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Public golf courses in Harford County have big year, despite COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions

What seems like a long time ago is actually just seven to eight months ago when golf courses across the state felt the pinch of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent restrictions.

Golf courses, like seemingly everything else, were shut down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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Despite that, golf courses in Harford County, particularly the handful that are public, bounced back when they reopened and are enjoying seasons to rival any in the past.

Courses have been busy with steady play as players of all ages and skill levels have booked tee times as often as possible.

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And that trend, while the temperatures stay a tad warm, might continue. At least course personnel certainly hope so.

“As a season, we did exceptionally well. Once it was determined that it was one of the few things that we could do, we certainly did really well,” said Ian Minnichbach, head professional at Mountain Branch Golf Club in Joppa.

Bill Buzzell, operations manager at the Geneva Farm Golf Course in Street, is pleased with the COVID-19 season.

“It’s been very good for golf; it hasn’t hurt this industry any,” Buzzell said.

Buzzell also recalled when the courses were closed and said the reality is that closures at that time of year were a good thing.

“It was actually a blessing in disguise for the golf courses because when they did shut the courses down in the spring, it actually gave them a chance to heal up and grow, get healthy again,” Buzzell said. “By the time everybody opened up, people were pleasantly surprised when they came back to see the conditions they were playing in.”

Minnichbach said it was a good year at Mountain Branch.

“I didn’t do much in the way of equipment sales or anything like that, but I believe that the industry itself did okay,” he said. “I believe that the golfing public who decided to venture out and could get out, did whatever was necessary to play. These specials, the balls, the tees, the gloves, stuff that they needed absolutely, I couldn’t keep in stock.”

Minnichbach said he didn’t do much in club fittings and club sales, but tee times were up and, with outings, he feels Mountain Branch was up 25%.

At Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, it’s been a record year, according to golf shop manager Mike Corriggio.

“Since Gov. [Larry] Hogan said we were open for play in the middle of May, we’ve been slammed. We’ve had the best year on record,” Corriggio said. “If the weather stays OK, we’ll be busy through the winter. We were busy last year, until the poop hit the sand kind of thing.”

Golfers also enjoyed walking their way around the golf course at Wetlands Golf Course recently.
Golfers also enjoyed walking their way around the golf course at Wetlands Golf Course recently. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

At nearby Wetlands Golf Course in Aberdeen, manager Beth Boyson echoed Corriggio’s happenings in Havre de Grace.

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“Absolutely, we’ve been steadily busy. On nice days, people want to be outside,” Boyson said. “There’s no question, golf, has been phenomenal this year.”

Boyson noted that Wetlands lost a number of outings this year, but even so, she feels they broke even, if not a little on the plus side.

And, like most, Wetlands still deals with COVID-19 rules and restrictions.

“The cart situation is, most of these people come together, they ride together. So it’s two people to a cart. We have maintained the stoppers in the pins, so they don’t touch the pin,” Boyson said. “Same with rakes and the water, we haven’t put those out.”

Corriggio said they are still spacing tee times and spacing players warming up on the range at Bulle Rock. Although, they have put the sand bottles for repair back in the carts.

Looking forward, these golf courses are hoping for more of the same.

At Geneva Farm, Buzzell said he has over over 200 on the book for Friday. Weekend players have been running in the triple digits, and some weekdays have had up to 100 per day.

“As we get to this time of year, what happens is people look the night before,” Boyson said of tee times at Wetlands. “We get a lot of bookings the day before.”

Boyson said the plan moving forward is to maintain what’s been going on for past couple of months.

At Bulle Rock, Corriggio plans to stay busy. “So, I expect us to be busy as long as the weather’s good and then if this continues, the COVID stuff, into spring, as long as they don’t shut us down, I’m sure we’ll be really busy again,” Corriggio said.

There is also the chance that if COVID-19 positivity numbers continued to rise, even golf courses could feel the severe pinch again.

So, as each week passes and Hogan schedules COVID-19 news conferences, these golf course managers and pro agree, there’s a slight cringe as to what will be said.

“I’ll tell you, yes and no. I think if [Hogan] decides that we’re out of business again, then things are really bad, because we’re kind of an outdoor activity. So, when he announces something is going on I don’t initially get nervous,” Corriggio said. “If things progress the way they’re going, things aren’t turning for the good, then I guess if he keeps calling announcements, then maybe I will get nervous. But at this point, were not too, nervous. We think we’ll be okay, but who knows.”

“Yeah, every week,” Buzzell said with a chuckle, referencing the COVID-19 updates. “Most guys cut the temperature for playing off right around 40 degrees. We stay open all year. We may not get huge numbers, but at 40 degrees we still get a good number of players.”

For Minnichbach and Mountain Branch, a step back to the spring will be hurtful.

“If we go back to the major restrictions that we had prior, where we had tee times every 10 minutes, single cart riders, it’s not going to be a possibility for me, Minnichbach said. “I’ll probably have to discount golf and make people walk, if they want to play. That I could almost assure you. Limited carts in the fleet, so either do that or don’t sell tee times.”

Like the others, Mountain Branch doesn’t close unless there’s snow on the ground.

“Knock on wood is that we are going into winter where there just ... won’t be as many people playing golf right?” Minnichbach said. “That is what’s in our favor, the cold weather. All in all, like I said, golf is still doing well.”

Boyson cringes for multiple reasons. “Absolutely, but that’s both business wise and personally. I’d like to think that if someone wants to come out here when it’s 40 degrees and be outside, then he’ll let them do that. Get some fresh air,” she said. “Hopefully, everyone stays safe and healthy and if they don’t feel well, they don’t go out.”

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