Brandon Fogle warms up on the putting green at Ben Hawes Park on Friday before playing a round of golf.

More players are flocking to the sport

During the shutdown last spring and summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic, golf was one of the few sports activities that were still available for people.

Golf courses that have public play in Owensboro-Daviess County followed a national trend that saw a substantial number of rounds being played.

“We had a significant increase in rounds last season and that trend continues to date,” said Charles Whelan, golf course manager for Ben Hawes and Hillcrest courses. “For our fiscal year, we are currently up 17% in rounds at Ben Hawes and 21% in rounds at Hillcrest. Play has been very similar to the 1990s when we had the ‘Tiger Effect’ and everyone wanted to play.

“For the calendar year of 2020, Hillcrest and Ben Hawes combined for over 52,000 rounds — an increase of 18% over 2019.”

There were certainly unknowns for golf courses at this time last spring.

“Last year, of course, we didn’t know how the pandemic was really going to affect us, but as it turned out it was an exceptional year for the course,” said Kevin Kabalen, president at Windridge Country Club. “We had a lot of outside play, and a lot of golfers found out that we weren’t just a private golf course.”

An exceptionally warm March this year helped get golfers out in big numbers in the area.

“This was probably the best March since I’ve been there,” said Terry Delk, club manager at The Pearl. “Golf was way up last year also.”

Overall numbers were also good at Panther Creek Golf Club in Utica.

“We were very fortunate to be able to stay open last season during the pandemic,” said Kevin Ferguson, owner of Panther Creek. “With all the limitations that folks faced, it was good to see so many people come out to take advantage of weather and enjoy some golf. Besides our regulars, we saw a lot of new faces last season. I’m hopeful that this will continue.”

As far as course renovations, Ben Hawes is working on a new maintenance building that could be completed by the end of May.

“We continue to work on our senior tees, drainage for problem areas, bunkers and now have a replacement plan in place for our golf course bridges,” Whelan said. “We replaced the bridge on hole 16 last summer.

“At Hillcrest, we are working on a plan to improve a few of the tee boxes and improve some drainage in needed areas.”

Sam Bodine is a new greens superintendent at Ben Hawes and Hillcrest. Kevin Logsdon retired as superintendent last fall.

The grounds crew at Windridge put in a lot of hours working on their course, which still saw a good amount of play in the winter.

“The golf course has been worked on all winter, taking out some troubled spots and making them brand new again for the upcoming season,” Kabalen said.

Some new irrigation has been put in to speed up hand watering, and there has been some reworking of bunkers.

“It’s April and our greens are in incredible shape, lightning-quick, and will only get better as the temperature starts to rise,” Kabalen said.

Panther Creek has been adding and expanding forward tees and will do that throughout the season.

“In addition to that, we’ve been clearing trees around numerous tees, as well as some landing areas to improve the sight lines for tee and approach shots on a few holes,” Ferguson said.

The Pearl cut down about 50 trees to get more air to the greens, and bunker renovations on the course have been pretty much completed, Delk said.

“We’ve been doing some work on our short-game area,” Delk said of The Pearl.

Golf courses have continued to use updated COVID-19 protocols to keep patrons and workers safe.

“There are still protocols and they’ve been updated, and we’re still sanitizing regularly,” Delk said.

Tee times are still being spaced out. Golf carts and other areas are being sanitized regularly.

Noodles are being replaced in some places by a cup caddy, an insert in the golf hole that allows the golfer to pull their golf ball out of the hole without having to touch the flagstick or reach into the cup.

“You can use the end of your putter or your foot to retrieve the ball,” Whelan said, “which worked much better than leaving modified pool noodles or anything else to keep the ball from going down in the hole.”

Overall, it seems all the city-county courses are looking for another good golf season, especially if the weather is good in the spring and summer.

“I anticipate a slowing in this (growth) trend as youth sports and travel open back up for summer,” Whelan said, “but the pandemic gave golf a tremendous boost, and a lot of people came back to the sport, so we expect to have a great season.”

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