Vacation With Pro Golfers

Amainstay on the Palm Beach hotel landscape has changed hands, and is apparently up for an overhaul. Owner and founder E. Lloyd Ecclestone has sold the PGA National Resort & Spa (www.pgaresort.com) to a Chicago real estate investment firm named Walton Street Capital. Walton Street Capital says that it plans to sink "in excess" of $25 million over the next one-to-two years into the property, redoing the banquet and meeting facilities, some of the resort's restaurants and lounges, lobby, members' clubhouse, health and racquet club, as well as the spa and pool. Waters of the World mineral waters at the PGA National Resort and Spa

Perhaps a motivating factor in these upgrades, the PGA Tour has announced that it plans to hold the annual $5.5 million Honda Classic (www.thehondaclassic.com) at PGA National's Champion course—one of five courses at the resort—for at least the next six years. It was previously held at Mirosol, a private golf community also in Palm BeachGardens. The 2007 Honda Classic, February 26 through March 4, will be the first held at the PGA National Resort & Spa, although it has hosted a Ryder Cup and a PGA Championship.

"The tournament has bounced around courses over the last 10 years and a stable agreement with PGA National gives us a host site with some history and tradition. It also provides resort amenities we can utilize to the fullest," says Ed McEnroe, the PGA Tour's tournament director for the Honda Classic. Tickets go on sale November 1, and are available through the event's web site. The hotel says it will package rooms with tournament tickets, but had not yet created the packages. Rooms are likely to be scarce during the Honda Classic, so book ahead if you intend on sending clients there. "Most of the rooms will be for Honda [and tournament] people," says Deb Hurd, director of marketing and communication for the resort.

Since opening in 1981, the PGA National Resort & Spa has carved out a spot in the Palm BeachCounty constellation of hospitality properties as one of the top golf resorts in the area. "It's really made its mark. It fills an important hotel niche," says Enid Atwater, vice president of corporate communications for the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.palmbeachfl.com). Of the sale, Atwater adds, "I think it will be very positive. I think we're looking forward to some new things, some good things. Mr. Ecclestone did a beautiful job with it, but I think he was ready to move on and do some other stuff—you know, put his efforts into some new ventures." Hurd confirms that retirement was likely Ecclestone's motivation to sell. "I think the primary reason is he's retiring from some of his businesses," she says. "A number of people had been approaching him about a sale over the years and he clicked with

Walton Street
. He felt they would take it to the next level. The future of the resort is very important for him." Selling Points

The PGA Tour's McEnroe says he envisions the players staying at PGA National during the tournament—a selling point for agents catering to golf-crazed clients who wish to get a close-up view of the pros. "It's better for the player experience if they stay there, and the new ownership team sees the value of having the players on site," he says.

The resort's various courses were originally designed by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, the Fazios and Karl Litten; the one to be used in the Honda Classic is currently undergoing a renovation overseen by golfing legend Nicklaus. "They are extending a couple of the holes. The changes are minor," says Hurd. "It's challenging just as it is." An Agents Take

Hole number three at the PGA National's Champion course, site of the Honda Classic

In an interview with Travel Agent, Hurd elaborated on the Walton Street Capital's renovation plans for PGA National, saying that the company intends to undertake a "complete renovation of the entire resort pool experience. It's going to be expanded and enhanced." Of the renovations in store for the spa, she adds, "We already have 56 rooms, but I know they want to add treatment rooms and expand the scope of the facility." The resort has nine restaurants, including a Shula's Steakhouse. However, only two of those eateries are slated for significant refurbishment: the Italian restaurant, Arezzo, and The Three Meal Dining Room (a.k.a. the Citrus Tree).

The hotel says it plans to stay open during the renovations, which most likely will begin in late spring 2007. "The goal is to do most of them over the summer months when occupancy is low so we don't interfere with our guests' stay," says Hurd. Portions of the hotel might be closed during the heaviest part of the renovations, but officials say, "there will be alternate access." Officials expect to complete the renovations by fall 2007.

Since the hotel rooms were renovated this year, they are not part of the upcoming renovation plans. "They are completely renovated at this point," says Hurd. Room refurbishments include new soft goods, flat-screen TVs, marble bathrooms, furniture, carpeting and curtains. "Top to bottom," says Hurd. Free Wi-Fi is accessible throughout the resort.

Walton has enlisted two partners: SCS Advisors will oversee the resort, while Century Golf Partners will run PGA National's golf operations. Meanwhile, Joel Paige, the ex-general manager of Doral Golf Resort & Spa, has assumed control of both the resort and golf operations, overseeing the tandem efforts of Century Golf Partners and SCS Advisors. Most recently, Paige worked with Jim McLean Enterprises, which runs a number of golf schools nationwide. Paige served as business manager.

Walton's purchase comes with a catch: Although no one is saying so officially, the hotel may be changing hands again in the near future. Walton is a private equity real estate company that raises money from private sources and then invests that money in real estate deals. It has five funds. Walton Street Capital purchased PGA National Resort & Spa for its real estate fund V, along with other residential and mixed-use developments located in such locales as Washington, D.C., and Puebla, Mexico. Typically, such funds liquidate after a specific period of time has elapsed—likely several years—so investors can recoup capital. Walton Street Capital did not return calls for comment. Hurd told Travel Agent that

Walton Street
is viewing PGA National as a special case. "The Walton Group looked at this as a unique property," she says. Only time will tell.