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    Like virtually eveyone else, I'll watch the Super Bowl on Sunday night, if for no other reason than to be sure it will truly be over (in the way the Transylvanian townspeople needed to be absolutely sure Dracula was dead).  As of today, the hype machine was really scraping the bottom of the barrel, with a TV feature on Super Bowl rings of the last 40 years among other irrelevancies.
    I want my sports section back.  It will be good to be reminded sometime next week that pitchers and catchers report in less than two weeks, and that the Master's is just two months away.
    I am praying for the Colts to win and for Peyton to have the game of his life.  How much more psychoanalysis of choking can we stand?
    The Big Game is an excuse to bet once a year and eat food that is bad for you.  Not that you asked, but the Bears will cover the point spread.  Why?  Because the guys who set the line -- as of today still seven points -- are smarter than the rest of us.  If you had asked the armchair quarterbacks to set the line, they would have probably come in at 10 points or more.  The betting line means the smart money thinks Peyton isn't as good as he seems, and much-maligned Bears quarterback Rex Grossman isn't as bad.  This is a classic sucker bet.  Colts 23, Bears 17.
    But what do I know?  I care more about the commercials.  Enjoy.

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    More than 150 golf clubs across the land, including my own Hop Meadow Country Club in Simsbury, CT, have signed on to the Private Club Network, making these otherwise private clubs accessible to each other's members.  The Network is the invention of Creative Golf Marketing, a Manhattan, Kansas firm that helps private clubs increase membership.  If I am traveling to, say, Nashville, as I will soon, I can arrange for a round of golf at the private Brentwood Country Club; all I pay is the mandatory $25 cart fee.
    The web site for the Private Club Network is www.privateclubnetwork.com.  Unless you belong to a private club, it may be a little tricky to register to see the Network's list of private clubs.  But they do have an 800 number and offer email contact as well. 
    If you live in the area of one of the Network's clubs and do a lot of traveling, you might want to consider membership in the local club.
    Just as I was checking out of a bed and breakfast in Wilmington, NC, recently after a research trip that included enjoyable rounds of golf at Porter's Neck and the Nicklaus course at Landfall, the proprietor asked me if I had visited Eagle Pointe.  I hadn't, nor had I even heard of it.  He indicated it was "super private" and built five years ago by a few equities traders from "up north" who wanted a course where they knew they could always get a tee time, even at the last minute.  So they built Eagle Pointe.
    Internet searches have turned up only cursory information -- the course was designed by Tom Fazio and plays up to 7,170 yards -- but the club remains shrouded in a little mystery.  Anyone played it?  Anyone know anything more about it?  Please post any comments below, and thanks.
    The housing market is no great shakes anywhere at the moment, and those who have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for prices to moderate in retirement friendly places like Florida and the rest of the southeast may feel their time is coming...unless they live, say, in the northeast.
    We are quite familar with a number of golfing communities in the southeast, and annual price appreciations in some locations in the Carolinas and Georgia, for example, remain in the mid-to-high single digits.  Those near-retirees in the northeast who see a future life in the south may want to consider fast-forwarding their plans.  According to the New England Economic Partnership, a forecast organization, housing prices are essentially going nowhere fast in the northeast over the next four to five years. 
    Prices in Massachusetts, which had fallen for six straight months as of the end of November, will continue to fall into 2008 before leveling off into the end of the decade, according to the NEEP.  No other state in New England is expected so see home appreciations of more than 2.7% annually between now and 2010.   If you consider that your house provides a roof over your head, then a 1% or 2% annual appreciation is not so bad.  But consider that prices in retirement magnets like Charleston, SC, and Albuquerque, NM, appreciated 4% and 5% respectively in just the 2nd quarter of 2006, buoyed not only by boomers moving south but also by some Floridians who were tired of traffic and longing for a short but palpable winter. 
    In short, every year a northerner defers selling her home and buying one in the south means an erosion of buying power and eventually settling for less house.  Stated another way, today the waterfront view, next year the golf course, the year after that the woods.

During our research trips, we not only review golf courses in communities but also some of the better free-standing private clubs.  They are a viable alternative for those who do not wish to live in a planned community or pay for certain amenities they don't use.

Fox Den 2nd, par 3
Fox Den's par 3 2nd hole is a sleek introduction to a sophisticated round.



   Some golf clubs just go about their business, attracting new members by word of mouth rather than elaborate marketing, building their reputation by taking good care of their golf course and their members and letting the members do the advertising for them.
    That’s the way it is at the Fox Den Country Club, which includes an eclectic private golf course 15 miles southwest of Knoxville and, by all reckoning, an exceedingly well-managed club.  Atlanta architect Bill Bergin renovated the 1968 Willard Byrd design in 2004, resurfacing all the greens, reshaping most, and adding new bunkers, a modern drainage system and new cart paths.  The work cost more than $1 million, all paid from club funds without the need for an extra assessment.  Rather than scheduling the projects one at a time, thereby affecting play for up to 18 months, members were persuaded to close the course for six months and do all the work at one time.
Members run the gamut and include young couples, retirees, a few singles and many local professionals.  The first impression of Fox Den on a hot July day was the squeals coming from the swimming pool, confirming that one-third of the club’s members have children living at home.  But out on the golf course, the pace was leisurely as we played behind a number of 70-somethings; on a 100-degree day, we weren’t in any great hurry either.  The average age of the membership is currently around 60 but getting younger every year.
    The parkland course, which is good enough to have hosted the Nationwide Tour’s Knoxville Open the last nine years, employs just about every design element.  Sand bunkers are well placed within range of tee shots and approaches to the well-contoured, not overly large greens.  Holes without bunkers usually feature elevated greens and/or water on the approaches.  One of our favorite holes (below right), the par 4 15th, had it all.  The dogleg right was guarded by sand traps at the elbow and trees on the right, requiring either a faded drive at the corner or a safe three wood to land short of the bunkers.  A lake protected the left side of the green, ready to gobble any overcooked draws.  Fox Den 15th dogleg rightThe hole is beautifully designed, everything a good-sized (417 yards) dogleg hole should be.
The course was in great shape, with modestly fast and smooth greens and fairways that propped the ball up a little.  There was evidence of irrigation work on one hole where a rope ran pretty much the length of mid-fairway, but the grass in the fairway appeared just about ready for unimpeded play.  Fox Den is a course that should be enjoyable to play every day; given the placement of traps and water at greenside, simple changes of pin positions will present a variety of approaches.  It certainly is not an easy course, with the short men's tees of just over 6,100 yards carrying a slope of 131, high for that kind of yardage (it is 138 from the tips at 7,100 yards).  Best of all, a good walk is rarely spoiled at Fox Den, and 50% of the members carry their bags.
    Fox Den, which is open for play year round, is in the middle of a mature housing development that was built in 1969, a year after the course opened.  The homes rarely encroach.  Most are large and well maintained, but there are a few small ones that could stand major overhauls (or tear down).  Prices are relatively modest, as they are in the entire Knoxville area (for now), with nice homes of about 3,000 square feet, when available, selling for about $500,000 and up.  About half the members of Fox Den come from the immediate surrounding community.
    Membership fees for Fox Den are reasonable given the quality of the golf course, the amenities and the high level of country club attention given to members.  Initiation fees are $15,000 with monthly dues of $390 for full golf membership.  Membership is of the non-equity variety, but all members get to vote on club business.  Late last year, the club's membership rolls were close to being filled.
    Fox Den is not at all a snooty private club, as the membership process implies.  According to Membership Director Jason Hull, an applicant requires the signatures of two full-time members, but for those new to the area, introductions are made.  The club also asks that prospective members attend a "welcom lunch."  All that remains is a credit check and approval at one of the board’s monthly meetings, and you are in.  Hull says he does not ever recall anyone being rejected.
    For more information, contact Membership Director Jason Hull at (865) 966-9771 or foxdencc@aol.com.  Web site:  www.FoxDenCountryClub.com.

Fox Den finishing hole
Fox Den's finisher is charming but treacherous.

Fox Den home beyond green and water
The homes adjacent to Fox Den are an eclectic mix of new and old, but they do not encroach on the course.

      

River Islands across French Broad
  Some holes at River Islands play to an island in the French Broad River.

Golf Course Review

    [Note to readers;  If this review seems familiar, we first posted it at OffTheBeatenCartPath.com some time ago.  We wanted to make sure you saw it.]    
    A golf course in a town named Kodak should be picturesque, and River Islands Golf Club doesn’t disappoint.  The “River” is the French Broad, and aside from providing some excellent shot making opportunities and dramatic water views, it must be the source of some pretty bad puns.  No, the river isn’t named for Marie Antoinette or Brigitte Bardot (see, I warned you); actually, the term “Broad” in Colonial times was synonymous with “River,” and a French settlement sat astride the river upstream in North Carolina.
    Thanks to the river, the River Islands course forces a few long carries and enough shaped shots to justify its rating of 72 and slope of 129 from the regular tees (6,300 yards), which I played.  At its lengthiest, the course plays 7,000 yards with a robust rating of 75.4 and slope of 133.  Designed by the underrated Arthur Hills, the course opened in 1991 and was acquired by LinksCorp in 1998 (LinksCorp owns a few dozen public courses in the southeast).  
    River Islands is just four miles off Interstate 75 and less than a half hour from Knoxville to the southwest and the resort area of Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge to the northeast, home to Dollywood, scores of outlet stores and mind-numbing traffic during the summer high season.  River Islands doesn’t quite qualify as remote, but the roads from the interstate make it feel that way as they wind through largely undeveloped countryside.  And despite its status as one of the best public courses in the state, “The Islands,” as locals refer to the course, was lightly trafficked on the Monday in mid-July that I played it; the first tee was wide open at 9 a.m., and I saw only a few other golfers during my round.  Greens fees, cart included, were a bargain at $56 (they are $60 on the weekend).
    Just a few houses abut the perimeter of the layout, unusual for a course of fairly recent vintage.  However, a community of 200 houses is planned for just beyond the course’s entrance and along the river; River Islands’ owners, who are not affiliated with the developers of the community, are hoping more neighbors will pump up membership numbers for the course (although there are no plans to go private).  Currently, River Islands charges no membership initiation fee, and dues are just $1,300 annually.  If you can figure out a way to play just three rounds a month, you’ll more than make up for the dues.  River Islands from behind green
    Arthur Hills has a large portfolio of excellent designs, and in this correspondent’s opinion he should be mentioned in the same breath as the most celebrated architects of the last three decades.  He treats the land with more respect than do Dye, Nicklaus and Palmer, designers who can’t resist stamping their own insignias on the terrain (think Dye’s railroad ties, Nicklaus’ trees in fairways and Palmer’s obscenely large traps).  Hills’ designs are more classic and links style, echoing the great designers of the early half of the 20th Century.  Like Donald Ross, Hills won’t ruin your day if you are a little awry off the tee box, but if your short game is absent, you will be muttering for days.
    The starting hole at River Islands is a great example of the Hills (and Ross) style of design.  At 356 yards (386 from the tips), it is a pleasant starter.  From the tee box, the routing is evident even without the excellent yardage card River Islands provides.  With fairway traps on the left and a greenside trap at front right, the strategy is clear, especially with a front-left pin position:  Aim for the right center of the fairway on the drive, and hit to mid-green on the second, providing a reasonable birdie opportunity no matter where the pin is positioned.  Of course, I short-sided it on the left and had an impossible chip to a pin that was at the bottom of a slope, turning an easy par opportunity into a bogey.
    The French Broad comes into play in dramatic fashion on #3, a 175 yard par 3 that is all carry over the water to a green on one of the two islands in the river (in all, five of the holes play to, from or on these islands).  The green is about 100 feet deep, but if the pin is near the front and you hit to the rear, you will have a queasy feeling putting straight downhill toward the river.  We noted that a putt parallel with the river did not break a bit.  On #4, a slight dogleg right par 5, the river comes into play along the entire left side, making it a tough drive for a right to left hitter, especially with trees guarding the entire right side (Note to those who draw the ball:  The river is always on the left when it is in play).  Traps and swales guard the left and right of the green, and the river looms left and back of the green.  Next, you hop from one island to the next on #5, another par three that, because of the carry over the river, looks a lot like #3, although it is a few yards shorter.  If you got dunked on #3, this gives you another chance to quickly get back on the horse.  A left pin position on the par 5 6th, which is reminiscent of # 4, brings the river back in play on the approach.  The rest of the front nine avoids the river and features well-trapped greens, another excellent par 3 (the all-carry 8th at 190 yards), and a blind tee shot on the par 5 #9, which does not return to the clubhouse (snack shack provided).
    The back nine was as much fun as the front, with #s 15 and 16 played on the islands in the river.  The highlight was the short par 4 11th, just 342 yards and a modest dogleg right.  Its green sat below fairway level, entirely fronted by mounding which gave a view only of the very top of the flagstick.  A small lake lapping up against the green on the left was in view.  With a front pin position, this provides a short but scary approach with a mere gap wedge or less.  The hole reminded me of short par 4s on two great golf courses I’ve been fortunate to play –- Fisher’s Island and Kapalua Plantation – where you fly entirely blind from fairway to green and have little clue as to how far you are from the pin until you get to the green.  Thankfully, after punching out from the trees to the base of the mound in front of the green, my slightly pulled lob wedge stopped just short of the water, a mere 10 feet from the front pin position (I missed the putt).
    Other notes I made about the back nine at River Islands that shows the diversity of the Hills design:  The greens were tough to read, and I saw a break a few times where there was none; a well-placed drive gets an extra 40 yards of roll on the par # 13th; on the par 5 14th, your second shot is more than likely going to come off a downhill lie; #15 is another great par 3 on one of the islands, its long, deep green actually a peninsula in the river; the par 5 16th is reachable, but you’ll make bogey at least if you hook your second (that pesky French Broad again, always lurking stage left); the 17th, the final par 3, is short (142 yards) and waterless, but the big bunker in front and series of three bunkers in rear mean hit the green or else; the finisher (400 yards) is a tight driving hole with fairway bunkers on the right from 160 to 230 yards and a modest approach shot to a narrow but deep green with the river very much in play on the left, and only one little trap to save you from the French Broad.
    The staff at River Islands was friendly and helpful, but the clubhouse is nothing to write home about (or to stop for a drink in).  It is small, basically all pro shop with an adjoining snack area.  No matter; a few hours later when I had my post-round quaff, vivid memories remained of a wonderful Arthur Hills layout, challenging but not exhausting, and a round played along a river that demands good shots and generates bad puns.
    For more information, including on-line tee time reservations and a representative group of photos (somewhat underexposed), go to www.riverislandsgolf.com.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007 18:00

Boomer love blooms, but so does divorce

    From time to time we can't help ourselves and must comment on a subject at least tangentially related to the core mission of this site.  This is the first.  We invite and encourage your own musings on the subject.

    The Wall Street Journal a few days ago ran a right-column front page feature article about match.com, the dating web site.  The theme of the article was that the boomer crowd is using online dating services in increasing numbers.
    After more than a year of visits to golf course communities in the southeast and hundreds of discussions with residents and real estate people, we can understand the phenomenon.  We've heard numerous stories about couples who have moved to their dream home and community and one of the partners, within a few years, rekindles his or her passion.  Unfortunately, that passion is for a neighbor or someone else they meet in the community. 
    As a generation, boomers have always wanted what they wanted when they wanted it; okay, it's a sweeping generalization, so we invite refutation.  But as Woody Allen said after Mia Farrow found salacious photos of Soon Yi in the Woodman's dresser drawer, "The heart wants what the heart wants."  And as the clock ticks, the heart's needs beat more urgently.
    We detect the potential for a business model for psychologists or marriage counselors.  Many boomers are emotionally unprepared to retire.  We're not talking about the impacts of going from a job to no job; there are plenty of interesting part-time jobs in retirement areas, the possibility of consulting gigs and certainly volunteer organizations that can use talented, experienced people.  The issue is more about communication.  So many boomer couples have spent their years together focused on their jobs and their children that they haven't focused on the communication aspects of their marriages.  As a "reward" for their hard work and income generation, they buy that dream house in a retirement area and head south, perhaps too quickly, without taking a breath to explore what they both want.  The relationship may head south as well because the kids are gone, the routine of job responsibilities (including child raising) is gone and the two people really, truly have not been alone together for 20 years.
    We haven't seen figures yet on divorce rates among retirees, but anecdotal evidence we've heard over the last year and a half and the increased numbers of boomers using online dating services may be hinting at a problem.  I didn't even take a psych course in college, so the thoughts of professionals (or the experiences of others) would be appreciated.
    Mark Zilbert (rhymes with Dilbert, we suppose) is one casualty of the condo collapse in Miami, according to today's Wall Street Journal.  But rather than taking a swan dive off one of the city's near-empty buildings, the downtown residential real estate broker is changing his web site's name from CondoFlip.com to CondoSupercenter.com to more resemble a discount retail operation.  Says Zilbert, explaining why he has flipped his business model:  "We clearly don't have one buyer for every apartment being built."  Clearly.
Monday, 29 January 2007 18:00

Where's Lereah?

It has been a month since National Association of Realtor's flack cum economist David Lereah has pronounced the bottom of the housing market.  We miss him.  So here is his most recent prediction, from late in December, almost identical to the "we've hit bottom" pronouncements he made in September and May last year:

"It appears we have hit bottom.  The price drops are necessary to stir sales.  It is working."

For more words of wisdom from the mouthpiece of the real estate industry, go to the seriously amusing (or is it amusingly serious?) site at davidlereahwatch.blogsport.com.
        Golf Tips magazine agrees with us.  In the slick magazine’s Golf Travel Annual edition, published in December, the editors feature “Live the Dream!  Best Golf Communities.”  Four of the 15 communities they anoint have been reviewed in HomeOnTheCourse’s first four issues, four others are on our list to visit and review, and one we played years ago (and didn’t realize it was part of a community).  The only difference between the magazine’s reviews and our own is the depth of explanation – theirs is a paragraph long – and the uniformly gushing nature of their comments (some of the communities’ golf courses are advertisers).
Cuscowilla     Cuscowilla, The Cliffs Communities, Haig Point and Pawleys Plantation come in for star treatment in Golf Travel Annual.  The magazine calls the Cuscowilla layout (bunker on hole #1 at right), by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw “one of the most breathtaking golf experiences in the Southeast.”  It is a terrific golf course because it doesn’t take your breath away with dramatic, view-over-everything vistas.  You, the fairway and the green before you are often all you see or care about on Cuscowilla’s natural landscape.  
    Some of the Cliffs Communities golf courses, on the other hand, do take your breath away, especially the one a half-mile up Glassy Mountain, a top-of-the-world Tom Jackson design.  Golf Travel Annual misleads a little when it implies the Cliffs at Mountain Park, with a design by Gary Player, is one of the five current communities in the Cliffs portfolio; it was only recently announced, and the course won’t be ready until at least 2008.  Also, when touting the feature that membership in one of the Cliffs clubs provides access to all, the magazine should alert its less-than-Forbes 400 readers that initiation fees run more than $100,000.
    We can’t quibble with the magazine’s brief description of a place we loved for its splendid isolation, Haig Point on Daufuskie Island, GA.  More livable year round than the also agreeable Bald Head Island in North Carolina, Haig Point’s Rees Jones layout captures all the local elements –- marsh, live oak forests, the Atlantic Ocean and views to Hilton Head Island and the lighthouse behind the 18th green at Harbour Town.  Haig Point members who want to experience other good golf courses don’t have to leave the island – The Melrose Club (Nicklaus) and Bloody Point (Moorish/Weiskopf) are but a short golf cart ride away at the Daufuskie Island Resort.  Haig Point’s year-round residents are a hardy, organized breed who manage their lives around the community’s thankfully frequent ferry schedule.   And home prices are surprisingly reasonable, and most include the club’s initiation fee of $65,000.  However, $10,000 annual club dues and other fees more than make up for the “free” initiation.
    We were pleased, and surprised, to see our own summer community on the list.  Pawley’s Plantation’s golf course in Pawleys Island, SC, is not private, with non-member play rather liberally applied to those staying on property and in a select number of hotels in the area.  The Jack Nicklaus designed layout, circa 1989, winds its way on the front nine through stands of pine and oak trees, as well as lagoons, and then emerges into the marsh for holes 12 through 18 (only the par 4 15th returns briefly to the woods). 
    The signature par 3 13th is a hole members and visitors alike love to hate; it is a mere 130 yards or so from the men’s tees to the island green (with just a thin spit of land to the right, enough to contain the dreaded drop area).  The wind is almost always blowing in from the left, forcing an aiming line out over the marsh in order to have a go at the tiny green.  Pray hard if the wind is behind you; the green is quite firm, and your lob or sand wedge had better land on the front third, an area just 20 feet or so deep, or you’ll find the marsh behind the bulk-headed green.  When the tide is out, dozens of golf balls dot the mud in front of the green, just adding to your anxiety from the tee.  We look forward to playing #17 at Sawgrass so we will be able to testify to what we know intuitively is true – the 13th at Pawley’s is tougher.
    We haven’t played all the courses Golf Travel Annual cites, although we are planning on hitting most of them.  But of all the courses they mention, Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, ME, would be hard to beat.  It is in the middle of nowhere, four hours from any city of consequence (Boston and Montreal), and better known for its skiing than its golf.  ‘Tis a pity.  We played Sugarloaf a half dozen years ago, and the Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design was a revelation for its views from the elevated tees, dramatically tilted fairways and roller coaster rides from tee to green that never seem to induce anything approaching vertigo.  Sugarloaf is one of the toughest courses we have ever played, with comparisons to Pine Valley not overstated, certainly in terms of how much you have to think and how hard you have to bear down on virtually every tee shot.  Even good drives to the elbow of the many doglegs skittered in the direction of the woods.  And the shot from the five story high 11th tee to the slim, front to back green with the Carrabassett River lapping at its left side was just one of many Kodak moments at Sugarloaf seared into our memory.  If there are any homes abutting the golf course today, they have been built since our visit.
    The Golf Travel Annual article features courses north of Myrtle Beach that are on our list to visit and review.  Virtually all the 15 courses highlighted are in the southeast, with just one in Arizona (Whisper Rock in Scottsdale) and one in Los Cabos, Mexico (El Dorado).  Web site for the magazine is www.golftipsmag.com; however, articles from the annual publication are not posted at the site.

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