Gazing into the Crystal Golf Ball

The present and future of the region's signature sport.

REGIONAL OASIS: Golf courses dominate the topography of Southwest Florida.

Fly over Southwest Florida, and you can’t miss it. The well-manicured fairways, the dots of sand, the deep blue lakes—golf dominates our topography.

The so-called Golf Capital of the World attracts thousands of tourists a year to play its links and even more who seek to live in its dozens of golf course communities. The 140 or so (mostly private) golf courses generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for Southwest Florida.

But the game just isn’t as popular as it was 15 years ago. And many of those people look- ing to buy in private communities are looking for amenities other than golf. It’s unlikely golf courses will be leveled for pickleball courts anytime soon, but it raises questions about the future of the game here and just how it could continue to be the lifeblood of Southwest Florida.

Golf has been ingrained in the Gulfshore since the Fort Myers Country Club opened in 1917 shrouded in pines and palmettos. Just a little south, golf was featured in the heart of downtown Naples. A small course with sandy greens stretched along Fifth Avenue South. They were modest courses by today’s standard, and as the population grew, so did the demand for the game. During the development boom of the ’80s, it wasn’t just enough to have a home; it had to be next to a top-notch golf course. In 2013, the National Golf Foundation named Naples the golf capital of the world with 212 people per golf hole. Golf remains the most popular sport for visitors to Naples, with nearly 10% playing on a course during their stay, according to the county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. Nationally televised tournaments such as the CME Group Tour Championship and QBE Shootout continue to reinforce that narrative of Southwest Florida as a golfer’s paradise. “Golf has always been very important for us,” says CVB Executive Director Jack Wert.

A study by two University of Florida researchers was published in 2002 about the economic impact of golf in the Sunshine State. Even though it’s nearly 20 years old, it’s worth noting that golf in Southwest Florida generated $737 million in revenue (more than $1 billion in today’s dollars), second only to the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach area. Of course, times have changed and so has the industry.

Golf was booming pre-recession. In 2005, about 30 million people, fueled by Tiger Woods highlights, played a round of golf. That number steadily dropped and has relatively plateaued. Last year, about 24.3 million stepped on a course for a round. Golf courses have also been steadily closing nationwide. Since 2006, the number of courses has contracted by about 10%, according to the National Golf Foundation. The reasons are varied. Many industry insiders say there’s been a market correction, that there was an overestimation in the interest in golf in the mid-aughts and since then, the industry has been settling in. Others point to shifting demographics—maybe younger people don’t want to spend the money and time on golf.

The dynamics are a little different here in Southwest Florida. Nice weather year-round makes the Sunshine State a golfer’s dream. In fact, Florida has more golf courses (about 1,250 at last count) than any other state in the country. But in recent years, golf has faced some stiff competition. The golf course communities that have been the heart and soul of Southwest Florida are evolving. Residents don’t just want golf; they want golf and fitness and yoga and pickleball. The catch is that golf continues to be the top revenue-driving amenity in communities, often meaning that communities need to get the most out of their courses to support everything else. “It’s not that golf is dying. It’s just that members want to do more,” says Jason Becker, CEO of Golf Life Navigators, a Naples-based firm that assists residents seeking to live in golf communities.

Fiddlesticks Country Club recently poured millions into its two golf courses, including a $5 million major refurbishment of its Loch Ness Course and a $1.5 million sprucing up on its famed Long Mean Course, which will host a USGA event in 2022. It also plans a $1.9 million sports amenities renovation with new pickleball and bocce courts. General Manager Ryan Shaw says he’s noticed a trend in recent years: People are gravitating more to outdoor activities, whether that’s golf or al fresco dining. He says that could bode well for golf, which he says continues to be the main attraction at his club. “We feel golf is on the rise,” he says.

Over the last several months, golf has actually gotten a boost from an unlikely source. When the pandemic hit, social distancing became the norm. Golf ranks low on the COVID-risk factor—outdoors, easy social distancing, limited contact. At Fiddlesticks, Shaw saw an increase of about 50% in rounds as the state started to reopen. That’s been true across the board locally. After seeing modest increases earlier in the year, rounds played were up more than 30% in Lee and Collier counties over the summer compared to last year, according to market research firm Golf Datatech. Nationwide, more people are playing—and buying. Retail sales nationwide in August were also up about 30% compared to August 2019, according to Golf Datatech.

The trick now is seeing how much of this resurgence in interest can be captured. Becker’s firm Golf Life Navigators asked clients if they were more likely to play golf after the pandemic passes. Almost 80% said yes.

“How long will this stay? Will golf continue to stay strong?” Becker asks. “Those are the questions we don’t have answers to quite yet.”

And those answers may just determine the future of golf both here and afar.

 

REGIONAL OASIS: Golf courses dominate the topography of Southwest Florida.

POPSTROKE AND TOPGOLF

Some of the most popular golf is happening off the course. It’s at places like TopGolf, PopStroke and other eater-tainment venues where the game is just one part of a night out. At PopStroke, which recently opened in Fort Myers, you play on Tiger Woods-designed putting courses.

Food and drink are brought out to you on the course.

“It’s not like your typical minigolf experience with windmills and giant zebra statues,” says PopStroke CEO Greg Bartoli.

The first PopStoke opened in Fort Myers in September 2020, and plans are in the works for another in Naples. (TopGolf, which is built around its giant driving ranges, planned a Fort Myers location but plans are on hold due to the pandemic.)

Bartoli says PopStroke is targeting high-growth, tourist-friendly areas of the Sun Belt, making Southwest Florida the perfect spot.

The idea behind the original entertainment venues such as Dave & Buster’s was to give families and a younger generation a variety of options at once. You can essentially have a fun night out without having to shuttle between a restaurant and another location or two.

PopStroke likes to differentiate itself as reaching across all ages, Bartoli said. It’s for everyone from the veteran golfer looking for a fun night out with a spouse to the family of four who wants to play minigolf and grab a quick dinner. The relationship to the game of golf is complex. It’s not really competition but a complement, Bartoli says. Close to 10 million people play at off-course places including TopGolf, an increase of more than 70% over the last five years, according to trade group Syngenta Growing Golf. A study by TopGolf found that 23% of new golfers started the game shortly after playing at a TopGolf location. That may be an indication that the booming popularity of TopGolf and PopStroke is helping to grow the game. Only time will tell if those new golfers keep hitting the links … or just hit the on-site bar after a nice round of minigolf.

 

COURTING SUCCESS: Although Southwest Florida is synonymous with golf, pickleball is a rising star because of the annual Minto US Open Pickleball Championships in East Naples.

PICKLEBALL POWER

Southwest Florida is synonymous with golf and tennis. Why not pickleball? Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country with more than 3 million players in 2019, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That’s about a 12% increase from the year before.

In Southwest Florida, pickleball courts have sprouted up by the dozen over the last five years. Tournaments are taking place that bring thousands of spectators and millions of dollars. East Naples Community Park hosts the largest: the Minto US Open Pickleball Championships in April, in addition to several other tournaments. Just north in Punta Gorda is the PicklePlex at Florida SouthWestern State University. It opened just last year—and pre-pandemic was hosting tournaments almost monthly. Like most industries, the coronavirus scuttled the growth of pickleball, but it is poised to make a comeback.

“Pickleball will continue to be big for us,” says Collier County CVB Executive Director Jack Wert.

East Naples Community Park went from a few underused tennis courts and a skate park to 64 pickleball courts that buzz with activity daily. The county has pumped close to $5 million into the park over the last five years, including adding a $750,000 shade structure over several of the courts. As they’ve added courts and amenities, the players just keep on coming.

The US Open is scheduled to bring 2,700 top pickleball players from around the world and more than 10,000 spectators for the five-day event. Last year, the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic. But the previous year, it generated about $4.5 million for the local economy, including about 9,400 room nights booked by out-of-town guests, according to the CVB.

Commissioners approved in 2019 a master plan for the East Naples park. The second phase is a $21.5 million investment that will include a 3,500-seat pickleball stadium, a new welcome center and additional parking. Funding isn’t secure yet, so the timeline is a little up in the air. But it’s a sign that the county remains serious about pickleball. “It’s like Field of Dreams; build it and they will come,” says US Open co-founder Terri Graham.

 

PARTICIPATORY SPORTS: The new Paradise Coast Sports Complex meets the local growing demand for youth sports facilities.

YOUTH SPORTS

You can see the
SUV caravans now, traveling down I-75 with mom, dad and kids in tow—and
a whole bunch of sports equipment
in the trunk. Collier County is making a strong play to become an epicenter
of youth sports. It’s come to fruition with the Paradise Coast Sports Complex off I-75 and Collier Boulevard, where plans call for 21 athletic fields and a 3,500-seat stadium. It’s not just for local youth leagues. The goal is to attract those SUV caravans from across the South or even the country—meaning mom, dad and the kids will need places to stay, food to eat and things to do. “We could bring more families to Collier,” says Collier County CVB Executive Director Jack Wert. “Youth amateur sports have a lot of pent-up demand. Parents love to travel with their kids.”

The county has tried to keep up with youth sports demand to varying degrees
of success, including opening North Collier Regional Park in 2005. But demand still remained strong. “We ended up maxing out the capacity quickly,” Wert says. “We were having to turn down some of the events that we’d had for years.”

In 2016, the county-hired research firm Hunden Strategic Partners released its report on Collier’s needs, finding that the county was in prime position to capitalize on a growing market for soccer, football and lacrosse, in particular. It projected that a sizable event location could bring in more than 200,000 people a year and would generate about $468 million in economic impact over 20 years. The price tag was big: $80 million. The country approved raising the bed tax from4%to5%topay for the complex.

The grand opening of phase 1 on July 4 was canceled due to the pandemic, but the first event was held last summer— the FBU Top Gun Showcase, bringing in the nation’s top football talent.

 

SPRING TRAINING BY THE NUMBERS

Normally, spring is for baseball in Lee County. But spring training was canceled March 12, 2020, meaning Hammond Stadium and JetBlue Park only saw a little more than half of their scheduled games. That left Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox fans a little bummed, and possibly kept millions of dollars out of Lee County.

Each year, visitors to the ballparks spend close to $69 million locally, 82% of which happens outside the stadium, according to a 2018 study by Davidson Peterson Associates for the county.

That directly supported:
• 940 jobs
• $2.5 million in local tax revenue • $4.8 million in state revenue

Breaking down the total amount spent, visitors spent the most on:
• Lodging: $18.4 million
• Food/beverage: $14.4 million
• Shopping: $9.3 million
• Transportation: $5.5 million
• Sightseeing/other entertainment: $3.2 million

 

Photo credits: Courtesy Michael Gauthier; Getty; Courtesy Paradise Coast Sports Complex