Carmel Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, isn’t among the new U.S. golf courses that opened in 2016. Neither are Moraine Golf Club in Ohio, Turtle Creek in Florida, nor Birmingham Country Club in Michigan.
But with the significant investment made in course renovations at those facilities, they certainly could be considered “new” in many respects.
“The `What’s old is new again’ saying is certainly true in the golf industry,” says architect Jim Wagner, who worked alongside Gil Hanse last year on restoration projects at properties such as Winged Foot, Aronimink, TPC Boston, and Los Angeles Country Club. “You’re reintroducing the fun, the strategy, a lot of newness from the design standpoint. And you’re truly improving the property.”
No country in the world has as many golf facilities – more than 15,000 — as the U.S. But the industry currently has an oversupply of facilities in many markets, the byproduct of an entrepreneur-driven 20-year building boom from 1986 through 2005 that saw the total number of courses jump by a whopping 44 percent.
Not surprisingly, new course development is now limited. Of the 23 layouts that opened last year, 15 were nine-hole courses or additions. The others that debuted last year generally had a common theme: a unique design, a special location or an existing successful property or ownership group. Sometimes it was a combination of all three, as with the Tom Doak-designed reversible Loop Course at Forest Dunes in Michigan or Mike Keiser’s Sand Valley property in Wisconsin.
Industry-wide, major renovations have replaced new construction as the primary focus of course investment. Money is still being pumped into golf facilities, but now it’s a matter of upgrading and improving existing courses.
In 2016, a total of 95 (18-HEQ) courses re-opened after renovation projects that cost in the neighborhood of $300 million. Since 2006, the investment into full-scale 18-hole renovations is more than $3 billion.
“We built so many golf courses, especially in the 90’s, that we kind of got over our skis there a little bit,” says architect John Fought. “What we’re seeing now is not just private club renovations, but public or municipal type facilities that have infrastructure needs and have to modernize and make their golf courses better and more sustainable. I’ve been stunned in a lot of cases by how much the work has improved golf courses and how much more popular they become.”
The golf course at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club re-opened at the end of last year following a seven-month, $10.5 million redesign. It now looks nothing like it did back in 1951, when a then 11-year-old Jack Nicklaus, who was in Florida on family vacation, broke 40 over nine holes for the first time ever (just a year after taking up the game). Ironically, it was Nicklaus’ design team that oversaw the renovation in collaboration with architect John Sanford.
“It was really re-invented,” says Jason Parsons, the general manager at the 125-acre beachfront resort. “If you compare the previous product to now, it’s not apples to oranges; it’s like an apple to a watermelon. It’s a massive change.”
Parsons said they tried “band-aid” fixes for several years, but were ultimately told by the architects that the course had, well, run its course. The investment seemed to make sense, in that the golf course was the No. 1 target of guest complaints. Still, the Naples metropolitan area boasts more than its share of golf, ranking second in the U.S. in the number of golf holes (1,530) in relation to population, according to NGF data.
Previously, the resort offered $500 annual memberships that provided a discount for tee times. After the renovation, the 100 memberships they hoped to sell were snatched up in two weeks. That number quickly doubled (the property charges $8,000 for a single membership and $11,000 for a couple) and there’s a lengthy waiting list. Parsons says the resort takes care to make sure it has the proper balance to accommodate hotel guests, but that the course overhaul has turned out to be even better than expected for business.
“It went from our goat on the property to the hero of the property,” he adds.
What’s Old Is New Again
Carmel Country Club in Charlotte also looks significantly different after shutting down its North Course for 10 months last year to undergo a full $8 million renovation that included a partial re-routing.
A number of the greens that had been eaten by plant-parasitic nematodes were relocated. The amount of bunkers was reduced, modern drainage and irrigation systems were installed and new cart paths were added.
“For all intents and purposes, it’s a new golf course on the same property,” said Carmel CC General Manager John Schultz. “There wasn’t a single tee box that stayed, the greens moved, we took advantage of lengthening where we could, and improving the strategy and some of the views that are out there.”
Fought, the architect who did the work at Carmel, said building what amounts to a new golf course in the same location not only creates excitement for customers or members, but it has logistical benefits as well.
“It doesn’t have to be permitted at the same level as you do a new golf course, which is beyond a nightmare, and a lot of them come with water rights or whatever else they need,” Fought said. “There are a lot of positives to taking a golf course that was old, tired and poor, and rebuilding it into something new.”
In Ohio’s glacier-carved Miami Valley, a bit of Scotland has been returned to Moraine Golf Club’s original links-inspired design following a $4.7 million renovation project. Club members were greeted by a very different look at the 1930 course following the 361-day renovation, which included new bunkers, tees, greens, grasses, drainage system and cart path surfaces. Most notable though was the removal of more than 3,000 trees that gives Moraine a totally different look and feel.
“People were blown away by it,” Moraine head pro Brent Sipe says. “There were vistas that they couldn’t even conceptualize until you were out there. We’ve brought it back to what it was intended to be.”
Turtle Creek in Tequesta, Florida, was completely rebuilt “tip-to-tip” at a cost of approximately $3 million last year. Beyond the new tees, grasses, irrigation and contouring, two more lakes were added to the property in northeast Florida, about two hours north of Miami.
At Birmingham Country Club in the suburbs of Detroit, the 100-year-old site of the 1953 PGA Championship was closed last year for 8½ months to undergo a comprehensive $2.8 million renovation. Greens were rebuilt, bunkers were re-done and reshaped, and fairways, greens, and rough got new turf. Aging cart paths were repaired and re-routed, and a water feature was converted into a new irrigation reservoir with an added pump house.
Birmingham Country Club is about three hours south of Roscommon, Michigan, which is home of The Loop – one (or two) of the new U.S. courses to debut in 2016. Doak’s outside-the-box creation at Forest Dunes has become an instant success. But for those at Birmingham CC, and almost 100 other courses across the country that invested millions in renovations, what was old is now new too.
“We’re all seeing an uptick in business in general,” said Sanford, the architect who led the renovation at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. “You still have a lot of clubs that are competing for members and customers. That’s driving golf course upgrades, and also clubhouse upgrades. You’ve got to provide a better product.”