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This election season does not need me to weigh in on how wacky and divisive it is. But the current U.S. Presidential race is hard to avoid, given the rabid press coverage and, for some of us, a tendency toward the kind of rubbernecking schadenfreude associated typically with other types of wrecks. Therefore, I feel it my responsibility to answer in this space a question I am receiving more often lately from couples searching for a golf home in the Southeast: "Where will we feel most comfortable given our political persuasion?"
If you have been watching the incessant television coverage of the primary elections, you know that numbers are being crunched and analyzed every which way. Of course, results are not available on a per golf community basis, but the county that surrounds a golf community gives a strong hint at what the politics of that particular community might be.
Political Safe Havens
For progressives, those counties carried most emphatically by Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described Democratic Socialist, would seem to provide some safe haven. You are most likely to find such havens in counties where major universities dominate the employment in the area and young people dominate the population.
For example, the county seat of Richland County, SC, is Columbia, which is also the state capital and home to the University of South Carolina. In the recent Republican primary, the state went strongly for Donald Trump, who garnered 32.5% of the statewide vote. (Source: Politico.) Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz finished in a virtual tie for second with a little more than 22% of the vote. And, yet, in Richland County, Rubio beat Trump by a few percentage points. Those results probably won’t convince a progressive couple looking for a golf community that Columbia might be politically friendly. For that, they might look to the Democrat party primary results, which showed Hillary Clinton with a whopping 76% to 24% pummeling of Senator Sanders. But more to the point, Secretary Clinton’s total vote count was 39,243 and, combined with the Sanders vote, total Democrat primary voting reached nearly 52,000 in Richland County. The Republican primary vote total for all six candidates was 39,259. By those numbers, a progressive couple might look more favorably on a Columbia golf community, knowing there are a fair number of like-minded individuals in the area. (See below for some Columbia golf community suggestions.)
Conservative couples, of course, search for golf communities too, and in most counties in the Southeast, they will have an easier time finding a comfortable political environment, especially if they search in the most rural locations. We took a look at primary results along the popular marshlands from Charleston County north to Georgetown and Horry Counties, home to some of the best-rated golf communities and courses on the eastern seaboard. For the so-called “mainstream” Republican which, the media tells us, has been represented by Marco Rubio, Charleston County should be a target as the Florida Senator eked out a victory over Trump and Senator Ted Cruz. But up the coast, in Georgetown and Horry Counties (the latter is home to Myrtle Beach), the Donald won commanding victories. Whereas the Rubio win in the Charleston area might say something about the politics and social proclivities of that old city’s residents, we leave to other pundits the assessment of the nearly 50% of the vote Trump received in Horry County. (Secretary Clinton, for the record, earned more than two-thirds of the vote in all three counties in her primary contest.)
I admire the politically Independent voter and golf community enthusiast, and I take it as a challenge, in these divided times, to find areas that seem balanced in their political sensibilities. For that, it is best to look backward to a time that seems long ago –- 2012 –- when Presidential discourse was spirited but not loony, when it was progressive Democrat Obama against conservative Republican Mitt Romney. One of the more balanced counties in the South was New Hanover in North Carolina, a small county in size that is almost entirely populated by the metro Wilmington area. Wilmington, though home to a large branch of the University of North Carolina, went for Romney by the slight margin of 51.7% to 47.1%. (See a few recommendations of Wilmington area golf communities below.) Back in South Carolina, in McCormick County, which hugs Lake Thurmond and is home to the large golf community of Savannah Lakes Village (see below), voters gave the nod to Obama by a similarly slim margin. (An anomaly in that you do not get much more rural than McCormick County.)
Many of the online voting maps (click here for one example) characterize the way a county votes by a shade of blue or red -- light color for slightly more conservative or progressive than the other side of the aisle, a darker shade for a more dominant political strain. If you like to tilt at windmills, politically speaking, target your search for a home in a dark blue or dark red county that is the opposite of your own point of view. If you want more of a fair fight, though, go for a lighter shade of blue or red. If you want help finding the community that is right for you, contact me.
Politically correct golf community choices
Columbia, SC (Richland County)
Woodcreek Farms and Wildewood, two mature sister golf communities, offer their members access to both clubs for one reasonable price. Tom Fazio designed the Woodcreek course, which has played host to both top amateur and professional golf events. The Wildewood course is the product of architect Russell Breeden, who laid out many courses in The Carolinas during the 1970s and ‘80s…Cobblestone Park in nearby Blythewood was the brainchild of infamous developer Bobby Ginn, whose Trumpian personality and expensive marketing junkets convinced many customers that lots at Cobblestone were worth the $300,000 and more he was asking. Today, some of the homes on those lots are selling for barely more than $300,000. The good news is that national builder D.R. Horton bought up a majority of land in the community and built reasonably priced homes on lots beside the well-regarded Lee Janzen 27-hole golf course. A new, long-promised clubhouse is finally open, leaving the last unfulfilled Ginn promise to fade into memory.
Charleston/Mt. Pleasant, SC (Charleston County)
Daniel Island could be the best-organized golf community on the east coast, given that it is a self-contained oasis of living, with homes, offices, shopping, restaurants and sports activities in close proximity. And the golf –- courses by Tom Fazio and Rees Jones –- are special too, although membership fees are a bit pricey. Still, you won’t find a more buttoned-up and service-oriented club than Daniel Island Club, a perfect venue for splendid coexistence among retirees and families. The location just 10 minutes from plenty of shopping in Mt. Pleasant and 15 minutes from the best restaurants on the east coast in historic Charleston puts Daniel Island at the top of many couples’ lists…Mt. Pleasant has exploded in population and shopping areas in the last decade. With Highway 17 finally widened to accommodate all the traffic in and through the town on the way to Charleston, golf communities like Rivertowne, Charleston National, Snee Farm and Dunes West should be getting even more looks. Nothing is missing in Mt. Pleasant; a modern hospital, the beautiful recently built Ravenel Bridge to Charleston, the nearby Isle of Palms beaches and the many seafood and other restaurants along the Shem Creek should continue driving traffic toward Mt. Pleasant…We played the Links Course at Wild Dunes Resort recently, and both the golf course and the clubhouse area had been spiffed up considerably since our last visit five years ago (when large white bags of sand were barely holding up the 18th green). Tom Fazio and his group recently completed a beautiful renovation of the Links Course, including relocation of the 18th green (and changing the par 5 to a par 3). The occasionally maligned Harbor Course, also by Fazio, was just fine, a bit narrow for spray hitters and with some long cart rides between holes; it gave us the sense that the layout was shoehorned into the community. But we’re not quibbling about 36 holes of fine golf near and on the ocean.
Wilmington, NC (New Hanover County)
It isn’t easy to find top quality golf communities within 10 minutes of a good-sized city, but in Wilmington, we know of at least three. Landfall lies between the city and the sea and offers 45 holes of golf by Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye. Mostly single-family homes run the gamut of prices from $300,000 into the millions. Best of all for sun worshippers, Wrightsville Beach is less than 10 minutes out the back gate. Porters Neck is as close to Wilmington as is Landfall and only a few minutes farther to the beach. It offers just 18 holes of golf, but they are prime Tom Fazio holes, renovated at the behest of an involved membership group just a few years ago. The most striking effect of a first look at Porters Neck is the landscaping, a combination of gardeners’ handiwork with sprawling live oak trees. Brunswick Forest lies just outside New Hanover County, in rapidly growing and very conservative Brunswick County, but this rapidly growing community is as close to the city as is Landfall and Porters Neck. Thanks to its well-financed owners and an organized approach to development, Brunswick Forest skated through the recession with nary an issue. It has been one of the fastest selling golf communities on the east coast over the last decade. And its Tom Cate golf course is one of the best-reviewed courses on the coast in recent years.
Savannah Lakes Village, SC (McCormick County)
Savannah Lakes Village, beside Lake Thurmond in the upstate western part of the state, certainly won’t fool any visitors into thinking it is centrally located near any of the services many of us take for granted. This is golf community living at its most remote but residents are more than happy to do their supermarket shopping once a week and entertain themselves on site with friends in their homes, at the community’s bowling alley or on one of the two excellently conditioned golf courses. Those who play a lot of golf will find that the membership fees make the cost per round a pittance, and the many other on-campus activities will appeal to virtually everyone else. What will appeal most, however, are the ridiculously low-priced, high-value homes, some on offer for less than $100 per square foot, land included.
The “Affordable” $75,000 Golf Membership
Mandatory initiation fees have a lousy reputation in the Southeast. In many cases, members who provided a “deposit” of tens of thousands of dollars with the club they joined have now been waiting 10 years for the return of their deposit. In some cases, their children have a better chance of inheriting the deposit after the parents are gone; this is because many reimbursement plans depend on dozens of new members joining before those on the waiting list for refunds rise to the top of the list.
Memberships tied to property, not individual
In other cases, top-drawer golf developments like The Cliffs Communities tied membership to the owner’s property, not to the individual, giving the member the opportunity to pass on the expensive membership to the next owner of their home; at one point, a Cliffs initiation fee reached $125,000. Those who did not opt for the membership at the time of property purchase were out of luck, as were all future owners of properties without the associated membership. Many potential Cliffs owners resented having to make the decision to join the club at the time of closing on their property, especially if they bought a lot on which they did not expect to build a home for some years. I assume that mandatory policy cost The Cliffs a number of sales with folks who opted for upscale communities with more flexible terms.
At the upscale golf communities along Fording Island Road in Bluffton, SC, the only route onto Hilton Head Island, mandatory memberships were not as expensive as at The Cliffs. Today, the joining costs are $17,000. But in the happy years before the Great Recession, property owners at Colleton River, Berkeley Hall and Belfair were so taken by the price appreciation on their lots and homes that they bought additional lots, some at prices upwards of $400,000. After the recession, values plummeted because no one was buying property in golf communities and dues and homeowner fees of up to $20,000 annually were owed on each lot. Today, a few of those lots are still available, priced down to $1 each, some of them with golf course views, so that their owners can get out from under the annual golf dues and homeowner fee obligations.
$75,000 turned into $10,000
Recently we encountered other types of “mandatory” golf membership on the east coast of Florida whose initiation fees look expensive but are more reasonable than they appear. Piper’s Landing in Palm City, FL, for example, located between the cities of Port St. Lucie and Jupiter, is similar in its membership structure to other private high-end country clubs up and down the east coast of the Sunshine State. Between its joining fee of $65,000 and capital contribution of $10,000, Piper’s Landing initiation costs are more than double those at The Landings in Savannah, GA, which offers five more golf courses (six in all), and Landfall in Wilmington, NC, where Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye contributed a total of 45 holes.
And yet, closer inspection of Piper’s Landing shows that the net outlay to join the club is just the $10,000 non-refundable capital contribution; the other $65,000 is returned to the member within a couple of weeks after they sell their home. Because membership is tied to the property, and the club is quite upfront about that in its marketing materials, anyone who is considering Piper’s Landing as a place to live is well aware of the requirements of a deposit. And those who value the lifestyle that comes with a private club membership may compare the guaranteed returns on a bank CD of around 2% over five years with the guaranteed 0% returns on their country club deposit and find the country club outlay the better deal because of the lifestyle considerations it provides.
Of greater concern for some may be the ongoing annual fees that, at many private Florida clubs, exceed $25,000 per year. Again, Piper’s Landing is indicative of other such private clubs near the mid-coast area of Florida; dues –- labeled as “residential maintenance” -- includes not only golf but also tennis, trail fees (use your own golf cart on the course), round-the-clock security, trash pickup, landscaping, enhanced cable TV and even staff gratuities. Since you are going to have to pay for most of those services anyway, no matter where you choose to reside, it appears you don’t have to be a member of the millionaire or billionaire class to live in a private Florida coastal golf community.
Ranking Golf Community Areas
I am often asked about my favorite golf communities, and the question is akin to asking me to name my favorite child. I have no favorite community; each is different and will appeal to different customers. But I have no such loyalty to the areas that surround the best golf communities in the Southeast. Therefore, as a service to our subscribers, I am going to join the legions of media sources that just can’t help themselves from assessing cities for their livability.
I’ve chosen 10 categories to assess on a scale of 1 to 10 each; I believe these are the most important characteristics for those looking for a golf community and a happy lifestyle. Although, over time, you will be able to compare the total scores of the areas we rate to come up with a comparative ranking of the top areas for golf and the other important aspects of a happy life, I encourage you to resist the urge. Instead, focus on the individual categories that are most important to you and your significant other. If you need to be near museums and theaters, pay attention to the “Culture” category. If you dine out a few days a week, focus as well on the “Restaurants” category. Our first scorecard is below. If you think I have missed an important category, please contact me at email@example.com and I will consider adding it for future rankings. Also, if you have visited an area I assess and have a different opinion overall or on specific categories, please let me know and I will share your opinion with our other readers.
Here’s our initial assessment for the area South of Myrtle Beach (each category rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the highest score). This area comprises the coastal towns of Pawleys Island, Litchfield Beach and Murrells Inlet:
South of Myrtle Beach
Spring and fall are the best for golf, summer the best for beach. Golf courses remain open throughout winters, when temperature rarely drops below the 40s and often is in the 60s.
Plenty of options under Tidelands Health umbrella, including mid-sized hospitals in Murrells Inlet and Georgetown, cancer centers and a rehab facility; Tidelands also maintains a fitness center.
Surprising tasty choices include Frank’s in Pawleys Island, always top rated in SC. Historic Front St. in Georgetown is home to a reliable group of eateries. Hog Heaven in PI may have the best fried chicken on the Carolina coast. Charleston, one of America’s top foodie cities, is just one hour away.
Myrtle Beach airport just 35 minutes, but most flights from North are expensive. Flights to Charleston, 70 minutes away, are generally half the Myrtle Beach prices.
Small but well-chosen array of courses from Coastal Carolina University offered at many locations on the Grand Strand. For best choice, the main campus is 40 minutes away in Conway.
One small museum ½ hour away in Myrtle Beach. Best option is drive to Charleston for museum or historical site followed by an excellent meal.
Five supermarkets within five miles, including Publix, Loews and Fresh market (like Whole Foods). Great choices, competitive prices.
30 minutes to Market Common (shops, supermarket, restaurants); 40 minutes to Coastal Grand Mall with regional department stores, Costco, Best Buy, etc. Sprawling outlet mall in Myrtle Beach. Loads of resort-type gift stores.
Strolling is the primary form of entertainment -– on beautiful clean beaches, through the spectacular Brookgreen Gardens (flora, sculptures, a zoo) and along Front Street in Georgetown.
This is, after all, the Myrtle Beach area. Of course there’s plenty of golf -– private, semi-private and public. Of few private Myrtle area clubs, Pawleys Island area has the most (DeBordieu, The Reserve at Litchfield, Wachesaw Plantation).
Top photo, the 17th hole at Wild Dunes’ Links course at Isle of Palms, SC. Bottom photo, the oceanside green at Wild Dunes Links 18th hole was moved away from the beach when the Tom Fazio design group renovated the course last year. The par 5 was converted to a par 3. Wild Dunes Resort was host to the annual meeting of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel, where the group revealed its choices of the Top 50 golf courses in the state.
Golf Rating Panel Gives Nod to Golf Community Courses
The South Carolina Golf Rating Panel has published its bi-annual list of the top golf courses in the state, and #1 is the Ocean Course at the Kiawah Island Resort, the panel’s perennial choice over the last few cycles of voting. The results of the voting by the panel’s 125 members were announced at the group’s annual banquet, this year at Wild Dunes Resort on Isle of Palms. Wild Dunes’ Links golf course was renovated last year and an executive from the Tom Fazio design group shared with panel members many of the details of the work done there, including restoration of the 18th green, which had collapsed onto the adjacent beach twice in the last five years.
I was pleased to see how many highly rated golf courses are located inside the gates of South Carolina golf communities that I have visited and reviewed favorably. For example, Sea Pines Plantation’s Harbour Town Golf Links finished second in the voting, up from #5 in 2014. Hilton Head Island, inarguably where golf communities were first built, offers a wide range of homes, in style and in prices. The homes inside Palmetto Bluff Resort, home to the 4th-ranked May River Golf Club in Bluffton, are decidedly upscale, starting in the $1 million range, but the Jack Nicklaus golf course is rich in condition and layout. One of the best values in private golf club membership, Greenville Country Club is home to #5 Chanticleer, a Robert Trent Jones masterpiece whose layout seems so perfectly suited to the terrain that you forget how close the adjacent estate homes are at some points on the golf course.
Other golf community courses we admire that made the top 25 of the published 50 best are the Colleton River Nicklaus course in Bluffton (#13) and its companion Pete Dye course (#20): Old Tabby Links on Spring Island, between Beaufort and Bluffton (#16); Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards on Lake Keowee (#18); Haig Point on Daufuskie Island (#19); and The Golf Club at Briar’s Creek outside Charleston (#25). Bulls Bay in Awendaw, the final contribution from the late Mike Strantz, was ranked #22; loosely stated, Bulls Bay is a golf community, with a few choice lots for sale around the golf course and a group of golf cottages just inside the gated entrance. I’ll be writing more about Bulls Bay and the rest of the top 50 list at GolfCommunityReviews.com and for CarolinaLiving.com. Click here for the 2016 SC Panel rankings.