December 8, 2023

For Tiger Woods, a Golf Course Design Business Is in the Rough

Mr. Woods would soon undergo surgery that would shut down his season, but no matter: the Tiger legend was steaming ahead, and the fall from grace that would follow was unthinkable then. His heroic performance in the Open had enhanced his stature as perhaps the greatest player ever. It was his 14th major championship, putting him only four behind Jack Nicklaus’s 18, the singular goal that Mr. Woods had been pursuing since he turned pro in 1996. His earnings from golf and endorsements had made him wealthy beyond imagination.

Now he was turning his attention to a new challenge, his course design business, one that would extend his brand, bring him untold more millions and leave his permanent imprint on the game he seemed to have mastered so easily.

The Baja course, called Punta Brava, was Mr. Woods’s third design. With its breathtaking landscape, it was easy to envision it rivaling Pebble Beach and establishing his legacy as an architect at age 32. At the news conference to unveil the course, in October 2008 at the Hotel Bel Air in Beverly Hills, he looked at ease sitting next to Red McCombs, the billionaire co-founder of Clear Channel Communications, who was one of the investors.

“I can’t wait until we actually start construction, and we get to move some dirt because that’s when I can really get my hands on it and really be out there even more than I am now,” Mr. Woods said at the time.

Now, two and a half years later, no dirt has been moved at Punta Brava and Mr. Woods has not visited in some time. His two other designs, in Dubai and near Asheville, N.C., are also troubled; the Dubai course, according to people familiar with the project, has been shelved permanently. The desert sands have started to reclaim the strips of green from the six holes that have been completed. The Asheville project is searching for new financing, and construction has halted until at least this summer. In the nearly five years since Tiger Woods Design was founded, none of the courses have been completed.

It’s a trajectory that mirrors just about every element of Mr. Woods’s life these days: As he enters the Masters tournament beginning on Thursday, his golf game has fallen apart and he is overhauling his swing for the fourth time in his career. The string of affairs that made him tabloid fodder in 2009 and 2010 cost him his marriage, custody of his two young children and the loss of endorsement deals with Accenture, ATT and Gatorade.

Brian Tucker, the founder and developer of Punta Brava, said the delay there had nothing to do with Mr. Woods’s personal scandal. His group had to redo the environmental impact study, he said, and groundbreaking is set for later this year. What remains to be seen is how much the developers will use Mr. Woods’s image to sell the course. Mr. Tucker suggested that Punta Brava would be marketed mostly on its exotic locale.

“This project is not about Tiger Woods,” Mr. Tucker said last month, emphasizing that the course is surrounded on three sides by the ocean and has 12 holes requiring a player to hit the ball over water.

Punta Brava’s location allows it to play down Mr. Woods’s involvement, but the two other courses he designed do not have this luxury. His allure as one of the world’s great champions was a crucial pillar of the sales plan.

Bryon Bell, president of Tiger Wood Design, said the firm would not be looking for new partners in Dubai. “As the course designer, it is not our role to secure financing for the projects,” he wrote in an e-mail.

When asked about the Asheville project, he said: “Our role beyond design work can vary depending on the client. Some request additional promotional or marketing opportunities, others just ask for our patience during these economic times.”

For now, the only golf project that Tiger Woods Design has completed is behind Mr. Woods’s newly finished mansion on Jupiter Island, Fla. With four greens, seven sand traps and different cuts of grass, the 3.5-acre pitch-and-putt course would delight any golfer.

While Mr. Woods could surprise the golf world and win this week at the Masters, it will take more than a major championship to rehabilitate his business career. And that raises some questions: What will become of the two remaining courses that bear his name, and can Tiger Woods Design re-emerge as a viable enterprise?

WHEN Tiger Woods started his golf design business in 2006, few doubted that he could deliver a course that everyone would want to play. That confidence didn’t vanish when the global economy began to fracture in 2008. Real estate values — so vital to any golf development — were dropping but were not yet considered at crisis levels. There were signs of a financial reckoning on the horizon, but not in the world inhabited by millionaire investors looking for a spot in golf’s most exclusive clubs. The Tiger market remained bullish.

Investors had compelling reasons to hope that Mr. Woods was recession-proof. Dubai had ponied up an estimated $55 million, according to widely circulated reports, for the privilege of owning Mr. Woods’s first-ever course design. The Asheville project, at a gated community called the Cliffs at High Carolina, had reportedly paid him $10 million. The usual fee for course design by a top architect runs $2 million to $3 million.

It didn’t matter that Mr. Woods had never designed a course. Who more than Tiger Woods knew his way around bentgrass and bunkers? With his practical experience, he would learn the details of the business on the job.

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