Charlotte golf rounds suffer as Panthers keep winning

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - You'd be hard pressed to find an empty seat at Ericsson Stadium this Sunday when the undefeated Carolina Panthers (5-0) take on the Tennessee Titans. But if it's a tee time you are after, you should have the pick of the lot.

As the NFC South leading Panthers continue to win, some local courses report that Sunday rounds are dropping faster than a sacked quarterback.

"It (Sunday play) it has dropped off considerably at every course I've talked to," said Sonny Weeks, head professional at Olde Sycamore Golf Plantation. "I actually had a neighbor with season tickets asking fans in his section if they were golfers and would normally be out golfing and most of them said yes."

Area courses affected by the streaking Panthers - especially those with loyal fans at the helm - are in a bit of a conundrum: pull for the home team, or the home course.

"It's a tough call but I am pulling for my course," said Brian Lee, director of golf at the Warrior Golf Club in China Grove, north of Charlotte. "I hope they win the Super Bowl, don't get me wrong. I've been a Panthers fan from the beginning. I wish we could have the best of both worlds."

According to Lee, Sunday rounds at Warrior Golf Club have dropped with the onset of the NFL season each year since the course opened in 1999. By the third or fourth week, however, rounds usually return to their preseason levels.

That's not the case a full six weeks into the 2003 campaign. Carolina has made the playoffs just once in its eight year history. That was in 1996, just the team's second year in the league, when the Panthers made it all the way to the NFC Championship game and lost to the Green Bay Packers. With the team needing to win only half of its remaining games to have a realistic shot at its second postseason appearance, the bandwagon is picking up speed.

"The disgruntled and fair-weather fans are usually back golfing by now," Lee said, laughing. "They've usually lost two or three (games) by now. But hey, we know the Panthers aren't the only reason rounds are down on Sundays. It rained a lot this year and the weather was terrible last spring. But still, I'd say they are a major factor. That stadium holds almost 70,000 people."

The official seating chart for Ericsson Stadium - widely regarded as one of the league's premier facilities - lists the capacity at 73,258. The Panthers first four home games, including this week's tilt with the Titans, have been sell outs. With the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the locally popular Washington Redskins and the Donovan McNabb-led Philadelphia Eagles visiting Charlotte in the weeks to come, Ericcson Stadium should be swollen to capacity in the weeks to come.

"When there's a one o'clock start the course is empty by ten (a.m.), and when there's a four o'clock start the course is empty by noon," said Woody Allen, head professional at Ballantyne Resort. "We are a bit thin on Sundays and some of that is due to the game. But you can really tell when kickoff is approaching because the place clears out."

Turns out it's not just Panthers home games keeping local golfers away from the course.

Last Sunday when Carolina squared off against the undefeated Colts in Indianapolis, a number of local courses were operating at half capacity. The drastic decline in rounds was due, in part, to "Race Week" at Lowe's Motor Speedway - Charlotte's annual NASCAR gala.

But those fans who did stay home to catch the game were rewarded: Carolina nipped the Colts 23-20 in overtime on a 48-yard field goal from kicker John Kasay. Four of the team's five wins have been by six points or less, making watching a game at home, or in one's home, all that more enticing.

"A lot more people are staying home to watch games on TV," Weeks said. "The games have been total nailbiters so far."

Not everyone in the Metrolina golf business is sold on the correlation between the Panthers' success and declining Sunday rounds, however. Steve Dibo, general manager at Crystal Creek Golf Club in nearby Pineville, said the behavior is attributable to the weather and the economy, not the guys on the gridiron.

"It rained for months and when it did it always seemed to rain on the weekends," Dibo said. "Then you have the down economy and what you get are habits that have been formed. People started do other things on the weekends besides golf. It's not just Panthers games."

Dibo said Sundays are actually the busiest day of the week at Crystal Creek.

"If they want to go to the Panthers game, they come out and play in the morning," he said. "We've built a loyal Sunday following."

Judging by the buzz around this bustling banking capital for this Sunday's game, so have the Panthers.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

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