In this most contentious of Presidential elections, one might be inclined to think that the clubhouse bars, dining rooms and golf courses in Southern golf communities are the scenes of pitched battles between donkeys and elephants. The reality, however, is a little different based on discussions we had with developers, real estate agents and residents in some of our favorite golf communities. That is the main feature of our Home On The Course newsletter, just released to nearly 1,000 subscribers. Join them by subscribing here.
We also take a look at voting results from 2008 and 2012 in selected Florida, Georgia and Carolinas counties. Are they predictors of what will happen in just few weeks? We provide the numbers, you be the judge.
Once upon a time, mandatory golf memberships were popular for some of the higher end golf communities in the Southeast, especially in the area between Bluffton and Beaufort, SC. But one community’s experience with the obligation of paying dues for a club you don’t use has pitted resident against resident and resulted in a lawsuit. For conservative buyers it could serve as a lesson; but for contrarian investors, perhaps an opportunity. (How does a nice lot for $1 sound?)
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For most of the 50+ years I have been playing golf, I’ve known about and wanted to play at least one of the three golf courses at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, PA. I attended college an hour away and my wife and sister attended Cedar Crest College in Allentown, mere minutes from the golf courses. But Saucon Valley is private, and I never made the acquaintance of a member of the club. Yesterday, however, courtesy of a friend whose wife and he are active in the affairs of Cedar Crest, I finally made it Saucon Valley via a fundraiser event for the college.
Saucon Valley is not located in a golf community, although I could see a few homes through the woods during our round. Turf conditions were impeccable, the greens fast and nearly spotless, although firm. We played the Grace Course, the members’ least favorite according to our forecaddie. I suspect the others are more challenging with narrower fairways and slightly more changes in elevation. On our drive back to the clubhouse, we passed the finishing hole on one of the nines, and it was much more elevated than any we played on the Grace layout, with surrounding bunkers that were clearly there for more than eye appeal.
I hope that Cedar Crest repeats the fund raiser next year and moves to one of the other two courses...although I found no fault with Grace layout. I snapped off a few photos with my iPhone. Enjoy.
Cleanup from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew last week is well under way. Water and tree damage to golf communities from Miami, FL, to New Bern, NC remain, but golf courses are beginning to reopen up and down the coast. In Myrtle Beach, most of the area’s 100 golf courses reopened on Wednesday, although a few big names, like the venerable Dunes Club and Surf Club, were not ready for play. My own Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, plans to open on Friday.
Matthew was a unique storm event in terms of the coastal cities where it landed. Chief among them was Savannah, which frequent readers of this site and my free monthly newsletter will know is almost hurricane proof because of its location well to the west of the Gulfstream; for the last 100 years, any serious Atlantic storms were whisked northward, about 75 miles east of the city. Not this time around, however, as the stubborn Matthew hugged the coastline along the full lengths of Florida and Georgia. Hilton Head Island, which is just to the northeast of Savannah, was directly in the storm’s path. But aside from broken docks, plenty of downed trees and concrete chunks from the dock at the marina that were tossed up and around the 18th green at the famed Harbourtown Links course, the surrounding Sea Pines Plantation fared pretty well. (And for those worried about the famous Lighthouse behind the green, it did not suffer a scratch, according to a video I watched.)
Savannah, according to the well-regarded book “Hurricane Watch,” should suffer a major hurricane no more often than 1.3 times per 100 years. For those looking for a golf community along the southeast coast and especially worried about major storms like Matthew, the odds are with you at a place like The Landings on Skidaway Island, just 20 minutes from downtown Savannah. They have just endured their 100-year storm, and probability indicates it should be another 75 years or so before the next one (although please don’t blame me if the next storm beats the odds). Other coastal cities with lots of golf communities and good odds when it comes to major hurricanes (according to “Hurricane Watch”) -– those packing winds of more than 111 mph –- include St. Marks, FL (due south of Tallahassee and on the Gulf of Mexico; 1.4 major hurricanes per 100 years), Daytona Beach (2.6), Jacksonville (1.9), Charleston (2.2), Myrtle Beach (2.6), Wilmington (2.1) and Virginia Beach (1.3).
Although the popular image of major hurricanes is of broken piers and sand covered roadways, a storm like Matthew can cause serious damage to inland locations. Greenville, NC, has been in the news the last few days for the threat of severe flooding from the Tar River. As I write this (noon Wednesday), military trucks are rumbling through some neighborhoods in Greenville, their loudspeakers warning residents in high risk neighborhoods to evacuate immediately. Branches of the Tar run through Brook Valley Country Club, one of the dozen McConnell Group golf courses in the Carolinas; and a few holes at Greenville’s Ironwood Country Club are a hundred yards or so from the river itself.
“Ironwood was scheduled to host a home tournament for ECU (East Carolina University) this Sunday through Tuesday,” says Brook Valley Head Golf Professional Riley Kinlaw. “However, they are going have some flooding on their course. Brook Valley is stepping in to help out the University and providing those teams a place to play their event.”
If you would like more information about hurricane probabilities along the Southeast coast or about any of the golf communities in the region, please contact me.
To build a golf course and surrounding community anytime after the 2008 recession, a developer either had to be dumb or very organized. Put Compass Pointe developer Bobby Harrleson in the “organized” camp.
At a time when virtually everyone not invested in a golf course or golf community is preaching gloom and doom for the golf industry, it takes guts and confidence to build a golf course, let alone an entire community with golf as its central amenity. The 79-year-old Mr. Harrelson has plenty of both and something that counts for even more –- experience. Over a five-decades-long career, he has built and/or managed 100 communities of varying sizes in the Wilmington area, including Leland, NC’s Magnolia Greens, with 27 holes of golf. Magnolia Greens is located just across Highway 17 from the much more aggressively marketed and successful Brunswick Forest.
Compass Pointe brochures quote Mr. Harrelson as saying, “Everybody deserves a nice place to call home.” That is not just good ad copy; when you meet the developer, as I had the opportunity during a recent visit, he emphasizes that his first priority in pricing the real estate and building the amenities and golf course in Compass Pointe is not to generate the most profit the traffic will bear. I didn’t have my notepad out but, as I recall, he told me, “We did it this way because everybody deserves a nice place to call home.” (Certain politicians could learn a thing from Bobby Harrelson about staying on message.)
Location –- and location and location -- of course, counts for most of the value in any home, and Compass Pointe has the benefit of proximity to one of the South’s most interesting and full-service cities, Wilmington. High speed NC State Road 140 and US 74 link up just a few hundred yards from the community’s front gate; Highway 74 makes the trip into Wilmington just 10 minutes and to the popular Wrightsville Beach less than 25 minutes. Brunswick Forest is located closer to the city, but traffic outside its entrance can make the trip into Wilmington a stop and go affair. Compass Pointe has no commercial area just outside its gates. Pick your poison: Brunswick Forest, across the highway from excellent shopping and other services but with the traffic that goes with it; or Compass Pointe’s rural setting 10 minutes from all that shopping. (Note: Plans at Compass Pointe call for a small group of Village Shoppes that will add convenience shopping and a few restaurants at the community’s edge. Also, an independent company plans to break ground on an assisted care center just inside the boundaries of the community, making it possible for residents to live out their days on site.)
Although Compass Pointe is open to people of all ages, except for an area of more than 100 single-family homes restricted to persons 55 years and older, just a handful of families with children live inside the gates; and more than 90% of residents are year-rounders. The community’s amenities seem geared mostly to the retired residents, especially at the Grand Lanai beside Cardinal Lake. The amenities there include a Wellness Center with a constant rotation of classes for the body and mind (yoga, aerobics, painting), rows of fitness machines, a spa, and a massage therapist available on an appointment basis. (During my visit, I noted that a couple of dozen people were taking a painting class.) The Grand Lanai, which also features cooking stations and a huge screen TV for major sporting and other events, opens onto a large pool area and a canoe and kayak launch beyond. Mr. Harrelson’s plan has been to roll out one big new amenity annually, and he has been true to his commitment since opening; this year’s big amenity was the golf course, which opened in June (see below). An indoor pool is scheduled for next year, along with a “lazy river” that will appeal to children from 9 to 90.
Golf course designer Rick Robbins, who has chosen to build a home at Compass Pointe, has fashioned a layout to enjoy at virtually any age. The fairways are extremely generous, 40 yards or so wide in some places, with fairway bunkers positioned to catch only the most reckless of drives. You won’t find any bunkering directly in front of the greens, although there were plenty of traps to catch wayward approach shots to the sides. And any “junk” in front of tee boxes –- marshy areas, streams, heavy rough -– is easily flown if the correct tee boxes are chosen. But the
Someday, soon I hope, I will activate a web site I have owned for a few years called “Off The Beaten Cart Path.” Although it sounds representative of golf courses at significant distance from major cities, I really intend it to be those courses that take at least a little effort to reach.
The Golf Course at Glen Mills in Thornbury, PA, would certainly make the grade. Ranked recently as the fourth best public course in all of Pennsylvania and located about a 40 minute drive from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Glen Mills, nevertheless, feels as if it is in East Podunk. You pass family farms on the way there and, just before you reach the turnoff to the course, a beautiful school set on a rolling 800 acre campus. The Glen Mills Schools opened in 1826 as the Philadelphia House of Refuge for Boys, and today serves boys ages 15 to 18 identified as “juvenile delinquents,” many of them gang members. In fact, the school recruits some gang members and uses elements of gang social structure to exert peer pressure and structure rewards. No one is permitted to make physical contact with their fellow students. Most interesting, perhaps, is that the young man at the golf course bag drop who greets you or the person who takes your order for a hot dog at the snack bar is more than likely to be.a student at Glen Mills. Indeed, one of the golf course’s reasons for being is to provide opportunity to Glen Mills students for work while they straighten out their lives. Graduates of the golf course’s extension program have gone on to careers as golf club superintendents and turf management instructors.
The Glen Mills Schools just beyond the Golf Course at Glen Mills.
Straightening out your drives is not the biggest challenge on the golf course at Glen Mills where the fairways are extremely generous. I did not play well but still managed to hit all but one par 5 and par 4 fairway. The trouble is generally on and around the large and undulating greens where Robert “Bobby” Weed exhibits a bit of the sly fox of his mentor, Pete Dye. Glen Mills is one of those golf courses where pin positions can mean the difference between a pleasant walk and a spoiled one. We found a few positions atop ridges, or close enough to give extra pause on approach shots and a few where it was tough to identify the right spot without driving all the way up to the green. A few pins were tucked just beyond bunkers at the bottom of slopes, necessitating a play away from the bunker and to the middle of the large greens (never a bad play but where’s the fun in that?). But all in all, even with a few blind shots, Glen Mills is a fun experience.
If you ever find yourself off the beaten cart path southwest of Philadelphia, make sure you devote four hours to a round at the unique Glen Mills.
A downhill par 3 at the Golf Course at Glen Mills.
While doing a search for a customer today, I happened to check through the listings at Colleton River Plantation, an upscale golf community in Bluffton, SC, that suffered a crash in home and land prices during the recession. Overzealous purchasing of lots that sold for as much as $400,000 just before the recession left some residents looking to dump those extra lots at ridiculous prices from 2009. The definition of “ridiculous” was $1.
The reason for the crazy pricing is that golf membership is mandatory at Colleton River, as it is at its fine neighboring golf communities of Berkeley Hall and Belfair Plantation. Even if you own a home in these communities and purchase a lot, you must commit to a second golf membership with an annual dues obligation approaching $20,000 (including the homeowner association dues and other assessments). The 45 holes of Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus golf are about as good as you will find inside the gates of any golf community, but there are no mulligans for that extra obligation. Once you commit, it is like the Roach Motel: You can check in (for membership) but you can’t check out until someone buys your lot.
My customer is looking for a home priced up to $500,000, and I figured that, post recession, there still might be a selection of homes in that range. Boy, was I wrong; there are no homes currently for sale below $539,000 in Colleton River. That caused me to assume that the Colleton market has risen dramatically overall, and that those $1 lots were long gone. But when I scanned the list of current lots for sale, there were 11 priced at $1, and some of them were beautifully sited. Here’s a description of one that is over a half-acre in size: “Long panoramic golf views of the 2nd fairway of the fabulous Dye Course...Seller will pay the Colleton River Initiation Fee and balance of 2016 Dues.” In other words, the seller is giving you something like $20,000 (in value) to take his nice piece of property off his hands.
About $200 per square foot in construction costs should get you a nicely outfitted brand new home, or a total of $500,000 for a 2,500 square foot house. Sorry: Make that $500,001.
At first blush, August real estate sales in the Wilmington, NC, area, seem like an anomaly, but the numbers imply this may be a good time to buy a home inside or outside a golf community in the area.
Year over year sales for the month of August leaped by 30% in New Hanover, Pender and northern Brunswick Counties, which surround Wilmington. But –- and it is a big but -– median prices decreased more than 5% according to the area’s MLS (multiple listing service). Average sales price of a home in the region reached $260,000 in August, although the median price dropped to $206,000. The conclusion one can draw from those two numbers is that a disproportionate number of expensive homes sold during the month.
The increase in homes sold, from 683 to 889, implies that inventory could begin to dry up in Wilmington, assuming most of those who purchased homes intend to live in them for at least a few years or use them as vacation homes (as opposed to buying them as investments). Those who planned to sell their homes beginning in 2008 but held off when the recession sent
I am resigned to the fact that I will never hit a 90 mph rising fastball, sink 10 free throws in a row, or kick a 40-yard field goal –- with or without a line of 300-pounders rushing at me. But at age 68, I fully expect in the coming years to conquer one of sport’s enduring challenges for rank amateurs –- to shoot my age in golf. That will happen only if I play from tee boxes appropriate to a game that no longer includes 230-yard drives (unless a rare solid strike comes while I am pointed downhill and with a strong wind at my back).
Most modern courses play from around 7,000 yards at the tips, roughly 6,600 yards at the tees one level closer (typically blue in color) and anywhere from 6,000 to 6,300 from the white tees at all but the most compact courses. That 300-yard difference can be larger than it appears, with most of the added degree of difficulty found in the par 4s. For example, at the redesigned Keney Park course in Hartford, CT, my new favorite layout in Connecticut, the back tees play to a modest 6,449 yards and the blue tees to just 6,046 yards, which at first blush seems short enough. But on closer inspection, three par 4s of the six on the front nine exceed 400 yards –- including a hole called Biarritz, which celebrates a design that features
Last week I read yet another poorly researched and stupid article by a real estate writer predicting the doom of golf communities. He used, as evidence, one golf community owner in Arizona who wants to plow over his golf course and build more homes. Nowhere in the perfunctory article is there any discussion about extenuating circumstances or whether the golf course was managed properly or poorly.
Lost also in the media’s fascination with the alleged death of golf are the stories of long-established golf courses that have undergone significant restoration and renovations -– which brings us to Keney Park, located at the extreme north end of Hartford, CT. The park itself opened in the late 19th Century when the city was arguably the wealthiest in America, thanks largely to being the insurance center of the nation.
The park’s golf course, like Keney itself, has great historical value. Devereux Emmet laid out the first nine holes, which opened in 1927, and the second nine were added by a member of the city of Hartford's engineering department in the early stages of the Great Depression in 1930. (The engineer, Jack Ross, also designed the other city course in Goodwin Park.) Ironically, the Depression spurred the construction of the brick clubhouse that was finished as a national public works project in 1934. (It is currently being restored and should be ready for use next spring.) Emmet, who designed more than 150 golf courses worldwide, maintains a strong reputation in golf architecture circles, and is responsible for the layouts at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C., and Leatherstocking Golf Club in Cooperstown, NY. The designer was especially prolific in the Hartford area and is credited with 18 of Hartford Golf Club’s 27 holes and the layouts at Country Club of Farmington and Manchester Country Club. One of my favorite classic courses, Copake Country Club, just over the Connecticut border in New York State, is an Emmet design.
Keney began as a private park on farmland owned by a never-married wealthy local businessman, Henry Keney, whose cousin encouraged him to leave his name on something that would endure. His will provided not only the land but also funds for the park, laid out and landscaped in the 1890s by the famous Frederick Law Olmstead’s company. (Olmstead was a Hartford native.) The park and the golf course were immensely popular, first with wealthy north Hartford residents in the early 20th Century and later by a more diverse population of mostly Jewish and African-Americans. In later years, many of the area’s white residents left for the suburbs; most of Keney’s neighbors today are persons of color, many of them immigrants.
In the 1970s, Keney Park fell into disuse despite its pedigree and beautiful grounds, as Hartford itself became one of the poorer cities in the nation. The park’s secluded areas, once considered a lure for visitors, scared many people away because of the possibility of criminal activity. The area’s residents, with the strong support of Hartford’s police department, rallied to Keney’s defense, and by the mid 1990s, things were looking up for the park. Nevertheless, conditions on Keney’s golf course had deteriorated after the turn of this century, and the nail in the coffin was the hiring of a company whose management of the club, if not criminal as some alleged, was certainly inept at best. Trees and fallen limbs littered the golf course, and the old line about a “cow pasture” would not have been an inappropriate description of the fairways and greens.
Thankfully, city officials were shocked enough at the conditions to fire the management company in charge of the club and authorize the $5.8 million needed to restore the golf course to Emmet’s original specifications. Construction began in 2013 under the guidance of a firm headed by Ken Dusenberry and with input from Brad Klein, the golf architecture critic for Golfweek magazine, and the course reopened in April this year, albeit with the pro shop located in a trailer and no potable water available on the golf course. (A local catering company offers food and drink from a food truck parked near the clubhouse.) Golfers won’t care about the temporary lack of amenities; I have now played the course twice this year with friends, and all of us believe it to be the equal of most private courses in the area and as good as any public layout in the state.
Yesterday, my friend Bill and I played at Keney and he pronounced the greens as good as those at his private course in Simsbury, CT, Hop Meadow Country Club, one of the best layouts in the northern half of the state. (I was a member there for 25 years.) I don’t recall playing a public course’s greens that were any faster than Keney’s, perhaps a consequence of the state PGA Championship having used the course the two previous days. Although the course ratings and slopes at Keney are rather timid –- just 70.6 and 127 from the back tees at just 6,449 yards –- it played much tougher with those fast and firm greens. Further, some of the greens feature huge sloping areas, most notably at the par 4 7th hole, called “Biarritz,” where the pin was on the top level. (Biarritz is a design element that features two dramatically different levels on a green bisected by a gully that runs its entire width.)
Emmet seems to have channeled other iconic elements of golf architecture, including a church pews grouping of bunkers beside the par 4 8th hole, called Hogs Back, which are certainly reminiscent of the more famous pews at Oakmont. Other bunkering is equally dramatic, as on the par 5 10th hole, where a second shot must either be busted over an almost fairway wide bunker containing a few menacing grass buttons, or played short of the bunker, leaving a 130 yard uphill approach to the forward tilting green. Strategic thinking abounds across the entire 18 holes at Keney Park, although I found the par 3s, with one exception, a little less intimidating than the longer holes. Yet, on the downhill, 127-yard aptly named “Short” hole, a huge swale front and center on the green shielded the bottom two thirds of the pin from view, and it wasn’t until we reached the green that we found out where our shots had ended up; a shot landing at the back edge of the swale could easily have bounded off the back of the green. (Thankfully, we both were within 20 feet and made par.)
Bill and I agreed there was only one "odd" hole, the par 5 2nd. It played to 491 yards from our Blue tees, but moderately long hitters will leave driver in their bags and opt for a 5-wood or long iron to stay short of a stream that bisects the fairway. Fans of par 5s of less than 500 yards will be disappointed in a lay up drive that will leave little chance of chipping or putting for eagle. That hole, and a few off-fairway areas that are sparsely grassed, are minor quibbles with a golf course that is about as much fun to play as any in the northeast. And green fees are a bargain, especially if you are a Hartford resident ($27 weekday, $28 weekend) or a non-resident “senior” ($27/$38; the course’s website doesn’t specify what age constitutes senior but I did not get carded). Non-residents of a younger age pay just $37 on weekdays, $38 on the weekend. The course is easily walked if you want to skip the modest cart fees and get some exercise.
Those serious golfers with business in the Hartford area might consider bringing their clubs along, as Keney Park is a mere 17 minutes from Bradley International Airport. Those who already live in the Hartford area are especially lucky and should beat a path through the woods to Keney Park before the trees drop their leaves.
The friendly young man behind the pro shop counter said he was happy to extend the hotel guest rate of $89 to 10 of us at the River Marsh golf course at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, MD, last Thursday. Although a bit pricey, I had read some nice reviews of the course, which was designed by Keith Foster and runs along the Choptank River on what is known as the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I figured the fee was relative to the layout and condition of the course.
I was wrong. The green fee, apparently, was what the traffic would bear. I have no complaints about the River Marsh layout, which featured typically wide resort-course fairways but enough bunkering and marshland to keep things interesting and challenging. (It was reminiscent of a Tom Fazio or Rees Jones layout.) And the greens, though slow, were large, interestingly contoured and with smooth bent grass; more about the greens below.
At 9 a.m., the employees in the area where the bags of clubs were supposed to be loaded onto carts seemed totally confused, as if a rush of people had showed up 30 minutes before the club was to open for play. Our group wound up loading its own clubs onto the carts 10 minutes before our tee time, even though three red-shirted resort employees were standing around, apparently discussing how to handle the four or five foursomes in the area. The practice range was closed because of heavy rain the night before; the small practice putting green was a bit ragged, especially around the edges, which we hoped would not be the case out on the course.
Wrong again. You don’t expect the collars of greens at the peak of grass-growing season to be intermittently bare or marked by different grasses, but most of the edges of the greens on the course made replacing your ball a couple of feet away mandatory for a clean chip or putting path. All the greens looked as if they had been bombed with tiny cannon balls, such were the depth of the divots made by spinning approach shots onto the soft greens. Many of these pockmarks appeared to be at least a week old.
Greens with unrepaired ball marks are the burden of any resort course; infrequent players don’t understand or care about golf etiquette since it is not their golf course, and they do not feel the need to make the repairs for the golfers who follow. Shame on them, but that’s the way it is. Those confused and under-utilized employees at the bag drop could certainly be trained to fix ball marks toward the end of the day. But apparently, even in the height of the vacation season, the destination that calls itself a “Hyatt Golf Resort” doesn’t see the need to make the investment to justify its four-to-five-star rating on some web sites or its fairly lofty green fees.
At one point I had to chuckle as I spied two supervisory looking people surveying the course in a cart, stopping along the way to point out one needed improvement or another. They easily could have been out there all day given the number of blemishes our group encountered.
Golf courses suffering from problems with temporary turf conditions should consider a program of “dynamic pricing.” Professional baseball teams have taken to doing this, lowering their prices when the home team hosts a lousy competitor and raising them a little when a pennant contender is in town. In that regard, a condition-challenged course like River Marsh at the Hyatt should reduce its rates while the golf course is in iffy shape and raise them when it is restored. If that young man in the pro shop had said to me, “We are pleased to offer your group a special rate today,” I might be planning a return visit in the future. How special a rate? Something like $39 would have done the trick.