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Tuesday, 22 May 2007 05:08

Why we love the game

    I could never hope to hit a 95 mph rising fastball.  Or move a 300 pound lineman out of the way in football.  Or beat a pro basketball player in a game of one on one (if he was really trying).  There is no sport I can think of where I could do anything as well as the best professional...except in golf.

    Perhaps you've read about Jacqueline Gagne of California, a 46-year old who maintains a seven handicap.  In the first four months of this year, she made 10 holes in one, all verified by the local newspaper in Rancho Mirage, CA.  The odds, according to a piece last week in the Wall Street Journal , are about 12 septillion to 1.  That would be a 12 followed by 24 zeroes.

    Most of us would kill for just one of those aces, but Ms. Gagne's feat reminds us that, for a moment, rank amateurs like us can be as good as Tiger or Phil or any of them.  And the odds are something less than 12 septillion to 1.

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Monday, 21 May 2007 06:11

Favored architects command a price

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Fazio's fairways at Champion Hills keep homes and OB stakes at bay.

 

    For the last week, we ran a poll to ascertain our readers' favorite golf course architects.  Albeit with only a few votes cast, the results are not surprising, with one exception.  Arthur Hills, whose work we respect, garnered as many votes as Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio.  Pete Dye was the other vote getter.     

    The results prompted an informal investigation of a few communities with courses designed by our top four vote getters.  We looked at Fazio's Champion Hills in Hendersonville, NC; Nicklaus' Cliffs at Walnut Cove in Asheville; Dye's Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, GA; and Hills' The Ridges in Jonesborough, TN.  To get a feel for the relationship between designer cachet and prices, we looked at the most expensive home that is currently on the market in each community, as well as an example of a more moderately priced home.  And we computed the cost per square foot of the homes.  Of course, prices are the consequence of lots of factors, and our little investigation is neither scientific nor conclusive.  If nothing else, it is a good excuse to talk about four fine communities, three of which we have visited.     

    With hundreds of his golf courses built or in construction around the world, Nicklaus is arguably the most financially successful of the group, benefiting by the name recognition he built during his legendary career.  He builds sometimes brawny, sometimes quirky but almost always interesting layouts.  His design for the Cliffs at Walnut Cove is a little more brawn than quirk, in a beautiful setting ringed by the Blue Ridge Mountains.  One of the three Cliffs courses used for the Nationwide Tour's BMW Charities tournament this past weekend, Walnut Cove was the toughest course on the tour in 2005 and the 10th toughest last year.  The most expensive home on the market in Walnut Cove is listed at $5.495M for 7,000 square feet of living space ($785 a square foot).  A more reasonably priced home is offered at $1.295M for 3,000 square feet ($432 per foot).
    Champion Hills in Hendersonville, NC, is a refined community with a typical Tom Fazio course, which is to say you could play it every day and never tire of it.  Fazio grew up in the area and still owns real estate in the community.  He figures prominently in Champion Hills' marketing, which plays up his local-boy status.  You can tell when you play Champion Hills that he lavished particular attention on it.  Funneled fairways are generally set well below the well-spaced houses, which has the double benefit of keeping out of bounds stakes to a minimum while providing dramatic views of the golf course from rear decks of the homes.  A couple of years ago, Champion Hills' dedicated membership developed a long-term strategic plan that would be the envy of some corporations, and they set about improving an already well-conditioned golf course.  You will find a few home sites available at Champion Hills in the ½ to two-acre range for $100,000 to $365,000; the ones toward the top of the range will have mountain views.  The most expensive home currently for sale in the community is available at $3.575 for 7,527 square feet ($475 per square foot).  More representative is a listing for $985,000 for 4,454 square feet ($221 per foot).     

    One of the best golf courses we have played in the last few years is Pete Dye's track at Ford Plantation, just south of Savannah.  Set along the Ogeechee River, the links style course does not seem manufactured in a Pete Dye way; the customary moguls and railroad ties are at a minimum and do not interrupt the natural flow of the routing, although the customary breezes provide all the challenge you need.  The course is the centerpiece for a community loaded with history and class.  General Sherman spared the plantation during his burning spree at the end of the Civil War, and we wouldn't be surprised if the beauty of the landscape softened his pyromaniac tendencies a little.  Less than a century later, Henry Ford made the place his southern home, and those who take the official real estate tour at Ford Plantation have the chance to sleep in the room where Clara Ford slept while her husband was tinkering with who knows what (or whom) in his workshop a hundred yards across the lawn.  Ford Plantation home sites are available in the $395,000 to $750,000 range and at two to six acres.  Most expensive on the market now is a 5,600 square foot house priced at $3.45M ($616 square foot).  Less extravagant is a $1.25M home that comprises 3,200 square feet ($391 a foot).     

    Arthur Hills was a surprise vote getter in our poll, and we are glad he was.  We think he is the most underrated of designers working today (he's been at it for four decades, so he must have learned a few things along the way).  His work at the Palmetto Course at The Landings at Skidaway Island in Savannah and at the little known and rural River Islands Course in Tennessee show a masterly balance between challenge and playability, with tough medicine for those who don't think their way around the course (Don't short-side yourself next to an Arthur Hills green without being prepared to pay).  We haven't played his course at The Ridges in Jonesborough, TN, but we note it is long and well regarded.  The most expensive home we found available in The Ridges might be a misprint at $1.85M for 13,000 square feet (a puny $142 per foot), so we will rely, for the sake of our comparisons, on the more reasonably listed home for $1.2M for 3,500 square feet ($343 per foot).
    In most cases, there seems to be a direct relationship between the quality of golf course designers and the quality of the communities in which their courses are located.  You likely won't go wrong following any of these winners.  If you would like us to contact real estate agents at any of these communities, or an agent who can show you homes in these and other golf course communities in the area, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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Sometimes the most direct approach is not a straight line, as is the case at this short par 4 dogleg right at Pete Dye's Ogeechee Golf Club at Ford Plantation.

    Sea Trail Plantation, the huge complex north of Myrtle Beach, will open a new section of townhomes in their Eastwood Bluff section June 29 - July 1. The amply sized Eastwood units, at 2,300 square feet and up, have a few interesting features, including three suites and location on the complex's Willard Byrd golf course.  Included in the developer's list of incentives is free initiation for Sea Trail's three golf courses (the other two were designed by Rees Jones and Dan Maples).  For more on the golf courses, click here for Sea Trail's web site.

   A little further south, Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach has been pulling out the stops to showcase the high-end community.  With single-family homes beginning in the $800s, the developers are stressing the quality of the amenities in the community.  They recently hosted a tour of all the facilities that included stops at the 27,000 square-foot private Members Club, the Resort Club, beachfront Ocean Club, Tennis & Fitness Club, Grand Dunes' two golf courses and the 130-slip, full-service marina on the Intra-Coastal Waterway.  Twenty-five houses in the community's 13 neighborhoods were opened for inspection during the tour.

    We've played both the resort course and the private Members Club and prefer the older resort course, which provided more memorable holes and a better overall challenge.  Still, the two form a wonderful tandem for those with the capacity to live in Myrtle Beach's most exclusive community.

    Further south yet, a few miles below Georgetown, SC, Harmony Township is practicing something called "New Urbanism."  If you are looking to live within walking distance of a town center with shopping, restaurants, and services, Harmony is one of those communities worth checking. The area has been slow to take off, with strong competition from similar concepts in the Charleston area, like Daniel Island, which has two good golf courses, and I'on, but that could spell buying opportunity at Harmony if the concept appeals to you.  The large community along the river does not include a golf course but is within a half hour drive of some darn good ones in Pawleys Island.  Experience Harmony packages, including lodging in one of their cottages, is currently $79 for 3 days and 2 nights.  Of course, you will need to take the tour, but you can't beat the price.  For more info, go to HarmonyTownship.com.  And if you want to read a good short piece on New Urbanism, click here for an article at CarolinaLiving.com .

Friday, 18 May 2007 15:59

Expensive homes taking longer to sell

    We are hearing from real estate agents that homes at the top of the market are lingering longer on the MLS (multiple listing service) and fetching a smaller percentage of their asking prices than down-market homes. 

    Wilmington, NC, is one example of the phenomenon.  In April, homes in the Hampstead area just north of the city, in zip code 28443, took an average 133 days to sell at an average price of $369,000, 89% of the asking price.  In the Wilmington zip code of 28405, where homes were listed at an average $293,000, they sold in April in 73 days and at an impressive 98% of their asking price.

    With the stock market remaining strong, at least for now, there is not too much downward pressure on pricing for owners of higher end homes.  But a stock market correction could certainly change that.

*  *  *

    Our friend Adam Ney is a leading exponent of green businesses and lifestyles in the state of Connecticut.  He maintains an interesting web site called Building Connecticut Green.  Last month Adam masterminded a clean-up of the road that runs alongside his town golf course, Wintonbury Hills in Bloomfield. 

    Wintonbury Hills is not your average muni; it was designed by Pete Dye for the princely sum of $1 as a favor to friends of his in town, and it is the equal -- in layout and condition -- of most local private courses.  Adam arranged for a few of his fellow club members to help pick up trash along the road, and then played the course.  This might be a day of fun and productivity you can organize at your own course, whether it is private or public.  For Adam's article, click here .

 

Friday, 18 May 2007 08:39

Immigration reform and golf

    Immigration reform is all over the news pages, and it occurs to me that there might be only one degree of separation between the resolution of the immigration issue and the future of golf in America.  
    Every small town I drive through in the southeastern U.S. - and I do a lot of driving from community to community - every one seems to have a bodega (Hispanic grocery store).  These are towns with populations of fewer than 1,000 and no commercial district to speak of.  The number of Mexican restaurants has blossomed as well over the last decade.  Immigration is not just a border state issue; immigrants who make it across the border, legally or illegally, aren't stopping only in Texas or Arizona.  Like water that seeks its own level, people who need to earn a living find the jobs that are available.  And in the southern U.S., many of those jobs are on golf courses.
    Golf course maintenance is a brutally tough job, especially in the south in the summer when temperatures can reach well into the 90s before lunchtime.  Virtually every course I have played in the southeast over the last two years -- and that amounts to nearly 90 -- employs Hispanics to do the manual labor of course maintenance.  They do the jobs the local kids long ago stopped doing for pay or the privilege of playing on Monday, otherwise known as caddies' day.  There is no question that, with an estimated 12 million non-resident aliens in the U.S., some of these workers - maybe many of them - are in the country illegally.
    These golf course workers are a metaphor, it seems to me, for a larger issue.  There are lots of jobs that American workers just won't do, for love or money, jobs that immigrants will do gladly for an honest day's pay until such time something better comes along (This, of course, is the first rung in the ladder known as the American dream).  There is a great tradition of migrant workers on farms to harvest the food to feed the nation, but we need people to do many other jobs, such as to keep our cities clean.  If I lived in a city, I wouldn't care who did the work.  Golfers who count on pristine conditions at their country club likely don't care who cuts the grass.
    I have no clue yet who will get my vote for U.S. President in 2008.  But I do know the one who has the most creative ideas about immigration will have a leg up.

Thursday, 17 May 2007 05:07

Cliffs courses on TV this weekend

    The Cliffs Communities, a string of pearls that runs along the western edge of South Carolina and up into the Asheville, NC area, offers the most mountain-oriented golf of any group of communities.  With current and planned courses by Nicklaus (2), Fazio (2), Ben Wright (his only one), Tom Jackson and Gary Player, Cliffs golf members can face a different 18-hole challenge every single day of the week...if they can afford it and don't mind driving up to an hour (but what a pretty drive through the mountains).  Access to excellent golf doesn't come cheap, with initiation fees pegged at $125,000 recently.     

    The only name designers not in the Cliffs' portfolio are Jones, Norman and Dye, but with aggressive developer Jim Anthony at the helm, nothing is out of the question.  He not only arranged for Gary Player to design the upcoming course at Cliffs Mountain, he also convinced the venerable South African to move his family and his business from Florida to the Mountain.     

    We toured The Cliffs just at the time the organization opened its fourth community, at Walnut Cove, the most expensive of them all given its knockout mountain views from most home sites and its proximity to the hot retirement town of Asheville, NC.  The Nicklaus course at Walnut Cove, which opened in April 2005, is reportedly the toughest of the current six that are open.  We didn't get to play it, but we did play the breathtaking and only-a-little-quirky Tom Jackson Glassy course, at 4,000 feet up; the somewhat pedestrian Ben Wright Valley Course; and the wonderful, impeccable and beautiful Tom Fazio Keowee Vineyards course at Lake Keowee (Can you tell we liked it?). 

    Single family homes in all the Cliffs Communities run well into seven figures, and aside from Walnut Cove and Cliffs Valley, which is about a half hour from Greenville, local services haven't quite caught up with the developments.  But the $150 million worth of amenities the Cliffs promotes are enough to keep an active couple "on campus" for a majority of time; and it is hard to imagine any but the most jaded of golfers not being satisfied by the variety and conditioning of the four current and three planned golf courses.     

    If you want to check out The Cliffs courses, this weekend is your opportunity, assuming you have The Golf Channel on your cable system.  The BMW Charity Pro-Am at The Cliffs, a Nationwide Tour event, will be played on three of the community's courses - Keowee Vineyards, Valley and Walnut Cove.  A small, but impressive group of amateurs from the entertainment and sports worlds are slated to compete, including Kevin Costner, Hootie & The Blowfish lead singer Darius Rucker, football's John Elway, baseball's Jim Rice, and hockey's great one, Wayne Gretsky.  Coverage begins at 1 p.m. today.

    The Cliffs comoprehensive web site is at www.cliffscommunities.com.

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It takes driver for mere mortals from the back tees at #17 at Keowee Vineyard, one of the seven courses at The Cliffs Communities.  Typically, it is the toughest golf hole on the Nationwide Tour.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007 03:34

Stop and smell the grasses

       The fastest players at my club in Connecticut fight for the earliest rounds.  I never like to be the first off the tee at 7 a.m. unless I am playing by myself.  Then I can stay comfortably ahead of the rabbits behind me, without the pressure of rushing.  But if I am in a foursome and one or more of us is playing deliberately or taking a while to look for wayward balls, the pressure builds, I rush my shots, and I invariably play poorly.    

    This is on my mind today for a few reasons.  First my own golf club has sent members a letter asking us to pick up the pace of play this season.  Then on Monday, I read a letter to the editor of the Hartford (CT) Courant tying the reduction in rounds played in the U.S. to slow pace of play.  I couldn't resist responding, and today the Courant printed my letter, which I include below:

Obsessed by Fast Pace

    We Americans are obsessed with doing things fast, even if it means spoiling a good walk.  Golf is a game that should be savored every step of the way, whether a round takes four hours to play or five and a half.
    Yesterday I received a letter from my country club about new regulations to speed up play.  Then Tracey Baldwin's letter (May 15, "Slow Pace is Killing Golf") took me back to a conversation 10 years ago in Japan.  
    I was on the train from Tokyo to Osaka and noticed my Japanese "chaperone" reading a golf magazine.  I asked him if he played.  "Oh, yes, every Saturday morning," he replied.  Mindful that golf memberships in Japan at the time were $1 million and higher, and public courses were scarce, I asked where he played.  He mentioned a course two hours away by train.  
    I empathized that the travel made for a long day after a long week of work.  "Yes," he said without irritation, "and golf takes about six and a half hours to play."  Noting my look of surprise, he added:  "But we do stop for a 20-minute lunch after nine holes."


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The Landmark course features 89 traps and houses well out of range of stray shots. 

 

    Avalon might seem an odd name for a golf course community.  In medieval romance, it was an island paradise of healers to which King Arthur was taken to cheat death.  He didn't.  Nevertheless, developers of Avalon, just 20 miles outside Knoxville, TN, aren't cheating anyone.  The community's prices seemed so reasonable when we visited last year that we were tempted to plunk down a payment on a lot.
    Avalon provides a little bit of everything in terms of housing.  Its 115 so-called "villas" are patio homes with landscaping and grounds keeping included.  At full build out, the community's 430 acres will include 150 condominium units and 245 single-family homes.  The lot that tempted us was ½ acre on a rise overlooking the middle part of a fairway on the golf course with a nice view of the Cumberland Mountains beyond.  It was priced at just $85,000, but certainly would be a little north of $100,000 today.  Lots with views of both the Cumberland and Smoky Mountains are offered starting around $125,000.  Construction costs run about $150 per square foot. 100_2838avalond

    The single-family homes in the neighborhood called The Links, ranging in size up to 4,500 square feet on three levels, are priced starting at $540,000.  Lawn maintenance is available at $75 per month.  Elsewhere in the community, custom single-family homes range in price up to $1.2 million, about the lowest ceiling we have seen in any nice golfing community in the southeast and indicative that Knoxville has still not yet been fully discovered.
    Avalon is attractively located less than a half hour from the city and its airport, and about five miles from significant shopping and hospitals.  Real estate agents selling property in Avalon tout its location and claim they have been selling property to residents of the Rarity Communities and Tellico Village, large projects about 40 minutes to the east that require drives of more than 45 minutes to reach Knoxville.   [More below]  




    We are beginning to wonder whether Tiger Woods is good for golf.  Certainly, one can argue that when someone emerges as the best of his time or maybe ever, that is a good thing for a sport.  Tiger does things to and with a golf ball the likes of which I have not seen in my 60 years.  He may be the most recognizable athlete in the world, and in being so fit and trim and strong, he has banished, for the time being, the question of whether golfers are athletes or not.  He is quite decidely an athlete.  Thank you, Tiger, for that.

    But for all the hoopla, has the game of golf been advantaged by the age of the Tiger?  Last year the number of golf courses closed exceeded the number opened, the first time in memory that has happened.  What about all that new young blood Tiger's popularity would bring to the sport?  You would think that the growing popularity of golf in urban and suburban areas would translate into new municipal golf courses, but with the exception of a few high-end daily fee tracks, we haven't experienced a swell of new course development.  Indeed, if it weren't for the still significant number of golf courses helping to sell real estate, the net loss of new holes would have been much greater last year.

    Because golf is not a team sport, one dominant individual can dull the excitement of competition.  When you consider that Thursday begins with about 150 people in a tournament, and that just a few strokes separate the scoring averages of the top guys from the bottom guys, you realize just how dominant Tiger is. He appears to win when he wants to win, and it has gotten to the point -- at least for this observer -- that it is almost more interesting when he isn't close.  Until Sean O'Hair's dunking on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass yesterday, the storyline was would Phil choke and/or would the kid hold up.  If Tiger's involved, most of the time you have the questions answered before the denouement.  I thought there was more drama yesterday.

    Finally, golf is a game best watched, and played, in quiet, if not silence.  Quiet is the petri dish in which all the tiny little flaws of the game, as well as the perfectly struck shots and brilliantly conceived strategies, can be analyzed by our microscopes.  Tiger's popularity has brought with it new on-course spectators who act as if they are at an Ultimate Fighting match every time Tiger makes a swing, whether a drive or a 10-foot putt.  It is enough to scare little children, or old guys who remember the days at tournaments when it was so quiet you could hear a ball drop.

    So is Tiger good or not for golf?  We invite comments. 

     

Sunday, 13 May 2007 07:01

Ladies Day

    In honor of the mother of my children, I am taking the rest of today off.  However, before I do, I wanted to say that this week's LPGA tour event is being held at Kingsmill's River Course, a classic layout we played last month and liked a lot.  Kingsmill offers a nice spot for a golfing vacation as well as an opportunity to live permanently in a vibrant resort community.  Golf in the Williamsburg, VA, area, as we wrote here recently, is terrific, almost all of it accessible to the public (except for Governor's Land, which is a gated community with a private course).

    One last observation about this weekend's tournament:  As any student of American history knows, the name Lee is renowned in the state of Virginia, and it is of ironic consequence that half of the top 8 in the field going into Sunday's final round bear the same last name as the famous General Lee.  These golfing Lees, however, are all of Korean extraction and illustrate the swift changing of the guard in professional ladies golf.

 

    Happy Mother's Day! 

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