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Friday, 03 July 2020 19:57

Happy Birthday Balcomie

        My first visit to the Balcomie Links at the Crail Golfing Society was magical, and it started even before my first tee shot. Standing on the tiny practice green with my son Tim, a collegiate golfer at the time, overlooking the North Sea and much of the golf course from its highest point, I heard my son’s name called. Here we are 5,000 miles from our Connecticut home, and Tim introduces me to a young Scottish lad against whom he had competed in a college tournament in Virginia. It was pure kismet that they both were at Balcomie on the same day at the same time.
CrailBalcomiedogleg5Long Way Around: The 5th hole on Balcomie Links is a par 4 of 437 yards -- on a front nine that measures less than 3,000 yards. And the wind is always blowing, typically in your face.
        From there, the magic continued for my first round on a true links course. Yeah, I had played what I thought were links courses, like the Ocean Course at Kiawah and Shinnecock Hills but, no, this was an entirely different experience. I won’t belabor my opinions about Crail’s two courses – the other is a more modern links course by Gil Hanse opened in the ‘90s but with strong nods to classic architecture – but suffice to say the experience is unique, given that all 36 holes feature at least one view of the North Sea, quite possibly the only place on earth where that is the case. Other elements such as blind shots and double greens and walls in fairways and behind greens are not unique, but blended together into one beautiful package…maybe. (I reviewed the course here in 2008)
        I was so smitten with Crail, including the charming coastal town right out of a picture postcard or jigsaw puzzle – I own the latter – that I signed up as an overseas member knowing full well that during some years, especially those smitten by something called coronavirus, I would not be playing there. But, heck, it is less than $200 annually, and it gives me something to dream about. And that is a small price to pay for great memories and dreams.
        I didn’t want to let today pass without a special shout out to Balcomie Links, designed by Old Tom Morris and 125 years old today. Beatha Fhada. Long life.

Balcomie practice green 1M best view ever from a practice green, at Crail Golfing Society

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        The North Carolina Golf Rating Panel, a group of regular players with a few professionals thrown in, is out with its update list of the best public golf courses in the golf-rich Tarheel State. I would say they left off a few but the bigger head scratcher is the rankings themselves, with a few iconic courses a little too far down the list.
        First, the highlights. The Sandhills area comprising Pinehurst and Southern Pines swept the first six positions on the list, with – no surprise – Pinehurst #2, the Donald Ross masterpiece updated a few years ago by the team of Coore & Crenshaw at the very top, followed by Pine Needles, Pinehurst #4 and #8, Mid-Pines and Pinehurst #9. Pinehurst #9 is the former National Golf Club. The Mid-South Club, also in the Sandhills, logged the #10 position on the list. The rest of the top 10 includes the high-altitude Linville Golf Club at #7, University of North Carolina’s Finley Golf Course at #8 and Bald Head Island Club at #9.
PineNeedles green front 1Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, #2 on the Panel's list.
        All in all I have played 21 of the 50 on the list over the last 20 years. Therefore, take these quibbles with a grain of salt since I have not played 29 on the list, but a few of those in the bottom 30 deserve a much higher ranking. For example, Tanglewood Park Championship course in Clemmons, near Winston-Salem, is a Robert Trent Jones Sr. masterpiece, good enough to have hosted the 1974 PGA Championship, when Lee Trevino nosed out Jack Nicklaus by a stroke. (Bit of trivia: Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency on the Friday of the tournament.) I played the course with my dad and brother a few years before the PGA and then again a dozen years ago. The imaginative routing, the bunkering and the changes in elevation were impressive. My friend and fellow blogger, Brad Chambers, played it last month and wrote a review at OffTheBeatenCartPath.com.
        I know that Tobacco Road, Mike Strantz’ most attractively chaotic contribution to a portfolio of unique golf courses, is not to everyone’s taste, but surely the stamp on the memory of anyone who plays it is worthy of a higher position than #40. And weird or not, it is more memorable than Compass Pointe (#29) in Leland, an easy-going yet less than dramatic layout, or the Currituck Club on the Outer Banks, whose beautiful eastern vistas of the Atlantic Ocean are neutralized by the rows of condos that line some of its fairways. Just last year, Golf Digest rated Tobacco Road #13 on its “best courses in North Carolina,” and that list included private courses as well.
Duke finisher 1Duke University Golf Club, #11 on the Panel's list.
        I would also rank Cape Fear National (#27), the course inside the Brunswick Forest community in Leland, the equal of Leopard’s Chase (#13), Tiger’s Eye (#20) and Thistle Golf Club (#21), and even competitive with Bald Head Island and its #9 ranking (although, full disclosure, I have not played Bald Head since it was renovated a half dozen years ago).
        I also had to look a few times to see if I had missed Strantz’ other Tarheel contribution, Tot Hill Farm in Asheboro, also reviewed by my friend Brad Chambers (click here). It didn’t make the list but is certainly the equal of any of the bottom 15 or so on the Panel’s list. And the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, home to the famed Donald Ross layout in the mountains, should qualify as a "course you can play" but it is not on the list.
        Despite these minor flaws, the NC Golf Panel's list is a great guide to those who want to play almost two months of excellent golf in a state that spans the ocean and highest mountains in the east. In terms of states for the widest possible range of golf courses, North Carolina ranks near the top of any list.

     It may seem counterintuitive, but the coronavirus is about to have some positive effects on real estate sales in Southeast golf communities. There are a few reasons for this, which I explore in my upcoming June newsletter, Home On The Course. (It’s free; subscribe here.)
     Here is the Cliff Notes version of this month’s main feature: Baby Boomers put their searches on hold for the virus, and the pent-up demand is causing them to restart their searches now…Employees, for the most part, like the flexibility of working from home and the savings from not having to commute or buy work clothes. More importantly, their employers are finding they are saving tons of money on office space and utility costs and, surprise, employees are more productive at home. If they can work from home, why not from a home in a warm climate, low-cost-of-living area of the Southeast?…Also, city dwellers fearing a restart of Covid-19 as well as future pandemics are heading for the hills, literally and figuratively. There are many “hills” in the Southeast.
     All this plus the mistaken notion that hot weather kills viruses – a wives’ tale, according to scientific evidence – mean more people heading South. But here’s the problem that awaits them: Inventories of homes for sale in many popular areas of the Southeast are well below what the real estate industry considers “in balance” -- six months. What happens when increasing demand meets limited supply? Of course, higher prices.
     I offer additional observations about Covid-19 and golf community real estate in the June issue of Home On The Course, coming later this week. Sign up for free here.

Connestee Falls 11th from teeInventories of homes for sale in the Brevard, NC, area are down 32% from this time a year ago. Shown is the 11th hole in the nearby mountain golf community of Connestee Falls.

Thursday, 21 May 2020 14:31

Golf Community Marketing Goes Zoom

        Businesses are doing their best to adapt to the pandemic, and golf community marketing departments are no different. President of Administration Diana Peters at Woodside Plantation in Aiken, SC, was kind enough to let me be a fly on the wall when she and her staff hosted a Zoom meeting with prospective buyers. Zoom, for the uninitiated, is FaceTime on steroids, with the ability to put as many as 100 in a room at one time – the room being the screen on your computer or tablet. (For an additional price, the upper limit is 500.)
        I’ve participated in a number of Zoom meetings with family, friends and groups of people who want to discuss a specific topic. Just prior to writing this, my wife and I sat in on a Zoom discussion of the late 1990s movie “As Good As It Gets” starring Jack Nicholson as a mean-spirited, emotionally damaged, obsessive-compulsive writer. (I recommend.) The movie discussion included about the optimal number of participants, just over a dozen. With any larger group, people tend to talk over one another; and the variable response times of modems and wireless routers can cause a lag that causes participants to miss a lot. There are also some moments of freeze frame that always seem to occur when a participant is about to say something important, perhaps profound – but there is no way to know that, and you don’t want to stop momentum by asking someone to repeat him- or herself.
WoodsidePlantationHomeandGreenOne of the swirling greens on the Nicklaus Course at Woodside Plantation.
        The Woodside Plantation meeting was burdened with some of these technical issues, but it was well organized and the agenda was geared to providing plenty of information for potential buyers with a range of prior knowledge about the community. The first half of the hourlong meeting included introductions from marketing and sales staff, followed by brief stories from two couples and a single resident who have chosen Woodside as their homes. The owners were well chosen, with one couple living there permanently, another couple shuttling between Aiken and their home in Washington, D.C., and the single woman whose husband passed away a couple of years ago. Her heartfelt story about losing her husband and how she held fast against the urgings of her family to return to her native Minnesota was priceless marketing communication as it demonstrated, in human terms, one person’s serious commitment to life at Woodside. She and her husband had created the “ambassador” program there that partners resident couples with prospects who visit the community and helps new residents adjust. She still runs the program today. 
        The last half of the meeting included a question and answer session. Some of the questions were general but the specific ones were relevant to all, including about distance to the nearest airport (answer, 45 minutes), if fences to keep pets inside a property are okay (yes, with permission from the architectural review board), the range of home prices ($300,000 to over $1 million), the number of part-timers (vacationers) who own homes (relatively few) and the cost of a social membership ($140 per month which provides access to clubhouse, dining and fitness centers). One of the owners mentioned that the Fuzzy Zoeller designed golf course will open in July, joining the Nicklaus designed golf course to give golfer residents a full 36 holes.
        One participant asked a question I tend to ask when I visit a golf community and speak with residents: “What are the best and worst things about living at Woodside?” One owner answered, “Southern hospitality is alive [at Woodside].” And the “worst” was about “traffic,” the respondent adding with a smile, “It takes you 15 minutes to get anywhere.” 
        Now that should be enough to sell Woodside to any Northeasterner who has commuted to work.


        Note to those of you who live within a two-hour drive of where the New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut borders meet – and that means you who live in Hartford, Albany, just north of New York City, and northern New Jersey. If you really want to celebrate the freedom to play fun golf during these less than fun times, throw your clubs in the trunk, start your engines and head for Copake Country Club in rural Craryville, NY. You would swear Donald Ross designed it, but he didn’t, a contemporary of his did.
        In any case, I have played the course 10 times and try to get there annually from my home 90 minutes away. Green fees are cheap, the course is always in excellent condition, the food is terrific and everyone is friendly and happy to see you (especially these days, I assume).
        I have written my extended thoughts about Copake at my sister website, OffTheBeatenCartPath.com. Check it out and all the other reviews of some out-of-the-way layouts that deserve a lot of love.
Copakeuphill1The opening hole at Copake.

        With few exceptions, golf courses that have remained open the last two months across the nation have done a good job of adapting to play during the pandemic -- by closing pro shops and clubhouses and accepting green fee payment online only; by restricting cart use to one person or mandating walking only; by turning cups upside down or inserting raised foam edges to keep flags free from grabbing; and, most recently, by announcing the requirement to wear masks whenever there is a situation in which players are within the suggested social distance of six feet. Scorecards have also become a rarity.
        Yet despite all these restrictions that golf purists surely -- however quietly -- hate, reports are that public courses are crowded across the country where the weather is good. Public layouts, by the way, account for 80% of all golf courses.
        “Every day is Saturday morning,” friend and fellow blogger Brad Chambers wrote recently about Monroe Country Club near his home in Charlotte, NC. He has written a review of Monroe for my companion web site, OffTheBeatenCartPath.com. “When I checked in for my round, the golf pro told me they were completely full today (Friday), were full yesterday and were full all weekend.”
        “Almost any industry you can name is struggling to stay solvent during the Coronavirus epidemic,” he added. “[But] not golf in North Carolina, nor in any other state that is allowing it to be played.”
Monroe CC par 3 behind green 1Par 3 2nd hole at Monroe CC, Monroe, NC, designed by Donald Ross.
        Brad has been monitoring GolfNow, TeeOff and other sites in his state that offer discount rounds and, he wrote, “[the green fees] are $10 to $20 higher than I remember seeing them at any time, especially during the week.” (Note: Brad’s article at OffTheBeatenCartPath.com will be posted by Wednesday. In the meantime, you can read his other entertaining articles at ShootingYourAge.com, the web site he maintains.)
        Brad's is, for sure, anecdotal evidence of the popularity of golf, but it provides something of an antidote to the continuous harping by the mainstream media about the death of golf. In the Wall Street Journal’s “Mansion” section on Friday, a front-page article argued that new-community developers have turned their backs on golf and are now including such amenities as community gardens instead. Some, as we read often, are plowing over their under-utilized golf courses and creating green spaces for walking and other essentially passive ventures (but only if local ordinances and covenants prevent construction of new homes).
        I have no quibble with preserving green space in planned developments. We have 24 million golfers in the U.S. and the vast majority play on public golf courses not located inside the gates of traditional golf communities. And the many more millions who don’t play golf deserve the majority of space devoted to whatever they want to do – or not do, in the case of such leisurely activities as walking. I do object to the media’s contention that any of these reactions by developers is a signal of the demise of golf. There is no denying that, in anticipation of baby boomers reaching retirement age, developers saw golf as the ultimate lure for real estate sales. The result was more golf courses in the U.S. than was sustainable, especially in view of how the margins to operate a country club even in the best of times are incredibly thin. A pullback in the industry was inevitable. Golfers population is down from 30 million at its peak in 2003 to 24 million today.
        But 24 million is still a huge number for any activity, and golf is by far more popular than other active sports like skiing (9 million) and tennis (fewer than 18 million). There is clear evidence from just before Covid-19 became an acknowledged crisis that golf was as popular as ever. According to the National Golf Foundation, golf rounds played in February were up 19.1% compared with February 2019; it is my own humble assumption that February rounds played in regions where Covid has had the most profound effects – the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, where rounds were up 99.6% and 52.2%, respectively – could translate into, “I gotta play before they shut things down.”  (Check out the Golf Datatech map here.). Golfers are smarter than the average Joes, and they could see things coming that politicians and others couldn’t. (Okay, I’m a partisan when it comes to my fellow golfers.)
        So intent were golfers on playing even after restrictions were in place that they literally put themselves in harm’s way. In Rhode Island, for example, three neighboring Massachusetts golfers dropped their car off just short of the RI border, threw their clubs in the back of a car with Rhode Island license plates, drove to a nearby golf course, ignored the warning signs that said “Rhode Island golfers only,” started play and then were arrested. Where local municipalities have closed courses, local players have shared their grievances in a more politically correct way, by signing petitions; in Palm Beach County, FL, according to the New York Sunday Times, 8,000 people signed such a petition.
        Couple the NGF numbers and the obvious intensity of dedicated golfers with Brad Chambers’ own on-the-ground evidence, and a case might be made that when the all-clear signal is given, the return to the golf course could very well be dramatic, restorative and, like reconnecting after many years with a high school sweetheart, exhilarating – even life changing for some.
        Sociologists are predicting that post-pandemic life in the U.S. may never be quite the same. As regards golf, that may not be all bad.

        I was going through the 40,000 photos I have taken over the last 15 years and found the one below. I was looking for some photos to accompany a review I just posted at OffTheBeatenCartPath.com. I had forgotten about the photo since I stumbled upon the trash can 10 years ago in Vermont, at Lake St. Catherine Country Club, a wonderful course that certainly qualifies as off the beaten path. Located in Poultney, VT, about a five-iron from Lake St. Catherine across the road and just a couple of miles from the New York State line, I didn’t see any other players on the course on a pleasant fall afternoon.
        I wondered at the time, and still do, what may have come over the owner of those clubs in the can. Did he (or she) give up the game on the spot? Was it an accumulation of frustrations or just one bad shot that led to the demolition derby? Today, looking at the photo more closely, it appears that one of the clubs is a putter, which may explain a lot. Is there any club in the bag that betrays us more often? Is there any putter that makes it past a year or two without being discarded for another, like a bothersome mistress? (My wife may be reading this, so let me testify that I have never had one of those, unless you count golf itself.)
        The most troubling part of that photo, for me, is that the owner of the clubs saw fit to dump them so unceremoniously, so publicly, without a proper burial. The only time in 60 years of golf that I broke a club – I slammed it against my bag when I was in my 20s – I tossed the two pieces in a lake on the next hole. I recall, as a kid, watching "Terrible" Tommy Bolt on TV toss his clubs in a lake.  Water just seems a fitting way to bury your clubs.  But, come to think of it, I don’t recall much water on the Lake St. Catherine layout, despite its name. I guess we will have to give you a pass this time, whoever you are.
        Please visit OffTheBeatenCartPath.com for reviews about some out of the way golf courses that are worthy of a visit.

DSC 0005.JPGNow matter how much they have frustrated you, golf clubs deserve a proper burial, and this isn't it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020 13:43

Heavens Cry Over Golf Course Closures?

        Late last week, I was heartened that my golf course standby in Hartford, CT, Keney Park, was doing all the right things to stay open and safe for its customers. These included online payment to avoid the need to go in the pro shop, extra-sanitizing of golf carts while encouraging people to walk, and inverting the golf cups to sit above the green to keep hands out of the cups and off the flagsticks. 
        It all became pretty much moot on Friday when the Governor declared that, at 8 pm on Monday, all “non-essential” businesses would be closed. After an appeal by the state golf association for an exemption, and emails to the Governor’s office from golfers like me, all courses that had remained open were forced to close.
        Last week in the state, temperatures were in the 40s and 50s with one day in the 60s. The mild winter had been good to the turf and golfers, sensing that a drought was ahead – i.e. opportunity to play might dry up for months – crowded golf courses. In New Jersey, according to a New York Times article, play was up 300% in the first 19 days of March in Somerset County. Those courses have also been shut down for now.
        Call it divine coincidence but on Monday, the day Connecticut's Governor Ned Lamont decreed all golf courses and other non-essential business be closed at 8 pm, it began alternately snowing and raining in Hartford at noon, covering the course with about four inches of white stuff. 
        It stopped snowing at 8 pm.  The course would not be playable for at least another two weeks anyway.
        Stay safe everyone.

        Caveat: I am not a financial expert, nor do I play one at this website. I recognize that we are in uncharted waters today, so please do not take the following as advice.

        Before coronavirus, and with an eye on the apparent stability of their 401Ks and other equity-dependent investments, thousands of baby boomers were considering a move to golf communities in the South. But with the stock market pretty much in freefall, many may be giving up hope about the retirement lifestyle they had counted on.
        Perhaps they shouldn’t.
        As the 2001 drop after 9/11 and the 2008 recession taught us, markets come back, and sometimes quickly. In the first day of trading after the 9/11 catastrophe, the market sank by more than 7%. But a month later, the Dow and NASDAQ were back to pre-9/11 levels. It took longer to recover from the global financial crisis that reached its peak in 2008, but by 2013, stability had been restored and many high-quality homes in the southern U.S. had passed pre-recession levels.
        During both those major financial events, some folks nearing retirement panicked, sold their equities at steep losses and put their money in safe instruments – at annual interest rates lower than 2%. When markets rebounded by multiples of that 2%, those conservative investors were left behind. Even worse, for those with relocation aspirations, housing prices had risen by as much as 5% to 8% per year in the highest-quality communities; these investors found that the homes they might have purchased earlier were now well beyond their reach.
        Like everyone else, I do not like to lose money. Having begun my 8th decade, my wife and I need all the savings we can hold onto. I was still working in 2001 and counted on a paycheck to take care of my family’s sustenance. But as a retiree in 2008, I was on a fixed income, and the recession caused me a fair bit of agita. But call it laziness, brain freeze or dumb luck, I ignored the instinct to panic-sell the equities in my retirement fund. By 2012, I was feeling financially whole again.
        We are all in different circumstances that govern our decisions. But for those of us who have the resources and patience to weather storms, sometimes inaction is the best action.

        Most of us will not make it to Augusta National for this year’s Masters tournament, but many will certainly be glued to the television for most every stroke, or at least the after-round highlights. A daily ticket to attend each of the four rounds of the event can reach well into the hundreds of dollars, but there is a way to be fully invested for as little as $1 for the entire tournament – by selecting the six players from the field whom you think have the best chance of winning, or at least of making the cut.
        “Fantasy” betting sites such as Fanduel and Draft Kings now legally take bets on all golf tournaments, foreign and domestic, every week of the season. What started as a roundabout way to pay fantasy baseball and football players for daily wagers now extends to golf and other sports. Although you can wager up to a few hundred dollars, casual fans like me plunk down as little as $1 to pick a team and then settle in to see if your “horses” make it to the finish. It is akin to owning your own baseball team and trading your players for a new crop every weekend. (Full disclosure, I tend to lose interest in any but the major tournaments when two or more of my players fail to make the cut after round two.)
        You do not get to pick any six players, though. You have a budget, typically $50,000, for your entire team, and the betting site assigns values to each player such that you really only get to choose one or two Rory McIlroys or Justin Thomases for your team; you need to dig deep to find tour rookies or Monday qualifier types to round out your group. For this week’s Player’s Championship, I note that the favorite, McIlroy, is priced at $11,700. Pair him with Jon Rahm ($11,000) and you have spent nearly half your salary with four players to go. Good luck with Sepp Straka at $6,000.
        Payoffs depend on the amount you bet and the various types of wagers. Since I wager only every few weekends, I tend to choose the events in which I think I have the best chance to make more than I bet. This past weekend, for example, for the Bay Hill Invitational in Florida, I chose a $5 event with only 71 participants and a total payout to the top 15 of $300; other events can feature thousands of participants and, of course, they will pay a lot more to the top finishers and will typically pay deeper into the group of also-rans. The Bay Hill winner in my betting group was only going to make $60 but the chances were good you could at least get your money back if you chose wisely. (Note: Some make a living from this. I’m retired.)
        For a change, I did get my money back, and then some, pairing the eventual winner, Tyrell Hatton, with Sung Jae Im (3rd), always-in-the-money Colin Morikawa (T9th), Matthew Fitzpatrick (T9th), Talor Gooch (T13th) and Bubba Watson, my only big name choice, who missed the cut. 
        I can hear you saying, “Talor Gooch? How would he ever know to bet on Talor Gooch?” The answer is I have Sirius/XM radio in my car, I listen to the fantasy sports station, and every Wednesday they invite a golf betting expert on to discuss that weekend’s golf event and his picks, both the top-budget golfers as well as some deep sleepers. When I heard him say “Talor Gooch,” I figured few other players would take a flyer on the barely known Gooch. Other good sources for information and odds on all the tournament participants include the betting sites for William Hill, Bovada and others.
        Draft Kings and the other fantasy sites – they try not to refer to themselves as “betting sites, will sometimes kick in a few dollars for new subscribers. This could be a good week to consider plunking down a dollar or two and settling back to watch the Player’s Championship. But I am offering no advice on picks, except to predict you will have fun and you have to be able to afford the losses (which is why I never bet more than $5). As they say in the investment business, “Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.” My $27 of winnings this past weekend was a total surprise. Who knows what this weekend will bring.

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