it, including golf,” said Laurence Applebaum, chief executive officer of Golf Canada, the sport’s national governing body. But, he said, plans to reopen the sport will “save our summer.”

For now, the experience of playing golf is vastly different. Courses are staggering tee times more than usual – say, every 15 minutes instead of 10 minutes – meaning fewer paying customers. Flagsticks will remain in holes. Carts and clubs are frequently sanitized. And postround beers are out of the question.

The City of Vancouver reopened two municipal courses on Friday, but half the normal number of golfers are able to tee off. Holes are partly filled with foam from pool noodles, resulting in putts that do not fully drop inside. This allows players to retrieve balls without touching the area.

At the Bear Mountain Golf and Tennis Resort on Vancouver Island, one of its two 18-hole courses is open, but just about everything else is closed: putting greens, the driving range, locker-room facilities and food and beverage services.

“It’s just flat-out, old-school golf,” said Rob Larocque, director of golf at Bear Mountain. “Being a full-service, high-end facility, it’s hard watching a member carrying his own clubs from the car.”

At the Riverside Country Club in Saskatoon, where the course is slated to open on May 15, the first date allowed by the province, patio furniture and benches will remain packed away. To get a drink and sandwich, players will need to text in an order, which will be waiting in a box near the 10th tee.

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“It’s very, very bare bones,” said Robert Klombies, the club’s executive director.

In Ontario, officials have not set a date for reopening courses. Regardless, maintenance crews need to continue preparing courses for their eventual return – meaning, costs are piling up. For instance, chemical treatments on the playing surface can run in excess of $100,000 annually.

“If you’re open or not open, it doesn’t matter: The grass keeps growing,” said Martin Piche, general manager and chief operating officer at Cedar Brae Golf Club in Scarborough, Ont. Mr. Piche said about 70 per cent of his expenses are tied up in fixed costs, such as maintenance, utilities and taxes.

To continue racking up revenue, Cedar Brae has gotten creative. The club is placing grocery orders on behalf of members with its wholesaler, while the kitchen is making dishes that can be heated up, such as lasagna and pot pie. Twice a week, members can drive over to the club to pick up their boxed grocery orders.

“Through us, [a family] can pretty much do their entire grocery shopping without ever having to go to the grocery store,” Mr. Piche said.

Still, the summer is shaping up to be subdued. Golf clubs have seen corporate tournaments, charity events and weddings either cancelled or postponed until 2021, depriving them of much-needed revenue in the short term. And while private and semi-private clubs are able to collect member dues to preserve some revenue, public courses are more reliant on green fees and ancillary services, which could bring some courses to the brink of insolvency.

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Canada has the third-highest number of courses, behind the United States and Japan, and experienced a surge of new courses in the 1990s. In recent years, however, the industry hit some hard times. Golf Canada reports published in 2015 and 2017 identified more than 200 courses that had ceased operations, with most closing over the previous decade.

“There’s probably a lot more supply [of courses] out there than demand, and those ones who are teetering on the edge may find themselves in more of a difficult situation,” Mr. Klombies of Saskatoon said.

Even then, many in the industry remained upbeat about golf’s prospects.

If you play in a group, “one guy hooks it way left, one guy slices it way right and one guy hits it down the middle,” Mr. Larocque of Bear Mountain said. “You can be hundreds of yards apart. Maintaining your social spacing – the game lends itself to that.”

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Alberta allowed golf courses to return May 4. In fact, it was May 2. This online version has been corrected.
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