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.
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.
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.
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.
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I attended a golf outing at Dorset Field Club yesterday. Located in the charming little town of Dorset, VT, Dorset Field Club claims to be the oldest continuing operated golf course in the U.S. The story is that a group of men who summered in Dorset laid out nine holes in 1886. When a clubhouse was built in 1896, it was named Woodruff Hall for one of the founders. In any case, I’ve seen lists that indicate other clubs of longer duration (e.g. San Francisco’s Olympic Club), but let’s just say Dorset Field Club is old (although its second nine were not added until 1954 but seem quite harmonious with the other nine).
The course was in superb condition as befits an exclusive private club, and despite a 10-minute torrential downpour in the middle of our final nine holes, it was a joy to play. I hope the accompanying photos give a sense of the setting, terrain and layout of the wonderful Dorset Field Club.
Or at least the one that offers the most “free” stuff ever. Our July/August edition of Home On The Course is overstuffed with helpful information, especially for those currently searching for a golf home in the southern U.S. Noted economist Ingo Winzer, who warned the world about the impending housing crash in 2005, almost three years before it happened, provides highly specialized forecasts for housing markets across the U.S., using up-to-date jobs and population data. He shares in this month’s newsletter his thoughts about the future of some of the most popular markets in the Southeast, and makes an exciting offer exclusively for subscribers to Home On The Course: Three in-depth market reports for the price of one. That could be reason enough to subscribe today to Home On The Course -– click here, it’s free! -– but...
We are especially excited to announce our second ever Golf Community Discovery Weekend, co-sponsored with CarolinaLiving.com, at one of the east coast’s most value-oriented golf communities. (Our first such couples weekend was held at The Landings, outside Savannah.) Because this is an exclusive initial offer to Home On The Course subscribers, we can’t mention the name of the community here –- not yet, at least -– but here is just a taste of what the weekend will include:
• Waterfront hotel for two nights
• River cruise
• Two days of golf
• Non-golfer activities
• Friday evening cocktail hour & buffet dinner with residents
• Special chef-created lunch on Saturday
• Tour of community with a resident expert
• A look at current specific properties and homes currently for sale (optional); opportunity to learn building process and prices from site contractors.
• Panel discussion: "How to Search for a Golf Community Home"*
• Price per couple: $350
There has never been a better reason to subscribe to Home On The Course. Please click here and be sure to confirm your subscription when asked. We publish on Monday.
I was mentally prepared, if not physically, to play my first Lee Trevino designed golf course last week. Trevino presented quite a quandary for me as a young developing golfer in the 1960s and ‘70s. He was easily my favorite on tour, after “Champagne” Tony Lema died in an airplane crash (on a golf course). But Trevino’s stroke was flat, almost a baseball swing and geared to a certain body type with which I was unfamiliar; I stood 5 feet 11 inches and weighed between 115 and 120 until a year after I was graduated from college. Thin would have been an improvement. Trevino, of course, was built like a fireplug, and strong. He does not get anywhere near the credit he deserves as a competitive golfer, lost in the accolades for the more stable personalities of Palmer and Nicklaus. Trevino could be a bit of a crass showman, but boy could he play. And golf needed someone to take the game less seriously than it seemed to take itself. The Merry Mex was the right agent of levity.
I thought the Trevino-designed course at Ironwood Golf and Country Club in Greenville, NC, was going to feature mostly left to right doglegs to mimic Trevino’s standard ball flight throughout his career. (You may recall that he stopped playing the Masters event because it required too many right to left shots.) But Trevino, who often could not put a governor on his actions or mouth when he was playing the tour, apparently can show great restraint when he designs a golf course. Ironwood, surprise of surprises, was “normal,” and it was in excellent condition, a lot of fun and surrounded by one of the nicest neighborhoods in the Greenville area. This is not a retirement community by a long shot, but retirees comfortable being around families and junior golfers will find some stately medium to large sized homes, many brick-faced, beside the fairways. (Single-family homes of nearly 3,000 square feet start around $350,000.)
Any left to right holes at Ironwood are gentle bends; the only severe doglegs – the par 5 13th and the par 4 18th, as well as the second and third shots on the par 5 7th – are right to left shots with angles that would be at home at Augusta National, Trevino’s nemesis. You get the impression that someone else at the Wm. Graves Golf Course Design Company, with which Trevino was affiliated, might have laid out the course. This course is not particularly suited to Trevino's game, but more credit to him for restraint, something Jack Nicklaus could not resist with his earliest designs that put a premium on high left to right shots.
Leland, NC, is a relatively small, but dramatically growing town -- its population sextupled between 2000 and 2010 -- with a growing emphasis on golf. The large community Compass Pointe (2,000 residents when fully built out) is putting the finishing touches on its 18 hole golf course, unusual in that it has followed the opening of the community by a few years. (Recall the good old days when developers used the golf course to sell the adjacent properties? Compass Pointe and its developer Bobby Harrelson have flipped convention on its end.) The new Compass Pointe course is designed by Rick Robbins, who learned his trade working for Jack Nicklaus’ design shop.
Now we’ve learned that following a more conventional trend to offer golf members the option of playing more than one golf course, Harrelson and his Brunswick Golf Holdings, LLC, have purchased Magnolia Greens, a 27-hole public golf facility located just off Highway 17 in Leland and directly across the road from Brunswick Forest and its well-reviewed Tim Cate golf course, Cape Fear National. Magnolia Greens was designed by Tom Jackson, a Greenville, SC based architect responsible for many layouts in the Carolinas.
We haven't played Magnolia Greens but thought Cape Fear National was one of the best coastal layouts we had played in the last decade. (Read our review here.) We look forward to trying out Compass Pointe and Magnolia Greens in the coming months. If anyone has some thoughts on Magnolia, we'd love to hear them.
I spent three days in the Greenville, NC, area this last week and can recommend it as a place to consider for retirement to a golf community. The three golf communities I visited -- Cypress Landing, Brook Valley, and Ironwood -- share a few qualities: Homes for sale in each are quite reasonably priced, in most cases well below $125 a square foot, land included; landscaping in these communities and around each home is impeccable, which shows a pride of ownership we don't always see in other communities; and the golf is excellent, although two of the layouts might not inspire single-digit handicap players (but will provide fun for mid-double digit handicappers).
The Ironwood Country Club course in Greenville, NC, was designed by Lee Trevino, but most holes move right to left, the opposite of Trevino's ball flight during his heralded professional career.
I'll have more to say about each of the communities in the coming week, but here are some thoughts about Greenville the city and its immediately surrounding areas. The city fathers might want to find some money to rehab the rundown industrial areas or, alternately, see if they can cajole GPS system operators to steer traffic around those areas. I stayed on the west side of town, and every programmed route from there to anywhere else in metropolitan Greenville took me through the sketchy industrial areas (as well as some marginal neighborhoods).
For those who live in one of the area's golf communities, the condition of the inner city of Greenville will not matter much. But those moving to the area with any health concerns at all will be bowled over by the size and comprehensiveness of the Vidant Medical Center just to the west of town. On an early morning drive-through, I could not believe how expansive and concentrated the medical facilities were, with signs on buildings that seemed to cover virtually every branch of medicine. I made inquiries during the week and learned that the medical center had lured world famous heart surgeons to the area by building a center dedicated to heart surgery. Vidant is adding a cancer center now as well. Retired couples who have any health issues might do well to consider the Greenville area as a destination.
Cypress Landing is located in Chocowinity, about a half hour drive from Greenville. Vidant maintains an outlet medical facility in Washington, NC, a charming little town three miles from Cypress Landing that has been touted nationally as a center for the arts (Cypress Landing residents participate in the arts scene). What is also nice about Cypress Landing and Greenville in general is that their locations -- Greenville just 30 minutes from Interstate 95 and Cypress Landing a few miles from U.S. Highway 17 -- make them relatively easy one-day drives to the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states.
Look for more on Cypress Landing, Ironwood and Brook Valley in the coming days.
The single most popular southern city for those interested in scouting golf communities at this web site is Greenville, SC. More visitors to Golf Community Reviews check out the details on Pebble Creek, The Cliffs Communities and other Greenville-area golf communities more often than any other geographic-area communities posted on this site.
I understand; the economy in Greenville is solid, stabilized over recent decades by the large headquarters of BMW of North America; golf can be played virtually year round in the area on some notable golf courses (Greenville Country Club’s two layouts, a few miles apart, and Thornblade, a classic Tom Fazio layout in nearby Greer, SC, come to mind); and the city itself is ripe with culture and other attractions that make those moving from urban areas elsewhere feel right at home, but not overwhelmed.
But there’s another Greenville, in North Carolina, that has intrigued me for years, and I am finally scratching the itch with a visit this coming week to tour at least three of the area’s golf communities and to investigate life in an under-publicized college town. Greenville, NC, is home to Eastern Carolina University, whose athletic teams have been gradually getting noticed in recent years. High-powered, high-scoring football offenses have a tendency to make headlines. I’m hoping to find the area’s golf communities have an attraction of their own that I can recommend to my readers.
Greenville got my attention when I learned that the McConnell Golf Group had purchased a troubled private golf course there, Brook Valley, closed it for a few months, and reopened it in March after more than $1 million in improvements. Having played or walked most of McConnell’s 10 courses, I am confident this one –- designed by Ellis Maples -- will not only be in good shape, but its layout will provide McConnell members a complementary layout to the others. (McConnell members of one club have privileges at the others, and the experience is worth the couple hours drive between some of them.)
While researching Brook Valley, I came across Cypress Landing in nearby Chocowinity, NC, located on the body of water that extends inland from the Pamlico Sound. I had not heard of Cypress Landing before, which made me even more curious about it as I researched its own Bill Love designed golf course and other amenities. My final stop will be the golf course at Greenville’s Ironwood community. This will be my first play on a Lee Trevino designed layout, and I’ve been wondering if I should flatten my swing a bit to prepare to work the ball left to right. Trevino is credited with fewer than 20 golf course designs, with very few east of the Mississippi. The Merry Mex, as he called himself, always made me smile, and I am hoping for something of the same from the golf course at Ironwood.
Later in the week, I will join the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel for an outing at Callawassie Island Club in Okatie and then Indigo Run Plantation on Hilton Head Island. If anyone is considering these golf communities or any others in the Low Country, contact me and I will try to answer any questions you may have.
...well, then, here’s a golf course for Independence Day or any other day of the year. The Patriot Links at Grand Harbor is unique, a Davis Love III layout in rural South Carolina that highlights a Revolutionary War Battle that took place within a few miles of the golf community. Over 28 days in 1781, 1,000 troops of the Continental Army laid siege against 550 people loyal to the British Crown who were posted at the Star Fort, an earthen fortification in the village of Ninety Six, SC. When Loyalist troops arrived from Charleston, the Continental Army was beaten back. The inhabitants of Ninety Six were later granted passage to Nova Scotia, where they named their township Rawdon, after the British General who led the Charleston troops.
The community of Grand Harbor sits beside Lake Greenwood, located about 50 minutes from Greenville, SC. Homes in the community begin around $300,000. Without its unique accouterments, the golf course would reflect the rolling terrain that brackets the lake, although the lake is rarely in view from the golf course and not in play. But Love III, mindful of the local history, commissioned the construction of ruins of a brick Revolutionary War fort and placed them strategically around the course, mostly near the finishing holes within a few yards of the clubhouse.
Davis Love designs generally tough golf courses. If you have a good day at Patriot Links, you will celebrate not only your score but a little bit of American history as well.
Happy Independence Day.
You learn from your mistakes, according to common wisdom -- although none of us like to make them, especially those of the careless kind. I learned today, thanks to a careful reader knowledgeable about golf course architects, that I wrongly attributed the design of Clemson University’s well-regarded Walker Course to George Cobb when, in fact, it was the work of DJ DeVictor, a modern architect whose 30-year old firm is based in Atlanta. A reader named Ed from Anderson, SC, caught my mistake and was kind enough to send me a note.
My first experience with a DeVictor golf course was at Rarity Bay, outside Knoxville, TN, some six years ago. On the very first hole, a short par 4, I dumped a nine-iron approach shot into the hole for an eagle. I have had a soft spot for the designer ever since, but I guess you could say to DeVictor did not go the spoils in my reference. My apologies to all and thanks to Ed from Anderson.
I revisited Copake Country Club yesterday, a classic short layout -– just 6,200 yards from the tips -– beside a lake in New York State 20 minutes from the Massachusetts state line. It cost me all of $27 to play, cart included, courtesy of one of those online tee-time consolidators.
As I wrote a few years ago, Copake is a hidden gem in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. It is a 1½ hour drive from my Connecticut home, and I don’t mind the trip at all, especially since the Blackberry River Bakery in Canaan, CT, halfway to the golf course, serves a killer breakfast. Although I haven’t tested the kitchen at Copake Country Club beyond a tasty, made-to-order hot dog, the Copake restaurant is well reviewed and typically crowded at lunchtime.
Copake is not a golf community. Indeed the only homes on the course are a few above and right of the 10th fairway and those beside the 17th and 18th holes along a road that separates the golf course from Lake Copake, a mostly summer playground for folks from New York City and elsewhere. A round of golf at Copake and courses like it remind me that a planned development is not the only way for serious golfers to live and play out their days pleasurably. And you can save plenty of money by separating the golf from the real estate. You likely will not pay homeowner association dues, and private and semi-private clubs are begging for members these days; and the more remotely located the golf club -– Copake qualifies as remotely located – the lower the prices generally for both golf fees and real estate (see below). At Copake, for example, a single membership that provides golf any day of the week runs just $1,450 for the abbreviated season, generally from April to early November. A couple’s membership is $2,000. (Senior single is $1,250 and senior couple $1,800, for ages 60 and older.) Weekday golf is a great bargain; for example, a senior single will pay just $950 for the season if willing to play Monday through Friday only. Cart membership is just $650 for the entire season.
The golf course, which was designed by Devereux Emmet in 1935, changes elevation multiple times and is surrounded by mountains as well as the placid Lake Copake. Turf on fairways and greens is excellent, and putting on beautifully tended bent grass greens after a weekend listening to headache-inducing complaints about poa annua and fescue greens at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay was a blessed relief; so too were greens that actually held shots a day after substantial rains in the area.
From the tips, the golf course measures just over 6,200 yards, with a rating of 70.3 and a slope of 131. That comparatively lofty slope rating is a consequence of some blind shots, fairly lengthy par 3s (two of them almost blind shots) and greens that are very difficult to read (and medium fast). For the first timer at Copake, bunkers that appear to be fronting greens actually turn out to be as much as 50 yards short of the putting surfaces. And the back edges of the bunkers at Copake are fringed with tall fescue grass; a ball in the sand is preferable.
Homes around Lake Copake and within a short drive of the golf course are mostly modest, set up more for seasonal living than year round. Prices start in the high $100s for square footage under 1,000. Of course, for folks who winter in some warm place like Florida, a summer cottage mere minutes from a classic, wonderfully managed and manicured golf course that costs little to play might be just the ticket.