Club owners betting on a comeback for golf

Posted Friday, Feb. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Fort Worth businessman Louis Scoma describes Woodhaven Country Club as having been "left in a holding pattern" when he bought the 148-acre property two years ago from a Washington, D.C.-based private equity firm.

The previous owner had stopped investing in the club, closed the tennis courts and shut down the food service. There were plans to fill in the swimming pool, Scoma said.

A member for 40 years, Scoma couldn't continue to watch the club deteriorate and made an offer to The Carlyle Group, which had it on the block.

"Why not?" Scoma thought. Real estate investors weren't scooping up country clubs in the economic downturn, and he feared Woodhaven could end up with investors who might shut it down and use the land for something else.

"We could see it changing hands," Scoma said.

After the purchase, Scoma immediately invested $1 million in the club, north of Interstate 30 in east Fort Worth. Woodhaven now has a growing membership, tennis pros, a golf academy and local residents coming in droves to eat prime rib on Friday night, he said.

Similar turnarounds are playing out at other country clubs as the golf business bounces back with the economy.

The recession was tough on the industry nationwide, according to an October report from SRI International. In 2011, private and public clubs spent $2 billion on their facilities, down from $7.8 billion in 2000, the report said.

They spent less because they had less. The U.S. golf economy generated $68.8 billion in 2011, a 9.4 percent decline from $75.9 billion in 2005, when the number of golfers was at its highest point in a decade, according to the report prepared for the World Golf Foundation and Golf 20/20.

In 2005, the National Golf Foundation counted a peak of 30 million golfers in the U.S. age 6 and above. In 2011, the latest figure available, the number dropped to 25.7 million.

Now, with the housing and job markets recovering, people have more leisure dollars to spend, and clubs are hoping to draw golfers back by adding contemporary designs and marketing a place for the family to spend the day.

At Timarron Country Club in Southlake, recent renovations costing seven figures added a media room, outdoor dining and a complete upgrade of food and beverage operations. In addition to clubhouse renovations, Trophy Club Country Club improved its chipping/wedge practice area, expanded its putting area and renovated its driving range with a target fairway and greens.

The two courses are owned by Dallas-based ClubCorp, the largest owner and operator of private golf clubs, which last year sunk $65 million into some of its 153 clubs in 26 states. It plans to spend that much this year as well, said Eric Affeldt, ClubCorp's president and CEO.

Shady Valley Golf Club in Arlington, also owned by ClubCorp, will completely remodel its clubhouse this year.

"The improvements will allow these clubs, already established in their communities, to stay relevant and offer even more value to their members," Affeldt said. "What we're trying to do is appeal to a broader customer ... what we can do for the entire family."

ClubCorp bought the city-owned Timarron club in 1999. The goal of the current renovations was to make the club relevant to the lifestyle of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, said Chuck Feddersen, a ClubCorp senior vice president who oversees its Dallas-Fort Worth clubs. Timarron's membership had started to slow before the recession but is now picking back up, he said. "Now, it's really the place to be in the Timarron community," Feddersen said.

Remodeling of the clubhouse and pool at Shady Valley will begin at midyear. ClubCorp has spent $12.5 million on five of its Dallas -Fort Worth clubs in the past three years, Feddersen said.

Dallas businessman George Sanders bought Diamond Oaks Country Club in Haltom City a year ago. Like Scoma at Woodhaven, Sanders was a longtime member who had watched Diamond Oaks deteriorate and wanted it saved. Within a month of buying the property, he took on golf legend Lee Trevino as a partner.

"You could see the downward trend," Sanders said. "I felt the club was just going to go away. I didn't do this to get wealthy."

After $1.6 million in renovations, the club's membership -- which had dropped by about 100 -- had regained that many, to reach about 450, Sanders said.

The club has new bunkers and new carts. Flooding issues from a nearby creek have been mitigated and the 20,000-square-foot clubhouse has been renovated. The club's wedding reception business is booming, Sanders said.

Now marketing efforts are geared toward younger members and positioning the club as the area's best golfing value, he said.

"We really are a good golf course," Sanders said.

Scoma said membership at Woodhaven has increased by about 60 in the past two years, and he recently hired a membership director.

Money has been spent on installing a security fence around the course at Woodhaven, keeping the swimming pool open, adding a wedding chapel, and revamping meeting and banquet rooms. New carts are next on the list.

"It was a commitment," Scoma said of his investment. "It took a while to do this. It wasn't overnight. The club is really growing and doing fantastic. It's something I wanted to do to enhance the east side of Fort Worth. It really has turned around. It was worth it."

Rolling Hills Country Club in Arlington, that city's first private country club, has shut down for about eight months to rebuild the golf course and bunkers, water features and plant new grass, work that has never been done since the club opened nearly 60 years ago. The clubhouse, tennis courts and pool will remain open during the renovations.

The club's 320 members voted to do the work last June. Larry Box, Rolling Hills' general manager, acknowledged that the club risks losing members during the shutdown, but said the improvements are needed and could attract more members. Membership has been flat over the last year, he said.

"There's a lot of pride here," Box said.

Rolling Hills remodeled its clubhouse in 2002.

"This has been a long time in the making and to see the wheels in motion makes this a very exciting time," said Vince Pellman, Rolling Hills' golf pro. "The golf course upgrade will not only bring our course into the 21st century but create a more fun and player-friendly course for members and their guests."

Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727

Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST

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