Tuesday, June 25, 2024 Jun 25, 2024
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The Arc of Arcis Golf: How Blake Walker Built a Billion-Dollar Golf Course Company

In 2013, Walker left ClubCorp to build his own company. Today, Arcis owns and operates more than 70 courses across the country.
| |Portrait by Justin Clemons; Course Photography Courtesy of Arcis Golf
Arcis acquired Grayhawk Golf Club last year. It served as the host of the NCAA Golf Championships from 2021 to 2023. Courtesy of Arcis Golf

Back in 2013, Blake Walker was working to take ClubCorp public. The Dallas-based private golf club leader had just reported more than $754 million in annual revenue. But while working through due diligence and pricing, Walker, then the company’s chief acquisitions and development officer, noticed how low the default rate was dropping in the industry. Walker identified an unprecedented opportunity to capitalize on approximately $3.5 billion worth of near-term debt maturities. So, the SMU grad’s gears started turning. 

“I think I want to walk away,” he told his wife Karen, while strolling around their neighborhood with the family dog. “And, yes, eviscerate all my equity … I want to create a startup.” 

It would not be Walker’s first stint as an entrepreneur—nor his first time leaving ClubCorp to do so. Ten years earlier, he left after several years as its SVP of acquisitions to found Pegasus Golf Partners. The golf investment company backed by private equity firm Carlyle Group grew to have a portfolio of 14 middle-market golf courses. But in 2009, Walker slowed his work with Pegasus and boomeranged to ClubCorp. After all, he says, the company leaders had set out a clear succession plan for him to move to the C-Suite. And it didn’t hurt that he foresaw a liquidity event in the brand’s near future. 

Leaving again, even amidst an IPO, would be different. This time, instead of launching a company with an investment thesis, he’d start his new venture with an operational one. And rather than honing in on one asset class—for Pegasus it was middle-market clubs, for ClubCorp (which has since rebranded to Invited) it is high-end private clubs—Walker set out to create an ecosystem of golf assets scattered across entry-level, middle-market, and high-end daily fee and private clubs. 

“I began to see how fragmented golf was,” says Walker, who Golf Inc. listed as the sixth-most influential person in the sport in 2021. “Golf was either high-equity private clubs or municipal courses and not much in between. So, if I could create a platform that owned everything from entry-level daily fee courses to high-end daily fee courses, and everything from entry-level private clubs to high-end private clubs in every major metropolitan area in the U.S., we could build an ecosystem of a much larger consumer segment.” 

It turned out to be a good bet. Today, Arcis Golf—anchored by four pillars: health and wellness, experiential dining, lifetime sports, and arts and entertainment—owns and operates about 70 courses across the U.S. and employs 7,000 people. The brand is backed by private equity firms Fortress Investment Group and Atairos—combined, the two platforms hold more than $50 billion in assets. Arcis clubs range from those that charge a $30 daily fee for 18 holes up to private clubs that demand $90,000 in initiation costs and $1,000 in monthly fees. 

In North Texas, it owns and operates Lantana Golf Club, Cowboys Golf Club, Gentle Creek Country Club, Bear Creek Golf Club, and more. It also recently acquired Champions Retreat, a 27-hole golf facility in Augusta, Georgia (and host of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur) as well as the prestigious Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale (host of the men’s and women’s NCAA D1 National Championships from 2021 to 2023). “And we have a lot of interest in hosting a tour event at Grayhawk,” Walker says. 

The only U.S. brand bigger than Arcis Golf is Walker’s alum, Invited. According to national golf broker Steve Ekovich, whose Leisure Investment Properties Group is the largest golf and marina brokerage in the U.S., Arcis Golf’s institutional value is around $1.5 billion—and is on track to grow higher. “Arcis certainly has an opportunity to reach $2 billion to $2.5 billion in institutional value in the near future,” he says. “I don’t know when or if they’ll eclipse Invited’s golf course business, but could they? Certainly.” 

Craig Stamm, a veteran in private equity turned CEO of IT solutions firm Zyston, is even more confident. “I think that Arcis will not only pass Invited, it will become the largest player in the golf space,” he says.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Karen asked him on that walk. “If you fail, you’ll go get a job. If it becomes too much, just communicate that with me, and we can go in a different direction.” 

After getting her vote of assurance, Walker flew around the country to meet with some of the industry’s most well-respected private equity firms and investors to pitch his concept. He went from L.A. to Aspen to New York City, hoping to receive feedback and guidance—that’s all he was seeking. Most private equity firms target heavy cash-flowing businesses. 

“A part of me wanted them to say, ‘Are you crazy?’ Walker recounts. “’You’re working for a great company and are about to take it public; why would you do this?’” That wasn’t the response he got from Fortress Investment Group. Despite Arcis Golf not having any revenue or funding beyond Walker’s own pockets and quite literally just being an idea and not even a company at this point, the private equity firm agreed to back it. 

“That’s so rare; it has never been done before except for Blake,” Ekovich says. Stamm doubles down: “There’s a lot of people who can come up with a billion-dollar idea,” he says. “But there’s not many people who can find the investors willing to cut a massive check for their business. Blake is both.” 

Proof in the Portfolio

A look at some of the top assets Arcis Golf currently holds.

  • Private
  • Public

Champions Retreat Golf Club
Augusta, Georgia 

The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge
Snoqualmie, Washington 

The Club at Weston Hills 
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida 

Eagle Brook Country Club
Geneva, Illinois

Gentle Creek Country Club 
Prosper, Texas

Lantana Golf Club
Lantana, Texas

TPC River’s Bend
Maineville, Ohio

Arrowhead Golf Course
Littleton, Colorado 

Bear Creek Golf Club
Dallas, Texas

Cowboys Golf Club
Grapevine, Texas

Grayhawk Golf Club
Scottsdale, Arizona 

Las Vegas Golf Club
Las Vegas, Nevada

Raven Golf Club
Phoenix, Arizona 

Tijeras Creek Golf Club
Rancho Santa
Margarita, California

As CEO, Walker did not take compensation during his first six years at the helm—while helping to raise four kids and paying a mortgage. Karen was a stay-at-home mom, so the family made it by relying on the equity that Arcis Golf’s backers provided. “We agreed on a set time period that we’d be willing to operate that way as a family; my wife’s support and my financial sponsor’s support was unprecedented,” he says. 

Walker’s first acquisition came in 2013 when he bought three clubs: Colorado’s The Club at Pradera and The Pinery Country Club and Washington’s The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge. Over the next three months, he acquired three more clubs. Then, in September 2014, Arcis Golf took its first big swing and shelled out $320 million for CNL Lifestyle’s portfolio of 46 golf courses. Walker went on to divest nine of those properties, but for the most part, the portfolio served as the foundation for the arc of Arcis Golf. 

If it takes more than one mode of transportation to get to a city, or it has fewer than two pro sports teams, I’m probably not interested.

Blake Walker, Arcis Golf

“My rule of thumb is if it takes more than one mode of transportation to get to a city, or it has less than two pro sports teams, I’m probably not interested,” Walker says. “We reinvested the equity from the divested courses to build our subscription model.”

According to Ekovich, the CNL acquisition laid the groundwork for Arcis Golf becoming a serious threat in the business. “To land a portfolio that quickly after starting the company is an incredible feat,” he says. “If everybody else is looking through a windshield, Blake is looking through binoculars—he’s so forward-thinking.”

The company’s subscription model sets it apart from other owners and operators in the space. Across its various markets—the largest of which are L.A., Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, and Las Vegas—Arcis has built a modern membership that fills the middle-market gap in golf. Instead of golfers paying six figures for membership on one course, Arcis members pay a $55 or $75 monthly fee—and no initiation fee—for access to the company’s courses in the region. For example, an Arcis Players’ Prime package (the $75 subscription) in Dallas gets golfers access to upwards of 20 percent off tee times, 10-day advanced booking, unlimited range balls, free weekly golf clinics, preferred rates for club events and programs, and more. The subscription encompasses Cowboys Golf Club, Bear Creek Golf Club, The Golf Club at Fossil Creek, The Golf Club at Twin Creeks, Lake Park Golf Course, Mansfield National Golf Club, and Plantation Golf Club. When ready, DFW subscribers can move into a private membership and get access to local private clubs Gentle Creek Country Club and Lantana Golf Club. Of Arcis Golf’s 35,000 national subscribers, about 7,000 are in North Texas. 

Arcis is no longer on a buying spree. The company has just two or three acquisitions in various stages in the pipeline. Investments are now going toward facelifting the portfolio. Walker is giving Cowboys Golf Club a major renovation, which will serve as a model of what he plans to do at various clubs across the country. 

Walker says that the company plans to install up to four golf simulators which could replace the existing banquet room. Additionally, two large putting courses designed by renowned golf course architect Beau Welling are being installed on either side of the clubhouse. Walker also plans to gamify half of the practice area by turning the grass on the range into a turf football field modeled after the Cowboys home field in Arlington—Arcis actually acquired a 100-yard turf field directly from the Cowboys for the project. Each hitting station will boast the latest in shot-tracking technology. A goalpost will be installed at the back of the driving range. “We also have another three gamification beta sites that we’re rolling out this year,” Walker says. “We will have a concept similar to what we’re doing at Cowboys Golf Club in every major metropolitan area where we own a course.”

Arcis Golf is also investing in higher-quality F&B concepts at its clubs, health and wellness aspects, and more events and programming—Walker is also eyeing acquisitions related to Arcis’ four pillars and exploring how social clubs could work within golf courses. Additionally, the Dallas company is heavily pursuing tour events. Arcis already hosts a few at clubs spread out across the country—in March, TPC River’s Bend was named the host of the LPGA’s Kroger Queen City Championship presented by P&G. But Walker wants more. “We have about four assets in our portfolio right now that we’re conversing about hosting events,” he says. 

His latest moves come on the heels of golf’s latest boom in popularity. The sport has never been more accessible than it is right now. In 2019, 108 million Americans over the age of 5 followed golf on television or online, read about the game, listened to a golf-related podcast, or played golf somewhere. Today, the sport has ballooned to 123 million participants. And in 2023 alone, more than 3.4 million people played their first round of golf. 

Arcis doesn’t need to look too hard for more customers; they are stepping right up to the tee box. “We will continue to see initiation fees, dues, and tee time rates grow for the simple fact that we have more demand than we have supply—that will happen at least for the next five years,” Ekovich says. “The future looks bright for the sport. Golf is cool again.”

I’m looking at doubling the company in totality—doubling our revenue, doubling our cash flow, doubling the size of our ancillary businesses.

Blake Walker, Arcis Golf

Over that time span, Walker aims to capitalize on the frenzy by doubling the size of Arcis. That’s a lofty goal for a company that’s already a billion-dollar enterprise. But, as always, there’s a plan. Walker isn’t aiming to double the size of the portfolio; rather, he says, “I’m looking at doubling the company in totality—doubling our revenue, doubling our cash flow, doubling the size of our ancillary businesses. To do that, we’re going to lean into innovation while embracing the tradition of the game of golf.”

Ekovich points to Walker’s unprecedented successes. “Arcis is a unicorn,” he says, “and Blake knows exactly how to take big swings.”


Ben Swanger

Ben Swanger

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Ben Swanger is the managing editor for D CEO, the business title for D Magazine. Ben manages the Dallas 500, monthly…