WEST PALM BEACH
In the state with the most golf courses, West Palm Beach is developing one of the sport’s fiercest rivalries.
At future sites barely 4 miles apart, the two companies aim to tee up golf entertainment franchises that combine multi-level, computerized driving ranges with virtual games, fun food and drink and tailored for group play in bays, like high-tech bowling centers.
Drive Shack’s already out of the ground on Belvedere Road, next to Palm Beach International Airport. Just to the southeast, West Palm Beach is working with a development team that hopes to include a Topgolf franchise in a corner of the city’s 196-acre municipal golf course, which itself is being rejuvenated, next to I-95.
“It’s American competition,” said developer E. Anthony Wilson, who’s bringing the Topgolf franchise.
What will the golf entertainment venues mean for golf courses around the state and country, which already have financial challenges?
“That entire category is bringing more people to the game of golf, while focusing more on the entertainment side of the game, similar to bowling,” said Ken Kennerly, executive director of the annual Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens. “I’m a big fan.”
It’s attracting families, and new people and bringing back people who played in the past, he said.
Millions visited Topgolf locations last year, Kennerly noted.
“If we can convert even 5 percent of those people and make them what we would call traditional golfers on a golf course, it’s terrific for the industry. I’m a fan of anything that makes people put a golf club in their hands.”
Both companies and the city are working out of roughs.
Wilson’s group, WPB Golf Links, is still negotiating its $86 million offer to rework the municipal course and add a clubhouse, apartments, a hotel and the Topgolf franchise. The city, meanwhile, to enable the developer to finance the project, must clear the clouded title to part of the course, which could require a legal battle with the county government, with which West Palm has been feuding over unrelated issues.
“I’m confident nobody wants to see us lose a valuable asset of the city over something I think is a minor dispute. I’m hopeful cooler minds will rule the day,” City Administrator Jeff Green said Friday.
WPB Golf Links, an experienced development team, has a quarrel of its own to resolve, a lawsuit filed in September by its lawyer Perry Taylor, P.A., alleging $185,000 in unpaid legal bills. The developer says the suit won’t affect the project.
Drive Shack faces challenges, too. While Topgolf has opened 46 locations and has 17 more “coming soon,” according to its website, Drive Shack is just getting off the ground, with just one location open this year, in Orlando, and five more announced to open by 2020.
Drive Shack’s financial filings show a balance sheet losing millions while the company transforms from course ownership and management to focus on the entertainment venues. The publicly held company reported a loss of $24 million in the first half of 2018, following a $20 million loss the same period of the prior year. Regardless, the West Palm project is taking shape quickly.
Drive Shack representatives did not return requests for comment.
Topgolf is privately held, so it doesn’t share financial numbers. But its website lists golf-related numbers: 13 million guests at its venues in 2017; 671.1 million balls hit; 42 million games played.
“Topgolf isn’t a competitor to a golf course,” Wilson said Friday. “Most of the Topgolf players really don’t have any golf experience and consequently it has added more to the game than it has taken away.”
That’s one reason Topgolf likes the location next to the city course, not to mention the exposure — adjacent to Interstate-95, Wilson said.
Both Wilson and West Palm’s Green say the market should be strong enough to support the municipal course, Topgolf and Drive Shack.
“I would argue that this is the next great thing in golf,” said Green, a golfer who played at Topgolf’s Tampa location and loved it. Maybe people will like the entertainment centers and then decide to try the course, or vice versa, he said.
As for the two competitors going head-to-head, the Tampa center Green visited was crowded, indicating strong demand. “I would imagine both would do quite well.”