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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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Pandemic changes tee times as more play during weekdays


Of golf’s many storied traditions, this one has long held true: Weekdays were a time of rest, recovery and senior discounts, the sole province of retirees whose biggest concern is a chip that stops far short of the hole.

But a new Stanford University analysis shows that the work-from-home trend is scrambling the game’s weekly rhythms and routines, with busy professionals squeezing in rounds on once-sleepy Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays — further proof that the industrial-era 9-to-5 routine is vanishing.

“We’re busy almost every day,” said Kevin Sprenger, general manager of Baylands Golf Links in Palo Alto, Calif., where staffers were cleaning balls and emptying trash on a recent Tuesday morning, with 147 rounds reserved for play. “Thursday’s as busy as Sunday.”

Using geolocation data from cars and phones of people visiting the nation’s 3,400 golf courses, the Stanford study found that Wednesdays were 143 percent busier in August 2022 than in the pre-pandemic days of August 2019. The trend is particularly pronounced on afternoons, it found, with 278 percent more people playing at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays than before the pandemic.

On California courses, visits have nearly doubled on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the team found.

The weekday trend is also true for gyms, shopping malls, tennis courts and hair salons, according to the researchers Nick Bloom and Alex Finan.

“The explosion of working from home has created a boom in weekday leisure. Home-based employees can pop out for an hour or two during the day,” said Bloom, professor of economics. “The pandemic has relaxed the bottleneck of the weekend for many leisure activities.”

Throughout most of human history, work and home were the same place, said Fred Turner, professor of communication at Stanford University, where he studies the impact of new media technologies on American culture since World War II.

But for the past 300 years, we’ve lived in a world where work was concentrated in factories and offices, and we were forced to commute, said Turner. As a result, life was divided into “home time” and “work time.”

“What’s happening now is a reconfiguring of how we work. That’s been going on for a while, but the pandemic provided an accelerant,” he said. “We are, in some ways, returning to that older way of living.”

To be sure, many workers police officers and auto workers, teachers and nurses, cooks and servers are still reporting for duty. But for some jobs, it doesn’t matter where you physically are.

“Computers offer us a chance to reintegrate work and home in ways that are complicated and wonderful,” said Turner.

Software engineer Walter Underwood starts work with a 6 a.m. phone meeting with his LexisNexis colleagues back east. His wife, Tina, a technical project manager at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, starts at 7 a.m.

But they reserve every Friday morning for a one-hour date at Ada’s Cafe in Palo Alto. In the afternoons, Tina may ride her bike or pick up their son. Walter may call his aging mother in Texas. Together, they’re house-training a service puppy.

“It’s the little things in life like having lunch with my husband on the back patio,” said Tina. “My day is structured around meetings … but the flexibility allows me to feel like I’m more in control of what I do.”

Remote trend secure

Even as more companies are urging workers to return to the office, the hybrid or remote work trend remains secure in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco, where 27 percent of job postings in May offered such flexibility, according to a second Stanford analysis.

Patterns vary among Bay Area counties. The percentage of new job ads offering remote or hybrid work ranged from 8 percent in Contra Costa and 10 percent in Alameda to 12 percent in Santa Cruz, 14.8 percent in San Mateo and 15 percent in Santa Clara, researchers found.

The boom in midweek trips to the links is a ripple effect. Golf, one of the world’s oldest and most tradition-bound sports, surged in popularity during the COVID pandemic.

“It was one of the few places where you could still socialize,” said Stacey Baba of Saratoga, handicap chair for the San Francisco chapter of the Ladies Professional Golf Association Amateurs. “You were outdoors, with individual carts.”

Weekdays offer a better experience, say players. Rates are cheaper. Play isn’t bogged down by crowds. Short nine-hole rounds, which can be completed within two hours, are favored. And new tech tools offer efficiencies. For instance, an app called PlayNow, similar to restaurants’ Open Table, alerts golfers to nearby openings.

“There’s spontaneity. If I see a slot, I’ll grab it and jam over,” said Monterey-based marketing manager Julie McEntee. She works from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m., then often heads out to a course.

If needed, work can be conducted from the course. “Golf isn’t so fast-paced that you can’t be available if somebody needs you to review something or hop on a call,” she said. “I’m going to be a high performer, no matter what. I just structure my week to take off a couple hours here or there.”

Every Tuesday night, Claudia Little sends out scheduled work emails. Then on Wednesday morning, as her mail is landing in colleagues’ inboxes, she’s walking the rolling hills of Petaluma Golf Course, playing 18 holes.

On the course, she won’t make phone calls. “It’s rude, and messes up my game,” said Little, 52, event coordinator for Keller Estate Winery. But she responds to urgent emails. “What’s so great about golf is that you can answer questions, via email, while waiting for somebody else to hit.”

Then she comes home and works through the evening, catching up on behind-the-scenes tasks.

To keep up with the demand, course maintenance is now ongoing, said Sprenger. “Historically, there were a few days during the week where most golf courses were not terribly busy. Now you’re spending more money on fertilizer, grass seed, trash bags, things like that — because there’s more use.”

To monitor the trends in tee-off traffic, the Stanford team enlisted a sophisticated strategy using satellite images, artificial intelligence and GPS data. The project was conceived by Stanford public policy student Finan, 22, an ardent golfer.

From the sky, golf courses are easy to identify. Using data from the company Inrix, Finan and Bloom counted GPS “pings” from cars and phones around each course.

The study compared the frequency of those golf course “pings” between 2019 to 2023. While golf’s popularity surged during the pandemic, fueling an overall increase in visits, the data showed a pronounced shift from weekends to weekdays, said Finan.

“We’re in the new normal,” said Tom Smith, general manager of TPC Harding Park Golf Course in San Francisco, on the edge of Lake Merced, where between 85 percent to 100 percent of available slots are filled every day.