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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Week That Was, march 26, 2017

     In terms of development and construction, 2016 was another repeat performance for the U.S. golf industry. Our business lost 190 golf properties last year, according to the National Golf Foundation, continuing a string of net annual reductions that began in 2006. Sadly, the plus side of the ledger barely showed a pulse, as only 15.5 new courses opened, according to the NGF’s unnecessarily complicated math. While these losses may seem dismaying, the NGF characterizes them as a “healthy self-balancing of supply and demand” and cheerfully predicts that they’ll continue “for several more years.” The message, apparently, is that when supply and demand finally do reach some sort of equilibrium, everything will be hunky-dory for golf operations. As in years past, the courses most likely to go belly up are privately owned, affordably priced nine- or 18-hole daily-fee tracks. All in all, when 2016 ended there were 15,014 U.S. golf facilities still standing. By this time next year, the NGF expects to count 150 to 175 fewer.

     Tom Doak, no stranger to Australia’s golf industry, has booked another engagement. The Traverse City, Michigan-based architect has been hired to make “significant” design changes to the Ocean course at the National Golf Club, a renowned 54-hole venue in suburban Melbourne. In 2014, Golf Digest viewed the Ocean track, a Peter Thomson design, as the #30 course in the nation, but in last year’s ranking it fell to #38. Without question, the club isn’t happy with the direction. Pending approval by the National’s members, Doak will provide the course with “significantly superior green complexes, improved routing, and fewer, more appropriately positioned and designed bunkers.” Doak has co-designed two courses from scratch in Australia (notably, Barnbougle Dunes Golf Links in Bridgport, Tasmania) and these days he serves as the design consultant to another elite property, Royal Melbourne Golf Club. In addition, last year his firm was commissioned to overhaul Concord Golf Club, in suburban Sydney. If you’re wondering what makes the National so special, poart of the reason is that the Ocean course is its number-three layout. Golf Digest lists the club’s Old and Moonah courses as #10 and #11 in Australia.

     Maryland has evidently become one of ClubCorp’s final frontiers. For the second time in a month, the Dallas, Texas-based owner/operator has acquired a property in the Old Line State, this time Norbeck Country Club in Rockville. The club, which opened in 1954, features an 18-hole, Alfred Tull-designed golf course that ClubCorp believes is “one of the most beautiful and challenging courses in the Washington, D.C. metroplex.” To attract new members, the company intends to add “stylish and new dining and social features” to Norbeck’s clubhouse.” Last month, ClubCorp added Eagle’s Nest Country Club, in suburban Baltimore, to its portfolio, which now consists of more than 200 golf properties and private clubs of various kinds in 27 states and the District of Columbia.

     As it turns out, the CEO who brought the World Golf Championships to Mexico City has an out-sized, perhaps over-sized dream for growing the game in his native land. Two weeks ago, I reported that Benjamin Salinas of TV Azteca had formed a group that intends to build Mexico’s first daily-fee golf course, on a site somewhere in the vicinity of Tijuana. It appears, however, that Salinas views the venture in Tijuana as the start of something much bigger, because the Associated Press reports that his true goal is to build at least one public track in each of Mexico’s 31 states. Such weighty ambitions aren’t easily realized, but if Salinas ends up building even a few public courses, an important mission of the WGC will be accomplished. And wouldn’t it be ironic if Trump National Doral’s loss turned out to be Mexico’s gain?

     A year ago, I asked for a prediction: Who becomes a “signature” architect first -- Rory McIlory, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, or Jordan Spieth? Well, if you chose Spieth, you win. The former Masters champion has teamed up with Roy Bechtol to create a six-hole, par-3 track at University of Texas Golf Club, the home venue of the college’s golf teams. The university expects the aptly named Spieth Lower 40 to serve as a recruiting tool, and Spieth expects it to eventually lead to bigger and better things. “It’s cool being part of the design process,” he told the Austin American-Statesman, “because I’m interested in doing that later in life.” The layout is scheduled to open in September.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Week That Was, march 19, 2017

     Working with some familiar faces, Tiger Woods has promised to deliver a “unique and incredible golf experience” on Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas. Woods’ course will take shape at Jack’s Bay, a private resort community that’s expected to feature – what else? – vacation houses and a beach club. One of the parties creating Jack’s Bay is Beacon Land Development, the group that hired Woods to design the golf course at Bluejack National, in suburban Houston, Texas, and hopes to use him for a repeat performance in suburban Nashville, Tennessee. The company claims to be “committed to delivering unique spaces in special places,” and Woods has described Jack’s Bay as a “spectacular project in paradise.” At least for a while, the golf experience at the community will be brief, because Wood’s course will have just 10 “short” holes. In the future, however, the Jupiter, Florida-based “signature” architect may be enlisted to create an 18-hole track.

     Brad Benz, who led a California-based architectural practice during the 1980s and 1990s, died last week. He began to design golf courses in the 1970s, apprenticing with Dick Phelps and J. Michael Poellot, and an obituary states that he had “an affinity for the old golf courses built by hand that utilized the existing landscape to its greatest advantage.” Benz’s best-known course is probably the 18-hole track at La Zagaleta, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, but over the years he was responsible for layouts in at least five U.S. states (among them Gainey Ranch Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona), China (Beijing Golf Club, a co-design with Poellot), England, Finland, and Mexico. He was 70, and he’d reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s for the past 15 years.

     Just weeks after acquiring its first private club in greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Concert Golf Partners has acquired its second. The Newport Beach, California-based investment group has assumed control of Philmont Country Club, a 110-year-old venue with a pair of 18-hole golf courses. Generally speaking, the transaction was modeled almost exactly on Concert’s previous purchases, for the new owners have paid off Philmont’s debt, promised not to raise the members’ annual dues for two years, and pledged to invest in overdue capital improvements. What’s different this time, however, is that Concert plans to raise the money for the upgrades by selling part of Philmont’s South course. Meaning: The sale will cost the club at least nine holes. “Philmont CC is a great club with a top-rated golf course and a dedicated membership, but it had too much real estate and not enough capital,” Concert’s CEO, Peter Nanula, said in a press release. “All of these capital and real estate issues are now solved.” Philmont will complement White Manor Country Club, a property that Concert acquired in late 2016 or early 2017. In total, Concert now owns 15 properties in 10 states.

     As expected, Muirfield has solved its woman problem. By an overwhelming margin (498-123), the members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers have voted to let women join their tradition-bound golf club, a venue that had been reserved exclusively for men since 1744. The decision was, in the words of the New York Times, “perhaps more about pragmatism than principles,” but there was no perhaps about it. Not quite a year ago, the honourable company’s members had voted to maintain Muirfield’s exclusionary policies, an act of social defiance that wasn’t appreciated by the R&A, which promptly stripped the Scottish club of its cherished place in the rotation for the Open Championship. If last week’s vote proves one thing, it’s this: Old habits may die hard, but stupidity has its limits. It’ll be a while before women actually begin to roam Muirfield’s halls, however, because the club reportedly has a two-year waiting list. Barring special treatment for female petitioners, the members of Muirfield are going to have their cake and eat it too.

     Muirfield isn’t the only golf club that became more accommodating to women last week. After reviewing its bylaws, 125-year-old Royal Adelaide Golf Club, in South Australia, decided to make full membership available to the opposite sex. The change in policy gives female members a vote in club matters and allows them to play golf seven days a week, privileges that had formerly been denied to them.

     Anyone who keeps a close eye on professional golf has no doubt noticed that this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, the first to be held since the King died, had a hard time attracting many of the sport’s biggest stars. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, and others skipped the event, using excuses that included injuries, scheduling problems, and even a friend’s unfortunately timed wedding. Surely, though, players could have used such alibis in the past. One suspects that they didn’t because it was difficult, if not impossible, to say “no” to Arnold Palmer. Today, alas, the Arnold Palmer Invitational isn’t much different from other events on the golf calendar, and players no longer view their absence as a sign of disrespect. The tournament says it has “a number of elements in place as a long-term strategy” to ensure its future success, but its strategy hasn’t been tested. It’s worth noting that Palmer’s design firm – like those of the other aging “signature” architects – must now learn to cope with a similar problem. Whatever he did, wherever he went, Palmer opened doors, and people were thrilled to walk through them. His legacy will be difficult to maintain.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Pipeline, march 17, 2017

     Like a lot of golf-course architects, David Dale is impatiently waiting for China’s central government to issue long-overdue guidelines to regulate golf-course construction. The Golfplan principal offers no guidance on when the regulations will finally come, but in an essay published by Golf Course Industry he recognizes their importance, as he believes that they “will spur development and help squash corruption related to future development.” That being said, Dale also suggests that the dark cloud that hangs over development in the People’s Republic may already be lifting. “In the last three months,” he writes, “my office has been contacted about three new projects in China.” If those projects are actually built, they’ll add to the eight that Golfplan says it’s produced in the nation. Actually, the number is down to seven: Dale acknowledges that one of the firm’s courses, Qiandahou Country Club in Zhejiang Province, was among those that were closed in the most recent government crackdown.

     Hà Nam Province, Vietnam. Vietnam’s countdown to 96 golf courses is now near its midway point, and Hà Nam Province is poised to add two more tracks to the list.
     On Christmas Eve 2016, ground was ceremonially broken on an 18-hole layout at Stone Valley Golf Resort, which will occupy 500 acres in Kim Bang District. The course, the first of two in the master plan, has been designed by Brian Curley, and it’s scheduled to open in early 2018. Curley is, of course, a principal of Paradise Valley, Arizona-based Schmidt-Curley Design, the firm best known for its epic work at the massive Mission Hills resorts in China.
     Over the past year or so, Curley has made his presence felt in Vietnam in a major way, thanks to his association with FLC Group, one of the nation’s major golf developers. He recently wrapped up construction on a course at FLC Quy Nhơn Golf Links, in Bình Định Province, and later this year he expects to open FLC Hạ Long Bay Golf Club & Resort, in Quảng Ninh Province. In addition, FLC Group has enlisted him to design the first two courses at FLC Đồng Hới Golf Links, a 7,500-acre resort community in Quảng Bình Province.
     An official count hasn’t been released lately, but these days Vietnam has about 45 golf courses. If domestic and foreign developers achieve the government’s goal – 96 courses by 2020 – that means about 50 more courses are going to open in the socialist republic over the next four years.

     The original version of the preceding post first appeared in the January 2017 issue of the World Edition of the Golf Course Report.

     South Island, New Zealand. A winery outside Queenstown has dusted off expansion plans that include the construction of an 18-hole golf course. Gibbston Valley Winery had hoped to start building the course, the centerpiece of a 1,000-acre wine-themed community originally called Gibbston Valley Station, in 2009. The Great Recession put an end to those plans, but today, with New Zealand’s economy improving and 140,000 visitors coming through its doors annually, the winery believes its time has come. The golf course has been designed by Greg Turner, who expects it to offer “incredible views and dynamic challenges” and provide “a rewarding and memorable playing experience.” Turner, who’s based in Queenstown, has said that the course will feature “some of the world’s most spectacular holes,” and at one time he was thinking that it might not include any bunkers.

     The original version of the preceding post first appeared in the December 2016 issue of the World Edition of the Golf Course Report.

     New South Wales, Australia. Road construction in suburban Sydney is going to force a long-established golf club to relocate. Kogarah Golf Club, a venue in Arncliffe that opened in the 1930s, will be moving to a site in nearby Barton Park. A time line hasn’t yet been set, but the news comes as no surprise to the club’s members, as the road has been in the works for more than a decade. In fact, the club isn’t reluctant to relocate, because it’s lost members in recent years and believes a new home, especially one with a freshly built, “international-standard” course, will help to attract new members and ensure its long-term economic viability.

     Argyll & Bute, Scotland. Within the next year or two, an ancient Scottish golf venue is expected to become the centerpiece of a 300-house subdivision. It’ll be a dramatic change of pace for Helensburgh Golf Club, a venue in suburban Glasgow that was established in 1893 with a nine-hole course (it was reportedly “approved” by Old Tom Morris) and got its second nine in 1905. Today, Helensburgh is negotiating with a home builder that wants 30 acres of the club’s property. In exchange, the home builder has agreed to relocate five of the course’s holes and build a new clubhouse, an amenity that the unpretentious, family-friendly club believes it needs to ensure its financial viability. The club’s members don’t appear to have any regrets, for Frank Riding, a Helensburgh official, told a local newspaper that they “voted overwhelmingly for the development to proceed.” The houses aren’t likely to arrive until 2019 at the earliest, and the home builder has promised to complete the work on the golf course before they do.

     Negri Sembilan, Malaysia. Last week, several months after its soft opening, Kota Seriemas Golf & Country Club celebrated its official debut. The club, in suburban Kuala Lumpur, features a tournament-worthy layout that was designed by Nigel B. Douglas, who aims to produce “the highest-quality result in an optimum timeframe, for a realistic price and in a manner that is sympathetic to nature and sustainable for the long term.” Douglas has produced a handful of courses in Malaysia, among them two others in metropolitan Kuala Lumpur, Seri Selangor Golf Club and Valencia Golf Club. His new course is the centerpiece of a 2,400-acre community that opened just after the turn of the century. The Star thinks the 18-hole track “should do wonders for the place.”

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Week That Was, march 12, 2017

     You can scratch Mike Keiser’s name off the list of potential suitors for Cape Wickham Links. The renowned track, on King Island in Tasmania, is for sale (reported asking price: about $15 million), but the Chicago, Illinois-based developer of such destination-worthy resorts as Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links has zero interest. Keiser has three objections. First, the price is too high. “I can probably build one cheaper,” he acknowledged in a recent conversation. Two, he thinks the location is too remote for North American golfers. While Keiser was building his courses at Barnbougle Dunes, he visited Tasmania twice a year, but these days such a journey has become too exhausting. “I no longer relish the trip to Melbourne,” he concedes. Three, Keiser’s true calling is development. “I won’t buy courses,” he explains. “Finding sites and building on them is too much fun.” On this point, it’s worth noting that Keiser recently passed on a pair of development opportunities on King Island. Today, at the age of 72, he prefers to stay closer to home.

     Though he’s cutting back on his travel, Mike Keiser did recently book a flight to the other side of the world, specifically to New Zealand’s North Island. While there, he played Tom Doak’s course at Tara Iti, and it took his breath away. “It’s the most beautiful golf course I’ve ever seen,” he gushed to me last week. The encounter reminded Keiser of Doak’s considerable architectural talents and led him to tell the Traverse City, Michigan-based designer to get cracking on a routing at Sand Valley. Doak expects to deliver his proposal this summer. Keiser is considering the track for Sand Valley’s third course, along with a layout by Mike DeVries and a Harry Colt tribute layout that would be designed by Coore & Crenshaw. If you twist his arm hard enough, though, Keiser will admit that all three courses will probably find a home at Sand Valley someday.

     The CEO who brought the World Golf Championships to Mexico City is looking to build on his accomplishment. As part of a grow-the-game initiative, Benjamin Salinas of TV Azteca has established the nation’s first First Tee program, and he’s formed a group that aims to build its first daily-fee golf course. “It is a dream that we hope will grow,” Salinas told the Golf Channel. Regarding the proposed course, which would take shape somewhere near Tijuana, Salinas said it would emerge “with the help of the [Baja California] state government” and that he’s enlisted a group of “businessmen who are ready to pay for it.” Salinas concedes that he and his partners are “starting from scratch,” but look at the big picture: Mexico has nowhere to go but up.

     The mainstream golf media has enthusiastically touted the election of our nation’s Jekyll & Hyde President, but perhaps they have another think coming. Citing data from travel companies and travel-research firms, the New York Times says that the demand for travel to the United States “took a nosedive” in the wake of the failed Muslim ban in January. “Prior to the ban, the U.S. was one of our best-selling destinations,” a spokesperson for a British tour operator told the newspaper, “but our customers are now choosing to travel to other countries.” This is troubling, because tourism creates jobs (7.6 million of them in 2015) and contributes more than $1.5 trillion annually to the U.S. economy. Without putting too fine a point on it, what we’re seeing here should remind us that government policies inevitably have unintended consequences. A lot of people in golf support the president’s anti-immigrant agenda, but did they foresee an accompanying decline in travel to our shores? And what’s worse for the golf economy, a minuscule threat of terrorism or a significant decrease in bookings at resorts like Pebble Beach and Pinehurst? Our business has been forced to fight through great challenges in recent years. Now, as our financial prospects have brightened, we don’t need boneheads in government to create new problems for us.

     Escalante Golf has closed on its expected purchase of Kingsmill Resort, a venue that it believes is “one of the most iconic resorts on the East Coast.” The Fort Worth, Texas-based owner/operator reportedly paid $29.3 million for Kingsmill, which features two 18-hole public courses (one designed by Pete Dye, the other by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay) and a private club that features an 18-hole layout bearing the “signature” of Curtis Strange. The centerpiece of a 2,900-acre community in Williamsburg, Virginia, Kingsmill was created by an entity related to Anheuser-Busch Company in 1969. The beer conglomerate sold it to Xanterra Parks & Resorts in 2010, reportedly for $24 million. With the purchase, Escalante now owns 16 golf properties in nine U.S. states.
     Other notable transactions . . .
       -- Lon Tabatchnick, the developer of a Jimmy Buffett-themed gathering spot in Hollywood (Florida, not California), has agreed to buy Weston Hills Country Club, in suburban Miami. Weston Hills features a pair of 18-hole, Robert Trent Jones-designed golf courses that opened in the 1990s, and it’s currently owned by an entity affiliated with Arcis Equity Partners, which is bankrolled by a New York City-based investment group. Tabatchnick hasn’t revealed the price he intends to pay for Weston Hills, but Arcis coughed up $14 million for it in 2014.
       -- In January, Festiva Real Estate Holdings acquired Wachesaw Plantation East, a venue outside Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The property features an 18-hole, Clyde Johnston-designed golf course that opened in the mid 1990s.

     All that Ian Poulter-branded apparel that nobody wants to buy is about to become collectible. The British professional golfer has “with great sadness” pulled the plug on IJP Design, the entity that produced Poulter-endorsed clothing and accessories not just for men but for women and children as well. In an announcement explaining his decision, Poulter blamed his line’s demise on “an ever increasingly competitive landscape,” which is now unfortunately littered by a long parade of multinational corporations (Nike, Under Armour, PGA Tour) and corporations masquerading as people (Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Ralph Lauren). If truth be told, this ego-driven business is overdue for a shake-out. In fact, if there was a czar of apparel merchandising, he’d probably treat golf branding the way our government now treats environmental regulations: He’d close two before approving a new one.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Desolation Row, march 10, 2017

     Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Links at Novadell, which claimed to offer “magnificent golf, superb amenities, and outstanding service,” went belly up on the last day of last year. The Don Charles-designed, 18-hole track was only 14 years old. An online reviewer once complained that Novadell was “perhaps the flattest 18 holes of golf I’ve ever played,” but he conceded that it was “an inexplicably fun golf course.”

     Alexandria, Louisiana. Time has run out on Alexandria Golf & Country Club, a venue that was said to be “a big piece of the community for many years.” The club’s debut came in 1945, and it thrived into the early 21st century, as a local newspaper says that it served as “a showcase for many young golfers who found fame and success later.” The group included Dow Finsterwald, Gay Brewer, and David Toms. Alexandria began fending off competitors in 2002, when two public courses opened in the area, and by 2007 it fell into a serious decline. The few remaining members played their last rounds late last month.

     Brewton, Alabama. Hoping to save $150,000 a year, elected officials in Brewton have voted to close Dogwood Hills Municipal Golf Course. The vote was initiated by the city’s mayor, who claims that the nine-hole, 80-year-old track has only 50 regular players. “Golf is a declining sport,” he said in a comment published by the Brewton Standard. The mayor is thinking about building ball fields or a pool on the property.

     Corvallis, Oregon. Just before Christmas, Doug Hoselton closed the golf course that had been in his family for nearly 60 years. Marysville Golf Course had faced financial difficulties of late, and Hoselton wants to retire. “It was a great golf-development golf course for entry-level golfers,” the golf pro at another local course told the Corvallis Gazette-Times. “I’m sad to see it go, I really am. It’s been here a long time, and it’s been a great asset to the community.” Hoselton’s grandparents built the nine-hole, Fred Federspiel-designed track in 1958. The property’s 93 acres will likely be leased to a farmer.

     Redding, California. Redding Rancheria has drawn the curtain on what it once called the “Biggest Little Country Club in Northern California.” The venue is River Tasalmi Golf Club, which opened in 1990, as River Bend Golf & Country Club. The tribe purchased River Bend in 2010, to serve as an amenity for its Win-River Casino, but the property’s nine-hole, executive-length track didn’t pull its weight. The tribe hasn’t announced a closing date, but it appears that the decision is final.

     Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Late last year, a long-suffering golf complex in suburban Albuquerque met its unfortunate but seemingly inevitable end. Jhett Browne turned out the lights for the last time at his Club Rio Rancho, a venue that was reportedly burdened by nearly $3.8 million in debt. Albuquerque Business First reports that Browne, who bought the club in 2014, intends to turn it over to its lender. The club had operated since 1970, with an 18-hole course that had been co-designed by Desmond Muirhead and Gene Sarazen. It added a Lee Trevino-designed nine in 1987.

     Wilmington, North Carolina. Despite complaints from local residents, it appears that the struggling Echo Farms Golf & Country Club is doomed to become a subdivision. Late last year, Matrix Development Group, the club’s owner, requested permission to build more than 500 housing units on the 139 acres that had operated as an 18-hole golf course since 1974. Matrix bought Echo Farms and its Gene Hamm-designed layout in 1995 but has concluded that the purchase “wasn't a prudent investment.” It may eventually change its mind, however, because Wilmington is said to be the center of “a booming housing market.”

     Cleveland, Mississippi. This summer, state-mandated budget cuts will force Delta State University to pull the plug on Derrall Foreman Golf Course. The nine-hole track had operated since 1932. By closing the course, the school expects to save $250,000 a year.

     Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Over the next few years, Cherry Valley Golf Course will become a wildlife refuge. The 18-hole, nearly 50-year-old track was recently purchased by the Nature Conservancy, reportedly for $1.7 million. The conservancy intends to hand the course over to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which will return the 193-acre property to something resembling its “natural” state. No word yet on when the park will be open to the public.