It seems very poor taste to note that a pandemic which has, up to now, killed seven million people and triggered the largest global economic crisis in more than a century, has been good for golf.
But numbers don’t lie. In 2021, according to the National Golf Foundation, more rounds of golf were played in the United States than ever before, up by six per cent, even after a huge spike in the second half of 2020. In the UK, the number of people playing golf jumped from three million in 2019 to 5.2 million in 2020. Globally, the NGF estimates that the total number of golfers grew from 61 million to 66.6 million as a result of the pandemic.
It isn’t hard to see why that initial spike happened. Golf was one of the first leisure activities to be allowed to reopen after the first round of pandemic lockdowns; its outdoor nature, its huge playing field and its essentially socially distanced nature made it an obvious way of getting out of doors and having fun at a time when both were difficult to achieve. According to the NGF’s 2020 survey, 67 per cent of golfers explained their increased play by saying they had ‘fewer alternative ways to spend leisure time’. The following year, though, 56 per cent of respondents said that golf was ‘more of a priority’.
“Golf was given a rebirth during Covid, especially in the younger demographic,” says architect Phil Smith. “What was once seen as a waste of time – a four-hour game – is now seen as a valuable way to get a break from phones and computer screens. I attribute some of that to the psychological effects of Covid and people realised what was important to them after being locked up for a year or so in front of their computer screens.”
This change has to be good news for those in the golf industry. It may not be the case worldwide – British architect and course owner Adrian Stiff says the pandemic “probably increased demand by 25 per cent, but it’s fading a bit now, maybe at six or seven per cent a year.” There are certainly some regions where new activity is minimal. Swedish architect Christian Lundin says very clearly: “There is no boom here.” But the belief of many golfers, that if more people were exposed to the game, they would enjoy it enough to keep playing, seems to have some legs. In most of the golfing world, the boom in participation is very real indeed. And, inevitably, that is resulting in more work for golf course architects.
“We are as busy as we have been since the early/mid 2000s,” says Jeremy Slessor, chief executive of European Golf Design. “The first two months of Covid – March/April 2020 – were fairly concerning, but since then it has been crazy.”
Slessor says that the spike in architecture work began very quickly, way before any boom in participation had become clear, and was led by the renovation market, with forward-thinking owners realising that, if their facilities were going to be closed or empty for a substantial time, it was a good opportunity to make necessary improvements. “For renovation projects, especially where there was a hotel involved, people decided early on that the summer of 2020 was going to be dead, so let’s get on and do what we need to,” he explains. “Where newbuilds are concerned, people thought, ‘We are three to five years away from needing to market and sell this thing, and if Covid is still a serious problem then we’re all in big trouble, plus interest rates are low, so why not go ahead now?’”
Bill Coore says: “If I took a call today from a prospective client with a project that was ready to go, it would be the winter of 2025/26 before we could possibly start work on it, and even that is questionable, unless one of our committed projects were to fall away.”
What is clear about this boom is that it is happening from the top down: it is the elite firms who are busiest, and the most high-end projects that are moving ahead fastest. Yet the spike in activity is feeding through to almost every level of the business. “My business has exploded since Covid,” says Phil Smith. “Both private and resort businesses have seen an increase. It’s mostly in the US, but I’m getting a few overseas leads for new course work. The nature of projects is a mix. As an architect, it just depends on the type of developers that we are connected with. But people seem to be spending money both on resort vacations and/or club membership. It’s been nice to see the rebirth of both since the 2008 disaster.”
Texas-based designer Kurt Bowman echoes the theme that the boom is across the market. “It’s definitely best for the top guys, but it’s still pretty good for most architects – there still seems to be a lot of work out there,” he says. “I’ve had a bunch of enquiries in the last six to eight weeks, and I have one project I’m finishing this year, and one eighteen-hole redesign that will start late this or early next year. Add to that a couple of little projects and it’s pretty good – two decent projects at once is a ton of work for me. I think the positive reviews, and the recent ranking of the Links course at Hacienda Alcaidesa in Spain has helped me. The more you’re out and about and people see your work and talk about it, the better, obviously.”
Trying to market and sell golf design services is always a challenge, but Slessor says that, at the moment, the lack of any identifiable trends about where work is coming from make directing sales efforts even more difficult. “I would say that as an industry we are in a good place, but it is everywhere and nowhere. We look at our enquiries and there are no trends,” he explains. “There is very strong optimism in all the markets in which we are involved. Everybody seems to be selling their product, real estate, memberships, hotel beds, green fees. In 2021, operators were saying that green fees were the biggest part of their business, but in 2022, they flipped and said that member play was back in a big way. You can have the best marketing strategy in the world, but if you’re not getting out there and talking to people it’s not going to help.”
“I think the market has totally flipped from prior to 2008, when it was mostly new courses and mostly real estate-driven, especially in the US,” says Bowman. “You think about the design firms that were dominant then, and those that are the top guys now, I wouldn’t have believed that change. Credit is due to those firms obviously – they do great work – but when most of the work is redesigns, it changes the economics of projects. It’s hard to justify a multimillion-dollar fee on most redesign jobs in the way you might on a real estate-driven course. Clients have seen that architects who are not PGA Tour players are doing great work: it is now easier in the design world to be a smaller operation than it is to be an old-style big shop.
“The biggest win for David against Goliath was when Gil Hanse won the Rio 2016 Olympic course. He beat all the big names, and it changed the trajectory of Gil’s career and was hugely important in changing the trajectory for a lot of architects.”
But the biggest boom of all is in a few select warm-weather locations in the US. It is most evident in south Florida, where a remarkable number of high profile projects are under construction. Prime among them are the Apogee Club, a 1,200-acre development near Hobe Sound, to the north of West Palm Beach, backed by Sebonack developer Michael Pascucci and Stephen Ross, who owns the Miami Dolphins NFL team. The first course, the West, designed by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, should open this winter: the second, designed by Tommy Fazio and former USGA boss Mike Davis, will follow, and Kyle Phillips is at work on the third.
Not far away, Ken Bakst, the developer of Friar’s Head on Long Island, has acquired a massive property of 4,000 acres and hired the firm of Whitman, Axland and Cutten (WAC) to design 36 holes and a massive practice facility (as reported in GCA July 2023). Also in the Hobe Sound area, Discovery Land is developing Atlantic Fields on a 2,300-acre site, bringing its usual recipe of a luxury residential development – with homes apparently starting at $3 million – and a Tom Fazio golf course to Florida for the first time. Just to the south, in Palm Beach County, Nicklaus Design, along with a new signature designer, Justin Thomas, are at work on Panther National, another enormous development, spread over 2,400 acres, for the Swiss billionaire Dominik Senn.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. “There are at least 15 very high-end private clubs going in central and south Florida, several of which are standalone clubs with no development, except golf cottages or development completely separate from the course,” says golf architect Dana Fry, who lives in the area. “We [he and his partner Jason Straka] are heavily loaded with top-end projects not only in Florida, but also in South Carolina and Georgia to a lesser extent. There is also a lot of golf being planned in other warm weather states like Texas, and Arizona would be the same, if it were not for the shortage of water there.”
Rob Collins, who is currently working on a reversible nine-hole course at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina, among many other projects – and like Coore is booked out for several years – says: “I think there has been a big shift in what people want in golf. I’ve witnessed it at Sweetens [Cove, the nine-hole course outside Chattanooga that made his reputation, and which he now co-owns and operates]. People are willing to search out and play compelling golf. It doesn’t matter where it is, and I don’t think we’ve begun to see the bottom of that movement. As regards Florida and other warm weather markets, I think Covid has radically shifted our society in ways we’ll still be learning about in 20-plus years from now. A lot of people are realising they don’t need to live where they work. Therefore, warmer climates are becoming increasingly popular and the demand for golf is nowhere near met in a place like south Florida. Especially given that almost all the golf down there is part of residential developments and not very compelling to this new breed of player. So, something that is new and thoughtful is going to be immensely popular and sought after.”
Fry concurs: “Wealthy people are leaving a lot of northern states for better weather and a low-tax environment. Florida has over a thousand courses, but most are mediocre at best, so there is an obvious shortage of quality, high-end golf for these new residents. If rich people move south in numbers, and the few really good clubs are full, then there will be demand for high quality new places to play. It is a function of population movement combined with the increased interest in great golf that has been developing essentially since Sand Hills. There is lots of movement to Cabo in Mexico too, mostly the wealthy from western states like California, Washington and Colorado, so there are lots of golf, hotel and development projects going in there.”
It may have taken 15 years, and the nature of the market has changed completely – there is not a huge swell of housing-based golf being built, though there are projects of that kind too – but golf development is on the up in a way not seen in some time.
This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.