By Jim Meehan 659-3791

Golf was off to an encouraging start with cooperative spring weather before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shutdown.

Then came the reopening with strict safety measures. And of late, 300-yard drives soar into the haze from a thick layer of smoke.

It’s been a season like no other, but it’s also been one of the best in recent memory for area courses.

“We’ve had a good year,” said Darrell Hull, director of golf at The Links on the Rathdrum Prairie. “This will be one of our best years ever.”

How good? Play at the Links is up 16% and range business is up 24%, according to Hull. Spokane’s four city courses – Downriver, Qualchan, Indian Canyon and Esmeralda – have welcomed 5,000 more rounds through August compared to the same point last season.

Through August, Circling Raven has seen a 12% increase in play over the previous season. MeadowWood pro Bob Scott doesn’t need to look at the numbers to know the course has been busy.

“It’s just been pretty consistent,” Scott said. “From May 5th to right now, that’s about as good as we’ve had it for years, maybe since the 1990s.”

It didn’t start out that way. Courses thrived at the outset of the season with favorable spring weather conditions, but the pandemic prompted a five-week shutdown of Washington courses.

Courses reopened in early May, with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issuing two pages of safety protocols, including twosomes being the norm over foursomes and one rider per cart in most cases.

“We were shut down for five weeks there, and we were really scared if we didn’t open up soon,” said Spokane city golf manager Mark Poirier, noting that cost-cutting measures were taken at the time, including furloughs for some seasonal labor.

“We’re doing quite well now under the circumstances, and golf seems to have hit a bit of a spike in Spokane and nearby regions.”

Golf is an appealing option for people looking for a safe, outside activity during the pandemic. It’s fairly easy for golfers to comply with safety guidelines, which at most courses include no removing the flag, no benches, no rakes in bunkers and frequent sanitizing of carts and high-touch areas.

“We’ve had a lot of people who are absolute beginners taking it up with their friends because it’s something they can do,” Hull said. “And we have people that haven’t played in 20-25 years, and they wanted to take it up again.”

Circling Raven had its earliest opening, March 27. Director of golf Dave Christenson had concerns with the cancellation of numerous events on the tournament schedule – tourneys account for about 25% of revenue – and the loss of Canadian customers with the border closed.

Instead, the scenic course has flourished. About 150 played on Saturday, despite smoky skies.

“We hired a new head pro, David Von, and he brought the skill set we were looking for to develop a lot of programs, juniors, ladies, family days,” Christenson said. “He’s really helped drive the results.”

MeadowWood has seen an increased number of women, couples and “tons of juniors,” said Scott, noting that assistant pro Chris Curran’s idea to add a fleet of Finn electric scooters has been a draw for some customers.

The numbers of juniors (ages 6-17), beginners and returning golfers is up roughly 20% nationally through the first half of 2020, according to the National Golf Foundation.

“I think it’s going to continue to grow past these benchmarks because we’re already getting calls to book for next year,” Christenson said. “Normally, we don’t see that this early.”