The NGF sat down for a Q&A with Jeff Woolson, who has been involved in the sale of more than $1.6 billion worth of properties as the managing director of CBRE Golf & Resort Properties Group. Woolson is an industry expert when it comes to golf real estate services, working on transactions that include The Yellowstone Club, Kingsmill Resort, Troon North, Orange County National, Redstone Golf Portfolio, and the Bay Course at Kapalua.
How did you get your start in this particular sector of the golf industry?
“I’ve been with the same company for 27 years and when I started in commercial real estate in 1990, it was the beginning of the end. We had four offices in San Diego with over 120 guys. And there were 10 other companies in San Diego that were the same size. I met a bunch of people in the golf industry through my mother‑in‑law, who worked for the PGA and then for Ross Johnson, the chairman of Nabisco. Knowing she had worked for the PGA, they sent her to Palm Springs to basically run the Dinah Shore tournament. Then she went to work for Landmark Land, which was basically the Discovery Land of its time, building and creating these unbelievable resorts. So she became the first membership sales director at PGA West. My mother‑in‑law is very good friends with Barbara Nicklaus and my wife grew up with the Nicklaus family back in Florida. We were meeting Pete and Alice Dye and all these golf people.
And so then I’m back at work thinking, ‘How am I going to sell these industrial properties when I’m competing with all these guys?’ I found out there were a couple guys trying to sell golf courses – one in Texas and one in Arizona. My thinking suddenly was: I’d like to sell one golf course a year rather than traipsing around industrial buildings. Real estate was going in the tank, so I just dove in. People were saying, `Go ahead and try it,’ and it kind of evolved from there. I fell into it. I found out that selling industrial buildings wasn’t that sexy. It wasn’t something that interested me, but selling golf courses was a lot sexier, a lot more fun and there weren’t that many people doing it. CB has always been the commercial real estate company in the world. Even back in the 1990s we were still the largest. Suddenly I was a big fish in a very little pond. The opportunity existed to take an institutional approach to golf courses in a very fragmented market. And with the timing, it was more about luck than anything else. And during that early 90’s period, that was when ClubCorp and American Golf were growing. They’d grown to such a level that people were spinning out and starting their own companies – Cobblestone Golf, Century Golf, and Arnold Palmer Golf. Having a platform like CB allowed me to really apply the resources and an institutional approach to a business that was largely controlled by lawyers and very small brokers.”
What was 2016 like for you in terms of selling golf properties and how has it evolved?
“Every year is a little different. Last year was a great year. It wasn’t my best year, but it was a great year. Our business has evolved over the 27 years I’ve been doing this from selling standalone golf courses and golf resorts to master plan golf communities, resorts in the Caribbean, marinas and ski resorts. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s sold more ski resorts than we have because it’s a natural extension of selling an operating business like a golf course – there’s food and beverage, lift tickets, those kinds of things. 2016 was unique. Last year I think we sold six really great high end golf courses. The highlight of the year personally was Troon North in Scottsdale, but we sold Fairbanks Ranch here in San Diego; we sold Bill Walters’ golf course up in Las Vegas, Royal Links; we sold a high‑end private club down in Florida called the Wanderers; we sold the River Club near Atlanta, which is another unbelievably high‑end club. There was The Gallery out in Tucson, which is one of my favorite golf courses to play. We were really lucky to have the opportunity to work on some really world‑class courses last year.”
Are there situations where you’ll sell a golf course that then closes, or the property the course is on is being sold to be used for another reason?
“No, I don’t think we’ve ever sold a golf course that’s closed. Mind you, most of the golf courses that close do so for good reason; they’re not great golf courses or they’re in overly competitive market and the golf course operator can’t make it work. We’re typically working on established, pretty good golf courses. We’ve never worked on anything that got sold and the golf course was redeveloped into something else. But there are a lot of people looking for courses that they can convert into other uses. We’re selling DuPont Country Club in Delaware and the whole thing could be developed into housing. But DuPont is adamant that this project, this golf course remain a part of the fabric of that community and we’re going to put a deed restriction on it so it can’t be converted into housing.”
What are the most significant trends you see in the industry when it comes to golf course sales?
“In the last two or three years, one of the biggest trends I’ve seen is the conversion from equity member‑owned clubs into privately‑owned clubs. That’s huge. They’re extremely hard to do. We’ve done a couple, two or three, and it’s an emotional thing for these people. Typically I’m working for a corporation. It’s very business and straightforward; sell it, get the best price, get out there and let’s go. When you’re dealing with a member‑equity club, a lot of those members were really successful in what they used to do or still do. They’re very smart about everything, including selling golf courses. They’re very emotionally attached to the property; and when this property sells it’s going to be run differently. It’s going to be run for a profit.”
What is your overall take on the health of the golf industry?
“Well we’ve got two different sides of it – the transaction side of the business and then the health of the business. On the transactional side of the business, I’m encouraged. The most discouraging thing is the financing. There’s no financing, for anything, unless you’re an apartment building or an office complex with 90% equity. For the average Joe who wants to go out and buy a golf course, and base it on the asset value, there’s no debt for that. There’s so much money out there. I think it’s a huge opportunity to be lending on properties, but we’ve gone so far in the other direction. As for the health of golf, I don’t think it’s declining. I am concerned about the Millennials, from more than just than the golf perspective; I’m just concerned about them about working in general. What’s fascinating to me is Topgolf. It’s great for golf. If you get people hitting balls, it’s a good thing and then encourages people to go out and play more golf. It’s an unbelievable trend. There are more women playing golf and I think the Asian population, as it becomes the No. 1 immigrant group coming into the U.S., is really good for golf. And I think golf courses closing is a good thing. It makes it better for golf courses that are sticking around. You’ve got to weed the bad ones out, because some of these golf courses never should have been built. So in general I’m very bullish.”