Faster, ‘fun-to-do’ golf driving record numbers to the game

Keywords Golf / Sports Business
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More than 500 million rounds of golf were played in 2020, and the early returns from 2021 indicate that this year will be even better. Preliminary data from the National Golf Foundation estimates that the number of rounds played will finish up to 5% higher than last year’s figure—and nearly 20% higher than the three-year, pre-pandemic average of 2017, 2018, and 2019.

The explanation for this continued resurgence in popularity can be attributed to a few factors: Schedules remain more flexible than prior to the pandemic, the weather this year has been good, and many of the new golfers from last year kept playing.

Notably, 35% of newcomers are women. Across all junior golfers-serious amateurs under the age of 18-girls now account for 30% of that crowd.

It makes sense, then, that equipment companies are also selling more product. At the end of the third quarter, Acushnet, parent company of Titleist and Footjoy, posted net sales of $522 million, an 8% increase over the same period of 2020.

Callaway Golf, meanwhile, announced mind-boggling third-quarter net sales of $856 million, which the company attributes to its $2.6 billion acquisition of entertainment complex titan, Topgolf, in March.

The company hasn’t stopped there. Smaller entertainment venues that use such golf simulators as Five Iron Golf and X-Golf are growing; if you scroll deep enough into their websites, you’ll see the familiar Callaway script and chevron logo listed as partners. Bruin Capital, meanwhile, has invested $160 million in Full Swing simulators.

Beau Welling, who heads up Tiger Woods’ design operations, as well as his own firm, says the idea of golf as entertainment has pervaded the business. “Topgolf is the best thing that’s ever happened to golf,” he says. “They figured out how to get someone who had never picked up a golf club-and not be intimidated or embarrassed.”

Now, he says, every project he’s working on is Topgolf-inspired. “From the activation of golf ranges with food and beverage and music to short courses and outdoor putting, it all points to the same thing: making golf more accessible, that’s fun to do, and you don’t have to spend four to five hours doing it.”

Chris Randolph of South Street Partners agrees while pointing to an additional major factor. “If you look at the demographics from where we are on the development side, it’s the same thing. It’s who these golfers are that’s driving this.” The new communities that have embraced the game, in other words, have also expanded it.

And as the number of golfers gets larger-along with the number of ways to engage with golf-significant amounts of capital have entered the category. In November, TPG Capital and Symphony Ventures, the investment fund founded by Rory McIlroy, made a strategic investment in Troon, the world’s largest golf and golf-related hospitality company, which owns and operates more than 620 locations around the globe.

Here are a few other developments that we have been following this year:

– The Revenge of Golf Course Real Estate: In October we reported an increase of home sales in golf communities, as people turned back to these private homes and golf courses to shelter in place with an active, safe lifestyle. Those numbers have not abated as we close out the year. South Street Partners’ collection of properties is set to shatter its records, including those from Kiawah Island Real Estate Co., which anticipates $1 billion in sales for 2021 and reports closing on 372 properties in the third quarter alone.

– Consolidation Cometh: South Korean investment firm Centroid Partners shelled out $1.9 billion for TaylorMade this year, perhaps ending what had been a revolving ownership door for the company making some of the most popular drivers and woods used on the PGA Tour. TaylorMade’s roster of pros include Collin Morikowa, whose early career numbers mirror those of Tiger Woods, as well as Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.

The Korea Herald reports that the investment firm’s purchase is designed to set up an initial public offering for the company, whose market cap evaluation of $1.7 billion lags well behind both Acushnet and Callaway but whose net earnings gap is much smaller than its main competitors’.

– Noteworthy Courses: Some great courses opened up, perhaps none more appealing than one in Ireland at the Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort. St. Patrick’s Links, designed by Tom Doak, debuted at No. 55 in the world on Golf Magazine’s Top 100.

In the States, Andy Staple’s Match Course at PGA National opened in September, hoping to revive an old concept: Par is just a number. The course seeks to get golfers to play faster by playing in matches, based on the slogan “My 6 beats your 7.”

Others not to be missed would be Payne’s Valley, Tiger Woods’ beast of a course at Big Cedar Lodge Resort in the Missouri Ozarks, and Davis Love Design’s thoughtful renovation of Birdwood Golf Course, home of the men’s and women’s teams of the University of Virginia.

And if you’re a private club member looking to join another, then Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner have wielded their magic again at CapRock Ranch in Valentine, Neb., where the state’s sandhills are fast becoming America’s new hotbed of golf course construction.

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