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Goldman Sachs, a Bowling Bust, Takes Up Golf
By PATRICK McGEEHAN
Having flopped in bowling, the investment bankers at the Goldman Sachs Group are trying their hand at a game they should know a little better.
Goldman said yesterday that it would team up with Starwood Capital to buy the biggest golf course management company, National Golf Properties Inc., for $246 million in cash and $850 million in assumed liabilities. National Golf, along with its American Golf affiliate, owns or operates more than 300 golf courses in the United States, Britain and other countries.
The deal would end a long period of financial and political turmoil at National Golf, a real estate investment trust that has a large stake in American Golf, which is private. Late last year, with the growth of golf slowing, American Golf said that it would not make all of its lease payments to National Golf.
The board of National Golf created a special committee of independent directors to sort out the ties between the companies and recommend a solution. In the end, said Charles S. Paul, chairman of the committee, selling the companies together was the best answer for shareholders.
"We think this represents a fair deal and a good, clean result for the common shareholders," said Mr. Paul, who has served as acting chief executive for almost a year. "The opportunities are good and the assets are terrific."
The purchase price of $12 a share was in the middle of a range of values deemed fair in a report by Merrill Lynch & Company. Shares of National Golf rose 99 cents yesterday, to $11.69.
The investment is Goldman's second venture into the golf business in a year and comes a few years after its disastrous purchase of AMF Bowling, which wound up in bankruptcy court. Goldman bought 30 golf courses in Japan in December, making it the largest course operator there, and has been shopping for more.
But Henry Cornell, a managing director in Goldman's merchant banking operations, said that the two moves were unrelated. The National Golf purchase, he said, is a bet on the business of golf in America, especially at municipal courses. American Golf owns or operates a mix of private clubs, expensive public courses and municipally owned courses. For almost 20 years, it has managed seven courses in New York City, including Van Cortlandt Park Golf Club in the Bronx and Dyker Beach Golf Course in Brooklyn.
"The competition is at the private, high level," said Mr. Cornell, who played the Van Cortlandt course as a boy. "The opportunity is for this company to go to municipalities and get them to work with us to deliver a better product."
That can be done without significantly raising the cost of play, by improving food service and merchandising at the courses, Mr. Cornell said. "We can easily upgrade the quality of muni play without having to raise prices dramatically," he said.
That is where Starwood comes in. Starwood is putting up about one-third of the purchase price and will help manage the restaurants, snack bars and pro shops at these courses, Mr. Cornell said.
Goldman is not banking on fast growth this time, as it mistakenly did in the bowling business. Indeed, Mr. Cornell said, modest growth will work.
Modest growth may be the best Goldman can hope for. The supply of new courses has outpaced the demand among American golfers, especially at the high end of the price range.
Of the 243 new courses that opened last year, only 15 were municipally owned, according to the National Golf Foundation.
"Throughout the 90's, golf course development was very active and golf participation was pretty flat," said Judy Thompson, a spokeswoman for the golf foundation in Jupiter, Fla. The industry is now working to attract new players to fill the gaps.
From 1997 through 2000, the number of courses in America increased 6 percent, to 15,487, according to the foundation's data. But during the same period, the number of golfers rose only slightly, to 26.7 million from 26.5 million.
The building boom has ebbed, with the number of courses under construction falling to 629 at the end of last year, from more than 700 in 2000, she said.
National Golf may own more of them in the future. After Goldman and Starwood complete the purchase, scheduled for early next year, the new owners may add more clubs to their set, Mr. Cornell said.