This story originally published in Florida Trend Magazine.
This spring in Delray Beach, Greg Bartoli and Tiger Woods will open their latest PopStroke golf entertainment location, their fifth in Florida. And more are on the way.
PopStroke isn’t the golf of Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus — not even Caddyshack. Each location features two 18-hole putting greens — think mini-golf without the pirate ship obstacle — served up with foosball, table tennis and cornhole. Beverages ordered by mobile app get delivered to you as you play.
“The way people want to participate in golf is changing,” says Bartoli, a Wall Street investment banker whom Woods met through a mutual acquaintance. “As the clientele changes and the demographics change, you’re going to see golf more as an entertainment product. A lot of growth on the horizon.”
PopStroke isn’t the entirety of golf’s future in Florida, but it shows one way innovators are finding a way to keep teeing up the sport in Florida.
“Golf is deeply rooted in Florida,” historian Gary Mormino writes in his 2022 history, “Dreams in the New Century.” In Florida, golf dates to 1886, when Scottish immigrant John Hamilton Gillespie, the first mayor of Sarasota, opened a course. Golf, as Mormino says, proved well-suited to a state with largely flat, malleable terrain.
In 1923, the course at Florida’s first planned golf course community opened in Temple Terrace in northeast Hillsborough County, and Florida real estate development and golf have been linked since. Golf competed with orange juice in the national image of Florida, from Jackie Gleason and his celebrity-filled Inverrary Classic in Broward County to the headquarters for the PGA, World Golf Hall of Fame and Golf Channel and legends such as Palmer, Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Woods. A 2000 study by University of Florida researchers found the industry and its more than 1,300 public and private courses — more than any other state — brought in $4.44 billion in revenue and employed 73,000. Some 2.11 million spectators turned out for tournaments. The number of houses on golf courses was 756,000. A later study argued golf was bigger business in Florida than theme parks.
From 1990 through 2005, the number of golf courses in Florida increased 32%. Nationally, 4,500 courses were added — more courses in 20 years than any other country even has, according to the National Golf Foundation.
Florida’s reputation as a golf mecca took on some tarnish as the Golf Channel in 2020 relocated to the headquarters of its parent, NBC Sports, in Connecticut, laying off 342 in Orlando, where it got its start. The World Golf Hall of Fame announced it would move in 2024 from St. Augustine, where it has been since 1998, to Pinehurst, N.C., its original location.
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The PGA of America, which represents 29,000 professionals and is tasked with growing the game, moved its headquarters from Palm Beach Gardens — where it had been for 50 years — to a 600-acre, state-of-the-art complex near Dallas that began opening last year.
Nationally, from 2000 to 2008, the number of people who played a round fell or stayed flat, leading the total number to drop to 26 million people from 30 million. Golf courses began closing. The number of courses fell 12% nationally and 9% across Florida, the National Golf Foundation says.
For would-be homeowners and developers, failed golf courses represented opportunity.
Some courses never made sense from the standpoint of demand for play. 13th Floor Homes, a division of developer 13th Floor Investments, has taken over six failed courses in Southeast Florida and Sarasota to redevelop the land for housing, says Mike Nunziata, a 13th Floor principal. He says the courses it acquired were at the “value end of the market” — daily-fee courses of 60 to 100 acres, as opposed to the 120 to 150 for championship courses. “It was never like one of those courses people fight over to get a tee time,” Nunziata says.
Analysts blamed flagging interest in golf on everything from Woods’ frequent absences from tour events to the slow pace of play, shifting consumer interest and cost.
Bartoli, for one, says he believes that except for certain places with a strong legacy, he expects to see the traditional country club golf experience of dress codes and several hours spent playing a round to pass away. “I just don’t see a lot of 10-, 12-, 15-year-olds having the patience and temperament to spend four or five hours grinding on the golf course,” Bartoli says.
For some, that realization was an opening.
Beginning in England and then dramatically expanding in the United States, Topgolf Entertainment created standalone, high-tech entertainment driving ranges, places where the point was socializing — no golf skills required.
In 2012, Texas-based Topgolf opened its first 102-bay entertainment venue in a west Houston suburb. A year later, as it happens, Bartoli left New York City for a golf hotbed, Jupiter in north Palm Beach County. There, he developed Lighthouse Cove Adventure Golf, a traditional mini-golf attraction with mobile app delivery of drinks, plus an ice cream parlor and playground. “It was immensely successful right out of the gate in Jupiter,” he says. As he opened two more, a vision of what became PopStroke emerged — real putting, more tech, high-quality food and beverage.
Topgolf innovated the driving range experience; PopStroke innovated the putting green. Bartoli says PopStroke takes the traditional golf course putting experience and puts it in “a three- or four-acre environment.” Critically, a wider audience can “feel like they’re getting the genuine golf experience in an hour and a half, nights, morning or day” rather than four or five hours on an 18-hole traditional course. “I definitely think overall it’s good for the game of golf,” Bartoli says. He opened the first PopStroke in Port St. Lucie in 2019. The next year, Woods became a 50-50 equity partner, bringing not only his name but his TGR Design golf course team and aesthetic to the partnership.
Meanwhile, the pandemic-driven desire for physical distancing benefited the larger game of golf. Rounds increased nationally.
There’s plenty of evidence for the sport’s enduring vitality in Florida, which still has more courses — at least 1,250 — than any other state and all but five countries. The Florida Sports Foundation says in fiscal year 2019-20, 17 million Floridians and non-Floridians either played the sport in Florida or attended a professional event here, spending $21.3 billion. In August, the PGA Tour, a separate body from the PGA of America, opened a new headquarters for its 700 employees in Ponte Vedra Beach to critical architectural acclaim.
Over the years, Gleason’s Inverrary Classic became the Honda Classic, and it will be held in Palm Beach later this month; the 2022 tournament with its $8 million purse produced a record $6.45 million for more than 100 South Florida philanthropic organizations. March brings a slate of big events: The $20-million purse Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, the Players Championship with its $25-million purse at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach and the Valspar Championship with its $8.1-million purse at the Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor. Efforts are underway to expand participation in the game; veteran golf industry executive Elisa Gaudet of West Palm Beach founded Women’s Golf Day, a global day for introducing women to the sport, in 2016 with 15 to 20 clubs. Last year, 70 locations across Florida participated along with 1,750 women (the event also has spread to 1,000 locations in 80 countries).
And new golf course development and communities are underway in some regions.
Kolter Homes, which has been building homes in Florida since the late 1990s, this year will open its first course and golf-oriented community developed wholly on its own, Astor Creek Country Club, a planned 900- home development on an 18-hole course in Port St. Lucie on Florida’s Treasure Coast. “This is the first time in our entire history,” says John Manrique, senior vice president of marketing. “With the right environment and right ingredients, there’s certainly great potential for success.” Manrique says Kolter’s development was driven by the demand for golf it saw while building PGA Village Verrano, a home development not on a course but next door to PGA Golf Club, a 54-hole facility in Port St. Lucie.
“I think golf remains a desirable amenity as long as the monthly fees remain relatively reasonable,” says Lesley Deutch, managing principal at consulting firm John Burns Real Estate Consulting. “But I do see it mostly appealing to older generations — despite the rise in golf for younger people. They are not as willing to pay maintenance fees, etc., to live on the course.”
The luxury niche is especially active. Martin County last year approved Atlantic Fields, a Discovery Land high-end, low-density development with 317 homes and an 18-hole course on 1,530 acres. Wall Street financiers and celebrities such as Tom Brady lobbied for it. Palm Beach County this year will see the completion of the Jack Nicklaus- and Justin Thomas-designed Panther National course, said to be the first new golf development in the country in nearly two decades.
Developer IMI Worldwide Properties said it already had $250 million in contracts and reservations for the project’s 218 estate homes. The course and lounge are scheduled for completion late this year with the first homes delivered in 2024.
Nunziata, the 13th Floor principal, concurs with those who have seen golf make a comeback. “The dynamics of golf over the past couple years have changed,” he says, but it doesn’t negate “the state of Florida (is) still being wildly over-golfed. We’re seeing a number of these golf courses continuing to fail or have failed and been sitting fallow.”
Such closures, the National Golf Foundation argues, shouldn’t be taken as a proxy for the game’s health but as a necessary correction to oversupply. The group also measures the health of the game by not only traditional club courses but also innovations such as PopStroke and Topgolf to argue golf has never been more accessible and available — indoors, outdoors, nights, days, at bar-side, in the living room via game consoles. By taking the 12.4 million people who participated in golf only at off-course sites such as PopStroke, Topgolf, simulators and adding them to the 25.1 million who took to the links, the National Golf Foundation says 37.5 million Americans played golf in 2021. By that reckoning, nearly a third of American golfers didn’t step on an 18-hole course in 2021.
Those targeting more off-course golfers see growth ahead. Topgolf, which opened its first Florida site in 2016, now numbers seven Florida venues, its biggest state after Texas, where it has 12. Topgolf employs 2,320 in Florida. PopStroke has developed sites in Arizona and Houston and in 2023 plans to be in Las Vegas, Dallas, Nashville and Myrtle Beach. Plans are afoot for more locations in Orlando and Tampa. Bartoli says the company eventually will max out at 15 to 20 locations in Florida. “Florida has been a major catalyst for our growth. From a Florida standpoint, we’re growing like crazy. By the end of the year, we’ll be about 1,000 team members,” Bartoli says. “Golf entertainment is certainly here to stay.”
The ‘Eatertainment’ Trend
PopStroke and Topgolf — along with mini-golf venue Puttshack, driving range Drive Shack, bowling’s Bowlero and Round1 and similar concepts — play into a trend of experiences and entertainment-focused hospitality driven by generational change, says Coral Gables attorney Marbet Lewis.
Combining food and beverage with activities from movies to golf appeals to families and group get-to-gethers — “eatertainment,” she says. “We’re seeing a move toward one-stop entertainment venues,” says Lewis, who specializes in alcohol compliance, permitting, licensing and regulatory issues for entertainment venues.
As a non-golfer, she says, the golf attractions “are an easy introduction for somebody like me.”
Traditional vs. ‘Off-Course’ Golfers
600,000 — Increase in the number of total golfers (traditional course and “off course”) in 2021, to 37.5 million. The pandemic, demographic changes and the rise of off course golf entertainment venues have led to changes in who is playing the sport. Roughly a third patronized a Topgolf, simulator or other off course golf and never set foot on a traditional course. Another third did the opposite, and the final third played both on and off course.
- 13% — Increase in total rounds played (traditional course and off course) during the pandemic in 2020
- 5% — Increase in rounds played in 2021
- 3.2 million — Number of beginner golfers in 2021
- 30 — Average age of an off-course golfer
- 43 — Average age of traditional course players
- 44% — Percentage of off course golfers who are women
- 25% — Percentage of traditional course golfers who are women
- 24% — Percentage of traditional course golfers (of 1.8 million) in Florida who are women
- 40% — Estimated percentage of off-course golfers who are non-white
- 21% — Percentage of tradition course golfers who are non-white
- 41% — Percentage of off course players making at least $100,000
- 43% — Percentage of traditional course players making $100,000
- $20 — 18 holes at PopStroke
- $52 — Prime-time, weekend price for one hour per “bay” for up to six players at Topgolf