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St. Louis-area golf centers boom as coronavirus drives people to the sport. 'Ridiculous how much I love it.'

St. Louis-area golf centers boom as coronavirus drives people to the sport. 'Ridiculous how much I love it.'

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY — In the middle of a pandemic, Adam Betz renovated his golf center along the Meramec River on the edge of Kirkwood. He added high-tech golf simulators, an indoor chipping and putting green, and a golf-specific fitness center, all part of a new 12,500 square-foot training complex, clubhouse and golf shop.

He figures it will pay off.

“There is a resurgence and elevated interest in learning the game,” said Betz, who bought the facility, Family Golf and Learning Center, in 2018.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people looking for a way to exercise in a socially distant way — and to get out of the house — took a swing at golfing. Courses got busy. Driving ranges boomed. Organizations, including some in St. Louis, pitched high-tech training facilities, teaching centers for kids, and expansions, as did Betz.

Last spring was bleak on courses across the country. Many closed, at least for a few months. The industry lost 20 million rounds of golf to virus-related shutdowns, said the National Golf Federation.

But the second half of the year boomed. By year’s end, golf courses nationwide were on track for an increase of roughly 50 million rounds, 32% better than the previous year, reported the federation. The only time the industry saw a bigger spike in rounds played was back in 1997, the breakout year for Tiger Woods. The popular golfer fueled a huge interest in the sport, and the number of rounds jumped by 63 million.

Golfing, however, struggled for years after Woods’ decline. The number of players dipped each year for at least a decade. More courses closed than opened.

Then, in the last few years, that trend showed signs of turning.

A resurgence

The arrival of Topgolf — an international chain known for its multi-story driving range bays — was an early sign. A Topgolf opened in Chesterfield in 2018 with a three-story, 65,000-square-foot driving range and 102 climate-controlled hitting bays. It closed March 18 due to the coronavirus pandemic but reopened three months later.

Now the St. Louis region is poised once again to add, or revive, golf offerings.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis is turning the razed Carter Carburetor plant in north St. Louis, one of the city’s most high-profile Superfund sites, into a golf course, driving range and putt-putt green for inner-city kids. The site had sat idle for nearly 30 years before cleanup work began in 2013.

And Tower Tee, an Affton landmark since 1963 that had been destined to become a housing development, is getting a major facelift.

It was purchased by Steve Walkenbach and Mike Shamia in 2019 after nearby residents rallied to save Tower Tee. The golf course had said in 2017 that it would close after Tegna Inc., the parent company of KSDK (Channel 5), ended its lease on the property.

”It’s going to look a lot different than what people remember,” said Art Schaupeter, the architect who designed the new Tower Tee golf course. It’s closed while work is underway on a new building and while the courses are renovated.

The driving range will be in the same location but redesigned with a double-decker tee box and 24 target greens. At the old Tower Tee, golf balls were sold at a countertop, he said. Now a 4,000-square-foot clubhouse that will sell food and drinks, with two covered patios, fire pits and big-screen TVs, is taking shape.

New batting cages are coming too, in a spot closer to the parking lot, as is a nine-hole mini golf course and a playground.

Casual gets serious

Betz added technology to Family Golf, too.

The training complex, at 3717 Tree Court Industrial Boulevard in west St. Louis County, has indoor and outdoor practice areas and a nine-hole par-three golf course, in addition to a double-decker driving range, heated bays, shop and clubhouse.

The golf center closed for 47 days this spring due to coronavirus restrictions, reopening May 5, but mostly stayed open during the renovations and construction, selling golf balls from a trailer window, Betz said.

The new building was finished in November, and the added amenities have opened gradually since December. The golf shop opened shortly before Christmas and the Back Nine, its restaurant and bar, followed on Jan. 9.

The new Family Golf has an indoor tee line, a synthetic putting and chipping area, and TrackMan golf simulators.

It even has a gym, under the direction of local personal trainers and chiropractors.

Blake Becker, 26, of Pacific, was among those taking up the sport during the pandemic.

“I was at most a casual golfer,” he said. He’d always preferred contact sports.

But his desire to get out of the house, and to avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus, spurred him to join a friend in getting serious about golf.

“When everything started, the monotony of day-to-day life was not great for me,” Becker said.

Since November, he goes to the driving range about four days a week and is on the course on the weekend, when the weather allows.

And he said he has no plans to stop once the pandemic lifts.

“It’s the most frustrating game in the world,” he said. “And it’s ridiculous how much I love it.”

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