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The Summer of Golf examines the sport’s post-pandemic popularity boom at local courses in South Orange County and showcases the play of each course through the eyes of our resident normal, below-average new golfer. Click here to read previous entries in this series.

By Zach Cavanagh

For those with homes along the San Clemente Municipal Golf Course, Shorecliffs Golf Club or San Juan Hills Golf Club, if you’ve thought there’s been a torrid increase of shanked golf balls knocking on your windows and walls, you’re not hearing things.

There are now more golfers than ever before in the United States, as the sport has enjoyed an undeniable boom over the past two years.

Silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic were few and far between, but golf unexpectedly earned a shred of those. Pandemic restrictions meant that most activities or places to be were closed, but golf courses reopened quickly in 2020, as a socially distanced, outdoor recreation activity.

Interest surged almost immediately.

“We didn’t have enough parking in the parking lot,” Monarch Beach Golf Links general manager Eric Lohman said. “It was crazy. I’d never seen it before. People booking weeks out. The demand seemed to grow overnight.”

According to the National Golf Foundation, 2021 set a record with 3.2 million people playing golf for the very first time, with more than 3 million also trying the sport in 2020. Both records topped the previous recorded high of 2.4 million in 2000 at the height of the Tiger Woods boom.

Juniors entering the sport jumped by 24% in 2020, which held steady in 2021 and was the largest increase in junior golfers since 1997—the year Tiger Woods won his first Masters.

“Every demographic has increased,” Lohman said. “Women, kids, minorities, millennials. People that hadn’t ever come out before.”

In 2021, 37.5 million Americans played golf either on a golf course or off-course at a driving range, simulator or entertainment venue such as Topgolf. Of the 25.1 million people who played golf on a course in 2021, more than 6 million were women for the second year in a row and the first two years since 2007.

Look for these clubs on a local golf course this summer, and you might just find this writer on a golf journey. Photo: Zach Cavanagh

Teeing It Up

Look no further for an example of this boom than the author of this very story.

I had played sparingly here and there over the years, with my greatest (and only) accomplishment being the golf merit badge in my time as a Boy Scout. After the shutdowns and with little else for anyone to do, a couple of my friends who were regular golfers convinced me and more of our crew to join them one weekend, and I said, sure, why not? I still had a set of clubs. What did I have to lose?

Apparently, what I had to lose was numerous amounts of future weekend time, money on balls, apparel and equipment, and patience on days when I was still learning and could barely knock the ball out of the teebox. (Note: I am still very much learning, and while I can make contact, it’s still not terribly far, despite it more or less going straight.)

Basically, I had a new regular hobby, and like many, I was hooked.

Now, with two years of regular play and a few lessons under my belt, I’m ready to publicly display my below-average ability in this “Summer of Golf” series in the San Clemente Times, Dana Point Times and The Capistrano Dispatch.

Through the rest of the summer, I’ll be playing a South Orange County tour of public courses in our area. The idea of this series is to showcase some of the best public courses anywhere and detail what the experience of playing these courses is like through the eyes of the average new golfer who’s joined the sport’s ranks amidst this surge in popularity.

Check this space every week and follow my journey to maybe break 100 for the first time. See you on the links!

Zach Cavanagh

Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at zcavanagh@picketfencemedia.com.

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