When Fayetteville’s Razorback Park Golf Course pulled up its golf tees in the spring of 2015, it was among a string of high-profile golf course closings across Arkansas that year, offering a snapshot into the struggles of an industry that had vastly overbuilt during the so-called Tiger Woods era.
But Razorback Park was not alone in its struggles. In a space of just a few years, golf courses like Big Sugar Golf Club in Pea Ridge, the Greystone Country Club in Cabot, Emerald Park and Stone Links in North Little Rock, Longhills in Benton and the historic Belvedere Golf Club in Hot Springs were either closed, put on the auction block or sold to new owners.
Brad Martin, director of golf at the First Tee of Central Arkansas, said while there are a number of great golf courses nine- and 18-hole golf courses across the state, the inventory of public, semi-private and private clubs oversaturated the marketplace.
“We’ve over-golfed,” Martin said. “Back there in the late 1980s and early 1990s that was the thing — build a golf course. Well, you know, now there is just not that much golf to go around.”
Today, dozens of golf courses and golf-related businesses in every corner of the state are seeking to find the sweet spot with a new generation of millennials and post-Baby Boomers who are not willing to either pay for exorbitant country club memberships or green fees of the past, or invest the four to six hours that it sometimes takes to play an 18-hole round.
Martin, a PGA professional who was taught the game by his father, has previously worked at private courses in Hot Springs Village (Diamante) and Little Rock (Pleasant Valley). He said the Natural State’s golf industry is facing a number of industrywide challenges that have seen a gradual drop-off in number of new golfers attracted to traditional “green-grass” golf.
At the same time, a generation of older avid golfers have put their golf clubs in storage. In addition, Martin said, the speed of play, the cost of equipment and “busyness” of today’s families also play a major role in fewer rounds of golf being played in Arkansas and across the U.S.
“It’s just kind of a snowball effect of [being] busy and having more activity with kids than we did maybe in the past,” he explained. “There’s so much stuff going on that it takes four hours-plus out of your day to go play a very difficult game that you’ve got to spend $1,000 on equipment to play. So there’s a lot of barriers out there.”
A NATURAL CORRECTION
Nationwide, the declining number of participants has had a direct impact on the shrinking number of golf courses across the U.S. The trends are highlighted by recent studies by the National Golf Foundation (NGF) that point to the recent struggles of a once booming sector of the sports industry.
In April, the NGF released its annual 2017 report on golf facilities in the U.S. that show the industry continues to go through a period of “natural correction” following a 20-year period of the most dramatic growth in the game’s history, which many industry experts cite as the Tiger Woods era.
At the end of 2016, there were a total of 15,014 golf facilities in the United States, comprising 14,117.5 open and operating 18-hole equivalent (18-HEQ) courses. 18-HEQ is the industry measure of golf supply, calculated by taking the total number of golf holes and dividing by 18. The final 2016 count showed a net reduction of 171 courses, which amounts to a 1.2% contraction from 2015.
Golf course “stocks and flows” in 2016 included the permanent closure of 211.5 courses and the opening of only 15.5 brand new courses. There were 95 courses that reopened after comprehensive renovations, while another 11.5 courses deemed “permanently closed” welcomed golfers back following a prolonged shutdown.
“NGF views the slow and steady reduction of U.S. courses as the natural economic response to the opening of more than 4,000 new golf facilities between 1986 and 2005,” said Greg Nathan, NGF’s chief business officer. “This gradual reduction is indicative of the market’s healthy self-balancing of supply and demand, and a trend we expect to continue for several more years. American golfers have more than 15,000 green-grass facilities where they can tee it up, one reason the contraction in supply has shown no direct impact on frequency of play, with rounds-played in the U.S. increasing each of the past two years.”
The NGF report also notes that investment in golf facilities remains significant, with major renovation projects replacing new construction as the largest source of U.S. golf course development activity. After the building boom resulted in 4,926 new 18-hole courses opened from 1986 through 2005, there have been 492 new courses since.
Nationwide, NGF tracked 986 major course renovations completed since 2006, representing a total investment of at least $3 billion. Examining full renovation projects over the last several years, the average capital investment was approximately $3 million for 18 holes, a conservative figure that takes into consideration a wide range of facilities, project types and geographic locations. The $3 billion investment into America’s golf courses does not include minor rehabilitation projects, which are done without any, or limited, impact on the course’s operation.
According to NGF, Florida leads the way in renovations over the past five years, with 10% of its 1,170 courses undertaking major projects. Texas, California, North Carolina and South Carolina also rank among the top five states in golf course renovations since 2012.
Still, the downturn in the golf course industry is highlighted by the 43 “off-market” golf courses and related businesses now available for sale in Arkansas, according to LoopNet.com, which provides an active listing of more than 800,000 golf-related properties across the U.S.
LINDSEY THE LONE BUILDER
In Arkansas, however, golf course construction has almost been at a standstill in the 21st Century. And in the past decade, Northwest Arkansas is the only region of the state to undertake a major golf course project after Fayetteville-based Lindsey Management Company opened The Links at Fayetteville facility and The Links at Rainbow Curve in Bentonville in 2009, both nine-hole courses that measure about 3,000 yards.
Going back to 2004, Little Rock billionaire Warren Stephen’s 18-hole The Alotian Club has been the state’s most high-profile golf course opening since former PGA star and Dardanelle native John Daly opened the Ponce de Leon golf course in Hot Springs Village in 1991.
The NGF’s 2017 report on golf participation confirms what Martin and other local golf experts are saying —fewer rounds of golf are being played across the U.S. due to societal shifts and behavioral patterns and proliferation of non-traditional forms of a very traditional game.
Still, the NGF report notes that many of the trends in traditional participation are encouraging after nearly a decade of decline. In 2016, the total number of beginning golfers rose to a record-high 2.5 million, surpassing the previous record set in 2000, when Tiger Woods was at his prime and drawing newcomers to the game in unprecedented numbers.
The NGF’s national study found that the number of non-golfers expressing the highest level of interest in playing golf increased by 7.6% to 12.8 million. When factoring in an 11% increase in off-course participation – from driving ranges and Topgolf facilities to indoor golf simulators – overall involvement in the game is actually up. Driven primarily by the popularity and growth of Topgolf, a non-traditional form of golf entertainment, there were an estimated 20 million off-course participants in 2016. Of those, 8.2 million didn’t play on a golf course.
Considering both on-course and off-course participation, golf’s consumer base increased to 32 million in 2016, up from 31.1 million a year earlier.
“NGF has been planning the reporting of off-course participation for some time,” said NGF President and CEO Joe Beditz. “There are a couple of good reasons for doing so: first, to make our golf participation numbers better reflect overall golf activity and play; and, second, to make our measure more comparable to other sports.”
Still, no one in Arkansas expects there to be a boon in golf construction anytime soon. In Central Arkansas, the unkempt cart paths on the wind-swept Stone Links on the Arkansas River in North Little Rock are slowly being overtaken by wild grasses and weeds.
In Fayetteville, efforts to resurrect the Razorback Park course failed after JEL Land Acquisition LLC purchased the course just west of Interstate 49 shortly after it closed two years ago. JEL, a partnership registered to local real estate developer Jim Lindsey of the aforementioned Lindsey Management, has also failed to get approval from the city to build 668 apartment units and 233 single-family houses on the 125-acre tract.
In the past 20 years, Lindsey has become the state’s most prolific golf course construction company in the state, building more than a dozen nine- and 18-hole complexes adjacent to the company’s unique-looking apartment complexes in nearly all of the state’s largest cities. Altogether, the state’s largest property management firm of multi-family housing owns and operates 42 golf courses in Arkansas and seven other states.
If Fayetteville would have allowed Lindsey to move forward with project, it would have been the Northwest Arkansas property management firm’s largest development with 921 apartments and homes — and a golf course.