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Wednesday, 11 April 2007 15:32

Updates

    Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, has been in the news lately for its five-year, $500,000 renovation program to restore the community's Jack Nicklaus Signature Course to a top ranking among the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach's 115 courses. 

    Writing in Golf Business magazine, Peter Blais indicates that 250 trees have been removed and others pruned to increase sunlight to the turf on the 1989 layout.  The greens on the course, which had become thin on top and thick with organic material below the surface, are now under an aggressive agronomic program to promote grass growth, and all the sand traps are being refaced and reshaped.  We know it is working because we played the course in March, and it was in its best condition in five years.  Initiation fees are $15,000; a 4 BR, 3BA home in Pawleys Plantation is currently listed at $549,900. If you want to read the entire article, it is posted at the Nicklaus Design web site.   

    Speaking of Nicklaus, the upscale Fairmont chain has announced that Jack will design its new course on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.  Not only will the course be designated a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, but also it will bear (pardon the pun) the distinction of being one of only 25 Jack Nicklaus Clubs worldwide.  The Clubs are part of a network of Nicklaus designed clubs that provide reciprocal privileges.  You will find more information at www.fairmontanguilla.com ...    

    Never to be outdone by Jack without a fight, Arnold Palmer recently announced something called Arnold Palmer Premier.  As far as we can tell from the firm's press release, those courses designated "Premier" will be of the highest quality design and, therefore, carry higher design fees than The King's current highest price of $1.5 million; and the clubs will have to maintain a high level of service, quality and course conditions to retain their Premier status.  In a recent interview in Golf Business, Erik Larsen, an exec with the Palmer Design group, said "Arnold likes to measure a place by how his friends and family would enjoy it, and not just once, but year after year."  As long as they don't have to pay that design fee...    

    Rarity Ridge, one of the group of handsome Rarity Communities in eastern Tennessee, sent us a brochure recently touting a new release of properties and indicating two previous events had sold out in four hours.  The copy mentions "One Day Only Pricing and Incentives" and an invitation to visit during the community's "Priority Selection Event weekend."  To qualify to attend, you must provide a fully refundable $1,000 deposit.  Only one problem:  No dates are indicated for the special event.  Just our luck:  We'll give them the $1,000 and find out the event is the same weekend we've been invited to Pine Valley.   

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Tuesday, 10 April 2007 17:44

Golf Digest vs. Joe Golfer

    Golf Digest has just published its annual list of "America's 100 Greatest" golf courses a week after we received this year's Zagat's survey of "America's Top Golf Courses."  There are two fundamental differences between the ratings: Golf Digest includes private, as well as public, courses; and the magazine rates the courses based on the opinions of a panel of 800 low handicappers, whereas Zagat relies on anyone willing to submit courses, ratings and a few words of support for their assessments.  A comparison indicates that, for the most part, Joe Golfer knows his golf courses.    

    The two courses that receive perfect ratings of 30 in the Zagat survey, Pacific Dunes in Coos Bay, OR, and Whistling Straits in Kohler, WI, rank # 2 and #4 respectively on the Golf Digest list.  Pebble Beach (#1 in the magazine) ranks a near perfect 29 in Zagat. The two lists concur on a number of other top courses, with the Zagat list of 29s being matched by the magazine's top courses, including Bethpage Black (#5), Steve Wynn's for-high-rollers-only Shadow Creek in Las Vegas (#6), Bandon Dunes, OR (#7), the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, SC (#8), and Arcadia Bluffs in Arcadia, MI (#10).

    A few surprises:  Pinehurst #2, ranked third in Golf Digest, rates "only" a 28 on the Zagat list; and The Prince Course in Princeville, Kauai, Hawaii, rates a top 10 at #9 in the magazine and just a 27 in Zagat's.  Those who rated it for Zagat called The Prince a "treacherous test" and advised bringing "aspirin," "a lot of golf balls," "your sense of humor," and money for the $175 greens fees. 

    There are just a handful of community golf courses on the Golf Digest list, including Cuscowilla, in Eatontown, GA, which we have reviewed here, rated 58th on the Digest public course list.  On the overall list of the best 100, including public and private courses, Wade Hampton, in Cashiers, NC, at #15, is the highest-rated course within a neighborhood.  The house-free Pine Valley in New Jersey is #1 once again.

    January clearly is not the best month for golf equipment sales.  It is still a few months before the season starts up north and a few weeks before the big golf show season begins with the introduction of new technology.  That said, this past January was pretty much a disappointing one for pro shop sales, on a comparative basis. 

    Compared with January 2006, sales of all golf equipment and accessories was down across the board in both dollars and units, and not insignificantly so (according to a chart in Golf Business magazine whose source was Golf Datatech).  Equipment sales in units fell between 10% and 12%, with balls down 9.7%.  Dollar volume losses were more moderate in view of price increases across all lines, except for woods, whose prices dropped an average 4.8%, leading to an overall retails sales drop of 15.5%.  With the new square Nike driver, the Sumo 2, recalled in mid-March for not conforming to USGA specifications, and no other drivers achieving break-through status, I may wait for a price drop on that Titleist 905R driver, the one Zach Johnson used at the Masters.    

    Golf Business, again courtesy of Datatech, published an interesting chart in its April issue.  It displayed rounds played in January state by state compared with January 2006.  The red numbers are across the board, with an average loss of rounds of 16.3% nationwide.  Only Oregon, up just 1.5% in rounds played, and Connecticut, up an astounding 50%, were in the plus column. Every golfer in Connecticut must have scooted out to the courses the first week in January when the temperatures were well into the 50s and courses that had closed reopened for a few days.  We took advantage of the weather surprise, and although the hairy, uncut greens putted like burlap, it was an unexpected treat to be able to play the day after New Years.

    Cedar Creek, arguably the most "modest" of the three Aiken-area communities we have visited, pitches itself as unpretentious, less full of itself and a better value than its local rivals ("Affordably Priced" is how they once advertised real estate in the community). You can still find a building lot for well under $100,000, and even lots on the golf course are available at less than $150,000 (one fairly large one at ¾ acre).  But although Cedar Creek is within the reach of those who may never have cashed stock options, there is nothing other-side-of-the-tracks about the place.    

    For the casual or occasional golfer, a well-designed accessible golf course that pays for itself with daily fee golf is a viable option.  Cedar Creek's Arthur Hills layout is a bargain for property owners and daily fee players alike; Hills is a player-friendly designer who, nevertheless, does not cave in to the notion of "fast play" the way some designers of resort courses do.  His design for Cedar Creek features high-banked bunkers at greenside (see accompanying photo) and enough challenges to appeal to all types of golfers. The better golfers can play the tips at over 7,200 yards at a rating of 74.1 and slope of 142.    

    Initiation fees for golf run $4,000, but we understand owners of property purchased from Cedar Creek's developers can get 50% off the fees.  About 250 residents maintain membership, and they seem to mix well with the daily fee golfers; greens fees don't exceed $50, except during Masters week, when greens fees at all the Aiken courses multiply significantly.  More than 30,000 rounds of golf are played annually at Cedar Creek.    

    Residents are an eclectic mix of 40- and 50-somethings still working full time, as well as retirees attracted by the reasonably mild winters, not intolerable summers and relatively low prices (compared with South Carolina's mountain and coastal communities, as well as the other two communities in Aiken we surveyed). The nearby Savannah River Site, opened in the 1950s to produce materials to support the nation's nuclear defense system, brought hundreds of PhDs to the area, and some have settled in Cedar Creek.  
    Housing options abound, with a small row of brick homes at just 1,400 sq ft minimums near the clubhouse and 3,000 sq ft minimum houses on plots between ½ and one acre along the 1st and 17th holes.  There are plenty of choices in between. You can spend around $300,000 for a comfortable 3 BR home on a nice lot, or you can own a top-end house for not much more than $500,000.  Property owner fees are a low $480 annually.
    PhDs, former CEOS, and factory workers make Cedar Creek the most diverse of the three communities in the Aiken area. It provides the best value in housing locally, but you'll do without the security gate and country club panache.  Still for the value conscious who don't mind sharing their nicely designed golf course with others, Cedar Creek will strike the right note.  For more info, contact Dick Salsitz at 800-937-5362 or Dick@CedarCreek.net .

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    With three golf courses within its gates and a mall just outside, Woodside Plantation offers the most "rounded" living experience of the Aiken golf communities. The golf courses carry prestige names - Bob Cupp, Rees Jones and Nicklaus Design. However, the first two courses are owned by ClubCorp and the newer Reserve course by the developers; two separate initiation fees and dues payments are required if you want membership privileges at the three courses. 

    On our visit, The Reserve seemed to be in the best shape of the three, and its clean, unfussy design made up for a lack of drama.  Caveat emptor:  If you are thinking Jack Nicklaus is behind a Nicklaus Design course, be advised that son Steve designed this one. The Golden Bear takes primary responsibility for courses with the word "Signature" after his name.

    The Woodside community comprises 2,300 acres of rolling land that includes 100 acres of lakes and 20 acres carved out as a nature preserve. It is the only community of the three visited that provides 24-hour security at the front gate. Its other distinctions are a croquet lawn where members and friends from surrounding clubs engage in weekly matches. As its rival communities do, Woodside offers miles of walking trails, both along the golf course and through the woods. Full golf membership in The Reserve Club, after payment of a $1,000 "social initiation fee," was $26,500 (refundable under certain conditions) or $13,250 (non-refundable) a few months ago.  Monthly dues for residents were $283, and $155 for non-residents.  Membership confers full golf privileges as well as tennis, croquet, swimming and use of the clubhouse.  An "activities membership" at half the full golf initiation fee provides use of the golf course two times per month (no greens fees) and lower dues rates.  This will appeal to those who purchase a home site and defer construction.

    The other Woodside Plantation courses carried an initiation fee of $18,000 for the two together a few months ago. Full privileges -- tennis, swimming, social -- came with $278 per month in dues (non-golfers can buy tennis and/or social privileges for lower rates).

    Woodside offers the entire range of housing options, from low-maintenance villas to large brick homes on substantial lots. The Reserve section provides especially nice golf views, as well as a few choice lake views. Woodside's Glen Haven is an "adults only" community for owners 55 and over. Prices in general throughout Woodside seem to fit in the middle range of the three communities reviewed, with home site prices starting well into the $100's and with the average house in the $500,000 category.  Annual property association dues are just $577 per year (about half if you own a lot only).

    For those seeking the most convenient shopping in the area, the 45-store Aiken Mall, with anchors Dillards, Belk, J.C. Penney and Sears, as well as a supermarket, lies about a five-wood distance outside the community's rear gate. Retail in Aiken is still in the emergent phase, and for those who'd prefer short trips to the store, Woodside's proximity to shopping is a big plus.

    At Woodside Plantation, three golf courses are a tease, given that two sets of membership fees and dues are necessary. The community has an "established" feel to it, with the vast majority of the lots built upon.  Woodside offers a wide variety of home site and housing options, and the manned gate will appeal to the security conscious. And you can virtually walk to the mall.  Woodside's web site details a nice discovery package for those interested in visiting.  Depending on your choice of accommodations - from the local Hampton Inn to the famed Wilcox Inn in Aiken - the package for two runs from $154 to $300 for two nights of lodging, a dinner and round of golf at The Reserve course.  Web site:  www.woodsideplantation.com
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Saturday, 07 April 2007 04:01

Aiken in your heart?

  Genteel horse country life beats at murmur level

    Augusta National is hosting the Masters golf tournament this weekend, and the city of Augusta, GA, cannot accommodate all the players, their families and the thousands of spectators.  There is considerable spillover across the state line into South Carolina, much of it in the Aiken area.
    We visited Aiken and a few of its golf communities nearly two years ago and came away impressed with the town, the golf and, especially, the relatively reasonable prices for real estate; development in the area has accelerated since then, but you can still find a nice lot with a view of golf course and/or water starting at around $200,000.  For a small town, Aiken offers a range of golf-related options. You'll fine laid-back gentility with an accent on things equestrian at Mount Vintage, the convenience of a mall just outside the gate and three golf courses on site at Woodside, and a community that revels in its lack of pretension at Cedar Creek.  And for those who prefer buying home and golf separately, the combo of an old house in town with membership at the famed Donald Ross Palmetto Golf Club is a wonderful option.     

    Horses share the spotlight with golf in Aiken. Long before the first mashie was swung in America, wealthy Charlestonians seeking relief from summer heat and malaria fled to Aiken, their horses in tow.  The lures in the 19th Century, as they are today, were the fresh spring waters, rolling hillsides and pine-scented air that have increased the area's popularity as a second- and retirement-home destination.  If horseracing or polo or steeplechase get your heart racing, Aiken is worth a look.     

    The town itself is right of central casting for antebellum, with a main street that is both quaint and active at the same time.  Although the ubiquitous malls have popped up outside town, Aiken has enough cafes, small retail shops and other attractions to keep the sidewalks crowded.  We had a nice meal at Davor's in town, but the family-owned Malia's receives the highest praise of Aiken's eateries.      

    Although Aiken isn't exactly nightlife central, there is an eight-screen movie theatre in the area, a recently formed performing arts group and a small but active art museum.  A branch of the University of South Carolina offers a stimulating array of courses geared to adults (as a side note, USC-Aiken has one of the best golf teams among NCAA Division II schools).  Most social activity, however, seems centered at the clubhouses in the communities we visited.     

    Modern medical care is available at Aiken Regional, a 225-bed facility that is currently promoting a plan to provide private rooms only, and at four hospitals in the Augusta area, including the Medical College of Georgia.  All are within 30 minutes of Aiken's golf communities.  The nearest airport of any consequence is in Columbia, about an hour away, with daily service to such hubs as Washington (Dulles and Reagan National) and Charlotte.     

    The topography of the area is much as it was in the 19th Century. Hitchcock Woods, American's oldest "urban forest," spans 2,100 wooded acres inside the Aiken city limits. In keeping with such a tradition of land preservation, golf architects Tom Jackson, Bob Cupp, Rees Jones, Steve Nicklaus and Arthur Hills have taken great care in leaving the land substantially undisturbed by their designs. Tall pines frame most of the fairways.    

    Architectural review boards in the communities we visited are conservative, and indeed a few of the communities have "preferred" builder programs ("preferred" as in mandatory). The results are harmoniously coordinated housing, if not architecturally diverse.  Housing styles for the most part fit the antebellum nature of this part of the south; many bricks from the good red clay of the surrounding countryside buttress the homes of Aiken.     

    The following are notes on Mount Vintage Plantation, the area's most refined and highest-priced community.  We'll follow with notes on Woodside and Cedar Creek in the next two days.


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 Mount Vintage is open for play year round, and the framing makes up for a few cold days in winter. 

Mount Vintage makes horse sense to equestrians, golfers

    Mount Vintage Plantation is a 4,500-acre community 12 miles north of Augusta, Ga. It features rolling hills, many miles of fences and a challenging 27-hole Tom Jackson layout. No condominiums or villas intrude on the plantation's rolling hills and forests.  Home sites range from one-third-acre wooded tracts (for patio homes) to 17 acres to accommodate multiple horses.  Indeed, some front yards are actually horse pastures on the larger properties, but even those people who choose more modest acreage can board their horses at the plantation's well-outfitted equestrian center.

    Mount Vintage is named for the vines that once dotted the plantation. Two local business executives developed the upscale community, which opened in 2000, and they attracted a women's professional golf tournament to Mount Vintage's relatively remote location. When Japanese soft drink maker Asahi Ryokuken ended its sponsorship in 2004, no replacement was found. By then, however, Mount Vintage had gained a measure of prestige in the golfing world, and to this day, the Plantation's marketing materials still point to the tournament.    

    The course's original 18 sports a 147 slope and 74.5 rating from 7,107 yards, although it plays as short as 4,779 and from three other sets of tees in between. Designer Jackson has been given beautiful pieces of property to carve in the past -- the upstate South Carolina Cliffs at Glassy comes to mind -- and Mount Vintage is no exception. Five sets of tees temper distances, but they don't leaven the pain of high entry shots to greens guarded by traps and water. The course's Crenshaw Bent greens, underpinned by a sub-air system like the one at Augusta National, are true and fast. Initiation fees are $15,000, and dues of $440 per year cover not only golf membership but also other property owner costs, such as roving security, landscaping and maintenance of the common areas.  Jackson's third nine recently opened for play, and we look forward to giving it a try.

    Mount Vintage's town center includes an exercise room with modern Nautilus Nitro-Plus equipment, a large conference room suitable for family reunions or business meetings, and a general store selling "basics" (snacks, drinks, toiletries) and offering a small "lending library" of books contributed by members. Six illuminated Har-Tru courts are behind the clubhouse.        

    Residents seeking shopping or off-plantation entertainment must make at least a 30-minute round trip ride, although a big highway project promises quicker trips and many new retail stores in a few years. The nearest town, Edgefield, is within 10 minutes and is small and typically antebellum. Some hunters may know Edgefield as headquarters of the National Wild Turkey Foundation -- the bird, not the bourbon.  

    Mount Vintage is genteel, refined, remote and quiet -- an especially good choice if you are bringing your horse and your A-golf game, but not if you are looking for an active nightlife. For more information, contact on-site agent Geoff Wright at 888-271-3330.  The web site is www.mountvintage.com

    The golf world turns its attention to Augusta, GA, this weekend, which is a mixed blessing for residents of the golf communities of Aiken, SC, just across the border.  The Augusta area can't quite handle all those attending the tournament; residents of Aiken's golf communities, which include Mount Vintage, Cedar Creek and Woodside Plantation, rent out their homes -- in some cases for thousands of dollars for the week -- to some of the more well-heeled among the Masters' attendees.  Suddenly, strangers appear on the courses and you can't just walk up and play at your own course.

    We've visited Aiken and, during Masters weekend, we'll recall our impressions of the town (it's charming) and the communities.  If you like horses, as well as golf, you might want to hoof it to Aiken for a visit at some point.

Thursday, 05 April 2007 05:04

One way to bet on Florida

    It is a good rule of thumb when investing to watch what the pros do.  Warren Buffet comes to mind.  So does Carl Icahn who, according to today's Wall Street Journal, is making the ultimate contrarian play:  He is trying to buy WCI, a builder and owner of hundreds of Florida condominiums, many of which are stuck in development and/or facing defaults by over-extended owners who, frankly, followed the advice of Mammon, the god of greed, not any expert.

    Icahn believes that the baby boomer generation is coming into its peak retirement years and that Florida still holds an attraction for them.  After all, you can't argue about the climate, unless you are in Miami in July, and many boomers feel the pull of nostalgia for the Sunshine State since that is where their parents retired. My folks spent a part of their retirement years in Lauderdale Lakes, and sitting in traffic trying to get back to their condo has caused me to have a different opinion of Florida.

    But if Carl Icahn is betting on Florida's condo market, who are we to argue?

    Yesterday's trip to the mailbox was eventful.  The new Zagat guide to America's Top Golf Courses arrived.  We were pleased to see a few old friends rated near the top of the list of the nation's best public-accessible courses.
    The Zagat guide gives all of us golfers the opportunity to be a rater, just like the guys at Golf Digest.  Zagat publishes its rankings based on four criteria -- the quality of the course, the facilities, services and perceived value - and also lists the average cost of greens fee.  
    Only two tracks rated perfect scores of 30 in the new 2007/08 edition -- the Pacific Dunes course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, and the Whistling Straits course in Kohler, Wisconsin.  One of our favorites, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, finished at an overall rating of 29, joining such elite company as Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black, Spyglass Hill, The Ocean Course at Kiawah and Kapalua Plantation on Maui.
    "Guide" is the operative word for the Zagat rankings. What accounts for a less-than-two-year old course in Connecticut, the well-regarded Lake of Isles North, rating the same as Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black and the others at 29?  Perhaps those who have played it need to justify the $200 they paid.  Also, Crumpin Fox, a much beloved course in Massachusetts that we have played, rates the same as Pinehurst #2 and the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass (a score of 28).  Sorry.  Crumpin Fox's loyal following has either lost its collective mind or never played Pinehurst #2 or Sawgrass (we're betting on the latter).  
    Also of note are the highly rated courses in golf course communities we intend to visit in the coming months, chief among them the Oconee and Great Waters courses at Reynolds Plantation, in rural Georgia which pulled in a rating of 28.  Reynolds is just across Lake Oconee from Cuscowilla, the terrific Moore/Crenshaw layout we played last summer.  It rates a 27 in the Zagat guide but, trust me, it is at least as good as Crumpin Fox.
    The Zagat guide is $15.95 and can be ordered through the company's web site at www.zagat.com.  If you participate in next year's survey, Zagat will send you a free copy.  Details are at the web site.

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Seeing red: Cuscowilla's traps are mentioned in the latest Zagat guide.

Wednesday, 04 April 2007 06:43

Zillow fun, not very accurate

    Zillow.com is a great idea, a site where homeowners and potential buyers, as well as nosy neighbors, can get an up-to-date appraisal of values for most homes in the U.S.  In theory, Zillow does what your real estate agent is supposed to do, but without a contract or promise of commission.  But how helpful are its estimates?
    Our response is "not very," at least not yet.
    To arrive at a "Zestimate," or an appraisal of a specific home's value, Zillow incorporates previous selling prices, comparable selling prices in the area and all the niggling little details about individual homes (such as number of rooms, square footage, taxes, etc.).  Zillow falls short in that it can't get down to the level of granite kitchen counters vs. formica, or upgraded faucets vs. builders' basics.

    We've taken Zillow for test drives before and have found its results inconsistent, sometimes spitting out numbers for our neighbors' (and our) homes that seem realistic, and at other times going off the reality charts.  Not every home in America is in Zillow's database, and when we checked on a listing for our condo in Pawleys Island today, it was not there.  But our next-door neighbor's home, with the same layout and square footage as our unit but with less of a view, was Zestimated - at a whopping $493,000.  That is a good $175,000 more than what local real estate agents say would be a realistic fetching price for such a unit.  Mind you, Zillow does cover itself by including a range of values for the unit, in this case from just under $300,000 to the what-are-you-smoking top price of $780,000.   

    Our advice is to use Zillow just for hoots for now, but if you are planning on selling your house - or buying one, for that matter - you will still get the best estimate from a qualified real estate agent.

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