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The venerable Sea Gull Golf Club was one of the original 19 courses in the Myrtle Beach area around 1970 when I played my first rounds of golf on the Grand Strand. Over the next four decades, it was joined by 100 other courses, each vying for the hundreds of thousands of golfers that came every year to the Strand to feast on golf’s grandest buffet . All that choice seemed too good to be true, and it was.
In the last few years, nearly two-dozen courses have closed on the Strand, and one has gone totally private (the Surf Club). Competition and September 11 sealed the fate of the more mundane layouts. Even the “Grandaddy” of them all, Pine Lakes, has closed until 2008 to redo the course and add housing to its perimeter.
Sea Gull never closed, never gave in to an offer it couldn’t refuse from developers looking to convert the fairways to condos and patio homes. But the course did fall on hard times; its original layout by Gene Hamm came to be seen as a somewhat boring throwback to an era when the architect’s name didn’t matter and when large fairways and greens ruled. But with dramatically festooned courses nearby by Mike Strantz and Jack Nicklaus, Sea Gull was ignored, despite bargain basement greens fees. And as revenues decreased, so too did maintenance standards. Add to that the club’s location at the farthest southern extremity of the Strand, 40 miles from the popular beach hotels, and Sea Gull didn’t have a chance.
Enter the Classic Golf Group, which was willing to commit $7 million saving an enhancing their only course on the south end of the beach to complement their other four courses further north. The Classic Group hired Palm City, FL, architect Thomas Walker, former lead designer in the Gary Player shop, who started moving earth around last July. We stopped by yesterday and were impressed with the activity, although a promised fall opening still looks like a stretch…unless they mean the last day of fall. The holes are laid out, and the greens have their mix of foundation soils in place, waiting for seed. It looks to us as if it will be close.
A peek at a few holes indicates Walker has brought water closer to play, especially on the 9th along Highway 17. An innocent narrow lagoon that ran halfway down the left side of the fairway has been widened, and the landing area from the tee box appears extremely narrow. It may either be a short par 5 or long 4, but whatever it is, the tee ball will be crucial. Behind the green are the largest mounds we have seen on a golf course; they will offer a backstop to overly aggressive approach shots but we think they may be more an aesthetic than strategic consideration. They block most of the view from the fairway of the two floors of the adjacent, rather tacky Best Western motel.
The brand new clubhouse is nearing completion. It is modest sized but Low-Country sleek and certainly fine for a daily fee course. The motel will need to be upgraded to keep the entire ensemble from looking a little cheesy, but with all those other fine courses mentioned above less than three miles from the Founders Club, and with proper marketing, the hotel should have a good excuse to spruce itself up and generate solid income by offering competitive golf packages.
The Founders Club will be part of the recently formed Waccamaw Golf Trail on the South Strand, and we’re hoping the new club provides a little price competition to Caledonia and the other courses on the Trail. When we called Caledonia three days ago for a walk-in golf rate, we were told the current fee is $192. At least the cart is included.
Magazines like Golfweek bash some community courses for letting homes get too close. One remedy is to hide them, as Thomas Walker will do at The Founders Club, set to open in the fall. Walker's mounds behind the 9th green attempt to hide a two-floor hotel.
The founders of Old Chatham in Chapel Hill, NC, were looking to establish a private club purely dedicated to golf, and they chose wisely in giving the design job to Rees Jones. Out of the club’s 400 acres, two-thirds of which abut Federally owned land, Jones fashioned a course that fits comfortably into the wooded, rolling terrain. The layout plays 7,200 yards from the tips, with the 630-yard 11th the longest hole. The fairways are Jones generous, and the deep fairway bunkers and two-inch Bermuda rough come into play only after the worst of tee shots. The bent grass greens are fast, averaging 10.5 to 11 on the stimpmeter. Once used to them, the everyday player should feel quite comfortable with the near perfect rolls. Old Chatham deserves its accolades, but accomplished every day players might tire a little of a course that provides little challenge from its tee boxes. Last July, the club hosted a two-round qualifier for the U.S. Amateur, and the low score was 132.
Old Chatham opened just two days before September 11, 2001, but the tragic events did not affect the club’s success; many of its memberships were pre-sold. Golf Digest declared it the best course in the area and the 10th best private course in the nation shortly after it opened. More recently, the magazine named it the 8th best course in North Carolina, not bad given the competition in a golf rich state that includes so many excellent courses in the Pinehurst area.
Old Chatham aims to be private in the manner of classic clubs, and you will need a nominator and two sponsors to be considered. At full membership, the club will have a roster of 280 members, a number of them non-resident, or “national,” members. If you long for a pure golf club on a fair golf course, without the encroachment of houses or tennis courts or swimming pools, you might want to start making friends now in the Chapel Hill area.
Old Chatham telephone: (919) 361 - 1400
Note: I did not personally visit Old Chatham, but my former colleague at HomeOnTheCourse and friend, Tom Hunter, did, and this review represents his observations, which are always astute. Tom is a resident of Chapel Hill.
The Governor’s Club is at the highest end of the communities we surveyed in the Chapel Hill area. It has the cachet not only of a Jack Nicklaus Signature 27-hole layout, but also the most carefully tended topography and house designs in the area. Rock outcroppings line the undulating roads in the community and frame dramatically designed homes, many perched on hills that provide unimpeded and lusty views of the golf course below.
The community is also the best positioned of the Chapel Hill golf properties. It is a mere 25-minute ride to Raleigh/Durham International airport, a major hub for American Airlines. Both the Duke and University of North Carolina medical schools and their well-regarded hospitals are relatively close –- UNC just 10 minutes away and Duke a half hour. With three renowned universities in close proximity (the other is NC State), the culture and entertainment options are plentiful. Two nationally rated restaurants –- The Fearington House and Il Palio –- are within 20 minutes. Sporting events, both collegiate and professional, are part of the fabric of life in this part of the Carolinas, and a number of Governor’s Club residents hold coveted season tickets to UNC and Duke basketball games, as well as for the hockey Hurricanes, who play in Raleigh, just a half hour outside the community’s gates. A recent-vintage shopping center is within 15 minutes and is anchored by a Nordstrom.
Governor’s Club, which comprises 1,600 acres, opened in 1988, with the first 18 holes of the golf course open for play in 1990. Almost all the original 1,200 lots have been sold, and the community is 75% built out. A few lots are currently on the resale market at prices ranging from $75,000 to $500,000. House sizes and prices run the gamut, from roughly $450,000 to more than $3 million.
Governor’s Club residents are willing to pay the highest tariffs in Chapel Hill to keep the community private, professional and pristine. Full golf membership is $30,000 (non-equity), with monthly dues of $550 (above average for the communities we have visited, and there is a current additional assessment of $30 per month for capital improvements). Dining room minimums, at $800 a year, are comparatively steep but ensure the restaurants are always busy and sharp and competitively priced (the food is excellent). Property owner annual dues of about $1,400 are quite reasonable for a high-quality community with 26 miles of roads and long stretches of sidewalks. It is also the only gated golf community in Chapel Hill.
The Nicklaus course is divided into the original “Lower 18” and the Mountain Course, which was added in 1995. Like the community itself, the nines go through many elevation changes; the Mountain nine is reminiscent of courses in the western part of the state. Several lakes and streams come into play, many reinforced by attractive stone walls, and the dramatic rock outcroppings along the course are not just there to embellish the views; they come into play as well. Native grasses and plantings, thankfully not out of bounds stakes, complete the scenery. Surprisingly, given the elevation changes, the course attracts a devoted group of walkers
Jack being Jack, the course is challenging, with a rating of 75.1 and slope of 144 from the tips (at 7,062 yards) and forcing high shots into many greens. Choosing the correct tee box for your round may be the most important decision you make all day, although it is hard to envision an easy round from anywhere but the front two of the five choices. The undulating greens and testing lies, even in the fairways, ensure you will not ever be bored. There are memorable holes on the course; one prime example is #4 on the Foothills Course, a par 5 with a third shot over a creek bed to an elevated green. Between the creek bed and the green, and 30 feet below the putting surface, is a huge bunker. Hit it there and you will be flying blind on your next shot, and maybe the one or two after it as well.
Choose to live at Governor’s Club, however, and you won’t be flying blind at all.
Chapel Ridge is a sister community to The Preserve, which we reviewed here yesterday, and although the two communities share the same Bluegreen Corporation parentage, the siblings have entirely different appeals. The golf course at Chapel Ridge is a pleasant stroll after an exhausting round at The Preserve, reflecting more the temperament of one of its designers, Fred Couples (architect Bob Moore probably did most of the work, since his name is listed first in the course descriptions). At 6,700 yards and a rating of 72.0, the course carries a modest slope of 126 (from the tips at 7,136, the slope is 132, not particularly robust at that distance). The predominant theme on the Chapel Ridge course is fairway turns, with more than half the par 4s featuring a dogleg, some significantly angled. The starting hole, a good one, makes a left turn about 230 yards out, a 30-yard long trap guarding the corner and plenty of room to the right (but of course with a longer shot from there to the green). The green featured a big swale in the middle.
One of the most unusual and challenging holes is #11, a par-5 dogleg right that plays to 544 yards. Hit a drive down the extreme right side of the fairway and you can reach the area just in front of the green with a fairway metal. If you prefer the conventional lay-up, you’ll need to hit to the far end of the fairway with the same club; come up a little short, and two thin trees on the right could affect your short iron to the green. A stream runs parallel to the fairway and up to the side of the green, waiting for shots pushed to the right.
As the course matures -- it is barely a year old -- it will provide members with plenty of variety. Initiation fees for the club are $5,000, with monthly dues of $160 for a family. For now, the course is also open to any non-member willing to pay the reasonable greens fees ($60 maximum).
Chapel Ridge’s relatively reasonable real estate prices and relaxed style are having broad appeal for young families and empty nesters on the brink of retirement, some of them with children attending nearby colleges. As is the case in new communities, early purchasers live with a lack of infrastructure and conveniences in exchange for introductory prices, but the clubhouse, pool and tennis courts are done. Lots are mostly in the ½ acre category, give or take a quarter acre, and range from $100,000 to $250,000, depending on size and view (the best views are of the surrounding hills and the golf course). All houses are custom built and they vary in style, but all are in character with this part of the south (meaning lots of wood and stone). Building costs average $150 or more per square foot. For now, property owner association dues are $600 annually, which includes use of the nice pool (with a large covered area), tennis courts, fitness center and property-owners clubhouse, which is separate from the small golf clubhouse that is open to the public.
Web site: www.chapelridgeinfo.com. Toll free: 866-301-4811.
You can go for the green in two at the par 5 11th, if you can keep your knees from knocking.
Coming tomorrow: The Governor's Club, high-end and high value in Chapel Hill.
The Davis Love design at The Preserve at Jordan Lake is tough, with many forced carries.
Few southeastern cities with golfing communities can boast also of professional sports franchises and big-time collegiate athletics. Miami, Atlanta and, to a lesser extent Charlotte, come to mind, but after that the pickings are slim –- until you look at the “triangle” of cities formed by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Today, the area has something much bigger cities can only dream about, a world champ team in the Stanley Cup winner Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League.
The University of North Carolina and its 26,000 students are the focal points in Chapel Hill, although Duke and NC State are within 35 minutes, and all the culture that revolves around a major university make the town one of the most desirable places to live in America. The area's international airport is within 35 minutes of most points in Chapel Hill, and healthcare, shopping and employment opportunities, especially in an area of so many universities and the famed Research Triangle Park, are plentiful. The restaurants are good and varied as well (Carolina barbecue, anyone?).
Chapel Hill golf communities are few in number but offer a range of options, real estate prices and golf courses. The Preserve at Lake Jordan presents a community at the rural edge of the Chapel Hill area, with reasonably priced homes for their size and location, as well as a tough golf course. Chapel Ridge, like The Preserve a member of the Bluegreen Corporation group, is just a little over a year old and will appeal to retirees as well as young families. The Bill Moore and Fred Couples-designed course is easy on the eyes and the scorecard. The Governor’s Club is the standard in the area by which all communities are measured. Its undulating roadways, dramatic rock outcroppings, challenging Nicklaus Signature Course and involved members ensure stability and solid resale values.
As an alternative to the golfing communities, Old Chatham, which had the misfortune of opening two days before 9/11/01, offers a strong private club ethos and the closest thing in Chapel Hill to a pure golf experience. No houses encroach on it. In coming days, we will review them all, starting here with The Preserve.
Love is all you need…if you are a masochist
The Preserve at Jordan Lake is more like The Preserve Near Jordan Lake; the lake is actually across the road from the entrance to the community. Nevertheless, the community has grown quickly since properties were first sold in 2002, the same year its golf course opened. More than 250 homes have been built and occupied on the community’s 516 lots, with scores currently under construction. That is a lot of activity for a community that imposes no timetable to build. Lots average ½ acre, although some top one acre, with prices in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. Nice-sized homes of 3,000 square feet begin at just above $500,000. The developers, the well-regarded Bluegreen Corporation, maintain a list of four “preferred” builders who account for more than 90% of the homes built to date.
The Preserve is not gated and, for the time being, anyone can play the “semi-private” course by calling for a tee time. The community, which has no townhouses or condos, has a neighborhood feel to it. Landscaping throughout is well maintained by the residents who are an equal mix of young professionals and “empty nesters,” age 55 and older. However, if you have done your job of raising kids and would like to be in the company of adults-only in your new community, The Preserve may not be your idea of laid-back retirement community. The young adults have produced a significant number of offspring.
All the customary amenities are available on the property. The fitness center is modern but small; more than the current two tennis courts may be needed at full build out. For water aficionados, Jordan Lake is close, but we did not have a peek at it as we made our way around the golf course.
The Preserve, which seems out in the country, is 30 minutes from mall shopping and 15 minutes from a supermarket and pharmacy, but commerce is coming closer every day; a few miles down NC Highway 64, the big handyman chains Lowes and Home Depot have both opened stores. The University of North Carolina Hospital is just 20 minutes away.
You’ll need to warm up on the irons-only practice range before you tackle the golf course. The course is a stiff challenge, right from its opening hole. A short par 5 at just 492 from the men’s tees (512 from the back), it is one of the toughest starters we have played, with a fairway that slopes severely left toward a creek and marsh area and then forces a second shot that must carry the same creek as it meanders across the fairway (and you better hit a power draw to position for a reasonable third shot). The pin on the elevated green was rear right, behind a menacing trap. We prefer our warm-up holes a tad less penal.
Later, have a Power Bar or two at the turn, because you’ll need the energy on the par four 10th. A dogleg right, it plays 438 from the men’s tees (470 from the back) over a stream, with a trap guarding the inside elbow at 222 yards out from the tee box. If you are fortunate to have hit a 250-yard drive down the left side of the fairway, only 180 yards or so remains to carry the stream that guards the front of the long, deep green. That is a big “if,” since the dog’s leg is narrowest where good drives should wind up. We won’t easily forget number 14 either, a 500-yard par 5 that dares you to carry a long second shot (or short-iron third) to pin positions set beyond 30 feet of false front. “False” is putting it mildly, since the front goes almost straight up. We wondered if they throw a rope around the guy who cuts the green to keep him from tipping over.
Players with handicaps of 13 or more shouldn’t go near the men’s tees (rating 72.7 and slope of 140), and many will suffer frustrations from the shorter tees (6,116 yards with a rating of 70.6 and slope of 128). As for the tips at 7,100 yards (75.1 and 145), the scorecard recommends that routing for handicaps of 6 or less. The 6-handicap may be a 10 after a few rounds at The Preserve.
Web site: http://www.thepreserve.ws/golf.
Trouble front and back is typical at The Preserve.
Coming tomorrow: Chapel Ridge