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Friday, 18 May 2007 15:59

Expensive homes taking longer to sell

    We are hearing from real estate agents that homes at the top of the market are lingering longer on the MLS (multiple listing service) and fetching a smaller percentage of their asking prices than down-market homes. 

    Wilmington, NC, is one example of the phenomenon.  In April, homes in the Hampstead area just north of the city, in zip code 28443, took an average 133 days to sell at an average price of $369,000, 89% of the asking price.  In the Wilmington zip code of 28405, where homes were listed at an average $293,000, they sold in April in 73 days and at an impressive 98% of their asking price.

    With the stock market remaining strong, at least for now, there is not too much downward pressure on pricing for owners of higher end homes.  But a stock market correction could certainly change that.

*  *  *

    Our friend Adam Ney is a leading exponent of green businesses and lifestyles in the state of Connecticut.  He maintains an interesting web site called Building Connecticut Green.  Last month Adam masterminded a clean-up of the road that runs alongside his town golf course, Wintonbury Hills in Bloomfield. 

    Wintonbury Hills is not your average muni; it was designed by Pete Dye for the princely sum of $1 as a favor to friends of his in town, and it is the equal -- in layout and condition -- of most local private courses.  Adam arranged for a few of his fellow club members to help pick up trash along the road, and then played the course.  This might be a day of fun and productivity you can organize at your own course, whether it is private or public.  For Adam's article, click here .


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Friday, 18 May 2007 08:39

Immigration reform and golf

    Immigration reform is all over the news pages, and it occurs to me that there might be only one degree of separation between the resolution of the immigration issue and the future of golf in America.  
    Every small town I drive through in the southeastern U.S. - and I do a lot of driving from community to community - every one seems to have a bodega (Hispanic grocery store).  These are towns with populations of fewer than 1,000 and no commercial district to speak of.  The number of Mexican restaurants has blossomed as well over the last decade.  Immigration is not just a border state issue; immigrants who make it across the border, legally or illegally, aren't stopping only in Texas or Arizona.  Like water that seeks its own level, people who need to earn a living find the jobs that are available.  And in the southern U.S., many of those jobs are on golf courses.
    Golf course maintenance is a brutally tough job, especially in the south in the summer when temperatures can reach well into the 90s before lunchtime.  Virtually every course I have played in the southeast over the last two years -- and that amounts to nearly 90 -- employs Hispanics to do the manual labor of course maintenance.  They do the jobs the local kids long ago stopped doing for pay or the privilege of playing on Monday, otherwise known as caddies' day.  There is no question that, with an estimated 12 million non-resident aliens in the U.S., some of these workers - maybe many of them - are in the country illegally.
    These golf course workers are a metaphor, it seems to me, for a larger issue.  There are lots of jobs that American workers just won't do, for love or money, jobs that immigrants will do gladly for an honest day's pay until such time something better comes along (This, of course, is the first rung in the ladder known as the American dream).  There is a great tradition of migrant workers on farms to harvest the food to feed the nation, but we need people to do many other jobs, such as to keep our cities clean.  If I lived in a city, I wouldn't care who did the work.  Golfers who count on pristine conditions at their country club likely don't care who cuts the grass.
    I have no clue yet who will get my vote for U.S. President in 2008.  But I do know the one who has the most creative ideas about immigration will have a leg up.

Thursday, 17 May 2007 05:07

Cliffs courses on TV this weekend

    The Cliffs Communities, a string of pearls that runs along the western edge of South Carolina and up into the Asheville, NC area, offers the most mountain-oriented golf of any group of communities.  With current and planned courses by Nicklaus (2), Fazio (2), Ben Wright (his only one), Tom Jackson and Gary Player, Cliffs golf members can face a different 18-hole challenge every single day of the week...if they can afford it and don't mind driving up to an hour (but what a pretty drive through the mountains).  Access to excellent golf doesn't come cheap, with initiation fees pegged at $125,000 recently.     

    The only name designers not in the Cliffs' portfolio are Jones, Norman and Dye, but with aggressive developer Jim Anthony at the helm, nothing is out of the question.  He not only arranged for Gary Player to design the upcoming course at Cliffs Mountain, he also convinced the venerable South African to move his family and his business from Florida to the Mountain.     

    We toured The Cliffs just at the time the organization opened its fourth community, at Walnut Cove, the most expensive of them all given its knockout mountain views from most home sites and its proximity to the hot retirement town of Asheville, NC.  The Nicklaus course at Walnut Cove, which opened in April 2005, is reportedly the toughest of the current six that are open.  We didn't get to play it, but we did play the breathtaking and only-a-little-quirky Tom Jackson Glassy course, at 4,000 feet up; the somewhat pedestrian Ben Wright Valley Course; and the wonderful, impeccable and beautiful Tom Fazio Keowee Vineyards course at Lake Keowee (Can you tell we liked it?). 

    Single family homes in all the Cliffs Communities run well into seven figures, and aside from Walnut Cove and Cliffs Valley, which is about a half hour from Greenville, local services haven't quite caught up with the developments.  But the $150 million worth of amenities the Cliffs promotes are enough to keep an active couple "on campus" for a majority of time; and it is hard to imagine any but the most jaded of golfers not being satisfied by the variety and conditioning of the four current and three planned golf courses.     

    If you want to check out The Cliffs courses, this weekend is your opportunity, assuming you have The Golf Channel on your cable system.  The BMW Charity Pro-Am at The Cliffs, a Nationwide Tour event, will be played on three of the community's courses - Keowee Vineyards, Valley and Walnut Cove.  A small, but impressive group of amateurs from the entertainment and sports worlds are slated to compete, including Kevin Costner, Hootie & The Blowfish lead singer Darius Rucker, football's John Elway, baseball's Jim Rice, and hockey's great one, Wayne Gretsky.  Coverage begins at 1 p.m. today.

    The Cliffs comoprehensive web site is at www.cliffscommunities.com.


It takes driver for mere mortals from the back tees at #17 at Keowee Vineyard, one of the seven courses at The Cliffs Communities.  Typically, it is the toughest golf hole on the Nationwide Tour.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007 03:34

Stop and smell the grasses

       The fastest players at my club in Connecticut fight for the earliest rounds.  I never like to be the first off the tee at 7 a.m. unless I am playing by myself.  Then I can stay comfortably ahead of the rabbits behind me, without the pressure of rushing.  But if I am in a foursome and one or more of us is playing deliberately or taking a while to look for wayward balls, the pressure builds, I rush my shots, and I invariably play poorly.    

    This is on my mind today for a few reasons.  First my own golf club has sent members a letter asking us to pick up the pace of play this season.  Then on Monday, I read a letter to the editor of the Hartford (CT) Courant tying the reduction in rounds played in the U.S. to slow pace of play.  I couldn't resist responding, and today the Courant printed my letter, which I include below:

Obsessed by Fast Pace

    We Americans are obsessed with doing things fast, even if it means spoiling a good walk.  Golf is a game that should be savored every step of the way, whether a round takes four hours to play or five and a half.
    Yesterday I received a letter from my country club about new regulations to speed up play.  Then Tracey Baldwin's letter (May 15, "Slow Pace is Killing Golf") took me back to a conversation 10 years ago in Japan.  
    I was on the train from Tokyo to Osaka and noticed my Japanese "chaperone" reading a golf magazine.  I asked him if he played.  "Oh, yes, every Saturday morning," he replied.  Mindful that golf memberships in Japan at the time were $1 million and higher, and public courses were scarce, I asked where he played.  He mentioned a course two hours away by train.  
    I empathized that the travel made for a long day after a long week of work.  "Yes," he said without irritation, "and golf takes about six and a half hours to play."  Noting my look of surprise, he added:  "But we do stop for a 20-minute lunch after nine holes."


The Landmark course features 89 traps and houses well out of range of stray shots. 


    Avalon might seem an odd name for a golf course community.  In medieval romance, it was an island paradise of healers to which King Arthur was taken to cheat death.  He didn't.  Nevertheless, developers of Avalon, just 20 miles outside Knoxville, TN, aren't cheating anyone.  The community's prices seemed so reasonable when we visited last year that we were tempted to plunk down a payment on a lot.
    Avalon provides a little bit of everything in terms of housing.  Its 115 so-called "villas" are patio homes with landscaping and grounds keeping included.  At full build out, the community's 430 acres will include 150 condominium units and 245 single-family homes.  The lot that tempted us was ½ acre on a rise overlooking the middle part of a fairway on the golf course with a nice view of the Cumberland Mountains beyond.  It was priced at just $85,000, but certainly would be a little north of $100,000 today.  Lots with views of both the Cumberland and Smoky Mountains are offered starting around $125,000.  Construction costs run about $150 per square foot. 100_2838avalond

    The single-family homes in the neighborhood called The Links, ranging in size up to 4,500 square feet on three levels, are priced starting at $540,000.  Lawn maintenance is available at $75 per month.  Elsewhere in the community, custom single-family homes range in price up to $1.2 million, about the lowest ceiling we have seen in any nice golfing community in the southeast and indicative that Knoxville has still not yet been fully discovered.
    Avalon is attractively located less than a half hour from the city and its airport, and about five miles from significant shopping and hospitals.  Real estate agents selling property in Avalon tout its location and claim they have been selling property to residents of the Rarity Communities and Tellico Village, large projects about 40 minutes to the east that require drives of more than 45 minutes to reach Knoxville.   [More below]  

    We are beginning to wonder whether Tiger Woods is good for golf.  Certainly, one can argue that when someone emerges as the best of his time or maybe ever, that is a good thing for a sport.  Tiger does things to and with a golf ball the likes of which I have not seen in my 60 years.  He may be the most recognizable athlete in the world, and in being so fit and trim and strong, he has banished, for the time being, the question of whether golfers are athletes or not.  He is quite decidely an athlete.  Thank you, Tiger, for that.

    But for all the hoopla, has the game of golf been advantaged by the age of the Tiger?  Last year the number of golf courses closed exceeded the number opened, the first time in memory that has happened.  What about all that new young blood Tiger's popularity would bring to the sport?  You would think that the growing popularity of golf in urban and suburban areas would translate into new municipal golf courses, but with the exception of a few high-end daily fee tracks, we haven't experienced a swell of new course development.  Indeed, if it weren't for the still significant number of golf courses helping to sell real estate, the net loss of new holes would have been much greater last year.

    Because golf is not a team sport, one dominant individual can dull the excitement of competition.  When you consider that Thursday begins with about 150 people in a tournament, and that just a few strokes separate the scoring averages of the top guys from the bottom guys, you realize just how dominant Tiger is. He appears to win when he wants to win, and it has gotten to the point -- at least for this observer -- that it is almost more interesting when he isn't close.  Until Sean O'Hair's dunking on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass yesterday, the storyline was would Phil choke and/or would the kid hold up.  If Tiger's involved, most of the time you have the questions answered before the denouement.  I thought there was more drama yesterday.

    Finally, golf is a game best watched, and played, in quiet, if not silence.  Quiet is the petri dish in which all the tiny little flaws of the game, as well as the perfectly struck shots and brilliantly conceived strategies, can be analyzed by our microscopes.  Tiger's popularity has brought with it new on-course spectators who act as if they are at an Ultimate Fighting match every time Tiger makes a swing, whether a drive or a 10-foot putt.  It is enough to scare little children, or old guys who remember the days at tournaments when it was so quiet you could hear a ball drop.

    So is Tiger good or not for golf?  We invite comments. 


Sunday, 13 May 2007 07:01

Ladies Day

    In honor of the mother of my children, I am taking the rest of today off.  However, before I do, I wanted to say that this week's LPGA tour event is being held at Kingsmill's River Course, a classic layout we played last month and liked a lot.  Kingsmill offers a nice spot for a golfing vacation as well as an opportunity to live permanently in a vibrant resort community.  Golf in the Williamsburg, VA, area, as we wrote here recently, is terrific, almost all of it accessible to the public (except for Governor's Land, which is a gated community with a private course).

    One last observation about this weekend's tournament:  As any student of American history knows, the name Lee is renowned in the state of Virginia, and it is of ironic consequence that half of the top 8 in the field going into Sunday's final round bear the same last name as the famous General Lee.  These golfing Lees, however, are all of Korean extraction and illustrate the swift changing of the guard in professional ladies golf.


    Happy Mother's Day! 

    As a real estate market junkie, I love the web site Zillow.com and return to it occasionally to check on the latest market estimates for our primary and vacation homes, as well as those of our neighbors and friends.  But I certainly don't trust its accuracy and wouldn't price my house based on Zillow's estimates.     

    Zillow, which accumulates its data from many public sources, claims 70 million U.S. homes in its database, but a one-hour search of homes up and down the east coast left a little to be desired. I plugged in the addresses of a dozen homes in golf course communities we have visited, and only a handful showed any results at all (although figures for homes in the immediate neighborhood were listed).  To give Zillow a fair shake, I made sure not to include any home sites or homes less than two years old.  

    Also, when I tried to get a value for our eight-year old condo unit in Pawleys Island, SC, in a building that comprises five other units, just two of the six units were displayed, even though they were built at the same time, sold roughly at the same time and their records are kept in the same county office. 

    Sometimes the estimates are a little loopy.  Zillow provides one set figure but also includes a range from low to high estimate.  Our next-door neighbor's condo unit - ours was not assessed - has a Zillow estimate, or "Zestimate," of $502,000. Trust me, that is way over the mark by at least $125,000.     

    We scanned a few real estate sites in the southeast for homes currently for sale and then matched their asking prices against Zillow's estimates.  In Aiken, SC, either folks are smoking something when they list their houses, or Zillow's estimates are ludicrously low.  For example, a four-bedroom golf course home at 437 Woodlake Drive is listed at $598,000, but Zillow's estimate is a paltry $270,000 (and the top of its range, $429K, doesn't come close to the asking price). 

    Another Aiken listing for a four-bedroom home, at 312 Willow Lake Court, shows Zillow's estimate $180,000 less than the asking price of $640,000. On the other hand, Zillow did a pretty good job of nailing an estimate for our primary house in Connecticut, although clearly it hadn't caught up with some major renovations we did on the house two years ago.     

    In the end, Zillow is most helpful as a clearinghouse for selling prices in your neighborhood or the area you want to move to.  It is just another tool at your disposal when selling or buying a home, but as with a hammer or saw, use Zillow with some degree of caution.     Web site:  www.zillow.com


High point: You can see most of the layout, community and Blue Ridge Mountains from the highest elevations of the Reems Creek golf course.


    Reems Creek does not provide the sleek, sophisticated country club experience of other communities in the Asheville, NC area.  Its links-style golf course is semi-private, permitting daily fee play, although members receive preferential starting times.  Houses are fairly close to the golf course perimeter, somewhat encroaching visually on the golfing experience, but the designers made sure to bury some of the routing below the house line.  That causes the layout, designed by the English firm Hawtree & Son, to feature some unnervingly blind shots and some bizarre lay-ups, such as a five-iron tee shot on a par four.  Water comes into play only on two holes. 

    At less than 6,500 yards from the tips, the layout is not long, but it is tricky enough to warrant a rating of 71.9 and slope of 133.  From the white tees, at just 6,100 yards, the course will present little challenge to those with less than low-teens handicaps.  The golf course was in fine shape when we played it a little over a year ago, although the fairway grass was a little thin, and it offered enough high-risk, high-reward shots to be worthy of a return trip someday.
    Greens fees are a bargain at $49 on the weekends (just $44 during the week).  Fees are even less if you hold an "area's resident" card.  Non-equity membership initiation is just $5,000, which includes pool, tennis courts and driving range that aims straight up a hill toward a pair of houses we estimated were about a John Daly drive away.  Dues are quite low at $170 per month, and we found it charming that members are not billed for their dues; "It is the member's responsibility to pay," says the membership information sheet.     

    Reems Creek is located in Weaverville, about a 20-minute drive north of Asheville.  The course and surrounding real estate is owned by the developers of Kenmure, a more upscale community about a half-hour south of Asheville.  What Reems Creek may lack in panache, it more than makes up for in real estate prices considerably lower than other area golfing communities. It is still possible to purchase a Reems Creek lot with mountain and/or golf course views for less than $100,000 and, if you don't need the golf view, for around $50,000 for a half-acre.  New homes start at around $300,000.  Exterior house styles in the community are eclectic; we saw the entire range, with some brick, some wood, some plantation style and some that appeared almost New England colonial.    

    The town of Weaverville supplies all services to Reems Creek, including public water and sewer.  Utilities are underground, preserving the nice views from most spots in the development.   The homeowners association is "voluntary" and, therefore, owners are not assessed any fees.  Supermarkets, houses of worship and fast-food restaurants are within just 10 minutes, with a hospital, university, cultural and entertainment options and fine dining an additional 10 minutes away.  Asheville Airport is a good 30 minutes.
    Not as high in elevation and price points as other communities in the Asheville area, Reems Creek is not lowdown by any means.  From the high point at the middle of the golf course, you can see just about the entire community and the rest of the course.  Views of mountain ridges from local homes are good, and views from them of the golf course are excellent.  The popular city of Asheville is a convenient 20 minutes away.  Housing is about 20% less than in other golf course communities within an hour, and Reems Creek golf fees are tens of thousands of dollars less than local private clubs.
    We have more information on Asheville and its golf course communities.  Send us a note, and we will be happy to fill you in.  If you are interested in exploring the Asheville area's golfing communities, let us know and we will provide you with the name and contact information of an agent who can take you through those communities that best suit your interests.  We do this at no cost or obligation to you.


Five-iron is all you need or want at the 348-yard par 4 5th hole at Reems Creek. 

Thursday, 10 May 2007 07:58

Invasion of the teenage golfers

    This post is a little late today.  The Simsbury, CT, Westminster School's golf team is coming to dinner tonight, what they call succinctly a "team feed."  I've been out all morning trying to do the impossible; i.e. figure out just how much a group of 14 teenagers will eat for dinner.  Quality of the food is rarely the issue with teenage boys, although we're going to grill some nice marinated chicken and pork.  The issue is always the quantity.  To hedge our bets, we bought enough to feed a small nation.
     The team's season is off to a great start.  With three seniors, a junior and two freshmen on the starting six, they have won 10 of 11 matches and avenged an early loss to Avon Old Farms School with a big win last week.  The group of seniors, which includes my son Tim, is headed to Davidson College, the University of Virginia, and Washington & Lee College (Tim's choice).  It has been fun to follow their progress over the last four years and to see how their games have grown along with their bodies. 

    Most gratifying has been their recognition that they don't get points for hitting the ball as far as possible.  At yesterday's match, I saw as many 3-woods and 5-woods off the tees on tight par 5s as I saw driver.  Slowly, they are learning to use some management techniques on the course.  Double bogies or worse are becoming rare.
    Two huge matches loom for Westminster before the season ends on May 23, including the nine-team league championship and the Kingswood-Oxford Invitational, which includes a strong 25-team field.  In Tim's sophomore year, Westminster won both tournaments and finished with the best record in school history, 45-3.  The team will be trying to run the table and pass that record as a sendoff for the seniors.  The five scores of the six that count toward the team totals will need to be in the 70s for Westminster to have a chance.  We'll chart their progress here as they go for the glory.

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