Palm Beach County is known as the nation’s golf capital, but even its courses haven’t come out of the recession unscathed.
The national trend of developers buying golf courses to build homes has invaded greens throughout the area.
Those majestic views alongside fairways and bunkers have always been coveted by homeowners, but now some developers are sweeping in to buy the courses and turn them into residential communities. In some cases, it’s the only place they can find to build.
The most recent example is the Wanderers Executive Course in Wellington. Ward Real Estate purchased the defunct golf course from imprisoned polo mogul John Goodman’s family trust in 2015.
Though the land is zoned for commercial recreation, owner Jim Ward and the company plunked down $1 million without ever actually considering using it as a golf course.
Their plan from the beginning: Turn the old golf course into nine vast equestrian estates, including barns with owner’s apartments and groom’s quarters. Wellington’s staff has recommended a zoning change for the Winding Trails project, in part because it’s clear the property will never be a golf course again, Planning, Zoning and Building Director Bob Basehart said at a meeting in September.
“Golf courses are failing at an alarming rate,” he said. “We’ve seen, even in Palm Beach County, numerous examples where they’ve been turned into other things.”
In 2015, there were 177 18-hole golf courses across the country closed and only 17 opened, according to the National Golf Foundation. The organization expects similar numbers by the end of 2016.
After a building boom in the 1990s and 2000s, the industry landed in the rough of the Great Recession. About 5 percent of courses, or more than 800, have closed in the past decade.
Palm Beach County, home to more private golf courses than any other county in the United States, was also hurt.
While nearly 250,000 golfers live in the county during season and the region’s 540 miles of fairways would stretch from Miami to Hilton Head, S.C. if each was lined up from tee to flag, courses have battled it out for a shrinking pool of golfers to come play rounds. In the past 10 years, golf has lost some popularity although participation numbers have since steadied recently. Still, they are significantly down from the peak in the early 2000s.
“Competition is going to be fierce and not everybody is going to be profitable,” said Greg Nathan, of the National Golf Foundation.
Binks Forest Golf Club in Wellington decayed into a vacant, overgrown eyesore before Atlantic Golf Management bought it and put money into fixing it, changing the name to Wellington National.
Others haven’t been so lucky.
Redeveloping or removing courses?
- In Boca Raton, Ocean Breeze Golf Course, also known as Boca Teeca, closed earlier this year. . The Town Council had agreed to allow it to be redeveloped about a decade ago but the bank foreclosed on the property before that could happen. .
- In 2014, Palm Beach County agreed to allow 253 residences to be build on the 127-acre Mizner Trail Golf Club west of Interstate 95 and south of Palmetto Park Road.
- More recently, Sherbrooke Golf and Country Club west of Lake Worth closed after the death of its founder Mac Schwebel last year. It’s now overgrown.
- At Boca Dunes Golf and Country Club in Boca Raton, the nine-hole executive course is being bulldozed in preparation for townhome construction.
A course doesn’t have to be struggling to catch a developer’s eye.
Boca Raton has received 10 offers on its municipal course ranging from $51 million to $73 million. It will consider the proposals Nov. 22 when city leaders will also discuss whether they should even be in the golf business.
It’s a discussion that Wellington has already had.
The council first discussed purchasing the Wanderers Executive Course and building a park, but that idea was nixed.
Council members then tossed around the possibility of buying the former Binks Forest Golf Club and running it themselves as a municipal course. Assistant Village Manager Jim Barnes went as far as researching the number of rounds needed to break even on operating expenses.
His conclusion: Golfers would need to play more than 35,000 rounds per year for Wellington to break even on the investment. And then it would still be losing money when the cost of buying the property is added to the equation.
The council decided it didn’t want to be in the golf business.
Developers, golfers and residents all in play
Golf isn’t dead and some say it still can be a viable business.
Mark Bellissimo, the equestrian developer, snapped up the rest of the Wanderers Club from the Goodman family trust shortly after the Wards bought their portion.
Since he bought it this year, Bellissimo said the private club has nearly new 100 members. He’s happy with the deal.
“We’re 100 percent committed to the Wanderers Club, which includes golf,” Bellissimo said. “(I have) Absolutely zero interest in converting that property to another use.”
Wellington National has also gone through a successful ownership change. Atlantic Golf Management owner Chip Smith said he seeks out courses that needs to be spruced up and brings new life to them.
West Palm Beach is trying to balance both worlds.
The city plans to put out a call for developers to build a new, roughly $5 million clubhouse at the municipal course. As incentive, the developer would also get to build some houses on and around the course, city commissioner Shanon Materio said.
She believes the work can be done with little or no change to the course’s layout — one of her top priorities. The additional property taxes the new homes would generate could help pay for course’s upkeep.
“While we’re trying to maintain the history, we also realize that we have to financially maintain the course,” she said, adding that she is committed to keeping the course open no matter what.
Perhaps the biggest winners are golfers, Nathan said.
As courses battle with each other to bring in new talent, golfers get lower prices and better deals.
“In Palm Beach County, of all places, nobody is struggling to find a place to play,” Nathan said. “There’s a lot of choice. It’s a great time to be a golfer and it’s certainly a great time to be a golfer in Palm Beach County because golf courses are competing for your business.”
Participation in the sport has been steady over the past five years, according to National Golf Foundation data. More than 24 million people played at least one round of golf in 2015, and an estimated 37 million other want to play.
“With the recession in the rear view mirror and an exciting new wave of young players in front of us, there are good reasons to be optimistic about future growth if emphasis continues to be placed on converting more beginners into committed golfers,” the National Golf Foundation’s March newsletter touted.
Battle for the greens — in backyards or in pockets?
But it’s not all about the golfers. Sometimes it’s about the neighbors.
One of the reasons Boca Teeca Golf Club hasn’t been developed is because neighbors fought the plans.
They paid for views of putting greens, not the backside of another house.
The residents in the communities abutting Winding Trails are divided. Some favor the equestrian project as a good compromise — more appealing than another zero-lot-line community. Others think it will cause too much traffic and smell.
Many of the neighbors have said that they bought the property because it was on a golf course — not to live next to horses.
“That property was not zoned for that when they bought it,” said Don Barth, who lives in Lakefield South. “What was their expectation? That it was going to change just because they bought it? If I lose my house can I put a McDonald’s there because I can’t afford it? To me it’s not right.”
Others have said that the equestrian project would look beautiful, but it shouldn’t be built on a golf course, right next to homes.
“There does come a time that we need to allow certain development and disallow others,” said Wellington resident Bart Novack. “It is not right for them to put horse stables in there.”
Ultimately, officials will have to find a balance. Wellington and local governments must decide whether to allow more homes on failed courses. On one hand, developers can turn possible vacant eyesores into beautiful developments. On the other, they might be dealing with some unhappy neighbors, who signed up for living near open space, not more homes or horses.