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Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Week That Was, april 23, 2017

     When it comes to golf construction, Vietnam continues to put the pedal to the metal. According to a count by its Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment, the socialist republic currently has 58 golf courses in 24 cities and provinces. The national goal for golf – 96 courses by 2020 – is now plainly in sight, but there’s one major question still unanswered: What happens when the government reaches its goal?

     Jack Nicklaus’ design group has secured a contract for its fourth golf course in Malaysia. The commission comes courtesy of a Chinese developer, Country Garden Pacificview Sdn. Bhd., which aims to build three “international-standard” golf courses at Forest City, a 2,000-acre community in Johor Bahru, just across the Johor Strait from Singapore. If all goes as planned, the community expects to wrap up construction on the golf course before the end of the year. Forest City has been described as “the city of the future” and “a new growth point for Malaysia's economy.” The Nicklaus-branded course will be the community’s first, but the Star and other Southeast Asian news services don’t say whether it’ll be a “signature” layout or a product of Nicklaus Design. (The project hasn’t yet appeared on the empire’s website.) What’s more, nobody seems to know if Nicklaus is creating just the first course or all three in the master plan. Here’s what is known: Nicklaus’s existing courses in Malaysia are “signature” tracks at Sungai Long Golf & Country Club in Kuala Lumpur, Borneo Golf & Country Club in Sabah, and Legends Golf & Country Club in Johor. Also, Country Garden Pacificview is an affiliate of Country Garden Holdings Company, Ltd., a Foshan-based, publicly traded conglomerate that’s said to have built 20 golf courses in the People’s Republic. And, finally, Country Garden has several projects in the works in and around Johor Bahru, a place it believes will be the next Shenzhen.

     Pipeline Overflow – The folks who brought you Cape Wickham Links, the top-25 track on Tasmania’s King Island, are proceeding with plans to build an equally destination-worthy layout on Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Andrew Purchase and his partners expect their Cliffs Kangaroo Island to be “a world-class, world-ranked course,” according to the Advertiser (sorry, no link available), and they’ve enlisted Darius Oliver of Planet Golf and Golf Digest Australia to provide a routing for it. Oliver hasn’t been hired to design the course, but he’s slowly building a formidable resume. He co-designed Cape Wickham with Mike DeVries. . . . A long-delayed resort community on Oman’s southern coast is showing signs of life. Mirbat Beach has been kicking around since 2009, and today it basically consists of one hotel, the Salalah Marriott. There’s much more to come, however, as Dhofar Tourism Company’s master plan calls for up to 1,500 villas and apartments, a 300-room hotel, a marina, a shopping mall, an amusement zone, and a nine-hole golf course. Dhofar, a publicly traded group, plans to submit its latest development proposal to tourism authorities later this year. . . . After nearly a decade of fits and starts, the 18-hole track at NewGiza, in suburban Cairo, Egypt, is finally expected to open later this year. “It has been a long and difficult build due to the conditions on site, but we are getting there and the results are stunning,” said British architect Tim Lobb, who co-designed the course with former partner Ross Perrett. “I believe it will be a strong candidate for the title of Egypt’s best course.” NewGiza was initiated by Qatari Diar Real Estate Company, an entity created by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund.

     The distress in ClubCorp’s boardroom hasn’t prevented “the world leader in private clubs” from adding to its golf portfolio. The Dallas, Texas-based owner/operator has purchased Oakhurst Golf & Country Club, a nearly 20-year-old venue that serves as the centerpiece of an upscale community in suburban Detroit, Michigan. Oakhurst features an 18-hole, Arthur Hills-designed golf course, and its best-known member is said to be Kid Rock. The club is ClubCorp’s fourth golf acquisition of the year. The company has two other golf properties in the area, Oak Pointe Country Club in Brighton and TPC Michigan in Dearborn.

     Cuba welcomed just over 4 million international travelers last year, a 13 percent increase in the number it attracted in 2015. And if Raúl Castro’s government makes good on its forecast, the socialist republic will lure 4.7 million visitors this year.

     Would it surprise you to learn that the most expensive round of golf in Scotland can be found at a Trump-branded venue? Didn’t think so. The honor goes to the Ailsa Course at still Open-less Trump Turnberry, where recent upgrades apparently justify a charge of £350 ($448). Number two on a list compiled by Business Insider is an American-made venue, Kingsbarns (£240), followed by Royal Troon’s Old Course (£230), Prestwick (£195), and, in a tie for fifth, Carnoustie’s Championship layout and the Old Course at St. Andrews (£175). The rest of the top 10 consists of Royal Aberdeen (£172), Western Gailes (£165), the Championship track at Mike Keiser fave Royal Dornoch (£145), and Nairn (£135). If you’re wondering, nine of the tracks (all but Prestwick) have a place on Golf Digest’s ranking of Scotland’s best. The total to play all 10: £2,012 ($2,579).

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Week That Was, april 16, 2017

     A dramatic shift in direction may be taking place at ClubCorp, as two major news stories emerged at the embattled, Dallas, Texas-based course owner and operator last week.
     First, ClubCorp is no longer looking to sell itself. Just weeks ago, you’ll remember, the company responded to a litany of shareholder complaints by announcing that it was “in the early stages of an auction process that has attracted the interest of potential buyers.” For now, at least, it appears that a potential sale is off the table.
     Second, and more importantly, the self-described “world leader in private clubs” is cutting ties with its CEO. According to a press release, Eric Affeldt, who’s 59, “intends to retire” and will remain with the company until a successor can be named.
     Affeldt took over at ClubCorp in late 2006, when the company was purchased by KSL Capital Partners. Previously, he’d served in various capacities at KSL, in particular as the CEO of KSL Fairways, the firm’s golf division. He’ll probably be best remembered for taking ClubCorp public, a move he engineered in 2013.
     Under Affeldt’s direction, ClubCorp grew mostly by acquisition. Like the chief executives of the private-equity firms that have gained prominence in the golf industry, he used the economic power at his disposal to purchase a parade of private clubs that had been financially weakened by the Great Recession. Profits were elusive, however, and over the past year or so some of ClubCorp’s largest shareholders have been clamoring for a better return on their investments.
     In an attempt to increase value and silence the critics, Affeldt set out to reinvent ClubCorp. “We don’t like to consider ourselves a golf company,” he famously proclaimed last year. “We’re in the membership business, and we make money by creating an environment that would be [appealing] to people that aren’t just golfers.”
     Affeldt’s departure suggests that his reinvention hasn’t been successful. ClubCorp says that it’s “identified an internal candidate” who can take over as its chief executive, but it’s also working with a search firm “to identify additional outside candidates.”

     As it turns out, Tiger Woods’ entourage is as leaky as the White House. Just days after the Jupiter, Florida-based “signature” designer announced that he’d soon announce a forthcoming public course somewhere in the USA, No Laying Up revealed that the track will serve as an amenity for Johnny Morris’ Big Cedar Lodge, outside Branson, Missouri. Woods hasn’t confirmed the news, but the Fried Egg subsequently reported that the 18-hole course will take shape on property formerly occupied by Murder Rock Golf Club, a defunct venue that Morris acquired in 2013. In recent years, Morris has set out to turn Big Cedar into “the premier golf destination in the Midwest.” The main resort, in Ridgedale, features a nine-hole, Jack Nicklaus-designed par-3 course, an Arnold Palmer-designed practice facility, and a family-friendly, Gary Player-designed 13-hole track. Woods’ course will butt up against the resort’s Tom Fazio-designed Buffalo Ridge Springs Golf Course, and next year Morris expects to debut a Coore & Crenshaw-designed track on a nearby site. With all these brand-name architects to promote, Morris is clearly pulling out all the stops to achieve his goal. By the time he’s done, Big Cedar is going to give Mike Keiser’s complex in Wisconsin a run for its money.

     Vicki Martz, one of the golf industry’s precious few female architects, died last week. Martz got her start in course design in 1981, when she took a position with Mark McCumber’s company, and she spent a quarter-century at Arnold Palmer’s company, working alongside Ed Seay and Harrison Minchew. She established her own firm, Victoria Martz Golf Design, in 2010. As best I can determine, she was the third woman to earn membership in the American Society of Golf Course Architects, after Alice Dye and Jan Beljan. Ian Andrew, a Canadian architect, recently called her “as charming and engaging a person as you’d ever meet” and said she was “one of the architects I most look forward to seeing at the annual meetings.” Martz reportedly passed away in her home in Jacksonville, Florida. She was 72.

     Just a reminder: Yet another year has passed without a groundbreaking for a new golf course in Cuba. Since hope springs eternal, however, government authorities in the socialist republic have reportedly green-lighted a third golf venture, this one by a Spanish company in Pinar del Río Province, in Cuba’s far west. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, provides no details, but my guess is that we’re talking about Punta Colorada Golf & Marina, which an entity called La Playa Golf & Resorts SL wants to build on a 4,000-acre spread along the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, near the village of La Fe. It’s worth noting that Punta Colorada has been described as “the largest tourism facility in the Caribbean.” It could end up being Cuba’s version of Pinehurst or Mission Hills Shenzhen, because at one time it was master-planned to include seven 18-hole golf courses. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For those who are still keeping score, Cuba previously inked contracts for Carbonera Golf & Country Club and Bellomonte Golf & Country Club, both of which are expected to take shape within a short drive of Havana, in Matanzas Province. It would be nice to see one of them get started, wouldn’t it?

     Some information in the preceding post first appeared in the September 2016 issue of the World Edition of the Golf Course Report.

     Pipeline Overflow -- Speaking of Cuba, Xinhua also reports that tourism officials expect to approve a fourth golf venture this year, on property west of Havana, and that “negotiations for three other such projects” might be concluded either “later this year or in early 2018.” As previously indicated: Don’t hold your breath. . . . The first course by freshly minted “signature” architect Louis Oosthuizen is apparently taking shape in Swaziland, one of the smallest nations in Africa. The 18-hole layout, dubbed Golden Eagle Links, has been in the works for several years, and Cape Argus News doesn’t say when it’ll open, but it’ll complement the Phil Jacobs-designed track at Nkonyeni Golf Estate, outside Manzini. Nkonyeni says that Oosthuizen’s design was inspired by his “ongoing love for St. Andrews” and will be “one of those courses that you can play over and over again.” . . . As part of a grow-the-game strategy, a practice center in Liverpool, England is seeking permission to add a nine-hole, par-3 track to its facilities. Bruce Weller, the course’s Surrey-based designer, has promised to create a “fun” and “exciting” course that “will be enjoyable and safe for both adults and children to use.”

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Week That Was, april 9, 2017

     Like the U.S. golf course industry itself, Trump Golf is facing “hard times,” according to the Wall Street Journal. On the plus side, the newspaper estimates that the company’s 10 U.S. golf properties are collectively worth $266 million, a $24 million increase (9 percent) from their value in 2012. On the minus side, though, the president’s company has reportedly spent $310 million on capital improvements to those properties since 2012. The newspaper’s terse conclusion: “The net value of the clubs after investment has declined significantly over the last five years.” One other thing: Though Mar-a-Lago recently doubled its initiation fee, to $200,000, in a video report the Journal says the joining fees at some Trump properties has been “frozen or cut” in recent years.

     Cobbtown, Georgia. Come next year, Gil Hanse expects to debut a high-concept golf venue on a former Vidalia onion farm. The 18-hole track will be the centerpiece of Ohoopee Match Club, which gets its name from the scoring system to be used there. “They’ve asked us to come up with some really interesting half-shot holes and build a golf course that will be fun to play during a match, as opposed to pencil and scorecard,” Hanse told Southeast Georgia Today. “They” refers to the ownership group, an LLC led by Michael Walrath. A former ad man, Walrath got rich in 2007, when Yahoo paid $850 million for his company. With money in his pocket, he founded a venture-capital firm, invested in a film-production company and some Internet-related entities, and donated to arts, humanitarian, and environmental groups. He hasn’t yet gone public with his plans for Ohoopee, but the farmer who sold the property to him expects to see a 50-room lodge emerge near the golf course.

     Pipeline Overflow – In what’s been described as “one of the golfing world’s most anticipated openings,” Els Club Desaru Coast, in Malaysia, has lifted the curtain on its Valley complex. The 27-hole venue, co-designed by Ernie Els and his “great friend” Vijay Singh, will complement the resort’s 18-hole Ocean course, an Els solo effort that opened last year. A press release contends that the addition will boost “the prestige and appeal of what is already one of the world’s premier destinations for golf” and make the resort “an international icon.” . . . Later this year, a golf course “full of excitement and beauty” will debut at Urubó Golf & Country Club, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The 18-hole layout has been co-designed by Blake Stirling and Marco Martín, the principals of a Spanish firm who aim “to produce a golfing experience where all levels of golfers yearn to repeat it over and over.” . . . Cynthia Dye’s first golf course in Portugal, breathlessly described as “Europe’s most eagerly awaited new golf course design project,” is scheduled to open in June. A press release calls West Cliffs Golf Course, on the nation’s Silver Coast, “a harmonious and sustainable links” that’s located on “the most natural golf course site imaginable.” Not to be outdone, the property’s director of golf thinks the 18-hole layout has “perfected nature.”

     Crystal River, Florida. An Atlanta, Georgia-based resort owner has purchased its first golf property in Florida, and its third overall. Kingwood International Resorts paid an undisclosed price for Plantation on Crystal River, which has operated on the gulf coast, roughly 70 miles north of Tampa, since the mid 1950s. The seller was Scout Hotels & Resorts. The Plantation includes a hotel, a marina, meeting space, a shopping area, places to eat and drink, and a 27-hole golf complex (a regulation 18 and a nine-hole executive-length track) that was designed by Mark Mahannah. Its general manager expect the new owners to take the property “to the next level.” In Georgia, Kingwood owns Kingwood Country Club & Golf Resort in Clayton, Georgia and Achasta Golf Resort in Dahlonega.

     Surplus Transactions -- Grand Rapids, Michigan is going to lose its Donald Ross-designed golf course. The Blandford Nature Center and the Land Conservancy of West Michigan have paid $3.5 million for the 18-hole track at Highlands Golf Club, a venue that hosted a Senior PGA Tour event in the 1980s and 1990s. The new owners intend to turn the 121-acre spread into something resembling its natural state. . . . Jeff and Dana Pilarcek have acquired Endwell Greens Golf Club, a 180-acre spread outside Binghamton, New York. The club’s 18-hole track, co-designed by Geoffrey Cornish and Bill Robinson, has operated since 1965. The new owners plan to make the course “a little more playable.” . . . In what’s said to be “the largest single real estate transaction” in the history of Charlotte, North Carolina, a New York City-based investment group has purchased Ballantyne Corporate Park, a 535-acre property that includes Golf Club at Ballantyne and its 18-hole course. According to the Charlotte Observer, Northwood Investors paid more than $33 million for the club and some adjacent property. For the whole kit and caboodle, Northwood is believed to have paid more than $1 billion.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Week That Was, april 2, 2017

     Last year, Golf Digest published a picture of Greg “the Living Brand” Norman in his private jet, eyes peering across an endless horizon, ostensibly contemplating his boundless future. In the accompanying story, the LB promised that he’d soon unveil unique enterprises that would make Greg Norman Company “a force on the landscape of golf and beyond.” Last week, we learned more about how the force will be with us, as the LB and Verizon unveiled “a bold vision to make the game more cutting edge” by using “innovative and disruptive technology” that will “change the way people play and view” the game of golf. Details are in short supply, but the LB boldly claims that he intends to do a whole bunch of stuff that our industry’s leaders have failed to do, namely “provide the golfer with a better experience on the course, introduce new people to the game, and help golf grow alongside the technology innovations that are happening across other industries.” Read between the lines, and it’s apparent that the LB thinks the future of golf will be in the palm of our hands. It’s possible that his new initiative, whatever it turns out to be, will be good for golf, but the cynic in me suspects that it’ll be better for the LB and Verizon.

     The first golf course designed by Arnold Palmer didn’t stay on the market for long. For an undisclosed price, a trio of investors has agreed to buy Indian Lake Golf Club, an 18-hole venue in Central City, Pennsylvania that the late King once described as “something that I will always remember.” The transaction is expected to close later this month. The property was offered for sale last October, and the Somerset Daily American reports that Indian Lake’s members accepted GCIL LLC’s price in January. The prospective owners, a group that includes the club’s pro, will reportedly operate the facility as a “premier public resort.” They’ve also given it a new name: Golf Club at Indian Lake.

     No details are available, but Wanango Golf Club has changed hands in what’s been called “a Chapter 11 bankruptcy sale.” The club, in Reno, Pennsylvania (it’s north of Pittsburgh, in the northwestern corner of the state), has operated since 1914, and it can claim a distinctive heritage, as three monumental architects have at one time or another laid their hands on its 18-hole golf course. According to the club, Donald Ross and Tom Bendelow were responsible for Wanango’s original layout, and A. W. Tillinghast later redesigned it. The Oil City Derrick reports that the club is now owned by three of the club’s members.

     Golf development often gets a bad rap in nations where the game is just beginning to take hold, as it’s typically viewed as the purview of wealthy, powerful, and completely self-interested developers. That’s one of the story lines these days in Vietnam, where a major golf developer, FLC Group, has apparently continued to work on a golf course despite receiving a cessation order from environmental authorities. The course, a Brian Curley design at FLC Hạ Long Bay Golf Club & Resort, in Quảng Ninh Province, is now nearly complete and scheduled to open this fall. Last year, however, FLC’s construction crews reportedly damaged roughly 100 nearby houses, leading to stop-work orders that Tuoi Tre News says “seem to have fallen on deaf ears.” Making a bad matter worse, FLC’s compensation to the homeowners is said to be coming “in a very sluggish manner.” This kind of behavior gives golf a bad name, and the fast-growing golf business in Vietnam doesn’t need one of its prime movers acting irresponsibly or flouting the law. Vietnam aims to have 96 courses in operation by 2020, but it can’t achieve its goal if public opinion turns against golf.

     Pipeline Overflow – Planning officials in Norwich, England have approved a redevelopment plan for the Royal Norwich Golf Club property, which means that the club now expects to break ground on its new home any day now. Royal Norwich’s members will continue to play on their James Braid-designed layout until 2019. Their forthcoming course has been designed by Ross McMurray of European Golf Design. . . . Cần Thơ City, in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, wants to inject more life into its economy, and it’s getting help from a prominent golf developer. The city is said to be working with Vingroup to build “a system of hotels, golf courses, and resorts” that would spark home building and attract tourists. . . . The Nigerian army wants to build a golf course, but it’s stirred a controversy with its financing idea: It wants its officers to cough up part of their salaries to pay for the track’s design and construction. “We’re fighting Boko Haram, herdsmen, and some economic saboteurs across the country right now, and they brought this?” an officer asked incredulously. “Why are they always finding different ways to extort officers?” If the dispute is settled, the course will take shape in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.

     From the Department of Smoke & Fire: Though he hasn’t been accused of doing anything illegal, Phil “the Gambler” Mickelson has threatened to plead the Fifth if he’s called to testify in Billy Walters’ insider-trading trial. As most everyone knows, Mickelson made a bundle ($931,000) in the stock market by trading on tips from Walters, and he paid the money back (plus interest) when the Securities & Exchange Commission asked him to. So what’s preventing Mickelson from taking the stand? While he’s completely within his rights to invoke his constitutional rights in this matter, does his stance make him look like he’s guilty of something?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Vital Signs, march 31, 2017

     When you call yourself a “Living Brand,” as Greg Norman so proudly does, you’re essentially saying that you view yourself primarily as a commodity, as something that can be manufactured, bought, and sold. So it should come as no surprise to hear that the LB’s holding company, the Greg Norman Company, has packaged and sold a significant part of itself – a part that the LB himself once called his “holy grail” – to a subsidiary of a private-equity firm that’s previously invested in BJ’s Wholesale Club, the Container Store, J. Crew, and other high-class operations. For an undisclosed price, Authentic Brands Group has taken control of GNC’s consumer-products division, which markets all the things we now think of when we hear the name Greg Norman, namely polo shirts, wine, steaks, and sunglasses. ABG was attracted to the LB because it believes he “lives the aspirational lifestyle that proves 60 is the new 40.” The sale continues the drift that the LB has been making from the golf business in recent years. In fact, GNC now appears to be comfortable identifying itself as a “golf-inspired global corporation.”

     The United States is nowadays about 63 percent white, a number that grows smaller by the day. By contrast, the golf industry remains overwhelmingly white despite long-time efforts to make it more diverse. The population of U.S. golfers is estimated to be 80 percent white, and the corporate side of the business is even whiter. According to the 2015 edition of "The Golf Diversity & Inclusion Report," the board members of 14 “leading organizations in the golf industry” are 95 percent white, while the employees of 80 golf-related companies and trade associations are 88 percent white. The report concluded that “the face of golf resembles the face of America pre-1980.” In 2003, the National Golf Foundation published a study that was supposed to help develop “player development programs and other initiatives” to build participation among minorities (women included) because they “represent an important group for growing the game.” Those efforts have failed. Golf is stuck in the past, with no evident pathway to a more diverse future.

     Speaking of being stuck in the past, important metrics of the U.S. golf economy were fundamentally unchanged last year. Here’s how the Leisure Investment Properties Group, a division of Marcus & Millichap, summed up 2016: “Golf utilization and rounds are about the same, year over year, as are playable days. We have not made much headway, but we didn’t lose, either.” Given the struggles our industry has faced over the past decade, maybe such comments are a measure of progress. Regarding the current value of golf properties, the LIPG has concluded that prices have been “negatively influenced” by “sagging golf operations” and “outside influences,” notably the “media hacks” who’ve promoted the false notion that “golf is dying.” Gratuitous swipes aside, the data indicates that the prices of properties tracked by the LIPG were down by 4.78 percent, the first decline in three years.