The March issue of our free newsletter, Home On The Course, will explore the three broad types of golf communities on the risk/reward continuum -– those where the developer owns the land and golf club; those in which the community is run by the property owners association, but the golf club is owned by the developer or another company; and the third, generally the most financially secure, in which the owners are in control of everything, including the golf club.
The Willoughby Golf Club of Stuart, FL, falls squarely into the latter category, and although the costs to live there can run to about $20,000 annually for full-golf members, the community is worthy of consideration by those looking for a vibrant, well-organized and friendly retirement destination in a warm winter climate (but, of course, brutally hot on many summer days). About 45% of the community's residents own another home in a cooler climate, like Asheville, NC.
Hello Dolly: The short par 4 15th at Willoughby tempts the big hitters to fly the mound in front of the green (top), but the less provocative play is a fairway wood to well inside 100 yards (bottom). The trick is to leave a full wedge shot because the elevated green is small and not deep.
Willoughby has a lot going for it inside and outside its gates. The Stuart area itself checks virtually every box on the list of conveniences and necessities for a retired couple. With two well-regarded hospitals at the north and south ends of town, a supermarket within five minutes and virtually all other types of shopping within 15 minutes, as well as Palm Beach International Airport just 45 minutes down the interstate, Willoughby residents have access to all the shopping and services they came to expect up north (the vast majority of residents are from the north). Throw in an active cultural community, with Stuart’s historic Lyric theater at its core, and a substantial restaurant scene in the small but bustling downtown area, and Willoughby residents can snicker justifiably at Florida stereotypes about cultural wasteland and 4 p.m. smorgasbord specials.
Inside the gates of the relatively small community -– just 375 homes
The clubhouse will soon undergo a major renovation to its dining areas. Last redone about a decade ago, most members were so disinclined toward the décor in the main dining room that they voted to pay an assessment of $4,650 each to give the place a sprucing up. Renderings of the new look were shared with all members; those I spoke with seemed excited that they would soon see the last of the “French bordello” look (a resident’s words, not mine, but based on my brief visit, I concur). An expansion of the popular “casual” dining area is included in the plans; an outdoor dining terrace will remain, with its sweeping view of the golf course and the nearby practice putting green. All told, the clubhouse renovations will cost about $1.8 million.
Club members are especially proud of their Arthur Hills designed golf course, and after playing 18 holes with a regular Monday men’s golf group, I understand why. Hills is among the most underrated golf designers in America. In my experience, he balances challenges to the accomplished player against a golf community developer’s instructions not to brutalize the higher handicapper. At Willoughby, Hills’ routing offers generous landing areas for the 20 handicap player but puts some nasty fairway bunkers in play for those who might hit their 250-yard drives a bit off line. This being Florida, water of course comes into play on a number of holes. On most, the ponds can be routinely negotiated but some putting surfaces are well protected at front and along the sides. Thankfully, the greens held shots fairly well.
Par 3s and Par 5s at Willoughby are especially noteworthy. On the par 5s, shot selection on lay-ups is anything but routine as the player
Designer Arthur Hills reshaped the flat Florida land to add visual contrast and extra challenge around Willoughby's greens. A few small bunkers in fairways are particularly nasty.
Although mild breezes never caused more than a one-club change on the day I played, the proximity to the ocean (about five miles away) can lead to plenty of indecision on other days. Thankfully, the golf course turf did not offer up any unwanted challenges. It was in excellent condition, with fairways that are cut just high enough to prop up the ball and yield some generous Bermuda divots; and greens that are cut down to a short, competitive length (more than 11 on the stimpmeter). Although Hills’ design group was brought in for some touchups a few years ago, Willoughby gives off a classic Florida golf course vibe, as if it has been there even longer than its 23 years. Some staff and residents have been around from nearly the beginning. Golf professional Gerry Knebels, for example, has worked at Willoughby for more than two decades; yet, for a real dose of longevity, consider that Willoughby’s oldest club member is teaching pro Errie Ball, the last surviving member of the field at the first Masters golf tournament in 1934. The wonderfully named Mr. Ball still gives lessons to residents, even though last year he and his fellow club members celebrated his 100th birthday.
With an involved membership that is committed personally and financially to its club and community, Willoughby itself appears to be preparing to live long and prosper.
Some of the greenside ponds at Willoughby snake around to the fronts of the greens, making approach shots a hit or miss disastrously proposition.
Willoughby Golf Club, Stuart FL. Golf course designed by Arthur Hills. Tees: Championship/Back/Middle/Forward. Yardage: 6,731/6,231/5,693/5,014. Rating/Slope: 72.9/132; 70.8/128; 68.2/123; 70.0/121.
Web site: WilloughbyGolfClub.com. Homes from $300s to $1 million (only single-family homes, no condos or villas). Annual fees for landscaping, amenities, trash, cable TV, security in the gated community and other services run to about $10,000 annually. Estate House owners are responsible for their own grounds at an estimated $240 per month (less than what residents in the other neighborhoods pay). Golf membership is not mandatory, but all homeowners are "resident” members of the club at an initial contribution of $15,000 which grants full access to all amenities (pool, tennis, fitness center, and clubhouse) except the golf course. Golf initiation fees are $25,000 additional (non-refundable, but grants voting rights), and annual golf dues/fees are $10,300, which includes a $2,000 capital contribution (for 2011) which changes from year to year. Golf membership is capped at 300 to ensure easy access to tee times. Residents who opt to own golf carts pay an annual “trail fee” of $1,100; frequent golfers and those who don’t want to use their cars for trips to the clubhouse or to friends in another Willoughby neighborhood choose this option.
Willoughby offers a nice discovery package, with a reduced rate at a local hotel and access to all amenities over the course of a day or two visit. For those couples interested in a resident’s perspective, Willoughby's “ambassador” program puts residents together with visitors for a round of golf, a meal and a tour of the community.
If you would like more information about the Willoughby Golf Club community or to arrange a visit, please contact me. I will be pleased to refer you to a local professional realtor who is herself a long-time resident of Willoughby. She will can show you one or more of the (current) 32 homes for sale in the community.