The third wave of Asian investment in American golf is well underway with the Chinese following earlier interest and purchases by Japan and Korea. The timing couldn’t be better for many courses left struggling and / or bankrupt after the great recession. Not bad timing either for the Chinese, as they are able to buy at the bottom of the market. The once thriving U.S. golf market is suffering from more than economic woes. Although youth programs seem to be adding interest, Americans seem to lose interest later in life as they attempt to juggle family time, career building, and discretionary income. Over-building of courses during the boom, the failure to grow the game, and the recession have been more than many courses could endure, as competition for rounds have driven prices below profitable levels.
Once banned under communist dictator Mao Zedong, golf interest in China has been growing for more than 30 years. The building of golf courses in China has created some turmoil, though, with reports of poor regulation and even reports of courses being illegally built on (otherwise) protected land…only to line the pockets of local developers. The number of courses in China has quintupled over the last decade to more than 1000 courses today. The wealthy in China like real estate and, as a general rule, place the majority of their investments at home. But with the domestic market beginning to show some fragility, making investments abroad is gaining appeal. Again, timing comes to mind. Previous Asian investors weren’t so lucky when their golf course investments came during the real estate bubbles that burst leaving most upside down and some taking losses in the 100s of millions of dollars.
According to Rhodium Group, a New York economic consulting firm, major Chinese investments in U.S. businesses overall doubled to $14 billion last year. The same group reports $8 billion in investments were added in the first quarter of this year. Prime golf markets such as Myrtle Beach and others around the country saw the Chinese interest building over the past couple of years, and in Myrtle Beach several sales are already completed and others in process, with no shortage of rumors about even more possibilities.
In certain markets, especially Myrtle Beach, there’s not much concern (other than loss of jobs) about whether the new investors intend to keep the properties open for golf or develop them for housing or commercial purposes. Although the area has seen a number of closings recently (down from 120 to 84), some golf course owners in Myrtle Beach still insist the area needs fewer courses for profitability to return to what it needs to be. The best long-term result from the recent Chinese investments in American golf is to cultivate a growing international interest in playing golf in the United States. Golf tourism from abroad (especially Europe) is growing in the U.S. and is an area of hope for the future of the game.