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        My day at Ladybank was pretty much settled after a slightly pushed hybrid into the wind on the par 3 10th, where I started my round Friday. I was looking forward to playing a highly rated Scottish parkland course to see how it stacked up against some of the Connecticut courses I have played that were designed by UK designers (e.g. Willie Park). Off that initial shot, my ball wound up on the far side of the greenside bunker, on the upslope (photo attached). The sand was the deepest and darkest I have ever played, a mud brown that was offputting. I left the first shot in the bunker, skyed the next one over the green and started my mediocre round with a double bogey.
Ladybankbunker at #10From the tee, it appeared I would have a routine bunker shot from the greenside bunker at Ladybank Golf Club's 10th hole. It was anything but.

        Those brown bunkers are in great evidence at Ladybank, nasty buggers that guard virtually all of the greens and some of the fairways. My playing partner for the day, Mario from north of Quebec City, joined me for the second nine and my cautions about the bunkers may have intimidated him on his first play from the sand. He didn't take much sand in the greenside bunker and wound up 10 yards beyond the green. Most of my plays from the sand during the day were chunks.
Ladybank is a handsome course with a few really interesting holes. I especially liked the three doglegs and the par 3s, despite my tussle with #10. There is a repetitive nature to the bunkering in that most of them are more or less the same size; after playing the two linkslike courses at Crail, it was a bit of a surprise not to find any round pot bunkers at Ladybank (at least none that were apparent). Only the 9th hole, one of the doglegs, was absent any bunkers guarding the green. Instead, a large ridge of deep grass spanned the fairway 75 yards from the green. It was one of my favorite holes of the day, in large measure because it was unique to the layout.
Ladybank approach to #9The 9th green at Ladybank is the only one without bunker protection. Instead, a ridge of thick grass guards the area 75 yards in front of the green.
        Like Crail Balcomie Links, Ladybank is the handiwork of Old Tom Morris...sort of. Morris laid out the first six holes in 1879, a half dozen years before Crail Balcomie opened. I am not sure which six holes he laid out, or if they have survived in more or less their original form, but if they did, it is hard to detect the hand of the same architect at both courses. Of course, the landforms -- one pure links land the other park land -- determine the layout of the course according to the master architects. In retrospect, you shouldn't expect to see any similarities at all.
        One side note:  From the pro shop member at the desk to the staff working out on the course to wait staff in the clubhouse restaurant -- great baguette sandwich, by the way -- to even the golfers waiting to go to the first tee, everyone at Ladybank could not have been nicer.  In fact you could say that about every course I have played in this golf crazy nation.
Ladybank #8 greenThe bunkering around the par 3 8th hole at Ladybank is reflective of the serious protection of the greens on the golf course.

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Thursday, 17 August 2017 02:49

The Rational Side of Golf in Scotland

        The Scots have been at the game of golf for centuries, and it shows in many ways American golfers are pleased to encounter when they visit. Gas and electric carts, or "buggies," are not much in evidence; indeed you would not know they exist at most Scottish courses and you need to reserve one in advance to guarantee availability. It is almost as if Scottish golf professionals prefer not to tempt visiting golfers and, therefore, keep the buggies hidden away nearby. I carried a note from my doctor in the States just in case I needed one, but with a battery powered hand cart on rental at many clubs, there really is no excuse for avoiding a good walk.
        The way the Scots handicap their individual holes is entirely different than in the States, and much more rational. Using my round at the Craighead course at Crail Golfing Society yesterday as an example, it is evident that Scottish raters are not slaves to distance when deciding which holes are toughest and easiest. Whereas in the U.S. there appears to be a bias against par 3s -- they are short therefore they don't offer the opportunity for mistakes that, say, a par 5 does -- the Scots look purely at the difficulty of the hole against par.
        One other touch I found helpful and generous was at the practice range at Crail, where distances to colored posts in the practice ground are clearly marked at the tees. Especially for a visiting American for whom the air might be a bit thinner than in some parts of the States or the prevailing winds may have a novel effect on balls in flight -- they do, trust me -- being prepared at the range can help save a stroke or two on the courses at Crail.  Too many times in the U.S., the tees are moved forward and back at the practice range without noting the change in the distances.  Of course, at Crail, you hit off mats at the range and, therefore, they never have to move.  Okay, score one for the American clubs.

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Monday, 14 August 2017 12:28

The Other Side of the Road

        These reports from my golf vacation in Scotland may seem a bit self-indulgent, but my hope is that those who might be planning a trip here can glean a few helpful suggestions from my experience.  I know I'm a bit off topic -- I haven't written yet about golf real estate in Scotland -- but I do plan to make a case for joining a Scottish golf club, even if you plan only a one- or two-week trip annually to play golf here.  If you would like to share your own experiences playing golf in Scotland, please contact me and I will be happy to share your thoughts here.

        If the British had won the Revolutionary War, I suppose we Americans might be driving on the left side of the road and playing golf in all sorts of nasty weather. This occurred to me today as I drove my rental car on the "wrong side of the road" the 45 minutes from Crail to Ladybank Golf Course in a steady rain. The width of the roads in Scotland change like the weather here, which is to say often and without warning, and my only challenge on the roadways has been to avoid the curbs on the far side of the car. I expect the rental company might charge me for a new pair of tires on the left side when I drop the car off Friday.
        Despite that you can experience three seasons in one hour along the east coast of Scotland, where I am staying (it doesn't snow in August, although there are times it feels as if it could), the online weather reports saw today's steady rain coming five days off. Still, hoping against hope, and with a pre-paid reservation, I headed for Ladybank. My hopes were dashed when I arrived and scooted through the rain to the pro shop, hoping the golf professional might offer a brighter outlook for later in the morning. He didn't but kindly changed my reservation to Friday morning before I return to Edinburgh for the flight back to the States. In another corner of the pro shop, a foursome of Americans were not quite as decisive as I was and were in heated discussion about whether to give it a go or not.
        As we five Americans moaned about our fate, an old bearded guy right out of central casting for Old Tom Morris, the famed 19th Century Scottish golfer, pushed past us all and headed for the first tee, head down and wearing enough rain gear for two players. He seemed happy to be ready to take on Ladybank's 6,300 yards, its distance from the forward men's tees, as well as the elements. As I walked to the parking lot to leave, the Americans continued their debate about what to do. It was even money whether they played or headed for a tour of one of the Scotch distilleries in the areas.

Craig Balcomie hole by sea
Although the sea doesn't come into play on many holes at Balcomie Links, it
is a constant presence and contributes shot-defying winds that make the shortish
course 
seem to play very long.

        In uncharacteristically benign conditions on Sunday -- benign meaning it only rained during one hole and the wind blew at no more than 15 miles per hour -- I played my initial round at Crail Golfing Society's Balcomie Links with my good friends and hosts, George and Dorothy. It was an unusual day for Crail in that the Scottish Boys and Girls Amateur Championship is being played on the course and cars were parked beside the practice range. (I was pointed to the Members parking lot as I recently joined the club as an Overseas Member, but more about that in the coming days.) The clubhouse and practice areas were also filled with players under 14 years old and their families. The other Crail golf course, the modern Craighead, is the site for the event which begins today and ends tommorrow. I didn't count them all up, but the massive scoreboard in front of the clubhouse seemed to contain well over 100 names. And I heard as much Spanish, German and French as I did English spoken by the kids and their parents; this is an "open" championship and obviously an important pan-European event.
        Although Crail Balcomie Links, opened on its current site in 1985, cannot lay claim to being one of the oldest courses in the world, the Crail Golfing Society can, formed as it was in 1786, number seven on the list of oldest clubs in the world. Old Tom Morris designed Balcomie and, 113 years later, Gil Hanse laid out Craighead on the south side of the clubhouse. Like Balcomie, it too sports stunner views of the North Sea and, on clear days, you can spot the land that spreads east along the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh and comprises the golf course at Musselburgh, the oldest layout in the world (and, sadly, overshadowed and over-invested in by the adjacent Musselburgh Race Course). The famed Muirfield and North Berwick layouts are over in that direction as well.
        Tomorrow morning I return to Balcomie for another go. I am hoping for a return to dry conditions, and right now the online weather report calls for no rain at the start of my round and for about four hours. Since a typical round at Crail takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes without golf carts -- the hand carts, blessedly, are motorized -- I could get lucky. But to reverse paraphrase what Mark Twain wrote about Connecticut, "If you like the weather, wait a minute. It will change."

        I am in the United Kingdom on a golf holiday and, with apologies, will continue to file reports here. I am hopeful that some of my "stories" will provide a bit of guidance to those planning a golf venture to Scotland. Although I have made the trip before, it has seemed much easier in the past.

        I spent the better part of Wednesday through Friday visiting with my sister and her family in London and meeting, in person for the first time, my grand niece. The playground in West Hampstead where we took her and her sister was like nothing I've seen in the States in that it is maintained by the organizers of a group home next door who planted and tend to vegetable patches. My nieces picked a couple of tomatoes (to-mahhh-toes) but no one, according to my brother in law, abuses the privilege. Take a corn, cucumber, zucchini or whatever and leave plenty for others. Very civilized.

Where is Everyone Going?
        Getting out of London to return to Edinburgh, Scotland, was almost frightening. I chose Luton airport for the flight on Easyjet, one of Europe's discount airlines. The flight wasn't the problem; the airport was. Lesson learned: On a summer Friday in early evening, with people intent on heading for holiday for a weekend or week, most British airports are madhouses, this one more so than others. It is an old airport, poorly organized in terms of layout and flight announcements. The board announced that the gate for my flight would not be called until 1/2 hour before departure time. (Many other flights indicated the same thing.). Yet my ticket indicated that the gate for the Easyjet flight would be closed 1/2 hour before its scheduled departure. Making matters a bit more intimidating, the gate areas were split, one off the left from the main terminal and the other to the right. Signs posted indicated the walk to some gates were as long as 15 minutes. People were jammed into all nooks and crannies of the terminal, and some of the workers trying to replenish shelves with sandwiches in the shops had to excuse themselves repeatedly to get their carts through. And, yet, not a single-person raised his or her voice or seemed at all angry about the delays and the steerage-like conditions.
        They did not close the gate 1/2 hour before the flight, and the flight itself to Edinburgh was comfortable and routine. I didn't have to wait too long for my checked bag and after a long walk from the arrival lobby to the shuttle bus, I was pleased to see a bus waiting. It left immediately and deposited me at the Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh Airport. I chose the hotel because I tend to stay with the chain when I travel in the States. I like the predictability from one to the next -- the same shower heads, the same breakfast rooms, the reliable wi-fi connections, the same soaps and shampoo. Holiday Inn's standards don't necessarily translate everywhere. In the bathroom were two bottles of soap, one beside the sink and one in the shower. No shampoo or any of the other amenities one is used to in the chain's U.S. hotels. I thought that I'd use the soap as a body wash and shampoo but when I looked around for a washcloth, there were none. At the front desk, the attendant indicated they were "out" of washcloths. Hard to bellieve, especially in a hotel I was paying over $250 for the night. (The famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival is on now, and that drives up prices for virtually everything in and around the area.)

Rent-A-Headache
        The next morning, in a trailer in a parking lot near the hotel, I rented a car from Fox Rent-A-Car. At least I tried to rent a car. The line at the desk was about 10 customers long and there was just one frazzled attendant. His profuse apologies did not seem to mollify some of the customers, and after 15 minutes, I was only two customers closer. A reinforcement arrived and helped shorten the queue (important British term there) and my paperwork was done after 45 minutes. In the drizzle I waited, along with six others, for my car to be delivered. And waited. And waited. More than a half hour later, my name was finally called, the only compensating factor being the brand new Volvo now in my possession for the week.  The drive north to Crail "on the wrong side of the road" was surprisingly easy, although I could not quite figure out the distance from the left side of the car to the edge of the roadway.  Fortunately, no tire-damaging curbs were in play.
        In summary, my advice is don't fly from Luton Airport outside of London on a Friday night in summer; choose the better organized Heathrow or even London City Airport. Take nothing for granted when booking a hotel or renting a car in Edinburgh; ask a lot of questions beforehand (and consider renting the car from one the big three, like Hertz or National.). Bring proper rain gear if you intend to play golf every day while in Scotland; the weather can change dramatically day to day, even minute to minute. (I experienced four seasons in 15 minutes at St. Andrews in 2009.). I may have more to say about this after my round tomorrow (see below).
I am now with my dear friends in Crail, 1 1/2 hours north of Edinburgh, anticipating my first round of golf in a couple of hours at Crail Balcomie links, the 7th oldest golf course in the world. It is a brilliant sunny day -- for now -- and I can't wait to renew my acquaintance with this terrific links course beside the North Sea.       

        Tomorrow will be a different experience at a parkland course called Ladybank, a half hour away, with the weather expected to be dark, dreary and very wet. I am fairly well prepared with water rejecting pants -- not quite Goretex -- and a repellant overshirt. I'm fine with drizzle but if it comes down hard, I may consider what any serious tourist might under similar conditions -- head for a whiskey distillery for a tour and a wee dram. Stay tuned.

Thursday, 10 August 2017 18:14

You Get What You Pay For

        I don't sleep well on airplanes -- or at all. And when the plane is as crowded as Norwegian Flight 1609 from Hartford Bradley International to Edinburgh was yesterday, in both numbers of passengers and configuration of the seats, no sleep is guaranteed.
        When the price is more than right for an international flight like the Bradley to Edinburgh non-stop flight, you know you are going to pay the piper in one way or another. I scooped up a fare of just $99 for the U.S. to Scotland leg and paid an extra $75 for one checked piece of luggage and a meal in flight. My bag arrived shortly after I did but the meal of undercooked green beans and overcooked chicken certainly was no bargain. Neither is the return flight from Edinburgh which, pre-paid at $300, includes the bag and meal. That's about half of what a roundtrip flight on one of the other trans-Atlantic carriers costs, but none of them fly non-stop from Bradley, just a half hour from my home in Connecticut, to Edinburgh. The cost and headache to get to Boston or New York convinced me to try Norwegian.
        There is always a balance between price and service. The Boeing 737-800 aircraft with three seats across on both sides of the plane made it impossible to even attempt to sleep. The seats reclined about three inches, meaning the seatbacks at full recline were virtually upright. And the narrowness of the seats themselves meant the guy in the seat to my right and I were vying for elbow space on the handrest most of the trip. He was a bit more aggressive than I was. He also snored and could not make up his mind whether to lean his head on the drop down table in front of him or try to lean back on the barely reclined seat back. His efforts were distracting.
        I have one other gripe with Norwegian. When I booked my flight, I thought I would bring my golf clubs with me. But 10 days before the flight, I decided to ship them straight to my golf club destination at the Crail Golfing Society, where I have become an overseas member. I called Norwegian a week before my flight and alerted them that my pre-paid clubs would not be flying over with me and asked for a refund or credit. Not permitted, they said. That $99 fare includes zero flexibility.
        On the plus side, the plane arrived in Edinburgh 50 minutes early and customs was farily easy to get through, maybe a total of 30 minutes. I was surprised that after I collected my bags I did not see a single customs agent. Perhaps they trust the X-ray machines in the U.S. to do the job of spotting bad stuff in luggage, but this was a first time for me that there was no cutoms presence.
        There is a convenient shuttle at the airport into the center of Edinburgh and stops along the way. I was going to take a train to London to see my sister and her family there for a few days before proceeding to Crail for a week of golf. The shuttle service is called Airlink and it is just about $6.00 for the one-way trip, and comparatively cheaper for a round trip. Again, cheap is relative; on the way into the city, a female pedestrian tried to beat the bus at a traffic signal. She didn't quite make it. The driver slammed on the brakes in time but the woman went arse over tea kettle in the road. She picked herself up, grabbed both sides of her head more in frustration, it seemed, than in injury, and ambled off. The young bus driver was shaken. He called his supervisor who advised him to move the bus to a side road, park it there and dismiss his passengers from the bus. The driver advised that I was only "two stops" from Waverley Train station and that I could walk it in 10 to 15 minutes. It might have been a pleasant walk without the three pieces of luggage, but the big one has four wheels which at least made it doable. But by the time I made it to Waverley Station, I almost felt as if I had been hit by a bus.
        Once at the train station, the odyssey continued. I tried to secure an earlier train but it turned out that the firm I pre-bought the ticket from, Rail Europe, a North American based company, does not have agents in Edinburgh station. I decided to wait for my original train, scheduled at 1:30 which, around 1:00, was cancelled.  I was able to snag a reservation for the 2:00 train. When two British citizens, one from Scotland and one from England, sat down with me at my table, we started talking as the train left the station. When I realized they could take a joke, I warned them that they might want to change their seats because my luck was running ice cold over recent hours. Not one minute after I warned them, the train came to a halt and the conductor came on the PA system to say there was an obstruction on the rail line ahead -- "probably a cow," my new Scots friend said. I wound up arriving 35 minutes late in London, where it was pouring rain.

Hartsbourne Country ClubHartsbourne Country Club is home to a classic golf course with some modern flourishes.
        On a more positive note, I was invited to play at Hartsbourne Country Club just outside London today, and it was an uncharacteristally glorious sunny and cool day in the often wet London summer. The course was in excellent condition, it was a convivial round with two friends and my brother in law (he's my friend too), we stopped for a genteel lunch in the centuries old clubhouse (hideaway place, I am told, for one of the former Edwardian kings and his mistresses), and had a relaxing post-game beer in the same dining room. It made me almost forget the disaster of the previous day's travels and caused me to look forward even more to my week in Crail, which begins on Saturday. I can only hope that the weather forecast in Scotland, which calls for rain half the time I will be there, is wrong. More to come.

        Maybe it is a sign of the times, but when I receive good customer service these days -– you know, suppliers doing what suppliers say they are going to do –- I find it extraordinary. That happened on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic when I was stuck at the steaming hot Punta Cana airport waiting for my daughter and her boyfriend to arrive from Toronto on a delayed flight. The young man running the desk for the Amstar shuttle service not only volunteered to send my wife, son and his girlfriend to the resort early, but he loaned me his portable wi-fi unit (without my asking) to amuse myself on my iPhone for a couple of hours and then drove me to the other terminal to meet my daughter’s plane, assigning another staff member to wait with me.
        My good streak continued today when, within minutes of each other, I heard from the membership director at Crail Golfing Society in Scotland that my clubs had arrived, and then from a staffer at Luggage Forward, the shipper, to tell me the same. Luggage Forward deserves special praise for its efficient process, follow-through and delivering more than it promised. Last Tuesday, I contacted them about sending my clubs to Crail in advance of a week of golf there that begins August 12. The next day I received an envelope with a bag tag and customs forms and, as promised, the following day a DHL employee came to the house to pick up the clubs. I was guaranteed delivery by next Friday, August 11. The clubs arrived today, August 7. Given that kind of service, Luggage Forward will be shipping my clubs in the future when I travel for golf.
IMG 0613 1Old stone walls and the North Sea are a constant presence on both 18 hole layouts at the Crail Golfing Society.
        It may seem pricey, but the $244 door-to-door shipping charge turned out to be reasonable. These days the airlines charge as much as $75 for a golf bag and because I was going to take a side-trip to London from Edinburgh before returning to drive to Crail, I wasn’t going to drag my clubs to London with me. Storage fees at Edinburgh airport for a golf bag are £20 per day, or around $30 time four days. The slight extra cost was worth not dragging my clubs on trains and planes before getting to Crail.
        Speaking of the flight to Edinburgh, the discount carrier Norwegian Airlines is now flying from Hartford, CT’s Bradley International Airport, just 35 minutes from my home. And to spur folks to use its service, the airline has offered flights to Scotland for as low as $99; I scored one of those but, of course, one checked bag and a meal are $75 extra, and the return flight is around $275. Still, for an overseas flight, that’s a bargain. Norwegian is flying from a number of U.S. airports so if you are planning a golf vacation in Scotland, it makes sense to check if Norwegian Airlines has set up shop near you. And check out LuggageForward.com to make life and travel a lot easier on yourself.

        When it is the middle of January in Connecticut and the ground is covered with snow, I will likely think back to the past week in the Dominican Republic and a dream vacation with my wife, son and daughter and their significant others. We tried our first "all-inclusive" resort vacation -- at Secrets Cap Cana near Punta Cana -- and, for the most part, it really is as advertised, which is to say relaxing and entertaining given that swarms of staff really do everything to make you as comfortable as possible. And you don't have to ever dip into your pocket for a tip, unless you want to.  (We experienced some incidents of extreme service and felt the need.)  Okay, the food doesn't quite rate four chef's hats but the drinks were all from the top shelf and well made, especially if you make friends with any of the dozens of friendly and entertaining bartenders who tend to their craft at inside and outside locations, by the pools and on the beach. (Some of my family members seemed quite taken with a drink called a Dirty Monkey which tasted to me like an alcoholic chocolate milk.)
        There was plenty to do on site, including a smallish but professionally outfitted fitness center, organized activities like beach volleyball and baseball, and a horseshoe pit and bocce court, although urban lovers of bocce will find it strange to throw the balls on the soft sand rather than roll them on a legitimate bocce surface, but no one seemed to care. Some might complain about the two feet wide stretch of seaweed -- actually more like sea kelp -- that washes up onto the beach and also bounces around in the first few feet of water before you step into a clear blue (warm) sea. We thought the seaweed issue was much ado about nothing.  All in all, though, this is a great way to pack away all your cares and woes for a week.
        The three golf courses we played ranged from fun to more fun to tons of fun with relentlessly drop-dead gorgeous views of the ocean and cliffs. I'll let the photos below speak for themselves, except for some brief notes that follow.

La Cana Golf Club

This was a great layout for a warmup round since water was fairly easy to circumvent on the first nine, the Hacienda course, but was both a visual and hazardous presence on the Arrecife nine, especially the last few holes along the ocean. (We did not play the Tortuga nine, which seems to have the strongest presence of sand and a couple of holes with close views of the ocean.). We noted that greens on all the golf courses we played were not cut for speed in fear that the hot summer sun would wreck havoc on the grass. So they were much slower than they would be in season, in winter. Some of the ocean views showed the bluest water I have ever seen this side of a Disney cartoon.
La Cana Golf Club hole by the seaThe water just off La Cana Golf Club in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, was the bluest I had ever seen.
P.B. Dye Bulkheads at La CanaDesigner P.B. Dye echoes his famous golf architect father's use of bulkheads at La Cana Golf Club

Corales Golf Club

Corales has scored a major coup by landing a PGA tour event next March, the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship. As you leave the airport in Punta Cana, you pass a billboard promoting the event and featuring a huge photo of PGA star Jim Furyk. The Tom Fazio-designed Corales should be a worthy test of the pros' shotmaking abilities, given the championship tees are set at 7,670 yards and sand and water hazards abound. The ocean views from the three finishing holes, as at La Cana, showed unnaturally blue and green waters. TV coverage of the first PGA Tour event in the Dominican Republic should be a lot of fun to watch.

Rainbow at Corales Golf ClubYou know you are likely to have a good day on the golf course when you see something like this just before tee time at Corales Golf Club in Punta Cana.

Corales approach over waterEven the holes at Corales that don't abut the ocean still manage to get your attention.

Corales #18 from behindThe finishing hole at Corales, a par 4, is played over the deep blue sea and then to a smallish green perched above the cliff. It should be fun to watch the PGA competitors finish their rounds there next March.

Punta Espada

We saved the best for last with a goodbye round at Jack Nicklaus' Punta Espada, rated by most followers of Caribbean golf as the best in the islands. I believe it as the course doesn't come close to having a clunker of a hole and it is drop dead beautiful from the first tee to the 18th green (especially the 18th green, which is perched over the brilliant blue waters on the ocean below). Indeed, eight holes play along the ocean and few others are within site, the golf course sitting pretty much above the water at most points. The final three holes may be the most visual anywhere this side of the Irish and Scottish coasts, with the ocean directly behind the long par 3 16th and beside the 17th and 18th, two par 4s that will test your patience and ability to negotiate the fickle ocean breezes. Punta Espada is expensive but I would say worth every penny. And, what the heck, you'll be on vacation. However, if you want to stay forever, most homes are priced above $1 million.

Punta Espada sand, trees, oceanIn one view, Jack Nicklaus captures every element -- sand, sea, palm trees -- that exemplify Caribbean golf.
Punta Espace iguanaAn almost-finished second 18 at Punta Espada is called Iguana, although we saw a few on the finished 18.
Punta Espada finishing holeThe finishing hole at Punta Espada demands a perfectly gauged and struck tee shot over the water and then a deft approach shot to the green (far right in photo)

        I suppose we might have David Letterman’s widely regarded and oft-quoted “Top 10 Lists” to blame for the profusion of “best of” lists. But at least Letterman’s lists were funny. There is nothing funny about Where to Retire magazine’s annual “50 Best Master-Planned Communities in the U.S.” issue.
        In this year’s July/August edition, the magazine’s editor, Annette Fuller, writes that the issue is “guaranteed to bring you many fruitful hours of contemplation.” My minutes of contemplation included checking Where to Retire’s top 50 choices against the paid ads inside the same issue. Marketing to potential buyers certainly doesn’t disqualify a community from a designation of excellence, but it does call into question how the magazine goes about choosing its Top 50.

No Science Involved
        At least Where to Retire makes no claim of science behind its selections; they simply say they were the editors’ choices. (No doubt the advertising director had some input.) And the only apparent research done on the communities was after they were chosen, when a Where to Retire senior writer “spoke with residents at each of our 50 winning communities [and] heard a lot of glowing reports.” Duh. Consider if the mainstream media announced that it checked with its sources only after it published an important story. (Consider also if a resident did not present a “glowing report” to Where to Retire; would it have made the publication?)
        You might say that, like the Letterman lists, no one takes the Where to Retire rankings too seriously. But that is not so. The magazine’s circulation is around 200,000, and it is sold in bookstores, like Barnes & Noble, and by subscription to thousands of couples in search of a retirement community. Unwary and trusting readers could very well look at Where to Retire’s helpful cost of living chart that compares cities across the country and conclude that the rest of magazine is objective. It isn’t, at least not in the July/August issue.
        Many deserving high-quality communities do not make the Top 50 list in Where to Retire; I won’t list even a few of them here because, well, that would be employing my own biases. Suffice to say that of the Top 50 communities listed in the July/August edition, I counted a couple dozen who advertised in that very issue, and others I recognized from past issues. My advice may be free –- contact me if you are searching for a golf home –- but at least I do not accept a marketing fee from any communities I recommend.

No Established Communities Considered
        Lacking any objective criteria for its selections, and the obvious large number of worthy communities left off the list, the magazine’s choices are suspect. The editors explain those choices, in a manner of speaking, in a response to a letter from a reader who asks why they don’t “publicize” more communities than those that are “developer owned.”
        “We cover more closely locales where thousands of retirees are going,” the editors respond.
        Seriously? That implies retirees don’t buy resale homes by the thousands in the many already developed communities across the country. Developer-owned communities, of course, spend more on marketing to get noticed and to sell their properties. Established communities don’t typically have the discretionary budgets to take out a full-page ad for a few thousand dollars in a retirement magazine. In their response to the letter writer, the Where to Retire editors imply that if thousands of retirees are moving to new communities, then they are not moving to established communities, a notion that is demonstrably false yet may be disorienting to some retirees searching for the best possible community.

Pay to Play
        Where to Retire, which claims to be “The Authority on Retirement Relocation,” could be a guiding light for couples looking for the best place to retire. But true guidance requires objectivity. By promoting almost exclusively in its editorial content the communities that advertise in the magazine, and by ignoring the benefits to retirees of well-established, built-out and financially stable communities, Where to Retire does not live up to its claim of authority.
        A more accurate title for this annual list would be “50 Best Master Planned Communities that Advertise in Our Magazine.”

        I subscribe to Google Alerts for mentions of golf communities and related terms, and so I am treated to a daily stream of stories from media around the world. A fair percentage of the topics have to do with failing golf courses, and it is sad to contemplate what that means for those who own properties in those communities.
        There are a few different types of owners of golf community clubs. The most secure, generally, are the property owners themselves. If a golf course owned by residents fails, they have only themselves to blame. (I have visited a few communities in which there is friction between residents who are club members and residents who believe the club members get special privileges. My advice to those non-golf member residents who might feel that way is to tread lightly; the values of your homes are tied closely to the health of the country club.)
        A developer of a golf community typically owns the golf course and associated amenities but offers it for sale eventually to residents when the community is substantially sold out of properties. In some cases, the original covenants indicate that the club must be offered to residents at a certain time and, sometimes, at a pre-stipulated price. In other cases, the developer will simply begin negotiations with the residents and if they break down, will look to sell it to an outside firm. In a few cases, the developer will keep the course and either manage it himself or herself or hire a management firm to run it.
        These latter situations are the ones that, most of the time, can devolve into chaos through mismanagement. Given all the horror stories I have read about golf courses going under, my advice to anyone who lives in a golf community in which the signs point to mismanagement, try to rally your fellow members together as soon as possible in the process and see if there is a way to take over the club from the owner. This could involve a pooling of resources to buy out the owner, or a visit to a local bank to see if a purchase loan to the community is possible.
        I know; your first instinct is to recoil in horror at the thought of spending money to “own” a golf club that someone else couldn’t run. But consider that the golf course at the heart of your community is abandoned or taken over by the bank or, if permitted by local covenants, sold to a developer to turn into 150 acres of new homes. That could erode the value of your home substantially, especially if the golf course becomes an eyesore. Let us say, for the sake of argument, your home is worth $300,000 today. An adjacent white elephant golf course could cause it to lose 10%, 20% or even more of its value. Suddenly a modest investment by each of a few hundred residents doesn’t seem like the worst type of protection money.
        Let us hope it never comes to this but for those currently living in a golf community, keep a close eye on the operation of your golf club and if trouble seems to be brewing, don’t wait for things to go south. And if you are looking to relocate to a golf community, don’t ignore those communities that “bundle” golf course membership with the purchase of your home. Yes, you are obligated to pay monthly dues, but since is everyone else has the same obligation, you can be confident that, barring outright embezzlement, your club will have enough ongoing revenue to survive and thrive. In other cases, find out who owns the country club and make sure they have the reserves and the experience to make it work.
        If you would like to read about some communities facing problems with their golf courses, here are some links:

Bank forecloses on golf course in Arkansas 

Myrtle Beach Homeowners Take Donations to Cut Grass on Course

Homeowners protest golf course land use  

Nevada community course closure 

Residents upset about consolidation of golf courses  

        There are many ways to skin a cat but really just one way to make a search for a golf community home efficient and successful. Follow these few steps and you are on your way to find a golf home that matches your requirements.

Step One –- More Choices are not Better

        Okay, you like the mountains and your spouse likes the coast. Do you really think you are going to resolve that particular issue by looking at golf communities in the western mountains of North Carolina and in Myrtle Beach? Unless you have the budget and the desire to own homes in both geographies, you are going to have to settle on one.  
        A compromise is necessary to keep your search from taking years. Let’s say one spouse doesn’t play golf and wants to be near the beach, and the other, who prefers mountains, is an avid golfer, the more courses to play the better. Perhaps the compromise here is to identify a coastal community with a beach a few minutes outside its gates and more than 18 holes of excellent golf within. St. James Plantation in Southport, NC, Landfall in Wilmington, NC, and the Barefoot Resort in Myrtle Beach all come to mind (others too). Or for the ultimate in compromise, where each gives a little, the choice could be a lakeside golf community, like Reynolds Lake Oconee in Georgia, Keowee Key near Clemson, SC, or one of the fine communities along Lake Norman north of Charlotte. One spouse gets the water view and the ability to loll by the lake, and the other gets the golf. And as a bonus, many of these inland golf communities in the Carolinas and Georgia are just a couple of hours from beach and mountains.
ReynoldsNationalcourseThe National Course, one of six at Reynolds Lake Oconee

Step Two –- Target Golf Communities, Not Specific Homes

        I have conducted searches in which the clients wanted to see an endless stream of golf community homes that matched their specs rather than the details on the golf communities themselves. This is a classic case of making perfect the enemy of good. The fact is that, except for golf communities with a limited number of properties, most people will find the home they are looking for in any golf community (or at least a home that, with a little cosmetic updating, will match their preferences). If you choose the perfect home in what turns out to be an imperfect (for you) community, you will be miserable. After all, the choice to live amongst other people implies a desire for a social life. Focus on that before you focus on the house you want.

Step Three –- Assessing the Golf Community

        Let’s say you have found an area that is right for you, and you have narrowed the search down to two local golf communities. At any one moment, a golf community typically has between 8% and 10% of its homes for sale, although inventories have tightened up recently. In a medium to large community, that means 80 to 200 properties on the market. You will have plenty of choices.
Since you have targeted a golf community, the quality and costs of the golf course and club should be a top priority for consideration. You probably wouldn’t buy a car without driving the model you wanted; it stands to reason that you should always play your future golf course at least once to ensure it suits your eye and your game. Have lunch or dinner in the clubhouse as well, preferably with a couple of members. Check out the other amenities; okay, you don’t have to swim in the pool or walk the treadmill to assess those, but you do want to know that the pool is big enough to handle the crowds and not overrun with screaming children –- unless you like happily noisy children at your pool –- and that the fitness center has the particular machines you like to use -- and enough of them.
        If you are down to a choice of two communities and have no clear preference for either one, then consider yourself lucky. You can just start searching for the best home in both of them.
Cliffs at Glassy from teeThe Cliffs at Glassy is a beautifully conditioned, challenging and fun layout in the mountains of South Carolina, but it may not be to everyone's taste, given its up and down nature. It is a course you should definitely play before considering a membership.

Step Four – Home is Not (Necessarily) Where the Hearth is

        That subheading is a bad attempt to communicate that a focus on one small element –- like a fireplace -– can derail an otherwise efficient search for a golf community home. In many locations in the Southeast, especially the warm ones near the coast, such an add-on is unnecessary and, frankly, a little weird. (It is kind of like maintaining an outdoor swimming pool in Alaska.) Some northerners used to a basement in their homes may be surprised and dismayed to find that the soil in many parts of the region does not support an underground room. Focus on that particular element of a home near the coast, and you will be greatly disappointed.
        Other elements of a search may limit the choices. Those wishing to be in a defined golf community close to a city will need to concentrate their searches in the Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Savannah areas. These are typically comparably pricier choices than similar golf communities more remotely located. You may need to make some compromises. For example, my wife and I typically like to go to the movies every few weeks, but from our home in Pawleys Island, SC, it is a good 50-minute round trip to the nearest cinemaplex. We don’t go to the movies except rarely when we stay in Pawleys, but we do have a Netflix subscription. One compensating factor, though, is that within four miles of our front gate, we have a choice of five supermarkets including a Fresh Market, a worthy competitor of Whole Foods. The warning here is that if you get hung up on one item on your wish list, you may be constrained in terms of choices.  Flexibility is key to a successful search.

        I’ve spent 10 years helping couples navigate the many choices in their search for a golf community home. The search can seem complicated, but it really doesn’t have to be. Contact me, and I will be happy to help you work through the options -– by the lake, in the mountains or by the shining sea.
Rivers Edge par 5Nothing can prepare you for your first attempt at the long par 5 at Rivers Edge, a nice small golf community in Brunswick County, NC. The layup second shot must be long yet not too long to avoid the marsh. And no matter where the third shot originates, it is guaranteed to twist your knickers.

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