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Tuesday, 01 September 2015 08:59

Latest City Rankings Point Way South

        Friends have been sending me links to articles this week that rank U.S. cities in terms of their housing prospects and friendliness. NASDAQ recently published a list of 11 “up and coming” housing markets. Charlotte weighs in at the #10 spot, with Austin, TX, at #8 and the Raleigh/Durham area at #6. We’ve received a number of inquiries recently about Charlotte from prospective buyers looking for a golf community within an easy commute of a full-service urban area. The area north of Charlotte, principally around and near Lake Norman, and the city’s southern suburbs, which stretch to Tega Cay in South Carolina and beyond to Rock Hill, are rich in golf communities of every stripe, from the upscale Quail Hollow to a few more-mundane but high-value communities just off Lake Norman. We visited Austin years ago, and most of its sprawling golf communities are also within an easy drive of the city and the large University of Texas campus. Great barbecue is never far away either. Raleigh/Durham has been one of the south’s major economic success stories over the last three decades, with the Research Triangle area the major lure for technology and other companies looking to relocate from northern areas. With all the activities surrounding Duke University, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, one of Raleigh/Durham’s nice selection of golf communities would certainly be an educated choice.

Savannah bubbles
        Conde Nast’s Traveller magazine asked its readers to weigh in on America’s friendliest and most unfriendly cities, and most choices on the unfriendly side are not surprising (e.g. Newark, NJ, tops that list). But for those contemplating a move south to a golf community, the list of most friendly towns points the way toward a few nice options. (Although Park City, UT, weighs in at the top spot, the next two are deep in the heart of Dixie.) At #2 is Savannah, which the magazine’s editors describe as “Bubbling with Southern charm.” We agree, and if you want proximity to the city (just 20 minutes) in a large community with dozens of clubs and other activities, including six terrific golf courses, The Landings on Skidaway Island is a good choice. For a more upscale experience, Ford Plantation, on a beautiful patch of ground by a river where Henry Ford and his family once spent their winters, is just 25 minutes south of the city.
        Charleston, SC, holds the #3 spot on the Conde Nast ranking, and while we prefer it slightly to Savannah – mostly for its inventive and world-class roster of restaurants – both deserve their high ratings on the friendliness meter. Surprisingly, most of the golf communities in the Charleston area are semi-private, with Rivertowne in Mt. Pleasant near the top of our list. Kiawah and Seabrook Islands are 40 minutes away, and both offer near-private golf experiences (resort guests have access to all but a couple of the islands’ courses).

Nashville & Asheville, friendly rhymes
        Other good choices on the Conde Nast list include Nashville at #4 and Asheville at #7. We did not know much about Nashville until a meet up with friends for a couple of days of music club hopping in May. Although time constraints did not support an investigation of the golf communities near the city, we did stop for a round of golf and a quick drive-through at Fairfield Glade, the expansive community on the Cumberland Plateau about an hour east of Nashville. We were matched with a couple from Florida who had just moved to Fairfield Glade a week earlier, and they were definitely in the honeymoon phase with their new second home and community. For reasonably priced real estate and three good golf courses, Fairfield Glade seems an excellent choice.
        Asheville, of course, is on everyone’s list of best cities for retirement. It has been an especially strong lure for Floridians looking for relief from summer heat in the Sunshine State. On the upscale end of golf communities in the area, The Cliffs at Walnut Cove features $1 million homes and higher and one of the most elegantly sculpted golf courses in Jack Nicklaus’ oeuvre. One $50,000 membership provides access to The Cliffs’ seven other courses, all different yet all as good as Walnut Cove. (Tom Fazio’s layout at Keowee Vineyard may be even better.) For an interesting, albeit more down-market experience, the Reems Creek community north of the city features a wide range of real estate at price points that begin hundreds of thousands lower than Walnut Cove but with a unique golf course designed by the Great Britain based Hawtree & Sons, close relations of the designer of Donald Trump’s heralded new course in Aberdeen, Scotland.
        If you would like some friendly suggestions of which golf communities in the South might best match your requirements, please contact us.

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        The huge, hulking castle of a clubhouse at St. Georges Hill Golf Club southwest of London offers no shelter from the storm. It began to rain just after our round, and it was impossible to find a dry place to store our clubs outside while we had a post-game brew in the comfortable clubhouse bar. Even huddled against the side of the massive structure, the water rained down on the clubs. But like everything else at this 102-year old club, accommodations are made: We were invited to store our clubs on a wooden indoor rack spread along a hallway leading toward the inner sanctum of the clubhouse.
St. Geroges 1
The par 4 1st hole at St. Georges Hill in Weybridge, England.

        There is no shelter on the golf course either; quite the opposite actually, given all the heather and gorse. You can really use a drink after a first round at St. Georges Hill, which tests most shots in the bag, even though it plays to a rather modest length of 6,324 yards from the tees I played and just 6,541 from the tees my son Tim played. This is typical British heathland golf, which is to say up and down, with plenty of bunkers; and the bunkers, in this case, are fringed in beautiful purple flowers indicative of the ugly gorse bushes below. In typical States golf, you clear a bunker and you are relieved; here, clearing a fairway bunker might lead to a worse fate. If you are lucky enough to find your ball in the gnarly gorse, best of luck plowing through the stuff with any club. The medicine you take is often a stroke for an unplayable lie. Tim referred to the beautifully deadly gorse as the Purple People Eater. It is hungry stuff.
St. Georges green with mansion
One of the mansions beside the golf course peeks out from behind the par 3 3rd hole.

        All the holes at St. Georges Hill are memorable. Take any hole on the course and plop it onto a layout any of us play regularly and it would stand out. The first hole, for example, is a par four which plays down to a fairway that narrows as it makes its way back up to the green which, itself, is half hidden by a hillside. You are blind to the green, which is to say that first timers will guess at how far front or back the pin is (in our case, up front but that wasn’t much help in guessing at the distance from mid fairway, even with sprinkler-head yardages). In any case, the green was just deep enough to accommodate a well struck, if longer-than-necessary, iron approach. A wonderful starting hole. (By the way, the distances on sprinkler heads are to the front of greens rather than the middle, which I found helpful; the flagsticks are color coded for their positions on the greens, and since it was madness to try to hit approaches to the stick, the front edge was essentially where most shots should be played.)
St. Georges 4
A classic short -- very short -- par 4, the 4th at St. Georges requires a drive 240 yards or so in the air or a layup with an eight iron or less.

        St. Georges was rated by Golf Digest in 2014 as the 77th best golf course in the world and in the top 25 of all British Isles courses in recent years by Golf Monthly and Golf World. Unlike handicap ratings for many American courses, the Royal & Ancient surveyors of courses in the UK give a fair nod to challenging par 3s and are not deferential to distance. For that reason, the par 3s at St. Georges stand out as among the best collections anywhere, rivals for those at Pine Valley or Augusta National. The first one-shotter you encounter at St. Georges is the 3rd hole, at 198/178 yards respectively from the white and yellow tees, a downhiller with four bunkers at greenside and only the narrowest of entryways at the right front. Peeking out from behind the evergreens behind the green is a huge estate home, one of many dotting the course but at a distance. The 3rd green is banked from back to front, and we caught probably the easiest pin position on the green, middle right but far enough up the slope to make any play beyond the pin a deadly affair.
St. Georges 7 approach
The approach to #7 at St. Georges is best made from the left side lest menacing bunkers and a greenside tree that appears, from some angles, to front the green affect the shot.


        The 8th is a wondrous par 3 (179/173 yards), another downhiller, the crater-like greenside bunkers looking a bit lunar. The three in front are pulled well away from the green – about 15 yards – and the fourth, at left, is at some remove from most pin positions and only a magnet for severely pulled shots. The position of the bunkers and the wide green give the impression of a rather easy hole (as does its scorecard handicap of 15), but the green slopes upward from front right to rear left, and shots left more than 25 feet away are in three-putt territory.
        The 11th is the first par 3 that is uphill, and needs to be since it is a mere 119 yards from the tips and 107 yards from the yellows. It earns the easiest hole rating on the card but still carries a challenge since there are two menacing front bunkers behind which any mischievous greenskeeper would be proud to place the pin. On our day, the pin was behind the left front bunker and forced a conservative wedge to the middle of the green, a good 15 to 20 feet away from the hole.
St. Georges multiple bunkers 16

The purple topped gorse is ornamental at tee boxes but the stuff is lethal around bunkers and off the fairways at St. Georges.  The bunkers themselves are brutal too.

        The final par 3 of the round, #14, is the longest at 211/199 yards and forces a solidly struck tee shot lest the yellow-staked ditch about 40 yards short, or the gorse just beyond it, gobble up any skulled or skied shot. A smallish bunker right and a huge one arcing around the left side of the green will snare an offline shot. The only proper landing area is just short and mid green, from where you are bound to have a longish birdie putt unless the greenskeeper has seen fit to place the hole at center green.

The Ultimate Par 4
        Other highlights of the round included the ultimate short par 4 4th hole (handicap 17), which measures just 272/264 yards and is certainly drivable for the big bangers. The proper drive needs to carry at least 245 yards in the air to the one landing area short of the green that is devoid of sand. Three long and narrow bunkers ring the front and left sides of the massive green, making any sand shot a long one to most pin positions on the green (ours was at left rear). Even though the bunkers should not be challenged by any but the longest hitters, those of us who hit drives 220 yards in the air will feel a bit wimpy standing on the tee of such a short hole with something like an 8 iron in hand. There is really no other alternative but to go for it, and that is the genius of the Harry Colt, Jr. designed hole.
        That short par 4 is more than balanced by some robustly distanced holes, such as par 4s of 458/441 at the 2nd, 468/459 at the 6th, 434/431 at the 10th and 438/403 at the 16th. The par 5s are all of rather normal length except the short 476/456 yard 7th, where the approach to the green is a hoot about which some might holler. The uphill tee shot is blind, but should you make it to the top of the hill, the layup before you holds a bit of menace. The ideal narrow landing area is on the left side of the fairway, unless one hitches one’s trousers and goes for the green. A slightly offline shot could find the heather and gorse on the far left or a stack of three bunkers that lead to the green on the right. Beyond them, seemingly in front of the right half of the green, is a lone tree. Not even Jack Nicklaus, he of the tree-in-mid-fairway design cult, would be so brazen as to put a tree there. But alas, the eye is fooled; the tree is just behind the green. It is a beautiful and challenging hole and a beautiful and challenging golf course.

A Day to Remember
        The staff at St. Georges was substantially on the younger side and could not have been more helpful or nicer. Before our round, we took lunch on the veranda behind the massive clubhouse and overlooking the finishing holes on both nines. We had arrived wearing sports jackets in the expectation of sitting in on the club’s legendary “Carvery Lunch,” a festival of meat and fixins. But that lunch was slated for a 1 pm start and we had the opportunity to start our round early, before 1; rain was expected for late in the afternoon, so we took the starter (Dave from Seattle) up on his offer; indeed, as we putted out on the 18th, it started coming down.
        Fortune smiled on us all day with excellent weather and a great round on a great golf course. It was the best 115 pounds sterling ($175) I’ve ever spent to play golf.

I have a few more photos I would be happy to email upon request.  Just contact me using the button on the top of the page.

Thursday, 20 August 2015 11:32

Great Britain, great golf

        The family and I are attending our niece's wedding in London next weekend and my wife and I decided to spend a few weeks surrounding the event in the British Isles. After a few days in London to overcome jetlag issues, we headed for Crail, Scotland, which is located on the Firth of Forth or, more familiarly to most of us, the North Sea. Crail is about a 90-minute drive north of Edinburgh and just nine miles south of St. Andrews. On the way to St. Andrews from Crail, you pass four outstanding golf layouts -- the two at the Fairmont Resort, Kingsbarns and the relatively new Castle Course, part of the St. Andrews Trust portfolio of layouts. The Crail Golfing Society maintains two golf courses overlooking the water, and I had the chance to reacquaint myself with Balcomie Links, the 7th oldest golf course in the world, and to be introduced to Craighead Links, a modern layout done in a classic style by Gil Hanse, who is designing the 2016 Olympics course in Brazil.
Crail Hotel
The first major building you face on your way into Crail town from St. Andrews is the Golf Hotel.

        Our hosts, George & Dorothy, have become fast friends since we swapped golf homes with them in 2008; they spent two weeks in Pawleys Island, SC, at our condo and my son and I spent one glorious week later that year in Crail, playing Balcomie, the Old and New Courses at St. Andrews, and other classic links courses in the area.
        Crail's Craighead Links was closed for renovations in 2008, which created great expectations for me on this trip. I was not disappointed. Hanse did a fabulous job in 1999 of blending classic linksland touches (walls across fairways and behind a green, the standard sod bunkers, sweeping vistas to the sea) with just enough modern affects to make Craighead a complement, not an entirely different experience, to the old course next door. I found Craighead a little more fun and not quite as much work as Balcomie Links, although the former is a good 400 yards longer in total. The wind blows equally capriciously on both courses, and during the middle of our second of two rounds at Craighead, George pointed out to the fog offshore and said "Get ready." Within five minutes, we were enveloped, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees, and we were sending approach shots to greens with pins only dimly seen. I loved it!
Craighead man in pothole bunker
On the Gil Hanse designed Craighead Links at Crail, pot bunkers and other touches give a nod to centuries old links golf.  The adjacent North Sea (Firth of Forth) is everpresent from the course.

        For camera buffs, or for anyone with two good eyes for that matter, the fishing village of Crail is a feast. Its narrow cobblestone streets rise and fall to the harbor, and on the outdoor patio at the combination tea shop and gallery where my wife and I stopped for an afternoon cup overlooking the crashing waves five stories below, it had to be 15 degrees colder than the town's main street, just 50 yards away.
Crail Hells Hole
The fishing village of Crail is pretty as a picture, and just nine miles south of St. Andrews.

        I was also able to play a bit of golf in the London area, a different experience than Crail -- pretty much the difference between parkland and linksland golf -- but nevertheless still different enough from the Stateside golf experience to make the English rounds both interesting and fun. I'll have a bit more to say about them later. In the meantime, enjoy a few photos from my excursion to Scotland.

        Virtually all the top 25 golf courses in the state of South Carolina are closely connected to organized residential communities. Most of the others are adjacent to a residential community that was planned with golf in mind.
        Topping the list compiled by the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel (your editor is a member) is Pete Dye’s famed Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, located beyond two gates and at the edge of a community of estate homes, although no homes are close to the golf holes. The Ocean Course is among the most challenging layouts east of the Mississippi River, a course that every decent or better player ought to try at least once. Just behind the Ocean Course is May River in Bluffton, part of the lush Palmetto Bluff, one of the most expensive resorts in the east. The Jack Nicklaus layout is walking only, with caddies supplied, and the surrounding homes are priced at $1 million plus.
Chanticleer 2The par 3 2nd hole at Greenville Country Club's Chanticleer course gives a hint of just how strong the layout is.      Other highlights on the panel’s top 25 list include Greenville Country Club’s Chanticleer Course, perennially rated in the top 5 even though it snakes through a neighborhood whose large and well-landscaped homes are draped along the well-manicured fairways. But the tricky layout by Robert Trent Jones circa 1970 and later buffed by Rees Jones will keep even the best player’s eyes down and straight ahead. Greenville CC’s other course, Riverside, was recently redone by classicist Brian Silva who redesigned it in the manner of Seth Raynor. It should be ranked higher than its 44th place in my fellow panel members’ estimation.
        Hilton Head Island, which arguably began the golf community revolution in the 1970s, places two golf courses in the top 10, Harbour Town Golf Links at #5 and Long Cove Club at #7. Homes can be seen from both layouts but at a respectful distance.
Keowee Vineyard 17If there is a better looking par 3 in all of South Carolina, we have not played it.
        One of the best golf courses we have played in the last 10 years tips the scale at #12. The Jack Nicklaus course at Colleton River Plantation was in impeccable condition and the greens, we learned from the superintendent after our round, were “stimping” at 13.5. Anyone who loves fast and true greens will go gaga over Colleton River, which also encompasses a 27-hole Pete Dye layout, ranked #20 by the panel. Almost as good is Arnold Palmer & Ed Seay’s Old Tabby Links on Spring Island, and we played it before a heralded renovation two years ago. We won’t soon forget the commitment to conditions at Old Tabby shown by workers on their knees clipping individual blades of grass on the 1st green.
        The 17th hole at Cliffs at Keowee Vineyard, a 230 yard downhill par 3 framed by Lake Keowee, is almost enough to convey top 20 status on the entire golf course, but the rest of the Tom Fazio layout is thoughtful in its use of indigenous trees, stones that frame ponds and the lake.
        Briar’s Creek, a small but expensive community just outside Charleston, has suffered some financial hardships as it seeks to sell million-dollar properties but there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Rees Jones layout. So (justifiably) impressed by Jones’ effort that the developers of the club and community commissioned a painting of the designer and hung it in the lobby of the comfortable clubhouse.
Old Tabby workers on greenWhen we played Old Tabby a half dozen years ago, we were astounded, and impressed, that workers were picking poa annua from the first green.
        As a champion of the underdog, we love seeing Haig Point’s 29 holes of Rees Jones golf achieve a top ranking, in this case #24. We say “underdog” because a golf community reached only by ferry –- or helicopter, if you own one –- has a marketing challenge no other community has. But if you like peace and quiet, no pollution (no cars), two extra holes on your golf course, and don’t mind contributing a fairly substantial subsidy for the frequent ferry service, there may be no more perfect setting for golf and living.
        You will find the SC Golf Rating Panel’s 2014 list of best golf courses here and the 2015 best public golf courses in South Carolina here.

        A few spots remain for our special Discovery Weekend at Carolina Colours in New Bern, NC, which we are co-sponsoring with Carolina Living, October 29 through November 1 (Halloween weekend). Those who attend will be treated to three nights lodging, two rounds of golf, a couple of meals, the chance to mingle with Carolina Colours residents, a short boat ride in New Bern and a panel discussion that will answer your questions about the best ways to search for a golf community -- all for the modest cost of $350 per couple. The trick is to clear your calendar and join us for an illuminating, entertaining and, perhaps, life-changing event at Carolina Colours.
        For more details, please click here.

        One of our dedicated readers, Keith Spivey, is a data hound. Lucky for us, because he refers us to some interesting studies about both emerging and established areas of the South.
        Keith has become a fan of two North Carolina cities, Raleigh and Charlotte, based on a ranking of household income adjusted by cost of living or, put another way, those cities where people’s money goes farthest. The household income rank was a part of a national study by the web site WalletHub that came up with a list of the Best and Worst Cities to Live In. On the household income scale, Raleigh ranked second and was also considered by WalletHub to be the second best city to live in. Charlotte ranked fifth on the household income scale and 19th overall. Overall, Austin, TX, is considered by WalletHub’s data to be the best city to live in; Virginia Beach (#10) and Tampa, FL (#14) also made the top 20.
Governors Club clubhouseThe clubhouse at Chapel Hill's Governor's Club

        Raleigh and Charlotte have many excellent golf communities to choose, and at a wide range of price points. (We consider Chapel Hill and Durham part of the Raleigh metro area.) In Chapel Hill, we have visited and played golf at Governors Club (fine Jack Nicklaus course of 27 holes); in Durham, Treyburn is a beautifully landscaped community with an equally attractive layout by Tom Fazio, owned and run by the McConnell Golf Group, whose multi-course membership is as good a value as it gets. TPC at Wakefield Plantation (also a McConnell Group course) and Brier Creek are just two high profile and well-regarded golf communities in Raleigh.
        Before the recession put a crimp in the financial services industry, Charlotte was on its way to being an economic powerhouse. It is in strong recovery mode now, and the golf communities that surround Lake Norman, north of the city, take full advantage of the near water locations and the proximity to the big city (just a half hour). Perhaps looking ahead to the rigors of a Presidential primary race, Donald Trump put his son Eric in charge of Trump National Golf Club –- Charlotte, formerly The Point Country Club, which The Donald purchased in 2013. Say what you will about Trump, he does not skimp on his golf courses, and the Greg Norman layout already had a good reputation before Trump swooped in. Beyond the south end of the city, Quail Hollow, site of the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Open, may be the best golf course in the metro area, according to some local afficionadoes. Its surrounding golf community reflects the quality of the golf course, which is ranked #5 by the state's golf rating panel.
        We work with well-seasoned real estate professionals in all these two major metro areas. Contact us if you would like an introduction or more information.

        This is the second part of an article on three days of lessons at golf school.

        After the first day of the three-morning, 10 1/2 hour class, the other two students and I worked on pitching, chipping and putting. Many of Mel Sole’s lessons are available at his web site, http://www.ritson-sole.com/golf-tips/; I won’t repeat them here. I found that the most profound learning of the three days, all of it good, was the revelation about my full swing and, specifically, Mel’s guidance about the sliding of the hip. One easy lesson – you can attempt this at home – is to face sideways to a wall and, with the outside of your foot against the base of the wall, make a backswing with an imaginary club and then move your hips forward into the wall to start your downswing. (Of course, you are not going to follow through and bang your arms against the wall.) Once you hit the wall, so to speak, turn your hips so that you finish facing your imaginary target. It’s a simple exercise but reinforces the action of the hips.
Mel Sole with Mary puttingMel Sole can work effectively with beginners and single-digit handicap players alike since class size is four maximum.
        Seeing your swing on videotape, with Mel drawing computer-generated lines to show certain angles and comparing progress from Day One to Day Two, is a much more effective way of learning than just by verbal instructions. But a few days with Mel provides a few words-only stories – some instructive, some just entertaining – that are worth the reasonable price of admission. My favorite was about the time Mel was asked to tote the golf bag for Lee Trevino during a couple of exhibition matches with Gary Player in South Africa. Mel recalls during the first day of play that Trevino, being Trevino, hardly stopped talking. At the end of the round, Player, whom Mel revered then and now, asked Mel if he could get Trevino to quiet down on the second day of play. Mel told him he didn’t think he could. The next morning, on the first tee, Player walked up to Trevino and said, succinctly, “Lee, I do not like talking on the golf course.” To which the indefatigable Merry Mex said, “That’s okay, Gary. You can just listen.”
        One of the reasons Mel dedicates an entire morning to chipping and putting is somewhat personal and the source of another story about the fundamental importance of mastering the game around and on the green. He recounts for his students the history of his career on the South African PGA Tour where he was typically in the top three players in driving accuracy and greens in regulation. “But I was an awful putter,” he adds, “and ranked 143rd. My putter kept me from winning tournaments and making a good living on the tour.” He was matched one day with the late Harold Henning, whom golfers of a certain age will remember as a fine player. After watching Mel’s putting woes for 18 holes, Henning put his arm around his fellow competitor and said, “Mel, you need to quit the tour before you put a gun to your head.” It wasn’t long after that Mel indeed quit the tour, became a teaching professional, moved to Canada to set up a school, met his future wife Rosemary and later moved to the Myrtle Beach area in the late 1980s. He and Rosemary have been running the school at Pawleys Plantation since 1991 where he has taught emerging golf professionals, CEOs of major companies and celebrities, such as the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano, of whom Rosemary Sole says, “He was great fun.” Valvano attended the school with longtime ESPN broadcaster John Saunders. Mel has also worked with former National Hockey League players like Dennis Hull, Major League Baseball players Bill Landrum and Denny Nagle, and Billiards Hall of Famer Ewa Mataya Laurance.
Mel and Rosemary SoleMel and Rosemary Sole have run the golf school at Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, since 1991.
        Olympic fencing gold medalist (1996) Arndt Schmidt had heard about Mel’s school, and immediately after he earned gold at the Atlanta Olympics, he and his girlfriend rented a car and drove toward Pawleys Island. They overshot the mark by a couple hundred miles, made a U-turn near Charlotte, and took Mel’s first day’s class on no sleep.
        In the three months since my three-day session with Mel, I haven’t practiced as much as I should, but I have played about a dozen rounds, and as I focus on that hip slide and the swing plane of the club, I am getting about 10 to 15 more yards off the tee and 5 to 7 yards off my medium to short irons. My average scores have dropped two to three strokes. And even though I can’t putt worth a darn lately, I am nowhere near putting a gun to my head because of it.
        Not yet at least.

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The Mel Sole Golf School is located inside the gates of the Pawleys Plantation golf community in Pawleys Island, SC. Phone: 843-237-4993; 800-624-4653. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Web site: www.ritson-sole.com

        An old driving range professional ruined my golf swing before it even had a chance to develop 55 years ago, when my parents sent me for a lesson at age 12. It took me the better part of the next five decades to overcome a hard pull to the left – some of you know it as a “double cross” -- that insinuates itself, seemingly at random, at the most inauspicious moments, into my swing. I blame it on that old pro who spent my 45-minute lesson reminding me to “Roll your wrists...roll your wrists...roll your wrists” through the ball.
        After that experience, it would be 40 years before my next lesson, and only then because my wife, tired of hearing me complain about my inconsistent golf game, pre-paid for a lesson with Mel Sole, a former touring pro originally from South Africa who has worked with golf professionals, celebrities and committed amateurs since the 1970s. Mel’s golf school, which he runs with his wife Rosemary, anchors one end of the Pawleys Plantation practice range in Pawleys Island, SC, a few hundred yards from the vacation condo my wife and I own. At my lesson with Mel 15 years ago, he brought out a “new club innovation” for me to try, one of the first hybrids. The club felt and looked a bit weird, and I made little solid contact with it. Today, though, I rely on my 3-iron equivalent hybrid as much as I do my wedges. Mel, who is proudly old school in some ways, doesn’t shrink from such new technology; indeed, he incorporates it into his teaching. (See below)
Mel Sole and LarryBecause class size does not exceed four golfers, Mel Sole (right), who runs the golf school that bears his name, can give all his students individual attention.
        In May, on assignment for CarolinaLiving.com, I returned to the Mel Sole Golf School for three half days of lessons. My fellow students were a married couple from New Jersey. Larry had attended a couple of Mel’s golf schools in the past; Mary was a total beginner.
        As mentioned above, for a guy who will celebrate his 50-year anniversary as a golf professional in 2016, Mel is no Luddite when it comes to new technology. He used videotape as soon as it became available in order to capture his students’ swings and then compare them, side by side, to the swings of some of the most famous

My swing in slow motion appeared to be faster than Ernie Els' swing in real time when they were put side by side.

golfers of our time. (At my lesson 15 years ago, I was side by side with Ernie Els whose swing in real time seemed even slower than mine in slow motion.) These days, Mel combines the videotaping with sophisticated software that gives him the option of showing, with precision, all the angles of the golf swing, including elbow bend, wrist cocking, club tilt at impact, head movement...in short, virtually every component of the golf swing. Comparing the numbers from my own swing with the ideal angles built a sense of urgency in me for correcting the flaws; seeing the numerical improvement in the days that followed built even more confidence that a better swing was possible with the follow-up practice sessions Mel encourages (see “48-Ball Drill below).
        In my case, the video and Mel’s commentary identified three distinct flaws in my golf swing. First, my chin was firmly planted on my sternum at address, which restricts shoulder turn. Second, my takeaway was on an inside path, which promotes a pull of the ball to the
Even with a handicap lower than 10, I had three key flaws in my swing that Mel identified and then went about helping me correct.

left – a decades-long habit I blame on that driving range pro. Mel explained that often a golfer who takes the club back on the inside will compensate at the top of the swing or, worse, on the way to the ball, with potentially ruinous results. And, third, I was not starting the downswing with a slide of my hips toward the target, meaning that any rotation of my hips was coming too early and, therefore, also promoting a pull of the ball to the left. (Without that hip slide, I was also swinging with all arms and keeping my weight on my back leg, denying myself the rightful distance for each club.)
        Once he identified the flaws in our swings, Mel put his three students through the 48-Ball Drill which, to some, may seem like a bit of pop psychology but, in reality, seems like the only way to drill (pardon the pun) the lessons into your swing. The 48 balls are 12 clusters of four balls each. Once you choose a club from your bag – Mel doesn’t require one or the other club since the lesson is all about the swing – you go through the “Drill” phase with the first cluster of balls. In my case, I raised my chin off my chest, then I slowly took the club back along a straight path and stopped it at the top; then I exaggerated my hip slide as the first step toward bringing the club down (in other words, my hip, not my arms, started the club on its path downward). As the club descended, I could not help but rotate my hips and turn my shoulder. Mel insists on two practice swings before an attempt at striking a golf ball. It is awkward to hit a golf ball from a stopped position at the top of your backswing, but I definitely could feel those hips sliding and understood their effect on the downswing. I made the start and stop swing for each of the remaining three balls in the cluster (after, of course, the required two practice swings for each ball).
Mel Soles ball clustersMel Sole's 48 ball drill is a disciplined approach to learning in which stopping and restarting your new, improved golf swing midway through plays a pivotal part (in one student's case, literally so, since I was learning to slide and pivot my hips through the ball).
        The next cluster of balls was for the “Continuous” swing which is exactly as the term implies. I made sure on my two practice swings to get my chin away from my sternum, to take the club back on a straighter path, and then focused on starting the downswing with the hip slide. It was a work in progress. Concentrating on that hip slide caused me not to rotate my hips naturally, and I found myself shaving the ball off to the right. But as the practice session progressed, and I relaxed a bit, the ball began to fly on a straighter path. The final cluster of balls is for what Mel calls the “Clear Key,’ an exercise to clear the mind and avoid thinking about the swing changes you are working on. For the “Clear Key,” you choose a word or short phrase to say to yourself as you make the entire swing. Mel himself uses the word “Geronimo”; I chose “Shakespeare” with a nod to my English Lit degree. The Clear Key is essentially the Continuous swing but with the Clear Key word or phrase distracting you from any conscious thought about what you are working on, the hope being that the Drill and Continuous activities have worked their magic. For the final three clusters of balls, I chose a different club for each group and repeated the process.
        End of Part 1; Part 2 posts on Friday

        In 10 years, I have visited and reviewed more than 100 golf communities, including Albemarle Plantation, Scotch Hall Preserve and Carolina Colours, fine golf communities strung out along Highway 17 in an area known as the Inner Banks of North Carolina, adjacent to slashes of sounds and rivers that cut deep into the North Carolina coast between Elizabeth City and New Bern. Somehow, despite dozens of trips down Highway 17 over the last 20 years, I managed to miss Cypress Landing, just five miles from the highway. Better late than never: Cypress Landing can claim just as much in the way of amenities and bargain real estate as the others – maybe more in terms of clearly established value and stability. It wasn’t until I planned a visit to Greenville, NC’s Brook Valley, whose golf course was purchased by the McConnell Golf Group late last year, that I stumbled on the existence of nearby Cypress Landing, a community that should be in strong consideration for those looking for a highly social environment, a fun-to-play year-round golf course and a location easily reached from New England and the Middle Atlantic states.
CypressLandingwaterandfairwayCypress Landing developer Weyerhauser Corp. did a good job of preserving trees; golf course architect Bill Love did a good job of maneuvering the layout through them and around lakes.

        First a little history. Cypress Landing was developed in the early 1990s by Weyerhauser Corporation, one of the giant paper companies that owned more wooded properties than they needed for paper. Like competitor International Paper, which originally developed Haig Point on Daufuskie Island and a few other notable golf communities, Weyerhauser saw that the baby boomer population was aging, and the company made the decision to use their trees for a different, more decorative purpose. Ironically at Cypress Landing, a company known for clear cutting forests actually saved virtually all of the trees, which adds to the appeal of the general landscaping and views from the golf course.
        Weyerhauser left Cypress Landing in 2003 and turned over the property to its homeowners. Of course, when it departed, so too did Weyerhauser’s investments in the community, including marketing dollars that had helped Cypress Landing attain top 100 residential community ranking in the early to mid 1990s. Not much has happened in the way of publicity since, which is a shame because the community has a lot to tout. (We understand a Marketing Committee of the Homeowner’s Association has been formed but, in our experience, such groups have trouble finding and allocating enough money to make a meaningful impression on the market; and they tend to argue about creative decisions like what color to print the community’s logo.)
CypressLanding1fromteeThe first hole at Cypress Landing.
        Most impressive at Cypress Landing, especially, for someone visiting for the first time, is the real estate. The general curb appeal at Cypress Landing hints at home prices much more substantial than those Maria Wilson and Vivienne Ashfari, my real estate guides for the day, quoted me. Patio homes, every bit as buttoned up as the larger homes nearby, start in the low $200s with total square footage up to the 2,000 range. I walked through one patio-sized home with the Realtors that was beautifully laid out, with a kitchen that seemed as if it belonged to a larger home, sporting an enclosed porch with a view out to the Pamlico River, and priced well under $400,000. We also toured a larger “regular” size home that faced the 17th fairway of the Bill Love golf course, with most of the living space on the first floor, including three bedrooms, and one huge room running the entire length of the house upstairs, all for $367,000. (The two homes I toured both featured hardwood floors throughout, fairly standard in the community, according to Maria and Vivienne.) Maria indicate that, even with a generally accepted $125 per square foot price to build on one of the community’s available resale lots, new homes are pricier than the re-sales, many of which are barely selling for more than $110 per square foot – and that includes the land.
        Part of the explanation for the low pricing – and this is not unusual for communities first opened in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – is that the original residents have reached their 80s, and they are making the inevitable decision to live with their grown children or to move to assisted living situations. Current inventories of homes for sale at Cypress Landing have reached the 10% mark, or more than 50 homes on the market of the 500+ currently occupied. Home sites are another story, with enough of them on the market that Maria recently counseled a customer to wait a year to put his lot on the market.
        “If he doesn’t need the money now,” she said, “which he doesn’t, he ought to wait [until the inventory level drops].”
CypressLanding15fromteeNothing quite prepares you at Cypress Landing for the visual drama at the par 3 15th hole.
        Of course, such a situation spells bargains for buyers, and Cypress Landing lots start around $30,000 for those located on wooded sites, with premiums of about 15% for nice lots on the golf course. Home sites with water views can run as much as 50% more than the basic home site.
        Vivienne indicated that this year to date, 25 homes have been sold in Cypress Landing against 23 for all of 2014. As the baby boomer population is reenergized by an ever-improving economy, fairly priced communities like Cypress Landing are benefiting, even if they rely substantially on word of mouth and the Internet as their marketing vehicles.
        Although like many other planned developments that seem remotely located, Cypress Landing has the benefits of a charming small town within a few miles and a larger, rapidly growing small city a half hour away. The town is Washington, NC, which was the first burg in America named for the nation’s first President; the community has been touted as one of the nation’s premier “arts” towns, and Maria and Vivienne seemed excited about an upcoming “Artisans Fair.” The up and coming city is Greenville, and while its downtown area is in need of serious rehabbing, just to the west is a modern medical complex whose sheer size bowled me over as I drove past it during a 6 a.m. coffee run. Vidant is one of those huge hospital conglomerates taking advantage of an industry consolidation trend, and apparently the Greenville hospital has snared some of the best heart specialists in the country and is rapidly upgrading its cancer treatment center as well. An outlet of the Vidant system is located just down the road from Cypress Landing. For those with the requirement to be close to specialized medical assistance, the Greenville area should be considered seriously. (Note: Vidant is the site of the teaching hospital for the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. The hospital serves more than 1.4 million people in the surrounding counties. In an average year, the hospital system treats more than 215,000 in- and out-patients. An average 3,500 babies are born each year in its facilities.)
        The Bill Love golf course at Cyrpess Landing will appeal especially to those who don’t care if their home course is set up less challenging than the U.S. Open. In short, it is a fun course with enough subtle obstacles around the greens – and some not so subtle bunkers bracketing many of the wide fairways – that a single-digit player could face a challenge from the tips (Black tees), at 6,863 yards, a course rating of 73.3 and slope rating of 135. I played the way-more-modest White tees at 6,062 yards, 69.2 and 127. I found the greens difficult to read and a little slower than I like them, but faster and easier to read would not have helped me as I had a bad case of the yips on this day. Still, my score did not reflect my play, which is to say I scored better than I had any reason to. I don’t think that it was so much that the course is easy but rather that I chose tees that made it easy for me to get from tee to green. From the Whites, I played a half dozen par 4s under 350 yards, and only one par 5 was what I would consider modestly long. More appropriate would have been the Blue tees at 6,642 yards (70.9/131). All in all, this semi-private course is one to enjoy at any level, as long as you choose the correct tee boxes; and one to grow old on, with quite generous fairways but bunkers on both sides ready to swallow a badly errant golf ball and make par a tough challenge. (I had to wedge out of two fairway bunkers when I found myself close to their lips.)
CypressLanding18approachThe finishing hole at Cypress Landing provides one last fly over water.
        A word about the Pamlico River which flows in from the Pamlico Sound and abuts the community. In recent years, the river is probably as responsible for drawing active retirees to the community as is the golf course. The community’s active marina features a floating dock system, 222 protected slips that can accommodate boats up to 42-feet, a dock master on duty seven days a week, a yacht club that is open to all residents, boaters or not, and easy passage to the Intracoastal Waterway and the Outer Banks beyond. (Fortunately, the community is located 30 feet above sea level and, therefore, flood insurance is unnecessary.)
        You can see the river only once from the golf course, and it comes late enough in the round, the 15th hole, to be a bit of a surprise. The downhill par 3, with water framing the entire background, is as scenic as you will find anywhere between the coast and the mountains of North Carolina. Up until this point, the golf course landscape is best described as pine forests with an occasional pond; nothing prepares you for the view from the 15th tee, and I was left wishing that Weyerhauser might have granted designer Bill Love a few more acres along the river with which to dazzle the eye. Still, to paraphrase Bogie and Ingrid in Casablanca, “We’ll always have the 15th.”
        Visit the Cypress Landing page in our Golf Homes for Sale section for additional information on the community and a link to its golf properties for sale.

        John McConnell is the Clint Eastwood movie character of the golf industry. He rides up the driveway of a troubled golf club, cleans up its financial problems, reorganizes operations, improves the golf course, clubhouse and recreational lives of its members, and then rides off to eventually do the same thing all over again at another once-glorious golf club. The Eastwood western movie character seems to have a soft spot for the aggrieved people of the town he rides in to save; McConnell appears to have a soft spot for excellent, if troubled, golf courses and their members.
Brook Valley 5 from teeThe par 3 5th at Brook Valley.
        As he has done at The Reserve at Litchfield Beach, SC, and with Sedgefield Golf Club in Greensboro, NC, as well as eight other golf courses that were arguably on the brink of extinction or poised to go from private to public status, McConnell and company have saved Brook Valley in Greenville, NC. A merger of Brook Valley with local Greenville Country Club three years ago was supposed to bring financial stability, but the revenue generated by the combined clubs could not service the debt incurred when Greenville purchased Brook Valley; Greenville’s board jettisoned the Brook Valley club last year. Brook Valley seemed out of options -- until the McConnell group became aware of an opportunity to acquire the excellent layout at a great price. (McConnell representatives won’t quote a specific number, but we recall that at The Reserve at Litchfield Beach, south of Myrtle Beach, the company assumed only the club’s tax debts; Brook Valley, like so many other at-risk golf clubs, was in no position to bargain.)
        Designed by the respected Ellis Maples, Brook Valley is neither the best known nor best designed of McConnell’s 10 golf courses, but in the area of North Carolina known as the Inner Banks, it is certainly now among the most stable of all area golf clubs. As has been his practice with all the other courses he has purchased, McConnell closed Brook Valley in the months after the purchase was finalized late last year, spent a couple of million dollars to improve the golf course, clubhouse and other facilities, and reopened in March to local fanfare and a great sigh of relief from the previously aggrieved membership. The improvements and signs of stability did not go unnoticed in the Greenville area; in just the first couple of months this year, Brook Valley gained 100 new members, reaching the 300 mark.
Brook Valley 11 approachThe approach to the par 4 11th hole.
        The golf course is not long, just 6,831 yards from the tips, but its course rating and slope rating from back there, 73.0 and 139 respectively, provide a hint of how challenging the layout can be, especially if you play from one tee behind where you reasonably should. (Other tee sets play to 6,482, 6,036, 5,463 and 5,131 yards, providing something for everyone.) I found that most of the action on the course was around and on the greens, and in the midst of a one-month putting slump, I was put off by so many pin locations on the crests or sides of rises in the sloping greens. So tough were those pin positions that paranoia set in, and I thought golf professional Riley Kinlaw might have pulled a practical joke on me. (Riley was the head pro at my course at Pawleys Plantation on the South Carolina coast before McConnell plucked him for work a few miles away at The Reserve and then to Brook Valley after the purchase; he grew up in eastern North Carolina and was an assistant pro at Brook Valley in the late 1990s.) But assistant pro Nick Bowman insisted when I approached him after the round that the course uses 15 pin set rotations, and my friend Bob and I just happened to catch the toughest one of the 15. In any event, the greens, which had been aerated two weeks earlier and were still showing slight signs of the work and of some light top dressing, were plenty fast enough.
Brook Valley 18 approachThe finishing hole at Brook Valley.

        For members of Brook Valley who don’t mind a two-hour drive to play some of the best golf courses in the Carolinas, membership provides significant extra benefits in the form of privileges at all other McConnell properties. (McConnell membership includes 12 rounds annually at each of the other courses for just a cart fee; after 12 rounds, members pay the guest fee and cart rate.) In fact, Brook Valley is less than 90 minutes to Raleigh Country Club, designed by Donald Ross; exactly 90 minutes to TPC at Wakefield Plantation (Hale Irwin); and two hours to Treyburn (Tom Fazio) in Durham. That makes for a nice three-day golf trip.
        The community of homes that surrounds Brook Valley exhibit a split personality; to one side is a neighborhood that appears to have been developed in the 1960s, and to another side a second neighborhood is of more modern vintage, late 1990s and more recent. (Brook Valley opened in 1964.) Home prices in a growing metro area like Greenville -– its huge Vidant medical complex and East Carolina University medical school are magnets for incoming professionals -– seem more than reasonable. I noted one circa 2003 brick home of four bedrooms, 2 ½ baths and 3,150 square feet priced at $329,999, or $105 per square foot on a nearly ¾ acre lot that backs onto the golf course. Like a McConnell golf membership, that certainly seems like a lot for a little.
        I should add that when I returned to my car after golf and an excellent lunch in the clubhouse, I noticed a business card stuck under my windshield wiper. It said: “Your windshield has been washed today. We hope you enjoyed your day at the club.” As Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry might put it, that certainly helped make my day.
Brook Valley train and Dr. BobLike some of the famous courses in the UK and a certain recent U.S. Open venue, a train can interrupt a backswing at Brook Valley.

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