Top sales leaders

These industry stars are facing an uncertain future because of COVID-19, but they’ve got a wealth of experience in making deals, even in turbulent times.
  • Top sales leaders

Editor's note: this is the first of two parts to this story. Next week Golf Inc will be featuring the top brokers in the industry. Be sure to check back in July for who made the list!


Last year was a good year for making deals in the golf world. The economy was humming. Unemployment was at an all-time low. That tax break? It helped people with money get more money. 

But even those with the best crystal balls could not have predicted how all of that was going to be affected by a virus that started thousands of miles from our shores. 

Indeed, this is all new territory. Just what happens to the nation’s golf market and how COVID-19 and its fallout will impact the top buyers, brokers and other key players remains to be seen. 

“Nobody freakin’ knows,” said a blunt Jeff Woolson, executive vice president and managing director of CBRE’s Golf & Resort Group.

“Oh, it’s going to hit the market,” said Steven Ekovich, national director of the Leisure Investment Properties Group of Marcus & Millichap. He noted that when the pandemic hit, he was brokering four deals that had to be put on hold — indefinitely. 

Why? Buyers can’t travel and do due diligence on the properties. He predicts the number of acquisitions will be reduced by between 25% to 40% this year compared to a normal year. 

Before the outbreak, the market for sales was extremely good, Ekovich said. Now it’s a mystery.

However, the golf acquisition world is still full of big players. They may never have faced a pandemic, but they have worked through recessions and other challenges.

Here, we spotlight some of the buyers who make up this rather select world (part two of this story will feature the brokers).

Mark Burnett

President and CEO, Heritage Golf Group

He’s back.

The former ClubCorp president and chief operating officer was hired earlier this year by KSL Capital Partners to run Heritage Golf Group, which it had recently purchased. The portfolio has six lucrative courses, including three in Hilton Head, S.C. 

Burnett left ClubCorp after Eric Affeldt stepped down as CEO two years ago. Affeldt had recommended that Burnett succeed him, but ClubCorp went in a different direction and hired David Pillsbury. 

It was never expected that Burnett would be on the sidelines for long, given his history in the business. This is his third stint with KSL, which intends to expand its portfolio. Private country clubs will be its primary focus.

And Woolson, who brokered the Heritage deal, said he expects Burnett to be active.  

“Mark is going to be a buyer,” Woolson said. 

David PillsburyCEO of ClubCorp & Tom BennisonChief Development Officer 

The nation’s largest owner of private clubs got even bigger last year with the acquisition of the Toll Golf portfolio, which included seven lifestyle clubs in residential communities in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Maryland.  

ClubCorp has more than 200 country clubs, city clubs, athletic clubs and stadium clubs.

The Toll acquisition was the latest in a series of moves by ClubCorp as it transforms itself from a golf club company to a lifestyle company, industry observers say.

Ekovich said he believes ClubCorp is well positioned to be a buyer in the wake of the pandemic. For one thing, a significant revenue stream comes from membership dues. Also, it has the manpower to focus on finding a new normal in these times, allowing Bennison — an acquisitions veteran — to move forward with his efforts. 

“It’s big enough to continue to look for assets,” Ekovich said of ClubCorp. 

Peter Nanula

Chairman, Concert Golf Partners 

Nanula and his partners continue to work their model, which is purchasing and/or operating high-end private clubs in major metro areas that are in need of capital infusions.    

Concert Golf Partners most recently reached a deal with Country Club of Roswell, a private club near Atlanta.

Concert Golf now has more than 20 courses, but its biggest splash came last August, when it announced that it has secured $100 million in new equity managed by Blackstone, one of the world’s largest investment firms.

As Woolson noted: “Any time you partner with Blackstone, that’s a good year.” 

The pandemic could possibly open more opportunity for Nanula, who is known for making strategic, sound and patient purchases.  

Blake Walker

Founder and CEO, Arcis Golf 

Walker continues to grow a company he founded about seven years ago. It now has 70 courses.

It reached that number last year with the acquisition of Dominion Golf Group’s remaining properties, five courses in Texas.

The Arcis portfolio is diverse, including private clubs, daily-fee, semi-private and municipal courses. 

Ekovich predicted that Walker will continue to be one of the more active buyers moving forward. 

Jim Hinckley

Founder and CEO, Century Golf Partners 

Hinckley, one of the industry’s longest-running power brokers, made a major purchase recently, landing PGA West and The Citrus Club in La Quinta, Calif. 

PGA West includes nine courses, including the Stadium Course, which was designed by Pete Dye. 

To make the purchase, Hinckley partnered with a South Korean firm, Hankuk Industry, which owns 25 courses in the U.S. and Japan.

Woolson noted that foreign investors still find U.S. properties enticing. He doubts that will change, even with the uncertainly brought about by COVID-19. Whether Hinckley and Hankuk continue to do business together, however, remains to be seen.

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