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Thursday, 26 March 2015 10:34

Flat courses make walking a good option

        In the last week, I have played two golf courses in the Low Country between Myrtle Beach and Charleston that will appeal to those spry retirees and younger golfers looking for a club that encourages walking.
        "Most of our members walk the course," said Director of Golf Pete Dunham about Snee Farm Country Club's golf course. That was my impression on a wet day at Snee where golf carts were confined to cart paths only; if I hadn't been toting a camera bag, I would have been tempted to walk myself, like most of the other players I saw.
        Snee Farm was designed by George Cobb, and because the club has not engaged anyone to update it in 40 years, you see it pretty much the way the well-respected Mr. Cobb intended it, but with one caveat: Over time, the greens have shrunk, as happens at many courses that don't pay close attention to mowing practices, and the greenside bunkers have pulled away, making them less a hazard but also making the now smaller greens more difficult to hit in regulation. I liked the Snee Farm layout but it is likely a much more leisurely challenge than it was intended to be by Cobb. (Snee Farm has hosted the Rice Planters amateur tournament for four decades, and the winning score over four days is typically 18 under par, according to Pete Dunham.)
        The other golf course, The Reserve at Litchfield Beach, is a more modern layout by Greg Norman that was recently refreshed by Richard Mandell, a Pinehurst-based architect who specializes in making good golf courses significantly better.  At The Reserve, he certainly accomplished that -– I have played both the before and after versions –- especially by reshaping fairway and greenside bunkers.  One interesting aspect of the refurbishment is the contrast in sands Mandell used -– brown, almost beach sand for the fairway bunkers and white for the greenside bunkers. It provides an interesting visual effect.  I was impressed that The Reserve doesn't hide its pull carts; they are front and center at the bag drop, a welcome sign for golfers who would rather pull than carry.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect about The Reserve is that it is part of the McConnell Golf Group; Reserve members have access to McConnell's other nine private golf courses in the Carolinas, and they are among the best (including three by Donald Ross).  I'll be featuring McConnell Golf in an upcoming blog posting.
        The greens on both these courses were excellent, but The Reserve's had been cut prior to my round and Snee's, because of rain for two days before, were a little fluffy.  But the turf was clearly in good shape and will only get better as the growing season kicks into high gear.
        Below is a visual taste of each course.  Look for more extended comments in the coming weeks.

Snee11par3Sand and water meet at greenside on The Reserve's par 4 10th hole (top). At Snee Farm's par 3 11th hole, all manner of hazards, including a stiff wind on the day we played, can put a damper on the scorecard.

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        I've been in the Myrtle Beach area for the last week, and everywhere I go, both on the Strand's golf courses and off, I hear essentially the same thing: "What do the Chinese plan to do with the golf courses they've bought?" And "How many more will they buy?"
        In just the last two years, according to a recent article in the Myrtle Beach Sun News, China-based companies have purchased 13 of the area's golf courses as well as the sprawling former site of Waccamaw Pottery and an undeveloped section of the Grande Dunes Resort area. In addition, they have bought 100 single-family homes, signaling what very well could be the key to their interest in Grand Strand commercial and golf properties (more on that below).

$11 million for 3 golf courses
        The spate of sales started with one Chinese family purchasing Black Bear Golf Club in Longs, SC, a year ago for $1.5 million, certainly not an outrageous outlay for more than 150 acres of property but probably an above market price for one of the Myrtle Beach area's lesser tracks. Shortly after, a local Realtor originally from China contacted The Classic Group, owners of Founders Club in Pawleys Island, Indian Wells Golf Club in Garden City, SC, and Burning Ridge Golf Club in Conway. In September, a sale for the three was consummated for $11 million, what local observers considered much higher than market price for the golf course package.
FoundersClubfromteeThe Founders Club in Pawleys Island, originally named Sea Gull Golf Club, was purchased recently by a Chinese company, one of 13 courses in the Myrtle Beach area sold to Chinese in the last year.
        Chinese interests followed with purchases of nine additional courses for $35 million over succeeding months, including a whopping $10 million for International World Tour Links in Myrtle Beach, the three courses at Sea Trail Plantation for $8.5 million and TPC Myrtle Beach in Murrells Inlet for $7.3 million. At those prices, we can't imagine there was too much negotiation.

Golf, cart, breakfast, lunch, two beers...$40
        Myrtle Beach tourism suffered greatly during the recession, and no sector more so than the local golf industry. With nearly 120 golf courses operating in the mid 2000s, the 90-mile stretch of coastline from Georgetown in the south to mid Brunswick County, NC, in the north had more than a sustainable number of layouts. When the recession drove away most tourist play, some local operators panicked and dropped prices and added freebies to their offerings in an effort to keep names on their tee sheets; even today, The Legends Resort in Myrtle Beach, home to three good golf courses, offers players breakfast, lunch, two draft beers, green fees and a cart for less than $40. That has driven other local golf courses to compete on price (and throw-ins) with the inevitable loss of operating revenue, which almost always results in fewer services and poorer maintenance.

Thursday, 12 March 2015 05:16

That's Good!

        Dick Huber probably thought the biggest challenge of his round at Englewood, FL's Myakka Pines Golf Club recently would be to keep his ball out of the golf course's ponds.  But when he and his group reached the green on the course's 7th hole, "you're away" took on any entirely new meaning.  As you can see in the photo, a huge alligator decided that the 7th green at Myakka was a great place to catch a few rays.  Huber caught a few shots, his best of the day.  
Myakka Pines Aligator
photo by Dick Huber

        We wrote a few days ago about Jack Nicklaus' new ice cream venture; the current global businessman and golf architect formerly known as the best professional golfer in the world is lending his name and visage to pint containers of ice cream. He proudly proclaimed during airing of the Honda Open this past weekend that each pint will cost only $1.98. Ben and Jerry be warned.
        But in life, one hand giveth and the other taketh away; courtesy of Golf Dispute Resolution, a web site that shares interesting tidbits about legal cases related to golf, and Rob Harris, its publisher, we have learned that Nicklaus is being sued by a couple who claim that deceptive marketing caused them to waste $1.5 million on a membership in a golf course development whose course Nicklaus was to design. The development, located in the mountains of Utah, went bankrupt, Nicklaus never designed the layout and the couple was left a lot lighter in their bank account.

CreightonFarmHomeWhen we toured Aldie, VA's Creighton Farms in 2010 and played its outstanding Jack Nicklaus golf course, one of our real estate contacts indicated that another was being planned for Nicklaus and his family.

        Jeffrey and Judee Donner claim that Nicklaus represented himself as also having purchased a charter membership in the Mt. Holly club. "I have been so impressed with the development and its management team that I became a founding charter member," Nicklaus was quoted in the marketing literature for the community, adding "I look forward to seeing you there." Unsurprisingly, Nicklaus did not actually pay for the membership at Mt. Holly and, really, what were the chances anyone might see him there in the future; at my Nicklaus-designed home course of Pawleys Plantation in South Carolina, the architect stayed in a sprawling house made available to him by the developer during construction of the course. When it opened, he played the 18 holes, uttered some flattering observations about the course, his scorecard for the round was encased in glass in the clubhouse, and he never returned again (well, maybe once) after the opening in 1989. Why should he? His name is on more than 300 courses worldwide.
        But the Donners are out $1.5 million, not us, and they think Nicklaus is fit to be sued.
        If Jack Nicklaus were an active member in every golf community that has gifted him membership, he'd never have time for a scoop of his favorite ice cream, let alone his many business ventures. We've read enough quotes in press releases and marketing brochures to know that pablum comments from golf designers are par for the course. ("A glorious piece of land I was given...Smart management team...A wonderful place to live.") Whoever wrote and edited the Nicklaus-attributed quote about "becoming" a member at Mt. Holly might have saved him a couple of million dollars. That comment doesn't indicate he had his own skin in the game, not even close.  Once the court rules, the unhappy couple will almost surely be $1.5 million poorer...and wiser.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015 12:21

Nicklaus dishes it out

        It has been a slow few years in the golf design business, and former golf-playing architects have to do what they can to keep busy, especially after their competitive golf days are over. We recently learned that Jack Nicklaus, as competitive a golfer as ever there was, and equally successful as a golf course designer, has decided to go head to head with Dolly Madison, Ben & Jerry, and Haagen & Dazs. The now svelte Nicklaus, once lampooned by the sports press as "Fat Jack" in his early tour days, will be pitching a brand of high-calorie desserts with flavors like Coffee & Donuts, Strawberry

The Golden Bear is bringing his intense competitive spirit to selling ice cream.

Lemonade and Warm Spiced Butter Pecan. Each pint container includes the smiling Nicklaus profile gazing upon three beautifully airbrushed mounds of butterfat. The product will be initially available at supermarket chains operating substantially in the southern U.S., such as Kroger, Winn-Dixie and Bi-Lo.
        If you are tempted to criticize Nicklaus for contributing to the nation's obesity problems, understand that, according to the joint press release by The Nicklaus Companies and food maker Schwann Global Supply Chain, sales of the ice cream will benefit a Nicklaus child-healthcare foundation, although the press release does not specify what percentage of income will go to the non-profit.
        "It's no secret that I love ice cream," said Nicklaus, who could be a bit prickly in his playing days. He should be in especially good humor these days.

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        Lists of Top Places to Retire and similar rankings are published for the benefit of their publishers, not their readers. They help build traffic to web sites and sales of magazines. They are either utterly subjective, the fanciful notions of whoever is putting together the list (in the most egregious cases, advertisers tend to wind up suspiciously near the tops of many rankings); or they are a pure popularity poll, a battle worthy of Jerry Springer ("How many of you think St. Pete is the father, how many of you think Naples is the father?"). Folks who have plunked down a solid six-figures for a home are not going to fess up to the fact that their choice was anything but the best. On the contrary, if you eventually buy a home in their towns, that will help stabilize their own home values.
        And so we come to the annual "Most Popular Places to Retire List for 2015" at TopRetirements.com, a web site I visit a few times a week for insights into what many people are saying about their searches and their choices for homes in retiree-friendly areas. I like Top Retirements Publisher John Brady's forthrightness about his list -– it is purely a popularity contest, he says. Take it, I say, with a lump of salt.
MountainAirrunwaygolfAsheville, NC is up there at the top of the list of most popular places to retire. Mountain Air, about 20 minutes north of the city, is up there in terms of elevation, more than 4,000 feet. An airstrip bisects the golf course at the top of the mountain.
        Still, the list itself, and others like it, are fodder for those of us who care about choices for retirement locations, and a good jumping off point for discussions comparing one town to another. (The Top Retirement poll does not include specific communities, but many of the comments are from residents who tout the communities where they have chosen to live.)
        A few things stick out for this correspondent in the latest popularity contest. First is the diversity of the Top 10 choices, with seven of them located on a coast and two of them in reclaimed desert. And, yet, the overall #1 choice of those who visit the Top Retirement site is Asheville, NC, a mountain-oriented town often described as a "Little San Francisco," for better or worse (better, in my opinion, because it is the only such town east of the Mississippi). Asheville, for all its popularity, is a bit sparse when it comes to diversity of well-regarded golf communities, at least in the immediate Asheville area, where you will find Biltmore Forest and The Cliffs at Walnut Cove on the high end, and Reems Creek and High Vista at a level just below (the latter two golf courses are open to the public, the first two strictly private). But if you are willing to venture farther afield from Asheville, say 30+ minutes, Mountain Air to the north, at an elevation nearing one mile, and Champion Hills and Kenmure in the Hendersonville area on the south, are outstanding choices for those looking for mild summers and tolerable winters. (This winter has been a bit of an anomaly.) Side note to pilots: Mountain Air maintains a mountaintop airstrip that bisects the Scott Pool golf course.

        If you were to draw a picture in your mind's eye of the ideal location for a golf community, you would likely conjure one that felt totally isolated from the rest of the world and yet, in reality, was an easy drive –- say 20 minutes -- to a functional, charming town with chain stores and boutiques, medical services and a choice group of restaurants. Oh, yes, and if you could get to an ocean beach within, say, 15 minutes, better yet.
        You get all that at the 28-year-old Dataw Island Club and golf community, located within 20 minutes of the quintessential Low Country town of Beaufort, SC, and less than 15 minutes to the sparkling sands of Hunting Island State Park. Not that you might consider leaving too often the 870-acre Dataw and its 36 holes of excellent golf, dozens of social and physical activities and a recently refurbished clubhouse that seems to have as many dining and meeting rooms as a major conference center.
DatawgnarledliveoaktoppledFor those who love Low Country tidal marshland, they will never tire of the views from the golf courses and many of the homes at Dataw Island.
        Alcoa Corporation developed Dataw Island in the mid 1980s; the aluminum manufacturer, like other large, land-owning corporations, believed a leisure residential development business could add to shareowner value. And, like International Paper, Weyerhauser and others, Alcoa eventually exited the business, although the company did not turn over Dataw to its residents until 2007, a handoff that community officials and residents agree went without a hitch. What the corporation left behind were two fine golf courses, one by Arthur Hills and the other by Tom Fazio, a beautifully and naturally landscaped community surrounded by wide expanses of marsh, and a master plan that put virtually every building lot within a good view of golf course, marsh, lagoon or, in many cases, a combination of all.
        Alcoa did something else that is unprecedented in my visits to more than 100 golf communities over the last decade: The company insisted that every home built in Dataw be wired for an emergency connection to the community's security guard gate that is manned 24x7. Not that there is a crime problem or anything like that at Dataw; there decidedly is not, but Alcoa had the presence of mind to understand that the community would appeal to a somewhat older demographic with the potential for health emergencies, possible falls and other accidents, including fire. Having the equivalent of a panic button in each house means that Dataw's security personnel –- at least one car is typically patrolling -- can be on the scene within minutes.
Dataw Island Arthur Hills golf courseThe vast majority of homes at Dataw Island look out to one of the two golf courses or the marsh and, in some cases, both.
        No one searching for a home in Dataw will panic over its housing prices. They are among the most reasonable we have encountered in any multi-golf course community, especially when you consider the views involved. You will have to work hard at finding many million-dollar homes at Dataw, and those will be huge and have million-dollar views over a wide expanse of marshland. But at the other end of the spectrum, a two-bedroom, two-bath villa, of which there are just a relative few beside the 9th hole, are priced as low as $158,000; two units at even lower prices are currently under contract. (Couples visiting to inspect Dataw are housed in the villas, a smart move for the community's marketing efforts since views across the fairway also take in the wide marsh beyond.) Single-family homes start as low as $170,500 for a three-bedroom, two-bath residence of 1,865 square feet and a view of the golf course. The least expensive homes at Dataw tend to be those in need of some cosmetic updating; now that the community is nearing its third decade, there are a number of those available. But because of the way Dataw developed, with no deadline requirement to build a home on a purchased lot, owners of some resale lots purchased in the last few years have built new homes next door to others 20 years and older. The effect is not as discordant as it may seem, and it appears that the older homes have been updated to literally keep up with the Joneses next door.

        Just before my wife Connie and I were about to get ready for a special Valentine's evening event at Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, she took a bag of garbage to the disposal area about 30 yards from our front door. As she deposited the bag in the receptacle, she heard a noise in the bushes just beyond and looked up to see a huge pelican staring back at her. She began the brisk walk back to our unit, turned around en route and found the pelican was waddling after her. She rushed into the house, closed the storm door behind her and watched in a combination of wonder and anxiety as the pelican began scratching at the door with his enormous bill. She snapped the accompanying photo. After the bird gave up trying to gain entry, he perched on the guardrail along our carport before going on his merry way.
pawleys plantation pelicanOur Valentine's Day visitor at Pawleys Plantation
        The Valentine's Dinner turned out to be much less eventful but interesting nevertheless. About 80 couples from Pawleys and two other nearby golf communities were in attendance, and the crowd was almost exclusively baby boomers (and numerous couples on the other side of 70). Dinner service began shortly after seven, and by 7:30 the band -– whose members' ages reflected the audience's –- was in full swing. The playlist was virtually a what's what of 60s clichés, which is to say the most familiar and popular songs for my contemporaries and me. Here are a few samples: Dock of the Bay, Midnight Hour, Satisfaction (Can't Get No), Bad Moon Rising, Old Time Rock and Roll and others you might logically guess. I am not a dancer, although I indulged Connie on the slow ones, but I was impressed with the energy of my fellow club members who are well into their 60s and beyond. I was exhausted watching some of them but impressed that so many still remember how to "do the twist."
        But beginning at 9, the crowd began to dwindle pretty quickly, and at 10, the band abruptly played one last tune "to take you home," and the night was over. As one of our tablemates observed, "this is pretty much past our bedtimes."

        There are two ways to look at the sale of a golf community. One is to say, "Oops, they were in trouble, and the owner had to sell." The other way is to understand that, with an improving economy and a wealthy baby boomer cohort, well-organized and developed golf communities may just be a good buy. Follow the smart money and you will know the difference.
        Smart-money investment companies have announced in the past week the purchase of two well known golf communities. In Florida, the venerable Pelican Point Golf & Country Club in Venice, about an hour south of Sarasota, was sold for nearly $17 million to a New York City based investment company. Pelican Point was developed 20 years ago and includes 27 holes of golf designed by Ted McAnlis. With 1,355 home sites and 800 single-family homes, Pelican Point is the quintessential mid-range Florida golf community with a mix of villas, condos and single-family residences. Villas are priced from the low $200s and single-family homes from the low $300s.
Wintergreen Resort #16, Devil's KnobThings are looking up -- and down -- on and around the Devil's Knob Golf Club at the Wintergreen Resort, where both ridge-top condos and the fairways have commanding views of the surrounding mountains.

        The new owner, Lex Pelican LP, is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) that owns 13,000 hotel and resort rooms in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. The REIT is traded on the financial exchange.
        At Nellysford, VA's Wintergreen Resort, residents, club members and potential residents have been waiting patiently for Jim Justice to snag a new owner for the residential resort, located about 45 minutes from Charlottesville. Justice bought the combination ski and golf community three years ago after breathing new life into the Greenbrier Resort in his native West Virginia. But after investing an estimated $12 million is infrastructure upgrades at Wintergreen, he either tired of his investment or thought better of what might be needed in the future and announced the community, its two golf courses and ski operations were up for sale. That, of course, made everyone with an interest in Wintergreen nervous.
        After his initial investments, "Justice was not putting anything into improving the facilities going forward," says Steve Marianella, a Wintergreen real estate specialist. "Also, the uncertainty associated with a potential sale had affected real estate negatively."
        The new buyers are the New York Stock Exchange traded EPR Properties, another REIT. A purchase price was not disclosed but the firm maintains a $3.9 billion portfolio that includes entertainment, education and recreation investments. Another company, Pacific Group Resorts, will lease Wintergreen and its facilities from EPR and will manage the community, something it has done successfully at three ski resorts and four golf courses.
        "We now know who will own and operate [Wintergreen], and both parties have impressive track records and capital," Marianella added. "Time will tell but we are excited about the future prospects."
WintergreenMtnViewThis is the view from a 2 BR, 2 BA furnished ridge-top condo currently listed for $214,900 at Wintergreen.  Photo courtesy of Susan Phillips
        The announcement by the Justice organization that Wintergreen was for sale was surprising on two levels: First, why, after only a little more than a year had the gazillionaire decided on an about face? And second, why announce an obviously anxiety-inducing potential sale so publicly and erode the perceived value of Wintergreen, which has a lot going for it, including one of the better ski areas south of New England, two outstanding golf courses, and extremely reasonable real estate, priced to attract a second-home crowd from the Washington, D.C., area as well as retirees looking for clean mountain air, excellent golf and the occasional jaunt on the Blue Ridge Parkway, adjacent to the community.  The golf is excellent, 45 holes of it by Rees Jones and Ellis Maples; I wrote about the golf courses some years ago after my first visit.
        Steve Marianella is offering a number of outstanding properties for sale currently, including a 2 BR, 2 BA condo and breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from one of the highest points in the community. The unit, which is a short walk to the Devil's Knob golf course and clubhouse, comes fully furnished and with a fireplace in the living room and a the potential for excellent rental income.  Its list price is just $214,900. Please contact me and I will put you in touch with Steve, who can provide information on this home and dozens more for sale at Wintergreen, where everyone believes the future looks as bright as a sunrise over the Shenandoah Valley.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015 01:43

Briar's Creek Runs Out of Time and Money

        The major newspaper in Charleston, SC, The Post & Courier, is reporting that the upscale Briar's Creek, whose ownership and membership included such captains of industry as Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of General Electric Corporation, and professional football's Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, is filing for bankruptcy, citing $1.56 million in assets and $37 million in debts. Rees Jones designed the golf course that is surrounded by marshland on Johns Island, about midway between Charleston and Kiawah Island. So smitten were the original developers with the job Jones did that his large portrait hangs just inside the front door of the comfortably rustic clubhouse.
Briar's Creek golf courseThe Briar's Creek golf course captures all the elements of fine Low Country golf settings.
        When I first visited Briar's Creek in 2009, I was treated royally, and I wrote the following: "Briar's Creek...does one thing much better than the rest -- it personalizes to the maximum the experience for all its visitors in a way that makes prospective buyers or even a golf community blogger feel as if they are Norm walking into the Cheers bar. Briar's Creek management makes sure that everybody knows your name." Yes, club membership was expensive, on the order of $100,000, but lived up to the cost.
        Briar's Creek was the invention of local builder Steve Koenig, and its golf course opened in 2003 to a festival of awards, including "Best New Private Course" from Golf Digest and was among Golf Magazine's Top 100 in 2003. As late as 2007, the Golf Magazine "Living" issue named Briar's #11 of the "top 25 golf courses to live on." Koenig left Briar's Creek a few years ago to concentrate on his construction business and gave way to a national consortium of owners who will now seek to restructure the community.
        The success of Briar's Creek hinged on the continuing interest of a wealthier class of potential residents and members, and once the economy went poof in 2008, so too did the community's market. Briar's Creek ran out of buyers and out of time. We will hope for a renaissance once things are restructured there.
        You can read my original review of Briar's Creek here.

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Golf Community News

Pleasant prices at Mt. Pleasant, SC private club

     Spring is the season for robins, daffodils and discounted golf memberships.  I recently played the classic George Cobb golf course at Snee Farm Country Club in Mt. Pleasant, SC, a short ride over the bridge from Charleston.  The golf course is walkable and fun, and a current membership special takes $500 off the customary reasonably priced initiation fee.  For just $2,500 and a mere $275 per month in dues (for individual or couple), you receive unlimited golf o...

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