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    Yesterday's trip to the mailbox was eventful.  The new Zagat guide to America's Top Golf Courses arrived.  We were pleased to see a few old friends rated near the top of the list of the nation's best public-accessible courses.
    The Zagat guide gives all of us golfers the opportunity to be a rater, just like the guys at Golf Digest.  Zagat publishes its rankings based on four criteria -- the quality of the course, the facilities, services and perceived value - and also lists the average cost of greens fee.  
    Only two tracks rated perfect scores of 30 in the new 2007/08 edition -- the Pacific Dunes course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, and the Whistling Straits course in Kohler, Wisconsin.  One of our favorites, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, finished at an overall rating of 29, joining such elite company as Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black, Spyglass Hill, The Ocean Course at Kiawah and Kapalua Plantation on Maui.
    "Guide" is the operative word for the Zagat rankings. What accounts for a less-than-two-year old course in Connecticut, the well-regarded Lake of Isles North, rating the same as Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black and the others at 29?  Perhaps those who have played it need to justify the $200 they paid.  Also, Crumpin Fox, a much beloved course in Massachusetts that we have played, rates the same as Pinehurst #2 and the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass (a score of 28).  Sorry.  Crumpin Fox's loyal following has either lost its collective mind or never played Pinehurst #2 or Sawgrass (we're betting on the latter).  
    Also of note are the highly rated courses in golf course communities we intend to visit in the coming months, chief among them the Oconee and Great Waters courses at Reynolds Plantation, in rural Georgia which pulled in a rating of 28.  Reynolds is just across Lake Oconee from Cuscowilla, the terrific Moore/Crenshaw layout we played last summer.  It rates a 27 in the Zagat guide but, trust me, it is at least as good as Crumpin Fox.
    The Zagat guide is $15.95 and can be ordered through the company's web site at www.zagat.com.  If you participate in next year's survey, Zagat will send you a free copy.  Details are at the web site.

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Seeing red: Cuscowilla's traps are mentioned in the latest Zagat guide.

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Wednesday, 04 April 2007 06:43

Zillow fun, not very accurate

    Zillow.com is a great idea, a site where homeowners and potential buyers, as well as nosy neighbors, can get an up-to-date appraisal of values for most homes in the U.S.  In theory, Zillow does what your real estate agent is supposed to do, but without a contract or promise of commission.  But how helpful are its estimates?
    Our response is "not very," at least not yet.
    To arrive at a "Zestimate," or an appraisal of a specific home's value, Zillow incorporates previous selling prices, comparable selling prices in the area and all the niggling little details about individual homes (such as number of rooms, square footage, taxes, etc.).  Zillow falls short in that it can't get down to the level of granite kitchen counters vs. formica, or upgraded faucets vs. builders' basics.

    We've taken Zillow for test drives before and have found its results inconsistent, sometimes spitting out numbers for our neighbors' (and our) homes that seem realistic, and at other times going off the reality charts.  Not every home in America is in Zillow's database, and when we checked on a listing for our condo in Pawleys Island today, it was not there.  But our next-door neighbor's home, with the same layout and square footage as our unit but with less of a view, was Zestimated - at a whopping $493,000.  That is a good $175,000 more than what local real estate agents say would be a realistic fetching price for such a unit.  Mind you, Zillow does cover itself by including a range of values for the unit, in this case from just under $300,000 to the what-are-you-smoking top price of $780,000.   

    Our advice is to use Zillow just for hoots for now, but if you are planning on selling your house - or buying one, for that matter - you will still get the best estimate from a qualified real estate agent.


    Note:  GolfCommunityReviews has no marketing arrangements with any golf course communities or clubs.  We report what strikes our fancy and what we think will be of interest to our readers.
 
    The large golf resort community of Sea Trail in Sunset Beach, NC, just north of the South Carollina state line and North Myrtle Beach, has opened two additional neighborhoods -- SeaHorse Estates and Eastwood Bluff.  SeaHorse comprises 1/2 to 1 acre estate-sized lots located on the first three holes of the community's Rees Jones golf course.  The Jones course last year played host to a U.S. Open qualifying round.  Eastwood Bluff's three-story town homes are situated along the community's Willard Byrd golf course.  Byrd's courses typically include generously sized fairways and greens.  The town homes feature more than 2,300 square feet and a private elevator and garage.

    The courses at Sea Trail are accessible to the public but also accept memberships.  Those who maintain second-homes in the community can opt for a set number of rounds annually for a set price.  Fifteen rounds are just $510, and 150 rounds are $4,200, or less than $30 per round if you use them all.  We are still scratching our heads over Sea Trail's unlimited golf membership dues of $3,900, which represents a better deal than the 150 rounds rate.  We will ask about that when we take advantage of Sea Trail's reasonable $99 Real Estate Discovery Package, which includes accommodations and breakfast.  Their web site is a little stingy with prices on the new communities so give them a call if you are interested.  Contact Sea Trail at 800-338-9672 or visit the web site at www.seatrail.com .       

    If $99 a night seems reasonable, you might want to visit Brunswick Plantation in Calabash, NC, just down the road from Sea Trail.  An overnight stay is just $40 per night per couple (their literature does not indicate how long you can stay, but at that rate it could be cheaper than renting long term).  Brunswick's 1,750 acres include waterfront home sites, lakeside condos, furnished golf villas, and town homes with garages.  Its 27 holes of golf were designed by Willard Byrd (18) and Clyde Johnston (9).  Home sites are available from the $90s, homes from the $300s and town homes from $340,000.  The fully furnished condos start at $250,000.  The web site is www.BrunswickPlantation.com .  Telephone is 800-835-4533.

Sunday, 01 April 2007 19:00

Tell us where to go

    How often do you get an offer like that?  We are planning our upcoming research trips to visit golf course communities in some of the more popular areas in the southern U.S.  Here are a few of the areas we are contemplating:

    The Texas Hill Country, the area roughly between Austin and San Antonio, TX.

    The Southport, NC, area (north of Myrtle Beach, SC, and south of Wilmington).

    The Gulf Coast areas of Biloxi, MS, and Mobile, AL.

    Charlotte, NC.

    If you have specific communities in mind in any of these areas that you want us to check out, make sure we know.  We will do our best to visit and will report back on what we find.  To indicate your preference, or to suggest other areas we should visit in the future, simply register to the right (under the login area), then click on "Comments" at the bottom of this post and indicate your choice(s).
    Many thanks for visiting GolfCommunityReviews.
    "This isn't going to be over in a year.  Housing prices could be declining for years and years."  -- Robert Shiller, Yale University economics professor.
    "We don't think the market is in that bad of shape.  It's just not in as good shape as it was two years ago."  -- John Karevoli, analyst at DataQuick Information Systems.

    Both gentlemen commented for an AP story on the forecast for housing prices this spring.  Shiller, as some may recall, titled one of his books "Irrational Exuberance," borrowing from a term used by former Fed Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in a speech in 1996 shortly before stock markets around the world plunged.
    "Nationally," the AP story said, "19 major metropolitan markets face a greater than 50 percent chance of housing price depreciation in the next two years, up from 11 markets a year ago," according to PMI Mortgage Insurance Company, which publishes regular predictions.  As has been the case for some time now, California and northeastern U.S. markets dominate the list, leading us once again to advise that if you have your sites set on a home in the south and you are going to use the value of your home in the northeast to pay for it, waiting for the markets to snap back may be a fool's paradise.  The gap in housing values north and south continues to widen.
    You can find a list of markets ranked by risk at USA Today.  No fooling.
    You have to go pretty deep into the list of metro areas with the highest rate of sub-prime mortgages delinquencies before you come to an area in the southeastern U.S.  The Wall Street Journal on Thursday (3/29) published a list of the 30 areas that suffered the highest rate of delinquencies in 2006 compared with the prior year.  Cities in California led the list, with Sacramento at the top with a 10.7% year over year increase.  We noted some surprising weakness in Massachusetts (blue collar Brockton had the third highest rate at 9.7%).
    Melbourne, FL, at #27, was the only area in the southeast to make the top-30 list, which was published in the print edition of the Journal.  On an extended list at the Journal’s online web site, other Florida metro areas were listed in the top 50, but you have to go all the way down to 59th place before you find a non-Florida city in the southeast, Danville, VA, not exactly a hotbed for golf communities.  The first southeast city, outside of Florida, that we consider to be a lure to golfers and/or retirees is 101st ranked Athens, GA, where delinquencies increased 4.33% year over year.  Athens is an up and coming university town that offers a vibrancy and range of living options we’ve come to expect from towns with a major university, in this case the University of Georgia.
    Cities in the Carolinas were much farther down the list.  The list is available at the Journal's online site.

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    After playing many golf community courses younger than our teenagers, it is refreshing to step back in time and play a classic course like the Farmington Club in Charlottesville, VA whose history, in at least one way, traces back to the 18th Century.  Just four miles from Thomas Jefferson’s own home at Monticello, the third U.S. President designed in 1803 two-rooms in an octagon shape as an addition to his friend George Divers’ plantation house in the Farmington Estate.  Today, the octagon serves as a grand side entrance and room for Farmington’s welcoming clubhouse.
    The surrounding neighborhood is Charlottesville’s richest and includes tidy little brick homes with three bedrooms as well as estates behind large iron gates.  Even the small homes sit on multi-acre plots of land.  Unlike in many newer communities, the houses do not intrude on the golf course, yet during our round we encountered an annoying number of out-of-bounds stakes marking the “back 40” of the properties.  It was the only even slightly false note struck during the round, which we played with HomeOnTheCourse subscriber Bob Harris, former dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. 
    The Fred Findlay-designed golf course was built in 1927, during the golden age of American golf course architecture, and although it underwent a late 1980s redesign by Buddy Loving, the layout oozes with 1920s cachet. The three nines at Farmington are not long, and they put a premium on shot making on virtually every play.  The nines are played in three combinations; the South/North combo, at 6,600 yards from the back tees, is the original 18 and the standard.  The East nine (2,862 yards) was added in 1965 and is of a different character, considerably shorter and easier than the other nines, but with tighter landing areas and smaller greens. 
    The North/South routing (rating of 71.6 with a slope of 128) is a course of modest elevation changes, some gentle and some sharp doglegs, and tilted fairways that force you to think about placement from virtually every tee box.  We noted that some fairways tilted rather dramatically, calling for shaping of tee shots if you wanted a short approach, but penalizing you if you overcooked the draw or fade even a little.  Farmington puts a premium on the short game, and its short-practice facilities are about the best we have seen.  They include a large practice putting green, a green for long pitch shots (up to 70 yards) and a chipping green that includes a well-groomed sand trap with a range of angles and slopes from which to practice.  100_2035.JPG
    Farmington’s driving range is fairly standard fare, and shorter than most at just 250 yards.  Modified golf balls are provided; they fly normally up to about 140 yards, but beyond that their launch distance is ratcheted back (we don’t understand the physics of it, but the ball didn’t exactly fly off the clubface).  The limited balls are fine for warming up but not for getting the “feel” of four-iron shots.    
    Farmington’s 1,200 members are a comfortable mix of working families in their 30s and 40s and retirees.  The amenities appeal to all; Farmington offers more sporting amenities than most other clubs, with 18 tennis courts (three indoor) that are well used by its members, a large swimming pool, and a well-equipped fitness center the equal of those in most new communities.  Locker room facilities and the dining room are what you would expect, which is to say they befit the overall traditional private club atmosphere.   The club’s dining facilities enjoy a solid reputation; the food we had at lunch was excellent.
    Initiation fees for a family (or couple) is $29,000, with monthly dues currently $400 per month.  You will need one member to propose you and two to second the nomination.  Homes in the adjacent Farmington neighborhood average around $2 million and don’t dip much below $1.5 million.  A viable alternative is Ednam Forest nearby, an established community with an eclectic mix of homes in a heavily wooded area and prices about 25% less than in Farmington.
    How many golf clubs can boast a clubhouse designed by a U.S. President?  You will need to make a few friends to sponsor you for membership, but take some courses at UVA and one of your professors could very well be a member.  But while you are waiting to be approved, the excellent, University of Virginia owned and managed Birdwood course is across the street.  For Farmington membership information, contact Membership Coordinator Clare Rannigan at 434-245-0684, or crannigan@fccva.com.

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There is a lot of history around, and even on, the course at Farmington.

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Pyramid scheme:  Glenmore's driving range is amply sized and professionally outfitted.

Golf Course Review 

    Glenmore is one of those communities that suddenly appears along a stretch of country road and, yet, is close to everything.  Just a 20-minute drive to the University of Virginia, the gated Glenmore is also conveniently close to all other conveniences and necessities, like hospitals and shopping within 15 minutes.  Its east-of-Charlottesville location offers alternative air transportation options for those willing to drive about an hour to Richmond International Airport.  The Washington, D.C., area airports are two hours away. 
    Glenmore appeals to those who still work and those who don’t with roughly equal numbers of retirees, young families and empty nesters who are still working at least part time.  “The home office,” says lead broker Tom Pace, “is an important room to have [in Glenmore].”
    Housing runs the gamut in the community.  We found what Glenmore calls their “Scottish Homes” to be especially interesting.  Eleven choices of models are available.  At 2,100 to 3,700 square feet on lots from 2/10 and acre to ½ acre, these low maintenance homes fetch prices from around $550,000 to $800,000.  For $1,000 annually, an outside contractor handles all landscaping on the property, including mowing, mulch, fertilizer and aeration.  As for homes in the rest of the 1,300-acre community, they tend toward indigenous brick exteriors, with a good representation of hardy plank and stone.  Pace says Glenmore’s “bread and butter” house is about 3,000 square feet and sells for around $750,000.  There are no multi-family homes in Glenmore, although cottages are available (close together and some as small as 1,700 square feet) in the $400K range.  Owners of the cottages are required to purchase landscaping services for about $800 annually.  Houses in the rest of Glenmore range in price from $550,000 to more than $2 million.
    Glenmore has not been stingy with its non-residential land; 500 acres, including walking trails, a two-acre park, athletics fields and the golf course, will not be developed.  Just a small handful of Glenmore’s 800 lots remain available, and almost 700 of them have houses already.  This is a popular community near a popular town for both workers and retirees, and Glenmore’s resale values over the last few years have been strong. 
    100_2234The John LaFoy-designed golf course, which preceded the rest of the community, has the same kind of wide appeal as does the community that surrounds it.  LaFoy, a former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, is an authority on the classic designers, and among his body of work are renovations of courses originally designed by Alister Mackenzie, Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross and Charles Blair MacDonald.  As we made our way around Glenmore’s challenging track, we saw multiple classic influences in the Scottish-style bunkering, undulating and large greens, and sometimes dramatic changes in elevation (a number of those big greens sat well above the fairways). 
    Tree lines provided nice framing for both fairways and some of the greens, and houses rarely encroached.  Greens were aerated and heavily top-dressed when we played the course, but the rest of the layout was in nice condition; we didn’t have a bad lie in fairways.  Our only wish is that Glenmore would relocate the large, dark scoreboard that dominates the back of the 18th green.  Better to let the dramatic clubhouse form an uninterrupted backdrop on this good finishing hole.
    Full family golf membership initiation fee is $20,000 with monthly dues of $411, both reasonable not only for golf of this quality but also for the 15 tennis courts (nine lighted), fitness center, and large swimming pool, as well as both casual and more serious dining in the clubhouse, with views out to and across the Rivanna River to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
    From the Scottish style homes to the golf course design unashamedly influenced by Ross, McKenzie and the other greats, Glenmore is true to its name.  Coming up the long, uphill finishing hole to the dramatic clubhouse, only the elimination of the scoreboard and addition of a bagpiper might have improved the scene.  For info, contact Lead Broker Tom Pace at 800-776-5111, or TPGlenmore@aol.com.  Website:  www.glenmore.com
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Eyes have it:  You wonder if architect John LaFoy was having a little fun when he put a "human face" on one of the holes at Glenmore.

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House on the hill:  Keswick Hall dominates the landscape at Keswick Estate, as do the sand bunkers at the Arnold Palmer-designed course.

    Keswick Estate tends to its image with more care and self-consciousness than any other golfing community in the Charlottesville, VA, area.  It offers no condos or patio lots; the price points on its lots and large houses ensure that no riff raff will sully the community’s image or resale values.  The owners, British firm Orient-Express, welcome well-heeled guests in the 48-room Keswick Hall, a circa-1912 yellow stucco mansion that was purchased and tripled in size by Sir Bernard Ashley in 1990, who sold land and mansion to Orient-Express in 1999.
    One of the first things Cary Brent did in 2002 when Orient-Express hired him as director of estate development at Keswick was to double the price of the fledgling community’s lots.  It made him a popular guy among those who had paid modest prices for their properties.  It also helped remake the property’s image and reflected the Orient-Express plan to go slow in selling properties.  Brent says Orient-Express did not want to sell out the lots in just one or two years, preferring to take some time to upgrade the community’s reputation (and its selling prices).  The strategy appears to have worked; only a handful have sold in each of the last four years, but prices have increased significantly.  Today, with homes priced at $1.5 million and above, Keswick is at the highest end of Charlottesville’s golf community market.
    “People who live here [at Keswick],” Brent says matter of factly, “can live anywhere in the world.”
    Why then Keswick?  For one thing, privacy counts most in the community, which is home to a number of current and former CEOs, investors and entrepreneurs.  A manned security gate controls access to the community and resort house.  Membership in the golf club is capped at 450, but the roster is well short of that today and may never reach maximum, although the course has a few members from the surrounding community.  The club generates only 10,000 rounds a year, and an average round clocks in at just 3½ hours.  The Initiation fee for full golf is relatively low at $27,000, with dues a modest $365 per month.  Membership, which includes use of the five tennis courts and three swimming pools (indoor and outdoor), is not mandatory for homeowners.
    At 600 acres, with two-acre minimums for lots, Keswick is small as well as exclusive.  Thanks to local zoning regulations that have designated the town as “agricultural,” Keswick won’t have to bother with encroaching real estate development.  Despite its location in the middle of Virginia horse country, Keswick is just a 15-minute drive to Charlottesville and all it has to offer.  Grocery shopping and a hospital are even closer.
    We found the golf course a pleasant routing but overwrought in a few places.  We can’t say we are the biggest fans of Arnold Palmer courses, and Keswick did not cause us to reevaluate.  Palmer has reworked the Fred Findlay design by adding some huge traps, distracting from the natural contours and elevations that give the course its true character in the first place. Findlay has an established reputation as a fine early 20th Century architect – we will review his Farmington Golf Club in the next day or two -- and we can’t imagine his original layout needing such a dramatic makeover.  Arnie’s golf game was always aggressive, and sometimes his golf course designs reflect that, as it does at Keswick.  100_2122.JPG
    That said, the course was in fine condition, and the less overly expressed holes provided challenging shot-making opportunities.  The practice range includes a small, canopied shelter for those who like to practice in the rain.  The range isn’t large or fancy, but it doesn’t have to be since the course doesn’t generate much traffic.
    Every city area seems to have one upscale golf community, and in Charlottesville, that distinction goes to Keswick.  Although its golf course is not the most celebrated in the area, Keswick’s sophisticated air is undeniable.  Its homes are big and better spaced than in most communities.  From its perch on the hill, Keswick Hall defines the character of the community –- refined, solid and self-assured.  For more info, contact Cary Brent at 434-923-4320 or cbrent@keswick.com.  Web site:  www.keswick.com

    University towns are hot retirement destinations for baby boomers longing to return to school, at least part time, but infrastructure hasn’t always kept pace.  Traffic in the increasingly popular Charlottesville, some longtime local residents say, has increased palpably in recent years, and the city’s and county’s fathers have been slow to make the necessary improvements and expansions.  Instead, they have focused on cleaning up and gentrifying downtown areas. 
    From what we observed during a four-day stay last year, they have done a terrific job of that but, of course, an attractive downtown brings more people into the city, exacerbating the traffic problems.  Only recently have the city and county begun to seriously consider creation of a regional transportation authority to deal with the problems.
    The 25-year old Downtown Mall, which replaced a formerly seedy commercial area, features 120 shops, 30 restaurants and no cars, although parking garages and lots are within a block or two.  A free trolley service runs between the university and The Mall and picks up people along the way.  The Mall is great for people-watching, and the food we had at three of its restaurants was good to outstanding.  (The best was Zo-Ca-Lo, which serves inventive fare with a slight Latin embellishment; the Downtown Grille and Blue Light were good but not as inventive.)   100_2180.JPG
    The Mall is eight blocks long, bracketed at one end by a big Omni Hotel and indoor ice rink, and at the other end by an amphitheatre that attracts top talent like country and western stars Dwight Yoakum and George Jones, as well as the Black Crowes and Bruce Hornsby.  With the opening last August of the new $130 million, 15,000-seat University of Virginia basketball arena, even more headline acts will be coming to the area (and more non-students will be able to attend the basketball games).
    The Mall has sparked construction of condos and the refurbishment of existing apartments in the surrounding neighborhoods.   At The Randolph, a five-story condo building two blocks from The Mall, the price range is $350,000 to $800,000 for 1,200 to 2,200 square foot units.   A few townhouses and condos in the downtown area passed the $1 million threshold for the first time recently.
    Of course, Charlottesville might be just another one-horse town if it weren’t for its anchor and major reason for being, the University of Virginia, one of the best public universities in the nation.  The school’s undergraduate population includes nearly 1,000 students from 90 countries, and this adds a cosmopolitan tone to the city. 
    The university also appeals to the non-traditional-aged student, with a roster of interesting courses, public lectures and other sponsored activities. We spoke with Sondra Stollard, dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, who described intellectual activities that span degree programs, certificate programs and an innovative “Community Scholar” program.  More than 1,000 Community Scholars from the area, including talented high school students and senior citizens with a passion for a particular subject, attend selected UVA classes with undergrads.      
    The school’s “personal enrichment program” provides a wide array of subjects for those who want to explore their inner child-literature writer, landscape architect, or Monticello expert (Jefferson’s legendary home is just a few miles away and a must side trip for those visiting the city).  Dean Stollard says these courses have “a strong academic bent, no fluff,” that they last a semester and that many “sell out fast.”
    The Jefferson Institute for Lifelong Learning (JILL), which UVA helped develop as an alternative to its own more intensive and expensive curriculum, offers day courses for those who have transportation issues or just want to spend their evenings at home.   Many JILL courses are taught by former UVA faculty, as well as by local business people.  Recent course titles included “Writing Your Memoirs,” the canal and people of Panama, and the poetry of Alexander Pope.  JILL’s students range in age from the 30s to 80s, with most in their 60s.
    The golfing communities we visited in the area, none more than 40 minutes from the city, offer a wide range of lifestyles, housing options and pricings.  The farthest from Charlottesville, at 30 miles, is the Wintergreen Resort, which offers two-season recreation, with an emphasis on golf and skiing (we reviewed the community here on Feb. 23).  On some days during the winter, you can do both.  Residents don’t seem to mind sharing their space with resort guests; indeed, many current residents first came for a weekend and later purchased a home in Wintergreen.  One other unique and commendable feature of the resort:  More than half its 11,000 acres will remain natural forever.
    The three other communities we visited are closer to the city.  Old Trail, in Crozet, which we reviewed here on March 8, is the least established, about 18 months old and still in development mode.  Its golf course will always be daily fee, and so it doesn’t offer a private club experience.  Its attraction is in the variety of housing it offers, the services planned within walking distance of all its homes, and its proximity to Charlottesville (20 minutes). 
    Keswick Estate is the most exclusive of the area’s communities, offering two-acre lots at up to $900,000 and homes that average over $2 million.  The course, an Arnold Palmer re-design of a Fred Findlay classic, is for the exclusive use of Keswick’s members, many of whom are residents, as well as guests of the 48-room mansion on the hill that overlooks the community. 
    Glenmore, at about 20 minutes from the city and an hour from Richmond, presents a more traditional golf community on a piece of property with enough elevation changes to provide lofty views from the golf course and many of the homes.  We thought the John LaFoy-designed course was challenging and scenic and the community an attractive mix of housing options. 
    We'll review Keswick and Glenmore, as well as the terrific and private Farmington Country Club, in the days that follow.

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