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Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Week That Was, may 6, 2018

     In the culmination of what’s been called a “three-year wind down,” Lee Schmidt has retired and no longer works for the design firm he co-founded more than two decades ago. Schmidt-Curley Golf Design is now fully in the hands of Brian Curley, who reports via text that the firm’s name will change “at some point,” though the process of doing so is “very complicated.” Whatever it ends up being called, though, the Paradise Valley, Arizona-based firm is almost certain to remain a major force in golf, as Curley is a tireless and effective marketer. The firm’s gushing pipeline in China no longer flows, but Curley says that he currently has “a bunch of work” in Vietnam and Thailand. Schmidt, who’s 70, apprenticed with Pete Dye and Nicklaus Design, and he met Curley during his stint at Landmark Land Design. He didn’t respond to a message, but it appears that he may on occasion take on some solo work.

     One of the club industry’s most coveted venues has found its new owner.
     Benjamin Franklin duPont and Don Wirth have signed what’s said to be “a binding letter of intent” to purchase DuPont Country Club, a nearly century-old venue in Wilmington, Delaware that’s seen better days but is generally regarded as having potential. They hope to “protect the legacy” of the 525-acre spread and establish it as “a state-of-the-art, affordable, and family-focused club.”
     The club went on the market about a year ago, after publicly traded E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company was pressured into selling under-performing assets. The property attracted offers from what Jeff Woolson of CBRE’s Golf & Resort Group, which facilitated the transaction, characterizes as “a good collection of national and local bidders.” The identities of the bidders are being kept secret, but Concert Golf Partners was among them, and it’s widely believed that ClubCorp was another. “There was a lot of national interest,” Woolson acknowledges.
     DuPont features a 113,000-square-foot clubhouse, more than two dozen tennis courts, and three 18-hole golf courses. As part of the transaction, duPont and Wirth will also acquire the adjacent Brantwyn Estate, which hosts weddings and social events.
     The prospective buyers, both longtime club members, haven’t revealed what they’ve agreed to pay for DuPont, but they’ve announced that they intend to invest an additional $18 million into capital improvements – an indication of the property’s woeful condition.
     “The club needs a lot of capital improvements to be competitive in the marketplace,” Woolson notes.
     In particular, duPont and Wirth aim to completely overhaul the clubhouse, with improved wi-fi and tastier food, make overdue improvements to the golf courses, and add amenities that a state-of-the-art, family-focused club must have to attract members nowadays, namely swimming pools, a fitness center, and a golf practice center. They’re hoping to turn DuPont into a “lifestyle” property, a concept that’s all the rage in the club industry these days. This is an increasingly well-worn path to profitability that was originally beaten by Concert, ClubCorp, Arcis Golf and other deep-pocketed owner/operators.
     The trouble is, I don’t recall Concert, ClubCorp, and Arcis ever spending a veritable king’s ransom – $18 million – on capital improvements to a single club. It’s likely that the prospective owners’ initial outlay will amount to $25 million or more, and that’s before they spend a nickel on salaries, day-to-day maintenance, marketing, all the other expenses that a well-functioning club regularly has to cover.
     In other words, “lifestyle” investments can add up quickly, and as a result they’re accompanied by significant risks. DuPont and Wirth believe that their investment will pay dividends in the form of new members, and they can cite as evidence a string of previous successes elsewhere in America. But nobody can accurately measure the depth of the market for “lifestyle” clubs, especially in an area of the country where there are plenty of attractive options to choose from.
     What’s more, the fresh face that duPont and Wirth plan to put on DuPont will, from the get-go, burden the club with debt that could be difficult to discharge. They’re hoping to double the club’s membership, from 1,750 to 3,500, with “affordable” initiation fees and monthly dues, but pricing is a tricky business for private clubs. Inevitably, pricing is entangled not only with a club’s image but with the image that its members have of themselves. America’s most desirable clubs tend to be aspirational, not affordable.
     All this begs an obvious question: Did the prospective owners overpay? It’s a question that DuPont’s other bidders can’t wait to see answered.

     Robert Trent Jones, Jr.’s first golf course in Vietnam is scheduled to open next year, and its developers have begun to talk about building another. Jones’ 18-hole layout will be a featured attraction for Hoiana, a 2,500-acre waterfront spread south of Đà Nẵng that aims to set “a new benchmark for high-end tourism in Vietnam” and become one of “Asia’s most renowned resort destinations.” Hồ Chí Minh City-based VinaCapital, one of the nation’s best-known golf developers, has master-planned the community to include houses, hotels, entertainment venues, and various other attractions designed to attract vacationers, including a second 18-hole track. VinaCapital hopes to open the course by 2023, though it hasn’t yet announced a designer.

     Pipeline Overflow – A group of investors from China, Hong Kong, and Australia have secured a green light for Cambria Green, a massive (7,960 acres) mega-community that’s to take shape along the eastern coast of Tasmania. The community will feature houses, a hotel, retail and commercial areas, a medical center, an airstrip, and a 27-hole golf complex to be co-designed by Neil Crafter and Paul Mogford. . . . It hasn’t really been discussed for several years, but Darius Oliver recently advised his readers to “keep an eye on” the “potential third course at Barnbougle Dunes.” The publisher of Planet Golf provided no other details, so let me note that Richard Sattler, the owner of the world-famous destination on Tasmania’s northeastern coast, long ago asked Bill Coore to create course number three, a par-3 track that was dubbed “Little Mike.” . . . Brian Curley is a keen observer of the hottest trends in golf architecture, and he’s adept at capitalizing upon them. To wit: The head of Schmidt-Curley Golf Design is currently putting the finishing touches on the first two golf courses at FLC Đồng Hới Golf Links in Vietnam, a venue that he views as “the Streamsong of Asia.”

     Duly Noted – Because high-income urban- and suburban-ites are now more willing than ever to travel farther from home for rest and relaxation, Crain’s Chicago Business has concluded that regional golf resorts “are facing an existential reckoning.” . . . It’s not a final decision, but the state of New Jersey has rejected Paul Fireman’s proposal to expand the footprint of Liberty National Golf Club. . . . Topgolf is taking yet another bite of a traditional golf venue. The victim this time is Ala Wai Golf Course, a municipal track in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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