Check out this article written in Golf Central! See the exclusive write up on the Links of Sandpiper!
Commercial builder and avid golfer David Tavlin never dreamed of owning a golf course. When a local Lakeland, Florida, residential course began teetering on the brink of financial collapse a couple years ago, however, Tavlin considered buying the Sandpiper facility because he already owned a handful of rental homes at the community.
The fact Sandpiper represented 100 prime acres in the middle of the growing corridor between Orlando and Tampa was another factor in pursuing the property. So Tavlin, 57, acquired the struggling course last year for a little more than $1 million and quickly began planning for the development of 47 new golf course homes.
“I bought it three days before Hurricane Irma,” says Tavlin, president of Lakeland-based Crossroads Construction Co. “What great timing that was. The eye of the hurricane came right over Lakeland.”
Last year’s hurricane timing notwithstanding, the biggest challenge for Tavlin was restoring a deteriorating facility that barely had a functioning irrigation system, was overrun with weeds and got further damaged by the hurricane that also plowed through Puerto Rico. More than a year later, Tavlin figures his final course-related tab will be “close to $3 million” after he completely renovates, redesigns and modernizes the entire property by summer 2020 with 200,000 square-feet of new sod, a new lighted driving range and a shiny new Rain Bird irrigation system among other big-ticket items.
While the Sandpiper project might not represent the typical fixer-upper in Tavlin’s real estate portfolio, this major course makeover is emblematic of a looming course infrastructure crisis facing thousands of course owners across America. Indeed, a decade after the Great Recession, hundreds of public and private course owners and operators now flush with capital are pouring hundreds of millions into course improvements and irrigation infrastructure to shore up aging facilities and position properties for greater long-term sustainability.
Based on feedback from many course owners, operators and irrigation experts, the industry might be approaching the cusp of what could be the greatest period of golf course capital improvement projects ever — a 10-15-year cycle that could result in nearly $10 billion worth of complete bunker and greens renovation work followed by irrigation component technology upgrades to full-blown brand-new irrigation systems.
“We’re really at the front end of a wave of irrigation projects,” says Jeff Spangler, Troon senior vice president of science and agronomy, whose Scottsdale, Arizona-based company counts 23 major course, bunker and/or irrigation renovations since 2016. “If you look at the life expectancy features of a golf course, bunkers got the shortest unfortunately. But that’s changing now with new liner systems.
“So, we’re in that wave where every one of those 500 courses we were building every year for a while, every one of those has had a bunker renovation. Then we’re probably going to go into a cycle of greens resurfacing. And as soon as that’s done, you’re starting to get into the ground and putting in new irrigation systems.”
So how big can this next wave of course-related capital improvements actually get? Consider in 1994, the National Golf Foundation reported an all-time high 190.5 daily-fee golf courses opened in America with another 769 courses under construction. At the time, it was the greatest amount of new golf course development activity in the 20-year history of NGF research.
Nearly 25 years later, those 1,000 courses alone are starting to show serious middle-age wear and tear, much like Tavlin’s Sandpiper facility that opened in 1985.
“Our irrigation system is completely on its last leg,” says Tavlin, whose front nine was closed this summer while contractors installed the new Rain Bird system, dug a new well and put in a new well pump. “Keep in mind our infrastructure reinvestment is being made possible via the homes I plan to construct on the course. I just could not imagine how most of the public courses in this area are being able to complete such a reinvestment without sources of income outside normal green fees. Without me being able to develop these houses it certainly wouldn’t have been something economically feasible.
“I’m not looking to make money off (the course operations). I definitely want to make the golf course look better and we recently completed renovations in the clubhouse bar and pro shop. Now the bathroom, kitchen and restaurant are being done. … So everybody’s excited about these changes. We couldn’t have stuffed more people on the golf course from January to April. Of course, we had nine holes closed and we’re still using some of the old pricing structure. … But I don’t know if the course is going to be a viable entity or not.”
And that is precisely the predicament many course owners face these days: Does one renovate a property and invest in the future, hoping for a future payback, or just keep patchworking the course on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis, trying to stay afloat in what can be a challenging business for many golf markets.
Longtime irrigation consultant Dave Ragan of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, says he often gets asked the question, when will I need to replace my system?
“I tell them when you can’t take the pain anymore,” says Ragan, whose namesake Ragan Technical Solutions company consulted on Tavlin’s Sandpiper irrigation upgrade. “Unfortunately, many courses have to live with it because they don’t have a million and a half dollars to replace it like Sandpiper. … I’m very busy right now. Never been busier in 30 years.”
“Say you have some bubbling in the fairway on No. 2 (hole). By the time you go out there and invest in new pipe and fix it, it might cost you $1,000. You do that two times a month and that’s close to $23,000 a year. … For a lot of course superintendents, it’s the cost of doing business.”
According to the National Golf Foundation, in the 10-year span between 2006-2016, during a period when the industry starting annually closing more courses than opening new layouts, nearly 1,000 facilities made the former business decision and conducted multi-million-dollar course renovations representing a conservative $3 billion in all.
It’s a conservative estimate considering NGF defines a major renovation as one that involves a minimum nine holes being closed for a minimum of three months. Throw in the countless number of minor rehabilitation projects, where courses are just revamping a few greens or bunkers, or upgrading software irrigation control systems and/or other components, and that $3 billion figure could easily grow by another $250-$500 million.
What’s often forgotten is there were actually 4,000-plus new golf facilities that opened during golf’s development boom from 1986 through 2005. So, if some 1,000 facilities underwent an estimated $3-plus billion worth of restorative work, the coming decade portends to be quite prosperous for architects, irrigation consultants and contractors and irrigation equipment suppliers like Toro Company, Rain Bird Corp. and Hunter.
“In 20 years, you have stuff starting to cause some irrigation irritation,” says Ragan. “In 25-30 years, it’s daily.”
Perhaps that’s one reason Toro’s Professional Segment had another record year in 2017, reporting $1.812 billion in sales for the fiscal period ending Oct. 31, 2017, up 6.2 percent from $1.705 billion in 2016 that was fueled by “increased golf irrigation projects,” the company stated. Toro’s Professional Segment drove 72 percent of the company’s overall record sales in 2017, and the golf division represented 24 percent or $433 million of that growth.
Toro executive Steve Snow agrees with Spangler that the wave of full-blown irrigation renovation projects are still a few years way, but the industry is certainly busier than ever phasing in upgrades to various components – everything from pump stations this year to control systems the following year and sprinklers next, he said. The only thing getting in the way of more work, according to Snow: labor. Quality contractors to be specific.
“Renovation work is as good as it’s been,” adds Snow, Toro’s North American director of sales and service for golf irrigation. “Since 2016, it’s been a steady progression. Not double digits (growth). There’s a capacity to do more but we’re bumping up against labor. You couldn’t upgrade 400 this year if we wanted to.
“This is a complicated task. And if you want that particular contractor or that one guy, you better get on a schedule. … There’s maybe 10-20 contract companies that are in demand, and when you’re spending $1.5 to $3 million, you don’t want just anybody digging holes and upsetting your operations.”
Many have already started these types of capital-intensive endeavors. Kelly Greens, an active-adult golf course community in Fort Myers, Florida, that opened 30 years ago, recently completed a $3.9 million course renovation that featured a new Rain Bird irrigation system and pump station, 44 acres of newly aerated lakes, redesigned greens complexes and tee boxes and the replanting of 800 trees.
Basically, “every square inch of the course was moved,” says superintendent Mark Thomas, and the newly minted course has been met with rave reviews. Moreover, Thomas reports the investment behind a newer more efficient irrigation system is already paying off with significant savings in water usage since the property reopened to members more than a year ago.
“Golf’s solid participation rate and growing latent demand, as well as a positive national economy are driving golf course owners and operators to enhance their offerings,” says Billy Casper vice president of agronomy Bryan Bielecki, whose Reston, Virginia-based company completed 20 course renovations in the past two years. “Furthermore, the time is now to upgrade the countless courses built during the ‘Tiger Effect’ days, so they’re up to modern standards. Renovations in the form of irrigation, bunker work, putting greens and everything tee to green are gaining steam.”
Stuart Hackwell, Rain Bird’s national sales manager for the golf division, is getting braced for robust business indeed.
“There are definitely a growing number of courses that are talking about updating the system to 21st century standards,” Hackwell says. “This includes replacing aging infrastructure (pipe and wire), locating sprinklers in the correct places on each hole, taking advantage of improved sprinkler performance, upgrading old control systems and replacing aged/inefficient pump stations. We believe this trend will continue to increase as clubs try to justify the financial investment of a seven-figure project.
“We have added staff in the U.S. market and key other places around the world and expect to see continued success in these markets with increased renovations in future. All in all, the future is really bright for Rain Bird and the golf irrigation industry.”
Scott Kauffman is a golf business writer and the managing director of Aloha Media Group.
Taking on any kind of renovation project is a tall order, but taking on the renovation of an entire golf course, practice facilities, pro shop, bar and restaurant, that seems immeasurable. That’s exactly what David Tavlin and his crew are doing, the unthinkable, and they are doing it very well. The course is in the best shape that it has been in over a decade, maybe longer. The chatter around town is starting to grow about the epic overhaul of improvements that have already been made, and the buzz of things to come puts a growing excitement into the air. People are talking, and the talk is good! There’s still quite a bit of work to be done including new greens on several of the holes, the complete renovation of the bar and restaurant area, and an outside entertainment area. Great things are ahead for this little gem of a course sitting in north Lakeland, make sure you get out there and visit it soon!
This post is from the Lakeland Ledger: http://www.theledger.com/news/20180121/out-of-rough
LAKELAND — Talk about a do-it-yourself project. Dave Tavlin’s fixer-upper didn’t involve replacing countertops or sanding down hardwood floors. He’s attempting to fix up a golf course, and the demo was well underway when he bought it. Sandpiper Golf Course in North Lakeland was in such bad shape, it often appeared deserted.
Even though Hurricane Irma roared through three days after the purchase was finalized in September, leaving the course a waterlogged, windblown mess, Tavlin wasn’t fazed. He is determined to bring the little course back and make it an attractive option for recreational golfers once more.
At least four golf courses in Polk County – Grenelefe West and Diamondback near Haines City, Skyview and Bridgewater, both in Lakeland – have closed since the late 1990s, the result of the recession and too many courses competing for golfers. So why would a successful businessman throw millions of dollars into a golf course that already was in poor condition?
“It’s an adventure, I guess,” Tavlin said recently. “I could have bought a house on Anna Maria Island for the same price as the course. I think Sandpiper’s got a lot of potential.”
Tavlin, owner of Crossroads Construction Co. of Lakeland, said he purchased Sandpiper for “over $1 million” and intends to put as much as $2 million into reviving it, plus another $800,000 or so to renovate the clubhouse – which includes a bar and grill – and the pro shop. He has even given the course a new name: The Links at Sandpiper.
Tavlin’s self-assurance is evident as he drives around the course in one of the 55 new gas-powered golf carts in the course’s fleet. He rattles off facts and figures about the slope of the property, the number of homes in the community, the number of new irrigation sprinklers and the yardage of the holes. Already he has put fertilizer and 14 tons of seed down over the entire course and sprayed the greens for weeds. He pointed out the places where the new seed has taken hold and is starting to show a carpet of green where before there was little but weeds and dead grass. Improvements will eventually include:
• 200,000 square feet of new sod.
• Replacing and enhancing the irrigation system.
• A new lighted driving range that would be open in the evening.
• Redesigning several holes, including re-orienting some on the back nine.
• New water features, including a decorative waterfall in the pond on the 14th hole.
• New cart paths to better direct cart traffic and save turf.
• New par-3 tee boxes on each hole so Sandpiper can be played as an executive course.
The redesign of the course will keep it at par 70 but will eliminate the longest tees and avoid difficult shots over water. Tavlin calls himself a golfer who struggles to keep his handicap in the single digits. Asked if he brought in a golf course design firm to help with the new layout, he said no but cited some previous experience.
“We’ve done athletic fields at the University of Florida and the University of Tampa. I do have a friend who’s helping with the turf management,” he said.
The course will be overseen by The Links at Sandpiper’s new general manager, Cory Kuppers. A Kathleen High School graduate, Kuppers had been the head golf professional at Schalamar Creek Golf Course for the past five years and was hired after several months of discussion with Tavlin and Tavlin’s wife, Michele, who will have a hand in running the course and the dining facility in the clubhouse.
“I could see the vision,” Kuppers said. “From a business part of it, I liked being able to get in on the ground floor. I can see from the first day working for them is a good thing for me. It’s going to further my career.”
The Steve Smyers-designed course is part of the 55-and-older Sandpiper planned development adjacent to Plantation Square Shopping Center along North Socrum Loop Road. The course sits on 97 acres, bounded on three sides by Sandpiper lots and on the fourth by North Socrum Loop. Intended primarily for the senior golfers who live in Sandpiper but open to the public, it has long had the feel of a municipal course – relatively short in length (5,600 yards from the men’s tees) and forgiving of errant shots.
About the time the recession hit, the condition of the course began to slip. With Tavlin’s ownership, Sandpiper has changed hands three times within the past 20 years. The previous owners, Jane Grasso and Peter Burns, purchased the course in 2011 from Sun Shin, who also owns the Wedgewood Golf Course in Lakeland. Burns, who owned other golf courses in Florida, died in 2016.
“I tried to buy (the golf course) three years ago,” said Tavlin, 56. “I live on the north side, and I always enjoyed playing the course, but it was in a condition that it could not be played.”
In order to finance the improvements, Tavlin said he intends to build and sell as many as 47 new 2,000-square-foot homes within the footprint of the course while preserving the course’s total yardage, improving views of the course for existing homeowners and making it less likely that errant shots will find roofs or windows of nearby homes. His plan is to utilize open space on the course, redesigning and reorienting some of the existing holes, to make room for the new homes. Tavlin said he has seven permits pending with the city and hopes to build the first five homes over the summer.
“The original (planned development) included 29 houses that were not built. If I have about 50 houses, I can make money that I can put back into the course,” he said.
Phillip Scearce, a senior planner with the city of Lakeland, said his office is reviewing Tavlin’s application for a modification of the planned development to add 47 new lots. He said a majority of the new lots will be along the main entrance to Sandpiper off North Socrum Loop and should not affect existing homes.
“The only major issue will be the impact on that intersection,” he said. “I don’t see anything (else) that really concerns me. They do have enough room to configure the course.”
A native of Fort Lauderdale who came to Lakeland shortly after graduating from the University of Florida, Tavlin has owned Crossroads Construction since 1994. The firm specializes in construction and maintenance of college and university campuses and other commercial projects, and Tavlin admits that home construction requires different procedures. He expects the home construction will be complete by 2020 and anticipates the golf course improvements to be finished by the summer of 2019.
He seems to have overcome any skepticism from the residents of Sandpiper. George Rushford, vice president of the Property Owners Association, said he has not heard any negative comments.
“We like what he’s doing upgrading the buildings and the restaurant,” he said. “I believe over time it will be extremely beneficial to the community. I believe it will help property values.”
Rushford said the common facilities at Sandpiper – two pools, tennis courts and shuffleboard courts – should be able to absorb a greater number of residents.
Frank Hawk and his wife, Mary, who have been homeowners at Sandpiper for 15 years and are regular golfers on the course, agreed. Hawk said property owners understand there will be inconveniences while new homes are being constructed and the golf course and common facilities may be more crowded, but that in the end it will be worth it.
“Overall, it’s a very positive step in the right direction,” Frank Hawk said. “It will be more fun to play the course if it’s in better shape and has an improved layout. The par-3 option on each hole is very clever and will allow a broader range of golfers. It seems like (Tavlin) is putting in the time and money to do it right.”
Tavlin’s audacious plan also depends on attracting new golfers and enticing former customers who had given up on the course to return. According to a 2017 report from the National Golf Foundation, 23.8 million people played rounds on a course in 2016, a 1.2 percent drop from the previous year, and the number has remained essentially flat over the past decade. However, the report noted several promising trends, including increases in the number of beginning golfers and “committed” golfers for whom golf is rated as their favorite activity.
Other courses in Polk County have recently been improved or upgraded, including the city of Lakeland’s Cleveland Heights Golf Course and Huntington Hills, which like Sandpiper is in North Lakeland. In addition, the new Streamsong resort near Fort Meade has two new, high-end courses and is building a third.
Tavlin sees renewed interest among the property owners at Sandpiper as key to increasing the number of rounds played. Even though only 30 percent of homeowners are golfers, he said, “the community wouldn’t be much without the golf course.” He anticipates older homeowners will soon be selling to a wave of younger retirees and believes the percentage of golfers in the community will rise.
Winter-season green fees currently range from $18 to $34, on the lower end compared to other courses, and Tavlin said he intends to keep them “about where they were, a little under everyone else.” Kuppers said the new activity has already generated increased play on the course, with about 140 rounds per day so far in January.
“It’s not the biggest course in town,” Tavlin said. “I don’t know if it will ever be the nicest, but it’s going to be as nice as it can be.”