Golf Community Reviews

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     Long Point is the best course on Amelia Island, the locals say.  And we would agree after playing it yesterday, the third we played during our short visit.  Tom Fazio's layout threads its way through the marshes at the south end of the island, emerging for two par three holes onto the ocean, just for variety's (and drama's) sake.  Fazio works best when the land comes to him, and so at Long Point the fairways are as nature intended -- rolling, not funneled.  We forgive the designer for a few uncharacteristically large mounds in mid fairway.  But that's a minor nit on an otherwise brilliant track.
    We had the great good fortune to be matched with three fine gentlemen from the Jacksonville area:  Bill Swerbenski, who arranged the golf; Steve Roberts, a native of Wales; and Jack Hofstetter, a local real estate agent.  All are members at th Sawgrass Country Club.  Bill is a former accountant and, not surprisingly, he wound up on the positive end of the day's wagers.  I paid for a few bad shots, but otherwise had my best round of the week, an 83 (not that you asked).  We played the blue tees at a mere 6,121 yards and a rating of 69.6.  The slope is a modest 125.  The wind blew at about a steady 10 mph, with gusts to 20, and I thought ithe course played harder than the rating.
    Long Point, which is a private club but playable if you are a guest at the Amelia Island Plantation resort, is a must play if you are ever in the area.  The Jacksonville golf community market has heated up in the last few years, and there are many great options.  The area is up and coming area for those who want to live the golf lifestyle; there is much relocation from south Florida to the area, as well as the customary snow bird migration from the north.


Left to right, Jack Hofstetter, Bill Swerbenski and Steve Roberts at one of the two ocean holes at Long Point, both short par 3s and both dead into the wind.

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    Old Trail, which sold its first piece of property in early 2005, is somewhat avant garde among its peer Charlottesville, VA, area communities.  The niche for the Crozet, VA, community is more populist than the upscale Keswick or the buttoned up and more dramatically scaled Glenmore, other fine communities in the area which we will review in future posts.  Old Trail will have no gate, manned or otherwise.  The community includes sidewalks and a park area to promote a sense of neighborhood.   When built out, natural spaces will include six miles of walking trails and 75 acres of parkland.  A “town center” will be the central point in Old Trail; the furthest extremity from the 250,000 square foot center will be a mere 10-minute walk.  Plans call for a restaurant, shops and offices; the first shops should be open by early 2008.  The goal is that people from the nearby town of Crozet will also use the town center for shopping and dining.
    The golf course is links style, different in that regard from most other courses in the area.  Condition of the turf was quite good; we liked especially the Zoysia grass fairways in which the ball sat up nicely.  The design by Jerry Kamis, a PGA pro and one of the developers of Old Trail itself, is fairly straightforward, although the layout seemed to require more than typical placement shots from one piece of land to another; we felt as if we had played a dozen par 3s by the end of the round.  The course strikes another odd note in that it includes only eight par 4 holes, two fewer than typical layouts.  The 18th hole is a little strange.  At the midpoint on the dogleg left 406-yard par four (from the men’s tees), the fairway stops abruptly, dropping a good two stories to the level below, the hill padded with thick rough.  We opted for long irons rather than metal, believing a layup would leave us a modest approach to the green way below, and that driver would put us on the hill in the rough.  We wound up on the hill anyway and were left with a lie that put our right foot almost at waist level in the thick rough.  There are better ways to make a finishing hole challenging.  That said, nothing else seemed unusual, with the exception of the llamas that stared at us from the backyard next to one tee box.  
    The Old Trail Golf Club is fashioned after early Scottish clubs in which the public had access and a few “founding” members had extra privileges.  Memberships are available at $4,000 for non-residents and $2,000 for anyone who purchases a lot or house in the community.  Monthly dues are a reasonable $250; property owner association dues add another $47 to $116 per month, depending on whether you own a single-family home or town home.  This week, the modest-sized clubhouse opens; the developers are counting on the town center, not the clubhouse, to be the community’s gathering place.  Even the community pool will be located at the town center.
    More than 100 homes are occupied in Old Trail.  Most of those who have purchased property plan to live there year round.  At full build out, which the developers expect to be in nine years, Old Trail will include 2,000 homes of varying styles and sizes, and more than 5,000 people.  Single-family houses on the larger lots (up to ¾ acre) range up to $1.4 million for the largest home, at 6,000 square feet.  Houses on patio lots are in the $450,000 to $600,000 range.  Town homes in the first phase are sold out, but a new phase is planned for June.  Architectural standards in the community are strict; we were impressed that no garages are permitted to face the street, and that no vinyl will ever line the exterior of an Old Trail home.
    Old Trail is a new concept in golf communities in the Charlottesville area.  It is wide open, embracing of the nearby community, and without pretension.  It will appeal to those who don’t believe good fences necessarily make good neighbors.  The course has a nice links style to it, and a couple of clunky holes do not ruin the fun.  Contact Old Trail Village Sales Executive Jonathan Kauffman at 866-567-8100, or JK@oldtrailliving.com.  Web site:  www.oldtrailliving.com

The Blue Ridge Mountains provide framing for the picturesque Old Trail, designed by PGA pro Jerry Kamis.


    "Jeez," was my first impression when I looked at the scorecard for the Ocean Links course and saw it played just 6,100 yards from the tips (and had six par 3s).  "Where are the windmills and the clown's mouth?"
    Then I played this fine par 70 Bobby Weed layout at Amelia Island Plantation in Florida and learned there is nothing mini about it.
    Weed was given a piece of land not unlike what Pete Dye enjoyed at the famed Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.  Dye, however, had nothing but ocean and sky framing his layout; a few of the ocean holes on Weed's course are draped with hulking condominium buildings, some seven stories high.  The off-ocean holes are lined with houses, set back in most cases at a safe reserve, but a few are definitely in the danger zone.
    Keep your blinders on and focus on the shots before you, and you will enjoy a terrific round.  Most memorable is the 15th, a lovely terror that emerges from the beautiful live oaks and runs downhill 187 yards to a green surrounded by sand dunes and backed by the blue Atlantic ocean.  It is perhaps the only hole on the course where even your peripheral vision does not capture any manmade structures.  My playing partner, also a first timer at the Ocean Links, emitted a "Whoa" when we came up to the tee.  This was one of the rare moments of crosswinds during the round, and we both wound up short right, much preferable to left where recovering from the dunes would have been next to impossible.
    At the 6,100 yards, the course rating is 69.3 and the slope a modest 128.  We found it tougher than that.  We will have more to say about Ocean Links and its companion course, the Pete Dye designed Oak Marsh, as well as Amelia's members-only club, Long Point, in coming weeks.

After the tough and beautiful par 3 15th, the tee ball on 16 must thread the needle between the dunes.  Hundreds of people could potentially bear witness to your approach shot, a tricky downhiller to a green partially obscured and backed by nasty thick grasses and sand.


Golf Course Review: Oak Marsh, Amelia Island 

    There are days when every muscle locks up, every putt reads wrong, all the breaks uniformly go against you, every fairway lie seems to be a bad one, and lip-in is not part of the equation (but lip-out is very much so).  Okay, that was me yesterday at the tough but fair Oak Marsh course at Amelia Island Plantation, from the double bogey on the first to the same fortune on the last.  The only thing that kept me from verbally embarrassing myself -- beyond the embarrassment of my golf game -- was Jerry and Shirleen, the nice folks from St. Louis we were matched with (Bill Miller, friend and faithful subscriber to HomeOnTheCourse, our advistory newsletter, also was witness to my self destruction).  I didn't want to act up in front of them.
    Jerry and Shirleen return to Amelia every year for the month of March, and occasionally add the month of February as well.  Clearly they like the island's golf courses and are enthusiastic advocates for resort golfing; when I asked if they had considered a retirement home in a golf course community, they replied "Never" in unison.  They much prefer to have one home and various vacation spots.  Their credentials as golf course afficionados are impeccable; their home course in St. Louis, Bellerive, has hosted the U.S. Open and PGA Tour Championships and is one of the most heralded clubs in America.  They know of what they speak.
    Thanks to them and Bill for putting up with me.  We'll follow up soon with some comments about the Amelia Plantation courses; today we play Bobby Weed's Ocean Links course, and tomorrow it's the highly rated Long Point.

Not only was my golf game atrocious yesterday, but my picture-taking skills took the day off as well.  Apologies to, left to right, Bill, Shirleen and Jerry.

Par 3s at Queen's Harbour aren't long, but don't be short.

    Golf is not first in the club's name, but the course at Queen's Harbour Yacht and Golf Club is very good.  The Mark McCumber layout has its peculiarities -- for example it sets up much better for the player who draws the ball than the one who fades -- but it is a fair test, not easy by any means, but if your mid irons are working, you will score well.  And Monday through Thursday, the course is available to outside play for the ultra-bargain price of $49.
    We will have more to say about Queen's Harbour in coming weeks here and in HomeOnTheCourse, our advisory newsletter, but for the moment I want to thank the three Florida guys who put up with my erratic play and frenetic picture taking.  Ed and Chris are from Orlando and Kyle is a superintendent at the Hale Plantation in Gainesville and a graduate of the University of Florida's turf management program.  He wore his Gators hat proudly, and his golf bag bore the university's name and logo.  Must be nice to be an alum of a school with a national basketball championship.  (Nice to have his good golf swing as well.)
    Thanks to the guys and to Jon Kitchen, director of golf and general manager at the club for making my arrangements (and for his understanding why I needed to pay for my greens fees, as I do everywhere I play; objectivity has its price).

Left to right:  Chris, Ed and Kyle rounded out my foursome.

    Bill Straub and Bob Genovese were my hosts yesterday at North Hampton Golf Club, just outside of Jacksonville, FL.  They treated me royally, even conceding me a three-foot putt at one point.  They had been such good friends in Woodstock, GA, that after Bob and his wife moved to North Hampton five years ago, Bill rang their doorbell a few years later asking for an overview of the community.  He and his wife bought a home in North Hampton a few days after.  Bob and Bill have something of an Abbott and Costello thing going, with Bob playing the straight part and Bill cracking wise at every opportunity (at one point during the round, he cracked up the cart girl with a little ditty that was a little bawdy).
    Both say their number one priority in seeking a retirement home was a good golf course they could play a few times a week.  The Arnold Palmer Signature design at North Hampton filled the bill for both of them.
    "It is a tough course," said Bob, whose handicap is in the high teens, "but it offers a different challenge every day."
    I thought the course was both a delight to play and very tough at a relatively short 6,373 yard from the men's tees, especially for those who can't bring the ball in high over the large signature bunkers that, in the case of North Hampton, have high lips and bump right up against most of the enormous greens.  North Hampton has more than five acres of them, double that of more classicly designed courses, and I didn't have a flat putt all day.  The greens were quite tough to read, and looking on both sides of the hole was mandatory.  We could only imagine how tough the course plays from the tips at 7,171 yards and a rating of 75.4.  There are very few opportunities to run the ball up onto the enormous greens, making this a course tough on many women competitors.   
    Although I am not a big fan of  Arnie's designs, this one was  wonderful.  Besides the large, often-banked greens, the most memorable observation of the round was how narrow the fairways appeared from the tee boxes.  They were pinched in by enormous bunkers, many of which did double duty as cart paths.  Yet when I drove to the fairway and looked back toward the tee, I realized just how much room was out there.  This is the King at his best, and you can almost imagine that patented twinkle in his eye when he thought of his little deceptions.
    The pleasant community that surrounds the club does not encroach.  A few lots remain to be sold but, for the most part, the area is built out.  Although North Hampton is "semi-private," which means anyone can play it for a daily fee, members have access privileges at other area courses.  If you are in the Fernandina Beach, FL, area, northeast of Jacksonville, don't pass it by.  The pro shop staff, under the guidance of Jim Houston, is friendly and accommodating.  And the course will provide you with a tough but fulfilling four hours, especially if you are as lucky as I was to be paired with Bill and Bob.  Thanks guys!
    North Hampton Golf Club.  Blue tees:  6,363 yards.  Rating: 71.5.  Slope:  137.  Phone:  904-548-0000.  Web:  www.hamptongolfclubs.com

That's Bob Genovese on the left with Wild Bill Straub.

Thursday, 01 March 2007 18:00

Best restaurant in St. Mary's, GA

    In southeast coastal Georgia’s town of St. Mary’s, Sterling’s Southern Café is all the rage, garnering great reviews in local newspapers and magazines.  The lady at the Georgia Welcome Center, a good two hours up I-95 from St. Mary’s, had recommended it.  I had little choice but to stop for dinner last night.
    At first, I had trouble negotiating the menu, not because it was large or loaded with creative dishes, but rather because the menu seemed overrun with clichés.  Chicken parmesan is not exactly a classic low country dish, and the almond crusted grouper, tenderloin tips and chicken picatta seemed like déjà vu all over again.  I chose the crab cakes to start and the crabmeat stuffed grouper as the entrée. 
    I wasn’t disappointed, although the two crab cakes were a little light on the crab.  But the filler was tasty and perfectly seasoned.  The grouper was a large piece of fresh fish, lightly and perfectly pan sautéed, crisp on the outside, almost as if it had been fried, and moist inside. The accompanying lemon sauce was appropriately restrained in both its taste and quantity. The jasmine rice and bright green crisp beans were the right accompaniments.
    Sterling's is intimate; I counted about 10 tables.  The wait staff goes out of its way to be friendly. They were solicitous but stopped short of overbearing.  My water glass was refilled twice without asking.  Prices are friendly as well, with no entree topping $20, although salad does not come with the dinner (a nice piece of garlic bread does, however).
    The restaurant does something we haven’t seen since Durgin Park, the famous restaurant in Boston that seats people at long tables, strangers next to strangers.  Sterling’s maintains a communal table inside the bay window in the front of the room for those without reservations.  I had reserved a table, but a couple from Indiana who followed me in had not.  They were offered the empty communal table for eight.  A few minutes later, a single came in and was shown to a seat at the end of the table.  When I left, they were all on their way to becoming fast friends.  The communal table is a terrific idea that would solve some problems for busy restaurants, and maybe promote world peace (okay, okay, but we do like the idea).
    Some years ago, St. Mary’s was granted a “best small town” award by one of those magazines that invents such awards to boost circulation.  By all accounts and our own experience, Sterling’s is the best restaurant in the best small town.
    Sterling’s Southern Café is at 219 Osborne Street in St. Mary’s, GA.  Phone:  912-882-3430. Web:  www.sterlingssoutherncafe.com
    No matter how bad or good the real estate market is, the marketeers who represent them will always find the glass full.  We received an email from a marketing firm that represents a few communities we know, and we just had to chuckle at the way they paint lipstick on the pig.
    When the market was booming, the urge from the real estate industry went something like this:  "You better buy now, because prices are going up and you won't be able to afford the house you want a year from now."  The logic was unbeatable...if you consider real estate an investment, rather than shelter.
    Now that the market is in the tank, here's what the nattering nabobs of optimism say (and this is a direct quote from a company called GamePlan Resort Solutions):  "We are in the midst of a strong ‘Buyer’s Market’ which means that it is a great time to buy while the incentives are plentiful, interest rates are low, and sellers are motivated."
    Well, yes, it is a great time to buy...if you have the cash and if you are looking for a home.  Unspoken, of course, is that if you own a home, you are going to have to be a motivated seller in order to buy one of those homes being offered by another motivated seller.  Ergo, you accept less for your house and then have less to pay for their house.
    Resort Solutions also quotes news reports to show that, "Recently there have been indicators that the economy is accelerating and the real estate market is gradually coming back to life."  The company's email was sent to us on Wednesday (Feb. 28), the day after the 400+ point loss on the Dow Jones Industrials, demonstrating, yet again, that Pollyanna is alive and well, and probably selling condos in Miami.
Wednesday, 28 February 2007 23:00

Georgia on my mind; should be on yours too

    The state of Georgia doesn’t get its due when it comes to golf.  When was the last time your golfing buddies talked about a long weekend or week of golf in Georgia?  No, Myrtle Beach, Pinehurst, Scottsdale are top of the list largely because they offer quantity as well as quality golf.  But if you like to order a la carte from a big menu, Georgia can more than hold its own.
    This came to mind as I entered Georgia via I-95 yesterday and picked up a copy of the state's guide to golf at the Welcome Center.  This was my first visit back to the state since summer last year.  It was good to be back.  Last spring, I played the Dye course at Ford Plantation (see Tuesday post for how much I liked it).  Last summer, my son and I played the fantastic Cuscowilla in the north central part of the state, the Crenshaw/Moore design that typically ranks either first or second in GolfWeek’s annual residential course rankings (the competition is the renowned Wade Hampton in the mountains of North Carolina).
    The state that gave us Bobby Jones, Augusta National and the Masters provides an almost limitless variety of public-access golf as well.  At the coast, the best community courses include Sapelo Hammock (see our post yesterday) in Shellman Bluff; The Hampton Club and Sea Palms, both on St. Simons Island; and Osprey Cove, which we are visiting today.  We’ve played the dramatic Mike Young design at Cateechee near Lake Hartwell in the north part of the state, and would return in a minute.  Reynold’s Plantation and its own buffet of courses (five) is on our list for the summer.  We note as well that the upstate region is one of the fastest growing in terms of golf course development, and we look forward to exploring that area soon.  In short, you can put together and play your own Georgia golf "trail" without burning up too much gas.
    You’ll find a comprehensive list of public access courses at http://www.georgia.org/Travel/Rejuvenate/Golf.  Many of them are located inside residential communities.

Mike Young's Cateechee course near Lake Hartwell is one of many hidden gems in north Georgia.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 18:00

Restaurant review: Lang's Seafood, St. Mary's, GA

    The houses in the historic district of St. Mary's, GA, are awash in pastel colors, but there is nothing fancy about the fish served at Lang's Marina Seafood Market Restaurant.  At dinner last night, I ordered the "Captain's Platter" and was rewarded with some of the freshest fish I've tasted in recent memory.  The huge platter, delivered grilled as requested, included rock shrimp and medium-sized shrimp, scallops, a generous piece of snapper and a half dozen nice-sized fried oysters (even though I ordered the platter grilled, we understand that's no way to treat an oyster).  The frying was expertly done.  At just under $18, the platter was a bargain. 
    Other items on the menu are fish house typical, and although all dishes are offered grilled or blackened, as well as fried, most scream out for breading.  This is the low country, after all.  A blackboard at the front counter included a list of fresh fish of the day, those not on the menu.  There was even an 8 ounce lobster tail for just $22 -- that's a half pound of lobster meat, almost -- which you could pair with a ribeye steak for just over $30.  I was disappointed our waitress said nothing about the alternative choices and, indeed, the service was the low point of the meal.  But she was cheery and returned to the table often to check on my status -- and, once, to attempt to take my half eaten plate of cole slaw.  No way I was going to give up the slaw, which was crisp and much enhanced by a modest amount of mayonnaise.  The hush puppies, by the way, the often leaden deep-fried dollops of corn meal, were as good as they get.
    The restaurant itself was clean, with nice views out to the inlet and the adjacent boat docks.  We were impressed that it wasn't overly nautical in its decor.  The food is definitely the focus at Lang's.  The waterfront park next door is a good place to walk after dinner; a few local coffee shops offer dessert options (we passed on dessert at Lang's, not wanting to tempt fate).
    The Lang family appears to own the waterfront in St. Mary's.  Not only does the name adorn the restaurant, but also the local marina and a seafood retail store.  The restaurant has no excuses for less than the freshest seafood possible, and it does not disappoint.
Address: 307 W. St. Marys St., near the waterfront park, St. Marys, GA.  Phone: 912-882-4432

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