For more than six months now, COVID-19 has presented its share of challenges across so many fronts. The golf industry – and in particular golf resorts – had to think on their feet – weekly, daily and even hourly.
And while golf was able to remain open across North Carolina while some business had to close or operate at a lower capacity, the main goal of golf management teams was to keep players and guests safe.
That mantra unfolded in many ways at many different locales, and at times produced some shining moments for the game of golf.
Take Rumbling Bald Resort in picturesque Lake Lure for example. In mid-March as the pandemic began, resort general manager Jeff Geisler and golf operations manager Adam Bowles agreed to an unconventional range plan for its 36-hole offering. Instead of golfers coming into the pro shop at Bald Mountain golf course to purchase a $5 token for a bucket of balls, the range was open for free.
To this day, it remains so, with some unexpected results along the way.
“When COVID hit and golf was in the crosshairs we really didn’t know what was going to happen, so we were looking for ways to make it very, very safe for everybody,” Geisler said. “And touching range balls seemed like it wasn’t necessarily a good thing, so we made it easy by just putting golf balls out and letting people hit golf balls. The range had a sense of being alive again.”
“We found out as soon as we set up those beautiful pyramids of balls on the range everybody showed up, but it was incredible how many people I saw on the range that I didn’t recognize,” Bowles added. “Before the summer it was mainly members but we saw people out there hitting balls in the late evening, which they normally wouldn’t be doing, and then we saw families start to show up. People would come into the pro shop and ask to buy a token and when we told them it was free just go enjoy yourself they would light up, they loved that idea. Before you knew it every single day we would see 8-10 folks down there all the time.”
The golfing gesture even came as the resort was spending millions of dollars putting in new Bermuda greens on its sister course, Apple Valley.
Bowles would often find himself picking the range since the free ball plan required twice as many sweeps each day with all the practice swings taking place.
“Whatever it takes to keep the program going,” he said. “When you drive into the resort and see people hitting balls on the range that’s a good sign. It just gets everybody interested in what’s going on.”
Bowles believes the free range ball plan helped eliminate some barriers in golf.
“New golfers could get acclimated to the atmosphere,” he said. “We would give them a few clubs from the pro shop and let them hit some balls and they felt like ‘OK, I can do this.’ It has to translate into more rounds.
“Trying to acquire a new golfer is one of the great mysteries of the golf business,” Bowles added. “So any tiny, little victories we really cherish those.”
The peak leaf season is ahead for Rumbling Bald Resort, with the last week of October and the first portion of November the prime time.
“We have so many very big, mature trees — it’s quite a show,” Bowles said.
“You know, there are some positives that have come from the pandemic,” he added. “The free range plan just sort of happened, but it has turned out to be a good choice. But coming here you get to escape … it’s such a retreat for people … which is why I think golf is so successful right now. People are really craving getting away, which will make the Lake Lure area so popular for years to come.”