Jessica Youn says she never thought she’d become a golfer.
“Growing up, my dad was this hardcore golfer, and he would watch golf tournaments on television,” Youn says while practicing at the Racho Park Golf Course driving range in Los Angeles. “I thought it was so boring.”
But then the pandemic hit, and Youn’s options for outdoor activities waned. Once she tried golf for the first time with her husband Scott Iseri, she says the duo became hooked. Youn now covets the time she gets to be in nature with her friends, and perhaps above all, the challenge golf presents.
“It’s an incredible mind game that is not boring at all, and requires a lot of thought, intention,” she says. “But then there's also this weird thing where you're setting up for your swing, and there's this wave of calm that kind of comes over you, and you have to be really relaxed.”
Both Youn and Iseri are among the roughly 3 million Americans who picked up a golf club for the first time during the pandemic, according to the National Golf Foundation, an industry group that’s kept tabs on the game since the 1930s.
The game also saw a surge in interest from female golfers, both adults and juniors. In fact, more than one-third of junior golfers in 2020 were girls, compared to 15% in 2000.
A lot of the game’s success can be attributed to the fact that it’s contactless. Generally players only touch their own equipment, and social distancing, especially on full courses, is easily enforced.
But as COVID-era restrictions ease and options for outdoor entertainment expand, many worry that golf’s revitalization won’t last. Playing 18 holes just takes too long, says Larry Tomoyasu, a golf teaching professional at the Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena.
“It takes five or six hours of play,” Tomoyasu says. “It's [also] very difficult to play well. Now if you don't mind playing well, you can play ... but playing well is very hard.”
Despite his skepticism, Tomoyasu says he hadn't seen his golf course as packed as it’s been during the pandemic. Long lines at the driving range are common. Tee times are a scarce commodity. And demand for equipment remains high.
“You take a look at our store right now. I’ve got empty pegs on my glove wall. You see empty bins in my grip area. I have empty bags, empty hats, clothing, clubs,” says Dan Mammano, who manages the Roger Dunn Golf Shop in North Hollywood. “I mean, it's literally everything that we have. It's hard to get.”
Mammano says the golf apparel and equipment business has suffered from strains on the global supply chain that other industries have seen during the pandemic.
“Right now, our sales are about double what they normally are,” Mammano says. “If I had the supply, we would be able to do even more, which is really amazing, to tell you the truth.”
Business may be booming. But that’s not stopping activists and politicians from reimagining what their local golf courses could become, especially as more folks receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Cristina Garcia, who represents parts of southeast LA in the California Assembly, says local cities and counties should be able to develop golf courses to help solve some of the state’s biggest challenges, namely housing.
“We know that additional housing stock is good for my ability to stay in my community and for me to be able to afford it,” says Garcia, a Democrat who introduced a bill this year to remove some protections for golf courses. “And if you're hitting these walls of affordability in the affordable part of LA County, what chance do we have if we do not open spaces like this?”
Garcia’s bill won’t be taken up again this legislative session, but she says she’ll continue pushing for it next year.