News & Opinion

Modern makeover: Courses renovate to stay ahead of game

Every year, after crowning a new Masters champion, the PGA Tour shifts from the pressure cooker of making history at Augusta National to the cozy confines of the beautiful South Carolina Lowcountry setting at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island.

There is something special about Calibogue Sound, and it's more than just the shrimp and grits served at Lucky Rooster. Guests at Sea Pines Resort will find a world-class facility that has been buffed and prepped to perfection.

After the 2015 RBC Heritage, Harbour Town Golf Links, a famed Pete Dye design, closed for five months and was re-grassed with Celebration Bermuda on the tee boxes, fairways and rough. New irrigation was installed, to increase sustainability. A 4,000 square-foot locker room, triple the size of the old one, was built.

Ownership didn't stop there. It also renovated Pete Dye's Heron Point and hired Davis Love III to refurbish Atlantic Dunes. All told, the renovation of the three courses and clubhouses is estimated at $100 million.

"We're not done," said Sea Pines director of golf John Farrell, noting planned lodging, restaurant and pool upgrades. "We're trying to go the other way from our competitors who are trying to cut costs, defer maintenance and stay afloat. We want people to come here and say, It might be expensive, but boy is it worth it."

What's happening at Sea Pines is indicative of an industry-wide shift from new facilities to sprucing up existing ones, to stand out in an era of oversupply. Those who look strictly at the number of course closures outranking course openings as a measure of the health of the game are seeing only half of the picture. Since 2006, there have been nearly 1,000 major renovations in the U.S., at $3 billion, according to a March report by the National Golf Foundation. Almost 100 courses re-opened last year after full 18-hole renovations. The upside to spending on capital improvements is simple, said Peter Nanula, principal of Concert Golf Partners, a boutique owner-operator of high-end private clubs.

"If you just leave a club in the deferred-maintenance, debt-laden, poorly-managed situation that it is in, you're going to keep atrophying," he said. "You're going to keep losing members. New prospects are going to realize it's a tired property and decide they don't want that. You have to be doing capital projects or you're falling behind."

Nanula compares the boon in facilities looking to inject new life into aging courses and infrastructure to the hotel business.

"You look on your iPad and there are five hotels. Which is the one that just renovated its rooms? Does it have a dank room in a corner … or a state-of-the-art fitness facility? These are the questions people ask and how they pick a hotel room, and it's the exact same dynamic in golf. It's a little arms race in every town. If a club hasn't renovated in 20 years and there is no pool with a slide for the kids like the club across the street, it's going to lose out every time."

On the PGA Tour, Harbour Town joins Innisbrook Resort's Copperhead Course, Bay Hill and Austin Country Club as courses that have been fitted with new TifEagle Bermudagrass on their greens. Each club made a significant capital investment, but that's the price of remaining relevant in an increasingly competitive environment.

"We would've been in jeopardy of losing the Tour,” said Bobby Barnes, director of golf at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, Fla., host of the Valspar Championship every March. “It hadn't reached that point yet, but we all kind of agreed it was time to make some enhancements.

“You never want to be the facility that used to host the PGA Tour."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak