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Wednesday, 23 January 2019 13:13

Golf Course Closures Create False Negative

        We are in that season again, the one in which the mainstream media decides it has been a few months since they published its previous “golf is dead” article. The thesis always goes something like this: Golf courses are closing in record numbers because -- choose one or more of the following: a) a round of golf takes too long to play; b) young people (read “millennials”) are more interested in electronics than golf; c) the business model for a golf course/country club is flawed; you can’t make any money; or d) the pressure from developers to put houses where fairways once stood is too intense for flailing clubs to pass up.
        I know I am in the minority in believing golf does not need any structural changes – a round of 12 holes anyone? – to speed it up. My take is that it just needs players who are prepared to hit the ball as soon as their playing partners have hit; or we need to just chill out about the issue and understand that cutting a round of golf from 4 ½ hours to 4 means trimming less than two minutes per hole. Two minutes? Really?
        I am not sure which millennials disdain golf, but they aren’t those I know. Indeed, every year a millennial family friend heads to Myrtle Beach with a foursome of fellow millennials and asks me for golf course recommendations and dining options. They plan the following year’s trip right after the current one. My son, a millennial, and most of the junior and college golfers he competed against between 10 and 20 years ago, still play golf. Not all of them have made a career of golf, as Tim has, but they are still tightly connected to the game.
SAM 0641No matter the season, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, SC, is always in peak shape, and the clubhouse restaurant is among the best anywhere.
        If you think golf course operations is a bad business model, try getting a tee time most any morning of the year on the day you want to play at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, SC. The secret to success at Caledonia, where green fees are at the high end of all those in Myrtle Beach, is care and imagination. The open-to-the-public golf course is always in peak private-club condition, the food in the restaurant is consistently outstanding, with views to match, and extra touches like the dispensing at the first tee of fish chowder on a cold fall morning are memorable. Golf courses that fail tend to do so in a way restaurants and other businesses fail -- with poor attention to quality and a general lack of marketing imagination. The good ones thrive.
        Housing developers covet golf courses for home construction because the landscape is already pretty much prepared for them, keeping costs to a minimum. Across the country, residents and their lawyers are fighting back, and many are winning on the basis of a promise made by original developers that the golf course was a fundamental element of the community. Some original sales brochures that touted golf as the raison d’etre for the community have become Exhibit A in the attempt to convince courts that the implied contract to residents of a golf course supersedes a golf course owner’s right to sell his or her property to a developer.
        Overall, the issue of golf being under siege is overblown. Developers simply built too many golf courses in the 1980s and 1990s in order to sell houses (and sell a lifestyle dream as well). The number of golf courses will reach equilibrium with the number of golfers in the coming years. For the time being, we should consider it ironic that years after they used golf to sell homes, developers now want to build homes on those very same golf courses? This is less about any ebbing of golf’s popularity than it is about turning a quick buck.
        Golf courses will continue to close until their numbers are appropriate to the number of golfers with the time and desire to play a couple or three times a week. Here’s hoping that happens in the next few years; I am tired of dopey newspaper articles.

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Thursday, 10 January 2019 10:49

Your Health & Timeshares

        You probably can’t find two more unrelated topics than timeshare ownership and healthcare, unless you believe that stress can cause many health issues and timeshare ownership, according to those who know best, can cause stress. No shrinking violets, we, this month’s Home On The Course newsletter tackles both issues from a basically personal point of view. Yes, I think about the conseauences of living in South Carolina away from doctors in Connecticut who follow up with me on past major surgeries and, yes, spoiler alert – gulp – my wife and I just bought into a timeshare – although I hasten to add we don’t consider it really a timeshare.
        In any case, we accepted an offer we could have refused. You can learn how and why by signing up to subscribe to Home On The Course. It’s easy and it’s free – especially of stress.  Click here now and the newsletter will arrive in your inbox in the next day or two.

        Some years ago, when I stayed overnight at the South Carolina golf community The Reserve at Lake Keowee, I ate dinner in the clubhouse on a Saturday night and, afterwards, headed to the sprawling rustic clubhouse’s tavern to check out the football action on television. The town of Clemson and its eponymous university are located just 20 minutes from the community, and the Tigers football team, not exactly a national powerhouse a decade ago, were playing an away game. A couple dozen residents, most resplendent in orange jerseys and other accessories, cheered for each incremental success and groaned for every miscue, the way fans everywhere do. But the decibel level was high, at least by the standards of an uninvolved bystander.
        I can’t imagine what the noise level on the “campus” of The Reserve was like last night as the Clemson Tigers demolished the heretofore terrifying Alabama Crimson to win the national championship and finish the season undefeated at 15-0, the first team to ever do that. Clemson orange runs deep at The Reserve. The community’s co-founder, Buddy Thompson, was looking forward to the big game even before Clemson got by Notre Dame to qualify for the finals. He ended a recent email to me with this: “GO TIGERS!”
ReserveatKeoweeapproachThe Reserve at Lake Keowee golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, hosts rounds by Clemson University's golf team. In 2018, a Clemson golfer posted a score of 59, the course record. The town of Clemson is just 20 minutes from the community and, last night, its football team won the national championship.  It has been quite a year for The Tigers and their many fans at The Reserve.
        Buddy, by the way, is supervising the marketing of a beautiful piece of lakeside property at The Reserve, featuring 30 lots that were recently opened up for sale. There are only a few properties like this remaining for sale at The Reserve with views and docks on one of the cleanest lakes in America, so these on a property known as “The Enclave” should be in high demand. If you are interested, let me know and I can put you in touch with Buddy. He’ll be happy to have a chat, about the property and, especially, about Clemson football and its national champs.

        The housing market has peaked, according to the mainstream media and some economists who follow home sales closely. Much of the blame, if you can call it that, is laid at the feet of Millennials, those in the 25-to-34 age category who are buying homes at a much lower rate than their predecessor generations. According to the Urban Institute, for example, just 37 percent of those in that age category are homeowners, compared with 45.4 percent of Gen Xers and 45 percent of Baby Boomers when they were in the Millennials’ age range. It stands to reason that if those youngsters are not buying the homes of us oldsters, we are going to have a harder time selling at the prices we want, if at all.
        Therefore, many of you reading this who are in the Boomer category are probably asking yourselves if this slowdown in the housing market means that the primary house you have every intention of selling in the next year or two will fetch a lower price than you hoped for, or that it will indeed be tougher to sell...and therefore keep you from following your dream of a warm-weather home.  To those concerns I have a simple rejoinder, a broken record I have been playing ever since a much bigger housing recession in 2008: Don’t worry, be happy; sell your house for what the market says it’s worth, not what you think it is worth; and move to your retirement dream location.
SLVbehindelevatedgreenSavannah Lakes Village on Lake Thurmond in South Carolina, which features two 18-hole layouts. Cost of living in the surrounding town of McCormick is a few percentage points lower than the national average and as much as 50 points lower than some towns in the North.
        Here’s why I sound like Pollyanna. First, if you sell your home in the North for less because of a general housing recession, chances are you will pay less for your home in the sunnier South. There is a price at which anything will sell, and your house is in that category. The market will tell you what is a fair price for your real estate. If someone offers it, take it.
        Second, as I have written ad nauseum in the past, the cost to live in the South is almost invariably less than the cost in the higher-taxed North, and the difference is often dramatic. If today you spend, for example, $75,000 per year on food, utilities, transportation, property taxes, entertainment and other living expenses, you could save as much as $20,000 or more on an annual basis living in a Southern golf community, even with homeowner fees. If you stay up North and wait for your primary home to increase in price over, say, two years, you will need it to increase 10 percent over those two years on a $400,000 house to match the $40,000 you might save by moving South. That is not likely to happen in a flat market.
        Here’s just one example of the potential savings. According to the cost-of-living comparison tool at BestPlaces.net, a couple currently living in Natick, MA, who chooses to move to the lakeside golf community of Savannah Lakes Village in McCormick, SC – two excellent golf courses, rural setting, adjacent to Lake Thurmond – would save nearly 48% on annual expenses. (Note: Most of that is in real estate costs; the cost of living tool averages the much lower-priced homes in town with home prices inside the community. But still, 48%?)
        And, third, and perhaps the most important consideration, a non-financial one: Is waiting a year or more going to make you happy, even if you save a few dollars by selling your home at a slightly higher price? Chances are you have pointed toward a retirement place in a warm weather climate for many of your working years. You owe it to yourself to put "Serious Search for a Golf Home in 2019" on your resolutions list.  Let me know if I can help.  (Contact me.)

Friday, 21 December 2018 15:29

Myrtle Beach continues to prune golf courses

        Myrtle Beach area golf courses, whose total once stood at over 120, continue to be under pressure in a still-oversaturated market. Local news outlets are reporting that River Oaks, a golf community just north of Highway 501, the main east/west thoroughfare entering Myrtle Beach, will close nine of its 27 holes and build more than 250 homes on 60 acres of former fairways and greens.
        This is only the latest in a continuing spate of closures over the last decade in a market that was once called a “supermarket of golf.” Just last week we learned that the owners of Indian Wells Golf Club, part of the Founders Group International of 22 golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area, had asked the county zoning board to rezone the golf course to include condo unit development. (The golf course was previously zoned for single-family home construction. Needless to say, homeowners in the surrounding neighborhoods are not.
RiverClubpar3The River Club in Litchfield Beach, SC, is one of 22 courses owned by Founders Group International. One of their layouts, Indian Wells, could be converted to single-family homes and condo units if the county zoning board agrees.
        The Indian Wells plans may be more problematical than those at River Oaks, where owners will still have 18 holes of golf remaining -– at least for the time being. Founders Group has petitioned Horry County for a change in zoning on the 150-acre Indian Wells golf course to permit construction of 255 single-family homes and 257 townhomes. Because the golf course was already zoned for single-family houses, residents are choosing not to take the typical stand that their home values will be eroded by the loss of the golf course. They say they fear environmental issues.
        Maryann Dube, president of the adjacent Woodlake Village’s homeowners’ association, told Myrtle Beach Sun’s online publication, “We’re going to be in big trouble if they build…The whole golf course floods tremendously, [and] they’re not going to be able to do anything to fix that.”
        Nearby residents and members of the other Founders Group courses, almost all of them located inside residential developments, are bound to be nervous about the Indian Wells events. That club was among the first that the Chinese company owners purchased in the area nearly a decade ago; the organization has been in the news over recent years because of squabbles among its owners and charges of embezzlement against a few of its executives. 
        As a vacation home owner at Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, home to a Jack Nicklaus golf course owned by Founders International, I will be watching for related news in the coming weeks and months. Watch this space.

Sunday, 09 December 2018 18:59

Cliffs Communities May Change Hands

        At this stage it is just rumor, but the noise coming from some residents of The Cliffs as well as from local developers is loud enough to invoke the old “where there’s smoke there’s fire” adage. Residents at a high-end luxurious collection of communities like The Cliffs are a savvy bunch, many former captains of industry who were paid during their careers for what they knew. And what residents seem to know at The Cliffs, which is owned by Arendale Holdings, is that the development group in charge of the private club amenities and land development at Kiawah Island is negotiating to purchase the Cliffs’ vaunted amenities and unsold real estate.
        In the last week, I reached out to both South Street Partners, the Charlotte-based real estate equity investment firm that purchased the Kiawah Island holdings in 2013, and The Cliffs own marketing department, to confirm the persistent rumors. I have not heard back from either.
        But a pending sale makes sense from a number of standpoints. According to Cliffs residents, land sales in the community have not met Arendale’s expectations, and that may explain why they are seeking to sell their interest rather than commit to millions of dollars to fund new clubhouses they promised at Keowee Springs and Mountain Park.
MountainParkholeThe Cliffs at Mountain Park, a Gary Player design, and located in Travelers Rest, SC.
        Arendale has company in its desire to move on. Worthington Hyde, an equity investment firm out of Atlanta which had loaned money to original Cliffs developer Jim Anthony, gained in foreclosure in 2008 more than 2,000 acres and 250 lots at Cliffs at Keowee Falls. Worthington Hyde decided that developing the land might yield more than flipping it to a bottom-fishing buyer during a recession. But lot sales have been slow even in recent years, especially because the lots they “inherited” from Anthony are mostly located in interior wooded areas, far from the lake where lots were already mostly in the hands of private owners. Those who can afford to buy into and live at The Cliffs prefer lots with a view of water or mountains.
        Worthington Hyde recently announced at a meeting with Keowee Falls owners that they have sold their interest in The Cliffs to the Colorado-based Resource Land Holdings. Private development companies are not known for their public communications, and there is nothing in a Google search and the Worthington Hyde and Cliffs’ websites about the deal. However, at that meeting with Keowee Falls owners, Resource Land Holdings executives indicated they plan to package some homes and lots together rather than just sell the land alone.
KeoweeVineyarddownhillpar3The Tom Fazio designed Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards course is one of the most highly rated in South Carolina.
        Worthington may have committed an unforced error when it opted to use an outside broker for the sale of lots at Keowee Falls, rather than co-broker with Arendale and The Cliffs’ sales office, which had established marketing power from the high-spending Jim Anthony days. With the arrangement, Worthington effectively threw itself into competition with Arendale for the sale of lots. At long last, Worthington decided to use Cliffs Realty to help sell its lots but the recent sale to the Colorado group implies that move was too little too late.
        Current residents of The Cliffs give Arendale credit for stabilizing operations and keeping the golf courses in tip-top shape. They appreciate as well that Arendale has run things conservatively, even though they expected more in the way of clubhouse development. But Arendale is in the business of selling land, and more of their emphasis has been on that aspect of the operation, according to residents, than in enhancing the experience of club membership, whose all-in initiation fee was dropped to $50,000 in the post Anthony era. The golf courses remain in terrific condition, but most residents do not wander far from their home courses, even though they have unfettered access to all seven layouts, from Lake Keowee to Asheville, NC, and down to the Greenville, SC, area. The drive times can amount to as much as 1 hour or more, and the notion of being able to play seven excellent golf courses has lost some of its luster for both residents and potential buyers.
        We will keep our eyes on The Cliffs in coming weeks and, if the sale goes through, will make it the lynchpin of our January edition of Home On The Course, our free to subscriber newsletter. Subscribe here.

        Last Thursday, families gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving. Many probably gave thanks after the meal that political discussions did not ruin the meal. 
        For those contemplating a move to a golf community in the coming year or two, and wondering what the political climate in areas of the Southeast, our monthly Home On The Course newsletter, December edition, may provide some guidance. It launches tomorrow via email with a rundown of mid-term election results by counties that are host to some of our favorite golf communities in the Southeast. Some results were expected and some were surprising.
        See for yourself by subscribing here.

        I am working on a “Post Election Special” for the December issue of Home On The Course, our almost-monthly newsletter. I had been hoping that my research would show more and more golf communities surrounded by counties with a near-balance of red and blue voters. But so-called “purple” counties are still far and few between in the Southeast Region.
        Because voting patterns are volatile one election to the next, the definition of a “purple” county must necessarily be broad. For example, nationwide there were 206 “pivot counties,” those that voted for Obama in both his elections and then for Trump in 2016. Based on that, they meet my definition of a “purple” county. (Note: Just because a county is “purple” doesn’t indicate that a specific golf community within it is the same color. Still, some golf communities, especially those in rural counties, comprise a large chunk of the local electorate.)
        By definition, McCormick County, SC, a pivot county and home to the sprawling Savannah Lakes Village, is purple. It voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for President Trump in 2016. In this year’s election for Congressman in the district that comprises McCormick County, Republican Jeff Duncan garnered 67% of the vote. McCormick County results are not yet available for that race but the widespread and reliably Republican district includes such notable golf communities as the Cliffs communities at Lake Keowee, The Reserve at Lake Keowee and Keowee Key.
SavannahLakes Monticello approachThe Color Purple: McCormick County, SC, surrounds Savannah Lakes Village and its two golf courses. The county is one of the 206 "pivot" counties in the U.S. that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Trump in 2016.
        Chatham County surrounds The Landings on Skidaway Island, the 4,800-acre, six-golf-course community just 20 minutes from downtown Savannah, GA. The Landings is home to 8,000 residents, most of them full-time. Voters in Chatham County showed their independence by overwhelmingly throwing their support to Democratic candidate for Governor Stacey Abrams but also to Republican incumbent Congressman Buddy Carter, each with just under 60% of the votes.
        You would think a rural county like Nelson in western Virginia might be deep red but, in fact, it is a shade of purple, depending on whether the election is for Congressman or Senator. In the race for Congress, the Republican won by about 53% to 47%, yet in the Senatorial election, the incumbent Democrat, Tim Kaine, earned 52% of the vote to 46% for his Republican opponent. You don’t get much more purple than that.
        I’ll cover the election results relative to golf communities in the December edition of Home On The Course. To receive your emailed copy, free of charge, subscribe today: Click here.

Monday, 05 November 2018 08:11

Less Is More at Pawleys Plantation

        My home course in Pawleys Island, SC, was recently re-rated by the USGA. In the last few years, a few changes made the course marginally easier to play. And yet, from virtually all tee boxes, the course rating and slope ratings have remained substantially the same, or actually increased. 
        The significant tweaks in recent years at Pawleys Plantation were designed to reduce the time per round on the challenging layout. For example, two large live oak trees that shielded the right half of the green on the par 5 11th green about 80 yards in front are now gone, making a lay-up placement less of a daunting task and a shot at birdie more frequent. The acres of bunkers that line many of the fairways on the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course are now designated waste bunkers almost all the way to the green, making it possible to ground your club behind the ball before your take a whack at it. For those uncomfortable with hovering the club above the sand before full swings -- count me as one -– that is a consequential change.
PawleyshandicapsignFirst-time players at Pawleys Plantation ignore advice at their own peril.
        From the tips at Pawleys Plantation, the Golden Bear tees -- named for designer Nicklaus -- the layout plays to a total of 7,031 yards. The latest course rating is a whopping 75.2 with a slope of an equally robust 150, down from a rating of 75.7, but with an increase of slope from 148. At Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey, acknowledged as one of the toughest courses in the nation, the course rating is precisely the same as at Pawleys, 75.2 on a layout that is only a few yards longer, although the slope at Pine Valley is 155. At the relentlessly difficult Shinnecock Hills, the rating and slope are 74.4 and 140, respectively. Pine Valley and Shinnecock are very much private clubs; anyone looking for a stern challenge can play Pawleys Plantation. (Note:  Those who want to play the back tees are asked to seek permission in the pro shop.)
        The course and slope ratings for the other popular men’s tees at Pawleys have not changed significantly, although they are uncharacteristically high for a publicly accessible golf course. The Blue Heron tees, typically appropriate for those with handicaps of 6 and less, rate about the same as before, at 73.2 and 145, respectively, compared with a previous 73.7 and 144 (total yardage is 6,549). The White Egret tees, which I played for a few years before I turned 70, have gone from 72.0 and 138 to 71.6 and 140 (6,184 yards); they are suggested for those with handicaps of 6 to 18. I have been playing the Yellow Finch tees this year because I am not hitting the ball much beyond 210 yards off the tee, and their ratings did not move much; the old ratings of 69.2 and 132 are now 69.1 and 130 at 5,560 yards.
Pawleys11thfromgreenThe 11th hole, a par 4 at Pawleys Plantation, is one of a number with sand that runs almost from tee to green.
        However, women who play the Yellow Finch tees from 5,560 yards really saw a jump in their ratings, from 72.7/130 to a whopping 74.3/142. The women’s Redtail Hawk tees at 4,932 yards have also jumped significantly, from an already challenging 70.1 and 122 to 71.4 and 130. By the numbers, Pawleys Plantation is not particularly women “friendly,” although women's league members do not seem to mind.
        During a recent visit to celebrate the club’s 30th Anniversary, Jack Nicklaus told members and others at dinner that the course he designed in 1988 would benefit from some changes. For example, as happens with most golf courses over time, greenside bunkers have pulled away from the putting surfaces as the greens themselves have shrunk. He suggested restoring the greens to their original size, something many observers believe will make hitting greens in regulation considerably easier. He also recommended that much of the sand in the huge fairway bunkers be replaced with grass; that would speed up play and also make the game easier for double-digit handicappers.
        These are ideas that most of us who play the golf course regularly certainly endorse. But given many of the forced carries to greens, surrounding marshland that is very much in play, and long greens that afford some nasty pin positions, the challenges at Pawleys Plantation will always rival some of the toughest courses in the land.
PawleysPlantation13thThe 13th green is smaller than the famed 17th green at TPC Sawgrass and is buffeted by the fickle winds coming off the Atlantic. (The homes beyond the green face the ocean.) Members refer to the 120-yard hole as "the shortest par 4 in the Myrtle Beach area."

        Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, spent the afternoon and early evening this past Monday at Pawleys Plantation Golf Club, one of his signature designs of the late 1980s, about the time his golf architecture business began to take off. He has been one of the world’s most successful course designers since.
        Mr. Nicklaus, as most referred to him during the day, had lunch with the golf club’s owners, Founders International Inc, drove the course he hasn’t seen for 30 years and then spent more than an hour with about 40 children enrolled in the Myrtle Beach area’s First Tee program. Their parents made up a sizable and enthusiastic audience.
Nicklaus at PawleysJack Nicklaus spoke with a crowd of onlookers at Pawleys Plantation before he worked with children from the local chapter of First Tee.
        The visit was in celebration of our club’s 30th anniversary. One of the most popular golfing destinations on the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach since its opening in 1988, Pawleys Plantation’s layout has stood the test of time in terms of entertainment and challenge. Early Nicklaus designs like Pawleys put a premium on forced carries over wide expanses of sand and water or, in our club’s case, marshland. The signature par 3 13th, virtually surrounded by marsh with a green smaller than the famous island green at TPC Sawgrass, is the most iconic of the hundreds of holes in the Myrtle Beach area. My fellow members like to refer to it as “the shortest par 5 in Myrtle Beach.” From the regular tees, it plays about 120 yards.
        As good and challenging as Pawleys Plantation is, Father Time and Mother Nature have had their way with the course. Greens, which were designed medium small originally by Nicklaus, are now officially “small” after years of aggressive mowing. This is not unusual for golf courses of a certain age. The effect is to pull the greenside bunkers away from the edges of the greens, sometimes by a couple of yards or more. From the fairway, it can appear to a first-time visitor that the Bermuda fringe and rough is actually the green. The illusion forces improperly under-clubbed shots from the fairway. When the course was first opened and in succeeding years, a shot over the bunker would have led to a putt, not a chip.
        At a fund-raising dinner at Pawleys Plantation the night of Nicklaus’ visit, he was asked his reaction to his layout 30 years after completion. He validated criticism of the reduced size of the greens, encouraging that the bunkers be pulled closer to the putting surfaces. He also said, rather emphatically, “Get rid of a lot of the sand out there.” Some holes he designed include waste bunkers that are almost 200 yards long and, unlike the greens, they certainly haven’t gotten any smaller. Back in the day, they served as framing for some of the longer holes, but they have always been especially penal for higher handicap players. Pawleys Plantation attracts many buddy golf trips, and it is often painful – and slow -- to play behind such high handicappers, especially after they ignore warnings posted at the 1st and 10th tee boxes about which tees are appropriate for which handicaps.
        Nicklaus’ most amusing critique of the course he built was also the most surprising. If he had a specific signature when he first started laying out golf courses, it was to leave small trees in the middle of fairways as directional markers, more than obstructions. At Pawleys Plantation, such trees are in play at the par 4 5th hole, the par 4 9th fairway and the par 5 14th – and they certainly have become larger. Of the tree on #14, Nicklaus said, “Take it down. It shouldn’t be there.”
        At age 78, the man who always obsessed about his golf swing has the same mania to improve his course designs. Here’s hoping my golf club’s owners take him up on his offer to bring a very good golf course back to its original outstanding status.
Nicklaus and SchaalJack Nicklaus (left) and Gary Schaal, former PGA Presidenbt and tour player, took questions from an enthusiastic audience at Pawleys Plantation. Nicklaus recommended the club's owners consider eliminating much of the sand in the course's huge waste bunkers, pulling green side bunkers closer to the putting surfaces, and taking down a tree in the middle of one fairway, a signature feature of the Golden Bear's early designs.

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