Affiniti Golf Partners enters Grand Strand market to manage Thistle

01/31/2013 6:04 PM

02/01/2013 2:56 PM

The bank that foreclosed on Thistle Golf Club has hired a management company that is making its debut in the Grand Strand golf market.

TD Bank took over ownership on Dec. 28 and has hired Affiniti Golf Partners based in Alpharetta, Ga., to operate the 27-hole golf club in Sunset Beach, N.C.

Affiniti operates 23 golf course properties in five states and the Bahamas, including four in South Carolina and a few multi-course facilities.

“We have looked at Myrtle Beach for a long time and haven’t had the opportunity until now,” said Affiniti founding partner Steve Willy, who helped form the company in 1998.

Thistle Golf Club had been embroiled in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in Florida that involved both the course and real estate development surrounding it. The ownership of Thistle Downs Limited Partnership and Thistle Golf Club Limited Partnership were both headed by developer Walter Mackey of North Palm Beach, Fla.

The bankruptcy judge allowed TD Bank to complete foreclosure proceedings and the bankruptcy case was officially dismissed on Jan. 16. The case was filed Jan. 9, 2012.

The semi-private course remained open throughout the bankruptcy process. Affiniti has retained the club’s management team, including five-year general manager Geoff Collins and director of golf Gene Weldon, after company representatives visited the course as secret shoppers. “It’s a tremendous facility as far as the amenities that they have,” Willy said.

The course was used as collateral for the development venture that was failing in a difficult real estate environment. Collins said the club added 20 members last year – pushing it over 100 – and only lost a few members due to attrition, not concerns over the bankruptcy.

“The club was healthy but it was the real estate that dragged everything down,” Collins said. “The financial status of the club is as stable as ever. … The only thing that has changed is now we’re going to be properly funded and properly marketed.”

Thistle’s 27 holes were designed by Tim Cate, whose courses in the area include Tiger’s Eye Golf Links and Leopard’s Chase Golf Links. The course has a grand clubhouse with separate member and customer areas, and is the only public course on the Strand offering tee times separated by 12 minutes. The course perennially garners 4 1/2 stars in Golf Digest’s “Places to Play” list, and has an expansive collection of memorabilia from the original Thistle golf society in Scotland dating back to the early 1800’s, including a rule book written in 1824.

“Our goal is to provide one of the best golfing experiences in the area,” Collins said. “You’re always treated well and never play more than a 4 1/2-hour round and it’s always in good shape. … I couldn’t be more excited about this company. They really want to take this and put it back on the pedestal it deserves to be on. I think the product will be enhanced by their participation.”

TD Bank’s foreclosure included the golf course, common areas, unsold lots in the single-family home community and a 40-acre nature preserve. Affiniti is overseeing the property owners association, real estate sales, membership, marketing, finance, dining and special events functions at Thistle.

Affiniti has already replaced the course’s entire fleet of golf carts and plans irrigation and maintenance equipment upgrades within the next month.

Affiniti is expanding. Thistle is one of four courses Affiniti has added in the past two months, along with two in Georgia and the company’s first course in the state of New York.

Affiniti manages The Cottages and Patriots Point Links in Charleston, Cobblestone Park in Columbia and Sunset Country Club in Sumter, and Willy said the company would consider adding courses on the Strand, though it has yet to identify any specific layouts.

“It’s got such a great history and tradition it would be great to grow in the market,” Willy said. “Once you get into an area your chances of gaining more properties are greater if you provide a good product and good operations.”

Willy said Affiniti has been retained to manage several courses that have been through foreclosure, and he’s not concerned with a potentially short and tenuous management term with a bank that is looking to sell the course. It has been his experience that it takes at least a year or two for a buyer to surface and complete a purchase.

“We have worked with a lot of banks with distressed assets to try to turn them around. That’s something we’ve focused on to assist with growing the company,” Willy said. “There is some risk to it, but really if we can be a partner with them to help assist and turn around the property … with the time frame that it usually takes, we’re okay with that.”

Century Golf Partners was similarly hired by a lienholder to take over management of the former Legends Group’s five courses in June 2009, and the company eventually purchased four of the courses and a lease agreement on the fifth.

Affiniti owns just one of the clubs it manages – the 36-hole Alpharetta Athletic Club. Is it interested in purchasing Thistle? “We don’t typically go into it with that intent,” Willy said. “It’s a little early on this one to see that crystal ball down the road.”

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