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Golf Courses Hold On To Pandemic Boost, Stave Off Further Contraction

Some of the biggest swaths of land in most U.S. cities, golf courses have shut down and been gobbled up by developers as younger generations’ interest in the sport waned, but a pandemic-fueled golf boom seems to have slowed that trend.

Meanwhile, neighborhood pushback is making redevelopment of some old courses difficult, or even impossible, and leaving investors with big purchases and thwarted plans.


“Only a few years ago, the biggest concern for golf was, what are millennials going to do?” said CBRE Managing Director Jeff Woolson, who heads the company's Golf & Resort Group. “Their attention span is very short, so that was a worry,” Woolson said. “Would they enjoy golf as they got older? Turns out, the answer is a resounding yes.”

Overall, participation in golf was up in 2022, with a net increase of 500,000 golfers to 25.6 million, the National Golf Foundation reports. Last year's uptick was a continuation of what the foundation calls the “Covid effect” of 2020 and 2021, during which 6.2 million people took up the game for the first time, of whom the lion's share are younger than baby boomers. 

Nothing like it has happened since the “Tiger effect” around the turn of the 21st century, when golf star Tiger Woods helped encourage about 4.8 million Americans to take up the game — many of whom were middle-aged baby boomers who previously eschewed it.

As a result, U.S. golf course supply, which had been contracting rapidly before the pandemic, has very nearly stabilized, according to the NGF, a golf market research and consulting organization. As of the end of 2022, there were just shy of 16,000 traditional courses nationwide, and while closures outnumbered new openings last year, the drop was less than 1%.

The renewal of golf as a game hasn't spurred greater investor interest in the property type, however, Woolson said. Existing owners are reluctant to sell, especially now that things are turning around for the sport, and valuations are hard to pin down.

As for new development, Woolson said there may be an uptick in the future, primarily as part of new residential master-planned communities, which tend to have long development cycles. In any case, the barriers to entry for new courses is high in many places, besides the fact that capital is considerably more expensive than it was only a year ago.

“It's going to take a while for the pipeline to increase,” he said.

In the meantime, existing owners are making money again due to increased demand, and even the ability to raise green fees and membership dues, which was hard to do before the pandemic and current round of inflation.

In 2022, only 4% of public courses and 1% of private clubs were in a state of financial distress, according to an NGF survey, representing a marked drop from previous surveys. In that same survey, two-thirds of public courses and four-fifths of private clubs claimed to be in “good” or “excellent” financial shape.

Moreover, the health of golf courses isn't just about how many people hit the links anymore. An increasing number of people are playing the game in a noncourse setting such as Topgolf, which has been expanding rapidly in recent years. For some, that is their first experience with golf, and inspires them to take up the actual game.

Topgolf combines the concepts of indoor mini-golf with the driving range and adds table service.

“When Topgolf happened, people asked me on panels, is Topgolf good for golf?” Woolson said. “‘I have no idea,’ I said, ‘it's not golf.’ It's more like a bowling alley with drinks, and people were going there for a big party. But now it's clear that a lot of people, especially millennials, are being introduced to golf by Topgolf and others."

“When it comes to introductions — and swinging a golf club in a fun, non-intimidating environment — it’s hard to downplay the important role of places like Topgolf,” NGF reports.

Moreover, some of those recently introduced to the game will stick with it.

It's a very enthusiast-driven game,” Stephens Managing Director Daniel Imbro said during a Yahoo Finance Live video. “While we're losing some [of those who recently tried the game], some of them are converting into dedicated players, spending more per year, and I think that's going to help grow the overall pie. So it's been a nice, I think, ongoing tailwind.”

One lingering challenge for golf courses from the years of contraction is the fate of courses that closed then, or will close in the near future, since there is still some turnover as local markets change or as obsolete courses can't compete.

In some cases, redevelopment goes well, but it hasn't always been a slam-dunk. A number of redevelopment projects have been slower or stopped, most recently the former Park Hill Golf Course in Denver. An April 4 vote that kept an easement on the course from being lifted stymied redevelopment plans by the course's owner, Westside Investment Partners.

Neither Westside nor Save Open Space Denver, which led the effort to block redevelopment, commented for this article.

In the affluent Washington, D.C., suburb of Reston, Virginia, the future of the Reston National Golf Course and Hidden Creek Country Club is uncertain, as development plans have raised opposition, including from a county supervisor.

This isn't the first time that redevelopment plans for one of the courses has stalled. By 2019, when War Horse Cities and Weller Development Co. acquired the Reston National Golf Course, it had already had a previous owner that couldn't overcome community opposition to its redevelopment plans.

The latest plan for Reston National calls for replacement of an “obsolescent golf course” with a 100-acre open space conservancy, a smaller park and a “mixed-use village,” Reston Now reports.

The proposal was made in December. In September, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn had reaffirmed his commitment to oppose the development of Reston National Golf Course in September, according to FFX Now, a local news outlet.

Alcorn hasn't responded to a query for a comment on the matter.

And in North Carolina, redevelopment of the Masonboro Country Club in the Cape Fear region has been a contentious issue. The golf course, within a subdivision, shut down permanently after Hurricane Florence in 2018, and residents have reacted vigorously to redevelopment plans.

In the suit that followed by the local HOA, a lower court judge ruled for the owner of the golf course in a matter of an easement related to the plans, but later an appeals court found that the lower judge had erred.

In any case, many residents object strongly to the plans, local news outlet WECT reported. The suit is still pending.

“Beginning about 10 years ago, we started seeing efforts to preserve golf courses,” said Community & Environmental Defense Services President Richard Klein, whose organization consults with local groups seeking to sway the course of real estate development, including on golf courses.

“Since then, we've had maybe a dozen cases,” Klein said. "But in the last few years, I'm not getting as many calls about that as I used to.”

Objections to redevelopment can be environmental — such as the preservation of open space — but perhaps more commonly, redevelopment is seen as the loss of a vital amenity by people who live nearby, and who may be living in a specific place because of access to a golf course, Klein said.

“Many homeowners believe that a golf course will always be there,” he said. “Or at the very least, a view of open space. They aren't happy when they find out otherwise, and that can spur them to action.”