We are a ranking-crazy nation, especially this time of the year when multiple organizations rate college football teams. (What an entertaining game LSU vs Alabama was this past Saturday!). Search online for a restaurant recommendation, for example, in a town you are traveling to and you will need to claw your way through multiple best of lists.
And so it is with best towns to retire to or best towns to live in. No two rating agencies agree, and virtually all of them have some subjective bias, if only based on how they weight the factors that determine their choices. Financial web sites will tilt toward the economic, more mainstream journals will emphasize culture and entertainment. That leaves many of use wondering what “real” people think of the best places to live.
TopRetirements.com, a web site I turn to a few times a week for discussions about best places to live, measures “best” in a unique way – it bases its choices on the specific interests of its readers. The more times readers access information about a specific town, the higher that town is rated on TopRetirements’ best of lists.
The site recently published its latest rankings for the Southeast Region and, once again, Asheville, NC, tops its list. In the upcoming Home On The Course newsletter, we provide a rundown on Asheville and the other towns that made the grade.
Nagging aches and pains are part of my golf game these days. One especially annoying set of “problems” imposed themselves on me during a recent round yet, despite them, I played some of my best golf in years – at least for seven holes. And that caused me, no New York Yankee fan, to think of the Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. Why, you ask? For the answer, please sign up for our free Home On The Course by clicking here.
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Getting to and from Hartford, CT, by plane is neither easy nor cheap. Most flights from anywhere to Hartford involve at least one change of planes and a few hundred dollars minimum. Other medium-sized market airports are in the same boat (sorry, mixed transportation metaphor). But thanks to the low-fare, few frills Spirit Airlines, golfers across the Midwest and Northeast have cheap access to one of the nation’s major golf markets, Myrtle Beach where, even after the loss of a couple of dozen golf courses in the last decade, golfers still have a choice of more than 90 layouts within an easy reach of their hotel or resort.
Based on my own recent experience, Spirit provides excellent service at a low cost, with the options to make yourself even more comfortable on an a la carte basis. I flew from Hartford, CT, non-stop to Myrtle Beach last week for just $56. To enhance the experience, I paid an extra $30 for an exit row seat giving me the ability to stretch my legs straight out. I had stuffed all my electronics and toiletries into my backpack which was small enough to qualify as a free “personal” item. If I had been toting a carry-on bag, I would have been assessed another fee. And if I had checked another bag and/or my golf clubs, the register would have kept ringing. (I had flown from Myrtle to Hartford a week earlier with my golf clubs, and they arrived safe and on-time.) Even with the extra charges, Spirit is cheaper than competing airlines, none of which fly non-stop from Hartford to Myrtle Beach. (Note that Spirit service is only during spring and summer on that route.)
The plane was only half full, immaculately clean and we took off and arrived on time (actually a few minutes early). Myrtle Beach has upgraded its airport significantly over recent years, and it now provides a comfortable atmosphere in which to arrive or to await your return flight home.
The other 22 cities from which you can catch a non-stop Spirit flight to/from Myrtle Beach include Minneapolis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus (OH), Pittsburgh, Plattsburgh (NY), Niagara Falls, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
If you would like to arrange to visit any golf communities in the Myrtle Beach area that match your preferences for a golf home, please contact me.
Many golfers, me included, love firm and fast greens as long as the greens are not too small and entrance points are generous. Columbia, SC’s eponymous country club, which actually moved decades ago from the city to the suburb of Blythewood, features enormous greens with all but the front-located pins accessible via shots played to the front third of the putting surfaces. On a 6,000-yard layout, from the white tees, most approaches should be lofted enough to not bound off the back.
But when it has rained hard for two days before your round, and your well struck drives are backing up in the soggy fairways, you expect the greens to follow suit and be receptive to your five and six irons. That was not the case this past Sunday, when I played the course with members of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel. One of the ladies in our group had an amazing day of chipping and posted a score in the low 80s. The rest of the foursome saw too many shots bounce over the greens, leaving mostly downhill chips shots to the extremely fast greens. (The pro shop attendant mentioned a reading of about 12 on the stimpmeter, a rare speedy condition even for private clubs).
The Ellis Maples designed Columbia Country Club features three nines, and we played the Tall Pines and Ridgewood nines. (Lakeside is the other nine, shorter and sportier, the members in our group told us.) The Tall Pines/Ridgewood combo carries a rating of 70.4 and slope of 132 which, for a layout of 6,200 yards, is spells big challenge for a bogey golfer. But on this day, with the combination of shorter drives, longer approaches and firm greens that were not easily dented, both the rating and slope measures were light to the challenge.
Columbia, like many private clubs looking for supplementary income, will accept outside play from those passing through the area. (Call ahead.) It would be a good choice. All in all, the Columbia layout that winds its way through the tall pines is an impressive challenge, especially under milder late spring or early summer conditions. Understand that the city of Columbia has a reputation for being the hottest summer spot in all of the Carolinas. When I mentioned that to my cart mate, a local resident member of the club, he responded: “No, it is the hottest in the U.S.” If you are lucky enough to play the course, don’t forget to hydrate.
Columbia Country Club in Blythewood is set in an older neighborhood that developed slowly over time and features a mix of classic and modern homes. Lot prices are mostly between $70,000 and $100,000 and few in number; homes begin in the high $200s with the sweet spot appearing to be around $400,000. Blythewood is just 20 minutes up the interstate from Columbia, the state capital, and home to the large University of South Carolina. If you would like more information on Columbia Country Club and other golf communities in the area, contact me at email@example.com and I will put you in touch with Mike Wyka, a golfer and terrific real estate professional for the area.
Quality of play aside, the ingredients for a great round of golf are weather, pace of play and an interesting and challenging layout. Oh, and if you can stop at the world’s best donut shop on the way to the golf course, you are bumping up against perfection.
It doesn’t get any better than my round on Tuesday at The Ranch Golf Club in Southwick, MA.
First, the donut. Mrs. Murphy’s is in an unassuming building in the center of Southwick, less than two miles from The Ranch. It is always crowded with locals huddled at the counters, sipping on excellent coffee and often chomping on a second donut of the morning. Every donut I have had at Mrs. Murphy’s over the last 20 years has nailed the combination of crispy/crunchy on the outside and perfectly cakey on the inside (except for the jelly or cream-filled varieties, which substitute a tasty center, or the glazed donut which has the slightly bouncy sponginess indicative of the genre). On this day, I chose the jelly stick, essentially a long cruller injected with jam; I ate it on the way to the course, even though I was an hour early for my online generated tee time.
The Ranch, which was designed by someone few of us have heard of, Damian Pascuzzo, is set at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, and its most dramatic holes – the 9th, 16th and 18th – play off a steep mountain down roller coaster fairways toward greens that are well protected by water hazards. The drives from on high are real testosterone restorers, as a well struck ball can bound down the hill as many as 300 yards out. That means on the par 5 9th, for example, you have a shot at the green in two strokes on the 500 yard hole, as long as you can loft your approach shot over the pond that guards the front of the putting surface.
I love short par 4s, and two at The Ranch are a mixed bag. The 2nd hole, at 341 yards from the white tees I played (6,103 yards total) plays much shorter since it is a sharp dogleg right and the trees between tee box and fairway are easily surmounted by a fairway metal. I skied my 3-wood over the trees and had just 75 yards into the green. The 6th hole is another story. It is about the same distance but with bunkers guarding the entire straight line to the green, and a narrow spit of fairway to the right. Options from the tee are either drive over the bunkers to a narrow neck of fairway or play short on the right, leaving a tricky approach to an elevated and narrow green.
I have seen the community of nicely landscaped homes beside a few holes on the course grow incrementally over the two decades I have played the course. I noted three new homes were in various states of construction as I made my way around the course. It is anecdotal, but this could be an indication that the local housing market is pretty strong. Massachusetts is a high tax state, and Southwick is a bit off the beaten path, although the medium-sized city of Springfield is a half hour commute away. Lots for sale in the community run about $100,000, with the few homes I have seen listed for sale anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000. There are no condos or townhouses on the property.
The temperature at game time for my round was 54, and it gradually warmed up to the mid 60s as I came down the last fairway. Sunshine was abundant and the leaves on the surrounding trees and the distant mountains were probably at peak, vivid in their oranges and reds mixed in with the green of those trees that either hadn’t turned color yet or never will, like the sugar maple. (We have a few of those in New England.) My tee time was set for 9:48 a.m. but I arrived just before 9 and the pro shop attendant told me I could play whenever I wanted and that I would probably catch the foursome in front of me in six or seven holes. (I did, but they graciously invited me to play through.)
I don’t get all spooled up about slow play as long as my own pace is consistent. Don’t get me wrong; if I have to wait three to five minutes on every shot, I am as angry as the next guy. But less than a minute or two is well within bounds; it takes a minute to choose a club, assess my options and swing the club a time or two. On this day, though, I did not wait at all except for when I caught the two foursomes that waived me through. Any rushed shots – there were a few – were of my own doing. When I checked my phone just after putting out on the last hole, it read 12:05, under three hours from when I had started. I felt a bit of schadenfreude as I looked at the groups heading for the first tee; they were about to take at least an hour longer than I had.
The compelling features of my round at the Ranch on this day were the greens, which are large and typically challenging. But because nights are cool at the foot of the Berkshires, greens superintendents feel comfortable cutting the grass a little tighter than in the heat of the summer. It took me half the round to stop hitting 12-foot putts four or five feet past the cup. The greens were the fastest I had played all year, but they putted true and left me with no excuses for my multiple three putts.
Located less than a half hour from Bradley International Airport and, combined with a few other outstanding courses in the Hartford/Springfield area, The Ranch could form part of a terrific homemade golf trail. Combine rounds at Keney Park in Hartford, Wintonbury Hills and Gillette Ridge in Bloomfield with one at The Ranch, and you have yourself a long weekend of splendid fly-in golf. If you live in the Greater Hartford/Springfield areas, you are even luckier.
For those who like being on vacation – who doesn’t? -- and wouldn’t mind doing so year-round for the rest of their lives, a resort golf community is an ideal choice. And one with skiing in winter and golf the rest of the year, and the possibility of both for a few weeks in winter, could be the best choice of all for ultra-active couples.
That describes western Virginia’s Wintergreen Resort whose fortunes have been as up and down in its 40 years as the 22 ski slopes that slash vertically along its 3,000-foot mountain. The market has not taken kindly to a lack of investment by the property owners’ association in the '90s, changes of resort owners in recent years and the threat of a gas pipeline along the edge of the community. Prices have been suppressed, and still are, but with stable, experienced management now, potential buyers will find some of the best bargains among Southeast golf communities.
Wintergreen is the subject of one of our most comprehensive golf community reviews ever, in the October issue of our free newsletter, Home On The Course. And the real estate sales office at Wintergreen is offering our subscribers a discount on lodging and a free round of golf. Subscriptions are free by clicking here.
We also have some big news in the October edition of Home On The Course. Before the end of the year we will launch another web site that has nothing to do with real estate but everything to do with quality golf. Hint: The new site is all about golf courses you may have never heard of, but should. We will leave it at that, with much more in the October issue of Home On The Course, which will mail tomorrow. Subscribe for free now.
There is no better time to play golf in New England than the six weeks from mid-September to the end of October (assuming no early winter which, in New England, you can never assume). The nights are cool and give golf course superintendents the confidence to cut greens a little closer than in the heat of the summer. The leaves on the indigenous hardwood trees turn into a kaleidoscope of colors, providing backdrops that make watching a well struck ball in flight more rewarding than usual. I can’t explain it, but as temperatures drop into the 50s and 60s, perfect for those of us who cannot tolerate the heat of summer as much as we once did, the golf courses in New England become less crowded; I’ve played two rounds on typically crowded municipal courses recently in well under four hours after starting in mid-morning.
Needless to say, I am trying to play as much golf in these six weeks as possible, and as many different courses as I can. The last three I have played were two outstanding municipal layouts in Connecticut, and one very private club in between. The first muni is my favorite course in the state, Keney Park, about which I have written in this space a few times. Keney Park, which first opened in 1929 with a nine-hole layout by Devereaux Emmet, is home to some of the most iconic features of classic golf architecture, including rectangular church pew bunkers and a Biarritz green (a gully runs through it). It begins with a very short but tricky par 4 and ends with a par 3 on which you cannot see the pin. In between is a course that demands attention given some of the largest and most demanding greens in public golf.
Last Monday, courtesy of the Junior & Senior Golfing Society of Connecticut, I was invited to play at Bulls Bridge in the mountains of northwest Connecticut, a 15-year-old course about which not much is written because of its private status and out of the way location. It is a stunning and challenging Tom Fazio design, loaded with mountain vistas and, as you might expect, significant changes in elevation. I can’t remember the last time I played a golf course with so many false fronts. The greens were still showing signs of aeration that affected a few putts; I hope the Society returns in the next couple of years for another go at Bulls Bridge, because smooth greens will only add to a terrific golfing experience.
I wrapped up my trilogy of golf at Wintonbury Hills in Bloomfield, a town-run golf course that Pete Dye designed for the princely sum of $1. Wintonbury is not a typical Dye course in that fairway moguls and pot bunkers are kept to a minimum, and there isn’t a railroad tie in sight. But it certainly is no pushover as some holes play dramatically uphill and fairways tilt all the way to the greens on the par 5s, making long hitters think twice about the fate of their long second shots to severely sloped surrounds beside the greens (with significant trouble below). My 70-something playing companion and I were matched up with a 40-year old with a single-digit handicap who had driven an hour to play at Wintonbury; that should tell you something about the quality of the golf course and its challenge.
The only negative aspect of golf in New England this time of the year is that we know it will all come to an end in a matter of weeks, when we will put away the sticks until late March or early April. When play recommences, the fairways will be muddy in spots and turf will be thin. Summer arrives pretty quickly in southern New England, and those who don’t live in here might be surprised at how hot it can get by late June and right through to September.
But then autumn arrives, and golf in Connecticut becomes as good as it gets.
My round of golf at Berkleigh Country Club in Kutztown, PA, started with three pars, about as good a kickoff to a round as I can muster these days. I was playing by myself, and as I prepared for a 15-foot birdie putt on the par 3 third hole, my iPhone rang. The display indicated a call from “Reading (PA) 911.” I answered and the woman on the line asked me if I was okay. I responded that I was, thinking she sounded sincere enough that I should not add, “…and I am playing great!” She had received an “emergency” call from my phone. I apologized profusely even though I had no idea how the call had been made; all I was doing with the phone was taking photos.
After hanging up, I missed the birdie putt and drove the cart to hole #4, a short but uphill par 5. I pulled my tee shot into the rough to the left of the fairway and drove down one of the many extremely bumpy cart paths at Berkleigh; the starter had warned me about them. Halfway up the hill, I received another call from Reading 911, and the same conversation ensued. “I have no idea how it happened,” I said, “but I am going to turn off my phone.”
All I can think is that the extreme vibrations of the golf cart on the cart paths had triggered the calls. I’ve looked online, using the search terms “iPhone vibrations + 911 calls” but haven’t been able to confirm the shaking as the source. In any case, those calls shook me up a bit, and I proceeded to double bogey the par 5 with a succession of chunked and skulled shots. (I can’t blame the entire mediocre round on the calls because I birdied the par 3 6th hole.)
It occurs to me as I write this that those calls to 911 happened on the morning of 9/11. They were just part of a weird and wonderful morning at Berkleigh, which is rated by some online sources as a top 20 public golf course in the rather large state of Pennsylvania. It deserves the honor, as it combines many classic touches that remind one that elevation changes and dramatic fairway contours are fair substitutes for the large bunkering of more modern layouts. It is also in excellent condition, with greens, pockmarked like many public putting surfaces whose golfers can’t be bothered to bend over and fix a ball mark, otherwise smooth and just short of private-club fast.
At $37 including cart – the senior rate -- Berkleigh is a major bargain. Arriving at 9 a.m., mine would be the only car in the lot for the next hour; I didn’t see another soul on the golf course until I reached the back nine. I had noted as I drove through the tree-lined entrance that a beautiful old stone house was deep into restoration; the friendly starter told me it was their clubhouse but had succumbed to mold issues and ¾ of it had been taken down. They expect it to reopen next spring. The temporary pro shop, in a trailer, was in a space no bigger than an average-sized kitchen, but it was well stocked with drinks and snacks.
The golf course played a bit longer than the 6,248 yards listed for the white tees. Although only one par 4 exceeded 400 yards, others played slightly to significantly uphill, leaving me with a relatively high number of fairway wood or hybrid approach shots and justifying a slope rating of 133 against a course rating of 70.1. (Overall par was 72, with the standard array of two par 3s and two par 5s per nine.)
Length notwithstanding, I found the course fair and fun, with a few dogleg par 4s to add diversity to the round, and uniformly interesting par 3s, one over a pond. Water is an element on a few holes where a stream crosses quite close to fairway landing areas. (I rolled into one of them after what I thought was a good drive.) Berkleigh is a course that should probably be played a few times before you will feel comfortable choosing your clubs.
The golf course, which opened in 1926, is credited to Robert White, a Scotsman who was the first President of the Professional Golfer’s Association in 1916 and a founder of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Traveling golfers may know him best for his design of Pine Lakes International, the oldest layout in Myrtle Beach, which was redesigned about 10 years ago. White has his name on some other notable courses, almost all of them in the New England and Middle Atlantic states. Berkleigh is part of the Byler Golf Trail, a collection of five courses located in the same general area of Pennsylvania. One of the trail’s courses, Iron Valley Golf Club in Lebanon, a P.B. Dye design, also makes the top 20 list of public facilities in the state.
If you should find yourself in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Interstate 78, I encourage you to stop at Berkleigh for a four-hour (or less) round at a bargain price. Just make sure to turn off your phone as you head out to play.
Berkleigh Country Club
14623 Kutztown Road (Rt. 222)
The first thing to get out of the way for a couple searching for a golf community home is topography. Do you want to live at the coast, in the mountains or somewhere in between (e.g. lake or river)? As I have written many times before, couples who haven’t agreed on geography are in for a painful lesson, and aren’t likely to find a home for some years, if ever.
The second challenge in any golf home search has to do with proximity – that is, how close to a city or town does the couple want to live. Those who want access to the services of a major city – entertainment, hospitals, restaurants – have a few full-service cities from which to choose. But a good number of couples are tired of traffic and pollution and crowded stores – or any stores, for that matter – and will opt for a rural location.
The fact is, there are many choices, and the final choice is likely to be a matter of style. In the September issue of Home On The Course, our free newsletter, we identify the best golf communities in the Southeast for those couples with their own special lifestyles. If you are one of the five distinctive styles we have chosen, we have a golf community or two for you. Subscribe today and we will send you the newsletter when it is mailed on Friday.
Also in this issue, there is a golf community in North Carolina that could very well appeal to a number of the lifestyles we define. With an adjacent river, huge medical center just 20 minutes away and real estate prices that seem on the cusp of dramatic appreciation, now is a great time to check out this fine community. To find out more, subscribe now.
Yesterday, I played the private Rockrimmon Country Club course that straddles the border between Connecticut and New York. I don’t know any member there, nor did I talk my way onto the course by promising to publish a review of the Robert Trent Jones layout. (It would have been a strongly positive review.) I played the course with my fellow members of the Junior & Senior Golfing Society of Connecticut, whose members represent many of the more than 75 private clubs in the state.
Over the course of the summer, the Society’s members are invited to play five private golf courses, each round typically preceded by lunch and followed by a dinner at which awards are presented for the best gross and net scores of the day. Yesterday was the one round of the year in which you play your own ball; in the other competitions, you are paired with either your cart mate or your foursome to compete against the rest of the field.
Rockrimmon was in almost perfect condition, the smooth greens receptive to well struck shots, a rarity in Connecticut during this fairly dry summer. Playing the course was a privilege and well worth the $230 each member paid (lunch and dinner, one drink and the chance at raffle prizes included). If you are a Connecticut private club member, you are eligible to join the Society; indeed, it is eager for new members.
Other states offer similar opportunities for regular amateur golfers to play some of each state’s finer courses. Golf rating panels are one entry point. I know, for example, that both Carolinas have panels that welcome new members if they play enough of each state’s courses to make meaningful contributions to the annual rankings. Do a Google search using the terms “[Name of state] golf rating panel” to see if your state maintains such a group.
One other way to gain access to the private courses in your area is to donate money to a charity hosting a fund-raising golf event. Many charities, in order to make their events appealing enough to attract $300 or more per donor, will host their events at a high-profile private course. In Connecticut, for example, the Village for Families & Children, a social welfare agency where I have been a board member for more than 12 years, held this year’s outing at TPC River Highlands, site of the annual Traveler’s Championship on the PGA Tour. In previous years, the annual event, which benefits the organization’s fatherhood program, was held at the Willie Park Jr designed Shuttle Meadow.
One other note about these fund-raising events: Many of them use silent auctions as a tool to raise additional funds, and some donors contribute rounds for foursomes at private golf courses. Some years ago, I was able to successfully bid for a round for four at the terrific Yale Golf Club in New Haven, CT. I recall that the price was less than $100 per player, certainly a bargain to play a high-quality golf course I might not otherwise play.
I played two rounds of golf recently that put the Bryson Dechambeau pace of play debate in perspective for me. One round I played in 4 ½ hours, the other in just under 4 hours. Ironically, the slower round was better for my golf game.
“How can that be?” I hear all the rabbits out there exclaiming. The answer is simple: It is about pace of play, not speed. (I was tempted to write “It’s the pace of play, stupid,” but I won’t). In my fast round, I played the first six holes with no one in front of me at an average speed per hole of less than 10 minutes. Extrapolate that over all 18 holes, and I would have been in the 19th hole in less than 3 hours. But on the 7th hole, I caught the twosome in front of me; they did not invite me to join them, and I started waiting a minute or two to make my approach shot to the next few greens.
Then, toward the end of the first nine, the twosome caught up to the foursome in front of them. Another single caught up to me as I waited at the 9th tee, and I invited him to join me to play the 9th and the back nine.
Overall, I wound up playing the 18 holes in 4 hours, certainly respectable speed for a mid-morning starting time in perfect weather. But I played at three separate paces – the fast pace of a single, the medium pace of a twosome, and then the slow pace of the foursome two groups ahead – and the erratic pace was not helpful for the pace of my swing which tends to be even more hurried when folks are waiting to hit behind me (which, of course they were because we were waiting for the twosome that was waiting for the foursome in front of them).
Yes, I know, that twosome could have invited us to join them and leavened out the pace of play. But the fact remains that the entire 18 holes would have been played at two or three different paces. Much better was the round I played a few days later on a crowded municipal golf course where everyone in front of us played at a steady 4 ½ hour pace. I never felt rushed to keep up with the group in front or put-upon by the group behind. And I played better shots than I did during my round a few days earlier.
Coincidence? Maybe, but if 4 hours is acceptable to all the rabbits out there who celebrate their speed of play as much as they do their scores, then consider that a 4 ½ hour round is less than 2 minutes per hole longer. And in those 2 minutes, you can contemplate your shot, change your mind about going for a sucker pin position, and otherwise stop and smell the flowers. It will be good for your game and your overall mental health.