Frustrations high at Aspen Golf Course as COVID-19 pushes more play, demand
As the COVID-19 pandemic pushes people outdoors, filling up campgrounds, trails and parks around Aspen at an unprecedented rate, the phenomena has hit the local municipal golf course where scoring a tee time feels like winning the lottery.
The lack of available tee times has caused a lot of frustration among season pass holders and city staff who are trying to find solutions to address the high demand.
Steve Aitken, the city’s director of golf, told about 25 members during a golf advisory board meeting earlier this week that he saw first-hand how ravenous people are to play golf when he watched the tee sheet on July 9.
“It literally booked out in three and a half minutes, and so 288 people booked out for the entire day,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was even possible.”
To address the high volume, the pro shop last month made tee times available for passholders to book beginning at 7 p.m. each day, which allows them to reserve a slot 7.5 days in advance.
The golf course was holding back the tee times until 7 p.m., at which time they are populated on the website for passholders to book exclusively.
“(On July 9) eight foursomes booked in under 20 seconds and 21 users booked in under a minute, so everybody is literally on at 7 p.m.,” he told the board and golf club members. “We’ve got a very popular product.”
To address the 7 p.m. feeding frenzy, Aitken and pro shop staff this week made the reservation system tiered on different levels of passes — platinum, gold and silver, twilight and punch.
Starting this past Thursday, platinum passholders, who paid the most, get to reserve online at 6 p.m. each day. Gold passholders book at 6:30 p.m. and all others are at 7 p.m.
“Total membership this year is right around 1,000 people and our platinum members only make up around 35 and then our gold make up around 120, so you’re only looking at about 155 members that are going to have that early access,” Aitken said.
Some passholders hit a snag, however, on the first night of the tiered reservation system because booking requires a member to sign in before selecting a tee time.
Previously, passholders signed in when the tee time was selected.
The pro shop is closely monitoring the new system and will make adjustments if necessary.
Golf advisory board member Jeff Sivess, who is a silver passholder, which allows him to play before 8:30 a.m. or after 1 p.m. during peak season, said he’s concerned that people like him will get shut out.
“At 7 p.m. you are going to have 340 people trying to make tee times and they are going to go quick,” he said during the board meeting. “I do want us to look at this rather quickly and maybe do something else. … I don’t have the answer but I appreciate you guys trying to do something.”
Aitken noted that 80% of play is reserved for passholders because only a total of an hour each day is open for the general public.
The times that are held for guests, who pay retail green fees, are from 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 12:20 p.m. to 12:50 p.m. in an effort to accommodate passholders, who are playing far more than previous years.
“Right now, we’re putting across 20% more rounds than in years past this time of year,” Aitken said. “Year to date last year we did 11,000 rounds and this year it’s 14,000 rounds.”
Passholder use is up 32%, with 8,730 rounds this year so far versus 5,919 rounds in 2019.
And that’s with pass sales slightly down from last year and tee times every 10 minutes instead of 9 minutes for social distancing protocols.
Austin Weiss, the interim manager of the city’s parks department, said during Tuesday’s meeting that revenues are doing better than predicted in March when the pandemic first hit Aspen.
“But it’s not to say that we’re rolling in the dough so to speak,” he said. “We are getting close to making projected revenues and I think we’re on track to meet what we did last year.”
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who is a gold passholder, asked if there will be a rebate or break on next year’s passes due to the lack of availability of tee times and other COVID-19 impacts.
“I think this is a way you could satisfy the members and guarantee that we’re buying passes next year and we are all talking about whether we should do that or adjust the passes we buy,” DiSalvo said.
Aitken said as part of the 2021 budget process, the city manager’s office has directed him to keep pass prices the same as this year, meaning no increase.
“That is somewhat of a concession (but) I don’t know with the amount of frustration that’s out there that it really accomplishes the objective,” Aitken said, adding that he and the staff have tried to accommodate people as best they can. “I know we’ve really tried hard as a team in these circumstances to be as good as we can, but I gotta tell you it’s been a heck of a challenge. I’m really proud of the staff we have and their extra effort that they’ve put out and the amount of phone calls and conversations they’ve had to have with people.”
Some passholders want refunds this year as they haven’t been able to reserve even one tee time.
“I’m losing interest in playing golf at the Aspen course because it’s a challenge to get a tee time,” said Helen Mellick, a silver passholder. “I’d rather get my money back or they figure out an easier process. … I think there should be better communication on how to book online during this COVID crisis and I know I am not the only one who feels this way.”
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