You have to wonder what has taken developers so long to discover and use the Albemarle Sound of eastern North Carolina as a location for their golf communities. It is not that far from significant population centers, like Raleigh and Norfolk. The Albemarle is the second largest estuary in the U.S., after the Chesapeake Bay, and provides the kind of nook and cranny coastline that developers, as well as golfers and homeowners, dream about. Edenton, a charming and historic town –- the first capital of the state – is at the heart of the Albemarle area, and you won’t find a cost of living much more reasonable than here. All right, so there isn’t much to spend your money on in this quiet area of the east coast. But for long weekends or even a summer getaway, you can make your own entertainment on site, once the clubhouse and other promised amenities are in.
Until a couple of years ago, only the minds behind Albemarle Plantation (circa 1990) had seen fit to develop a golf community on the stretch of coastline between Virginia and New Bern, NC, a span of nearly 130 miles. It took a group of Austrian investors to conjure a second coming on the Albemarle. They bought more than 1,000 acres in the rural town of Merry Hill, NC, and commissioned Arnold Palmer’s firm to design a golf course. They named the community the Innsbrook Golf and Boating Community, after their beloved hometown of Innsbruck, and earned accolades from golf raters for the quality of the golf course, which opened in 2008.
The par 3 17th hole at Scotch Hall Preserve provides a full-on view of the Albemarle Sound and the prevailing winds to match.
Sharply priced waterfront property
But this recession, and especially housing’s part in it, is not to be trifled with; home sites were slow to move at Innsbrook and the golf course, which preceded everything, attracted a couple of foursomes on a good day. In an attempt to capture more market attention, the Innsbrook group hired a new marketing firm and permitted them to change the name of the community to Scotch Hall Preserve, for an historic plantation home down the road. Most importantly, the developers priced their lots so sharply that they were hard to ignore…and pass up. Consider that a ¾ acre waterfront lot with a 10-mile view up the Sound sells for $250,000 at Scotch Hall. That is about a quarter to a third of the price of comparable lots elsewhere along the coast; the Sound is wide enough that you can imagine (almost) that you are gazing out on an ocean. With construction prices in the Albemarle area starting in the low $100s per square foot, it is possible to go all-in at the gated and guarded Scotch Hall Preserve for well under $1 million. It is small wonder that just a half dozen waterfront lots remained unsold (as of May 6).
For those who prefer a golf view and savings of $100,000 or so, plenty of golf course lots in the $100s remain. And most of those also include views of one of the 10 ponds that dot the property. The developers are counting on a July 4 unveiling of their Family Club Retreat Cottages, fully furnished 2,500 square foot, maintenance-free homes, to generate additional interest in the overall community. These units are priced in the $500s, and the first two purchasers will have the opportunity to lease back the units to the developers for two years. The developers will use the leased-back units for show purposes to prospective buyers of future cottages, but the owners will be permitted a few weeks of vacation there each year. Judging from the designer drawings and the slabs of wood flooring and tiles lying around the sales office, the cottage units should be nicely accessorized.
Aside from a sales office and a cobbled together pro-shop inside the office building, there is not much in the way of amenities yet at Scotch Hall Preserve, except for the golf course, whose membership totals less than 30 for now. A clubhouse with the traditional accoutrements will eventually be built on a slight rise in elevation on the otherwise flat land near the current sales office. A 107-slip marina will occupy a gorgeous cove off the Salmon Creek that juts into the northwest corner of the property. The Sound itself provides the widest range of activities at Scotch Hall, the site for fishing and boating opportunities, as well as kayaking and water skiing. Plans call for a Kids Adventure Club on site with playgrounds and such; and for more grown-up pursuits, a shooting club site is also on the drawing board. For those who need the feel of sand between their toes, the famed Outer Banks are 80 miles away, close enough for a day trip.
A go at the green on the par 4 12th at Scotch Hall Preserve is tempting, but beyond the fairway bunker on the right looms a hidden and nasty bunker near the green.
A golf course to play every day
For now and forever, though, the golf course will be the most commanding amenity at Scotch Hall Preserve (besides the Sound), and all but the lowest single-digit golfers should find the pleasurable Arnold Palmer layout fun and mildly challenging no matter how often they play it. As Mr. Palmer turns over the major design chores to his staff of architects, the layouts that bear his name are not as in-your-face as his earlier designs. At Scotch Hall Preserve, Harrison Minchew, one of the most experienced in the Palmer stable, did the lion’s share of work.
When you design for Palmer, there must be sand, and considerable amounts of it. With few exceptions, though, I did not see the humongous bunkers characteristic of earlier Palmer designs. The fairway bunkers are certainly in play to catch the wayward drive, and they are not small, but the fairways are generous enough to reward those who understand that the shortest distance tee to green is a straight line. There is a relationship on most courses between bunkering and length of hole, and that is certainly true at Scotch Hall; on the 319-yard par 4 12th hole, for example, it is a simple thing to lay up to about 120 yards with a utility club but more tempting to fly the bunker on the right, about 210 yards from the tee, to give yourself a short and straightforward pitch shot approach. But if you pull your tee shot just slightly left and over that bunker, another huge and deep greenside bunker awaits, forcing a shot across the narrowest part of the green. Good hole.
The natural land at Scotch Hall is essentially flat, and any contours both on and off the course are manmade. Minchew did not overdo the earth moving, mostly to his credit, opting instead to place bunkers where rolling topography might have provided its own hazard. This works okay for most of the longer holes, but on the par 3s, I found myself yearning for more variation in landscape, at least on the front nine. The 3rd hole, for example, plays 173 yards from the penultimate tee box. Bunkers guard the entire left side with an ever-so-slight rise up to the green; but the best entry point, no matter where the pin is placed, is the open area on the right third of the green, which tilts back toward the pin, wherever its location. The 7th hole is just 150 yards, but like #3, a large entry path opens onto the surface, this time the left half of the green. The three bunkers -– two right and a big one at left -– certainly add visual appeal, but only the spray hitter will be bothered by them as he or she stands on the tee such a short distance away.
The par 3 14th hole provides the "layered" look at Scotch Hall Preserve -- tee, marsh, fairway, green, landscaped hillside and the Albermarle Sound beyond.
Water everywhere…except on the golf course
The par 3s on the back nine are distinctly more interesting and challenging. The 14th is the longest of all at 193 yards (a whopping 235 from the tips), and at such a distance, the bunkers are not superfluous (I pushed my fairway metal a bit and wound up in sand short and right). The marsh, which runs from the tee box to 40 yards short of the green, should not come into play. The architect did push a little dirt on this hole, and the mounding in front of the green can play havoc with a shot that is rolled up rather than flown the entire distance. Scotch Hall appears to have spent half its landscaping budget on the 14th hole, with a dense thatch of attractive green plantings and bright red azaleas at the foot of the tee box, and then a bank of maturing plants that arc behind the green, forming a visual bottom frame for the wide Salmon Creek beyond.
The 17th hole, the last par 3, is eye candy, the Sound finally coming into full and abundant view behind the green. At 187 yards, it is not exactly a back breaker, unless the wind is blowing which, in these parts, it does quite often, and
As its turf and adjacent plantings mature, the Scotch Hall Preserve course, which is already quite good, can only get better. It is hard to imagine the golf club staff, led by former Walker Cup member Nick Cassini, can get much better; they are professional, friendly and helpful. Even strangers feel welcomed at Scotch Hall, although if they come alone, they may stay that way during their round. (I saw one other group over my four-hour round.)
I had just one minor disappointment as I made my way around the course; the Sound is so near and yet so far, never coming close to the playing ground. Clearly, the developers faced a dilemma; turn some of the prime real estate over to the golf architect or use it for home sites. They chose the home sites. No holes at Scotch Hall Preserve run along the Sound or Salmon Creek, and only a couple of times does the Sound dominate the background. In these situations, the golfer in me mutters, “For shame.” But with large waterfront lots priced at a reasonable $250,000, the wide Albemarle is within reach from a homeowner’s back deck, literally and financially. In that regard, you have to admit that the developers’ judgment was Sound.
Scotch Hall Preserve, Merry Hill, NC. Par 72. Yardage: 7,254; 6,682; 6,120; 5,324. Rating: 76.0; 73.1; 71.1; 71.5. Slope: 139; 133; 127; 123. Architect: Arnold Palmer Design (Harrison Minchew). Membership initiation: $15,000. Monthly dues: $225. Association dues: $1,200 annually. Home sites from low $100s to $250,000. Web site: http://www.scotchhallpreserve.com/. Scotch Hall Preserve’s Stay & Play Discovery Package is priced at just $139 and includes two nights in a local bed and breakfast and golf on the Arnold Palmer course. For more information or to arrange a visit, please contact me.
A few developer lots on the Albermarle Sound remain at $250,000.