The back nine at Bethpage Black on Sunday confirmed something about top golfers and rank amateurs as well: Half-glass full golfers win, and half-empty types come close, when the pressure is on. Brooks Koepka looks as if he is always going to win, even when he wobbles, as he did late on Sunday afternoon. Dustin Johnson never looks as if he is going to win, even when fate – and an opponent -- hand him an opportunity on a silver platter. Call it killer instinct or positive thinking or just plain confidence; Koepka has it, Johnson does not, in spite of his awesome golfing talent.
Six strokes...and then there was one
Within just a few holes, Koepka’s seemingly invincible six-stroke lead over his only competitor, Johnson, nearly evaporated, leaving them separated by a mere stroke with a few holes to go for Johnson (and one more than that for Koepka). Make no mistake about it, Johnson played great golf, perhaps the best round of the day given the afternoon winds that seemed especially to bedevil Koepka off the tees. But almost from the moment Johnson learned he was a miraculous single-stroke away, the momentum shifted for him; he missed a makeable putt for par on 16, and one could not avoid the feeling that we had seen this movie before.
Choke holds in the majors
Indeed we had, most notably in 2010, 2011 and 2015. In 2010, Johnson entered the final round of the U.S. Open at Whistling Straights with a three-stroke lead. During that round, he grounded his club in a bunker that was not clearly marked, incurred a two-shot penalty and shot 82. 82! – going into the final round of a major championship with a sizable lead. At the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, Johnson was in contention on the back nine, just two shots behind Darren Clarke, as the American stood on the par-5 14th hole. After a nice drive, Johnson pulled out a 2 iron in the fairway and pushed it so far right it sailed out of bounds to end his chances for the British title. (He double-bogeyed the holed, something big hitters should never come close to doing on a par 5.)
But the most notorious collapse was that Sunday in 2015 at Chambers Bay in Oregon when a 12-foot putt to win the U.S. Open turned into a three-putt loss. Folks, this isn’t you or me on the 18th hole for the club championship at East Jabip Golf and Country Club. This is one of the best golfers in the world –- actually #1 in the world until Koepka jumped past him on Sunday afternoon -- three putting from 12 feet. “Choke” is neither an unkind nor unfair label for that and Johnson’s other mishaps under pressure. Golf is undeniably a mental game; Johnson has immense golfing ability, and a well-earned US Open victory at Oakmont, but something almost always seems to be going on north of that neck of his at the moments of greatest pressure, and it is not pretty.
“Baseball,” as former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti once wrote, “will break your heart.” Golf will break your spirit if you let it. Brooks Koepka has demonstrated he does not let it. Dustin Johnson is another story.
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Consider, if you will, the toughest holes of golf you have ever played –- the severely elevated greens, the forced carries over yawning ravines, the swirling greens with pins perched at the edges of plateaus. Now smash all those toughest holes together into one golf course, and what you get is…Royal New Kent in Providence Forge, VA.
I played Royal New Kent last Monday during its grand re-opening celebration. It had been on my golf bucket list for years, since it opened in the ‘90s and I learned it was laid out by the late Mike Strantz, whose designs are never boring and include Tobacco Road in the Sand Hills of North Carolina, Caledonia and True Blue in Pawleys Island, SC, all publicly accessible -- as is Royal New Kent -- and Bulls Bay just north of Charleston, SC, Strantz’s former home. There are echoes of all those golf courses at Royal New Kent but, inarguably, RNK is the most challenging.
Saving a Modern Classic Golf Course
The golf course closed 18 months ago, and its future was severely in doubt until Barton Tuck and a few partners stepped in with $2 million and a lot of resolve to save and restore a work of art. The Wingfield Group owns golf courses across the South, and Mr. Tuck, now in his 80s, has lots of experience pairing golf courses and housing, most notably Forest Creek in Pinehurst, with 36 holes of Tom Fazio golf and a reputation for overall quality. (Royal New Kent first opened with some homes beside the back nine, but few would confuse it for a golf community, such is the separation of the two. Still, one of our foursome lives in Kentland and is a member of Royal New Kent.) A few years before the purchase of Royal New Kent, Mr. Tuck bought the floundering Viniterra golf community 15 minutes away; Viniterra is one of those communities that had the bad fortune of opening a nanosecond before the 2008 recession, but now most lots have been sold and a couple dozen homes (and some villa/condos) are built.
Strantz Gets His Irish Up
Restored to its original glory after a few years in the wilderness, literally and figuratively, Royal New Kent is relentlessly challenging. You can’t sleep on a single shot. Strantz purposefully based the layout on Irish golf courses he admired, specifically Royal County Down and Ballybunion. The scorecard for RNK tells you all you need to know about its degree of difficulty, the back tees playing to a course rating of 76.8 and a slope rating of 154. That puts Royal New Kent in territory occupied by Pine Valley (75.6, 155), Bethpage Black (77.5, 155) and the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island (79.7, 153), and it blows away Shinnecock Hills (75.0, 140).
Our group of four, beginning at the fifth hole in a shotgun start, played from the white tees at just 6,194 yards with a rating of 71.1, modest enough, but with a daunting slope of 134 for such a short overall distance. (The slope rating calibrates a golf course in terms of how well a bogey golfer should be expected to play it.) Playing in a scramble (Captain’s Choice) format, we experienced as a group what individual golfers surely go through on their first play at RNK -– early intimidation, then awe, and then a bit of settling in. During our first nine holes, even with hitting four shots from each position, we had difficulty making par; but over the last 10 holes, we birdied six of them, albeit with a few lucky long putts.
Horse of a Different Color Could Help Royal New Kent
The relatively short overall distance from the white tees is more than neutralized by the number of blind shots, the elevated greens with barely visible flags and the large and swirling putting surfaces –- most first putts broke at least a foot. Most of all, the greens were fast and firm, and many putts from above the hole could not be stopped within five feet unless the flagstick got in the way. The member we played with warned us on the first tee to “Keep the ball below the hole,” advice that is pretty much irrelevant for double-digit handicappers.
The New Kent County area seems to be in a period of renaissance, not only with the reopenings of the two epic Strantz golf courses, but also with the planned reopening of the historic Colonial Downs racetrack, which abuts the Royal New Kent layout. The first races are slated for later this summer, and RNK officials are hoping that their sports venue and the racetrack will feed off each other.
Mike Strantz was an artist, both on and off the course. Some of his sketches that hang in the RNK clubhouse demonstrate his talent and creativity. Any golfer who pays attention to the design of the layout will find it both intimidating and beautiful in equal measure. Although single-digit players will find many of the course’s challenges surmountable, the low double-digit handicapper should approach it with measured expectations. Pars will make them feel that the trip to RNK was definitely worth it. A birdie will make them feel as if they homered to win the World Series.
Royal New Kent Golf Club is located at 10100 Kent Field Road in Providence Forge, VA. (804) 966-7023. Architect: Mike Strantz. Royal New Kent plays to 7,440 yards from the back (Invicta) tees with a course rating of 76.4 and a slope of 154. The men’s White Tees play to 6,194 yards and a 71.1 rating and 142 slope. Ladies Green Tees are at 4,937 yards with a rating of 70.6 and 134 slope. Single-player memberships range from $205 to $250 per month, depending on whether it is a Monday through Thursday or 7-day per week membership. Family memberships range from $250 to $300 on the same basis. There is currently no initiation fee to join the semi-private club. https://royalnewkent.com/
Another Mike Strantz design, Stonehouse, is located a few miles from Royal New Kent and is slated to reopen within the next six weeks. Between the two Strantz layouts and the sleek Rees Jones design at Viniterra, plus the well-regarded Williamsburg golf courses less than a half hour away, this area of Virginia has the makings of a nice golf buddies destination, half the drive between New England/New York City and the Carolinas.
The first quarter of 2019 has been a good one for at least a few couples seeking a golf community home. In January, I learned that clients had purchased a piece of property at Reynolds Lake Oconee, with the idea of building a home there if their young daughter is selected in the next year or two to attend the highly regarded Lake Oconee Academy nearby. The selection process is strictly by lottery for the popular school.
In February, a couple I had been working with for more than three years found the home of their dreams at The Landings on Skidaway Island, a mere 20 minutes from downtown Savannah. The Landings is large, almost a small city in itself, with a total of 8,000 residents, many of them full-timers, six excellent golf courses and dozens of social and activity clubs. Real estate there runs the gamut from 40 year old homes in need of some updating and, therefore, selling at bargain prices, to a few remaining lots on which to build a beautiful home.
During March, clients I know well from Connecticut conducted one of the most efficient and successful searches I have seen in my 12 years of assisting couples in identifying a golf community home. They made two separate trips –- one to both coasts of Florida, and the other to the Low Country of Georgia and the Carolinas. At the end of their journeys, they wasted no time in choosing from the dozen communities they visited. Their choice, and how they conducted their “perfect” search, will be the subject of the May edition of our Home On The Course newsletter, coming soon.
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According to a report by The National Golf Foundation, the golf industry had a very good year in 2018, with participation up for the first time in 14 years despite a small drop in the number of rounds played (weather was the main culprit). Perhaps most impressive for the game’s future health is that 2.6 million people joined the ranks of golfers; it was the fifth straight year of more than two million new golfers.
The summary of the report emphasizes Tiger Woods’ impact on the sport. His comeback from back surgery in 2018, according to NGF, contributed to “a surge of interest and a ratings jump of almost 30 percent for televised tournaments in which he played.” One can only imagine the kind of effect his stunning victory on Sunday at The Masters will ultimately have on the 14 million people who say they would like to play on a golf course.
Some of those are, for now, engaging in “off-course” golf participation, including at Top Golf locations that have been sprouting up around the nation. Top Golf and a few competitors have attracted nearly 7 million non-golfers to take a whack at the game while eating and drinking with friends. So far, the industry has not seen a strong movement of people from the golf entertainment palaces to real golf courses, but the interest in swinging a club could translate into more members for country clubs. (Expect some country clubs to start building their own off-course golf facilities to enhance the experience for new millennial members.)
This is all good news, but in golf, as in life, one hand giveth and the other hand taketh away. For example, a new report from the golf industry observers at Pellucid, a well-respected consultant group, indicates that, “as great a story as [Tiger] is, it doesn't materially impact the golf industry operations world…and likely also doesn't meaningfully impact either player development or increasing involvement.” Talk about raining on the parade.
Of greater potential impact, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal’s Greater New York section, is that proposed legislation in New York State could whack New York golf courses with a tenfold increase in property taxes. The legislation would permit a golf course to be taxed at a market value as if it had been developed with housing or some other commercial venture. One of the venues challenging the state legislature’s move is President Trump’s Westchester club, whose market value is $14 million (never mind that Trump himself has testified publicly that it is worth $50 million).
Hardest hit by the new taxation would be public golf courses owned by private parties. These courses, many of them owned by families over two and three generations, survive (barely) on tight margins and are always at risk of weather problems and other factors that affect the conditions of their layouts. Many of them teeter on the edge of extinction, and developers are salivating over the prospect of cheap acquisitions of 100+ acre plots upon which to plop houses.
Tiger Woods may help bring more people into the game, but the industry needs to have healthy, well-funded and well-maintained golf courses to welcome them. The betting here is that reason will prevail in most state legislatures where many senators and representatives are members of their local country clubs and will surely make the case that property taxes on golf courses are already high enough.
Richmond, VA, doesn’t get much love as a destination for retirees who play golf. But having stopped there to play a few rounds with my University of Richmond professor friend, Andy, and eaten ribs at Buz and Neds –- they beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a rib cooking contest – I can say with confidence that Richmond offers all a baby boomer golfer needs on a day of play. And then some.
Richmond is a modern city rooted in the past, just 108 miles down I-95 from The White House in Washington, D.C. Those who have not studied closely the Civil War may not realize that the capitals of the Confederacy and Union were that close to each other. In fact, President Lincoln arrived in Richmond the day after it fell in April 1865 and left to return to Washington just six days before he was shot at Ford’s Theater.
With a little help from my friend Andy, who has played most of the golf courses worth playing in and around Richmond, I will dedicate much of my next Home On The Course newsletter to the city and its wide range of golfing options. For those looking to relocate to an area with excellent golf and the perquisites of a modern and full-service city with a rich culture and history, put Richmond on your list. But first subscribe to Home On The Course – it’s free! – and read all about it.
If you don’t subscribe to our monthly FREE newsletter, Home On The Course, then you missed the announcement in the March issue that Savannah Lakes Village, one of the best buys in Southeastern golf communities, is making a special offer to our newsletter subscribers. The community’s two-night Discovery Package, which includes lodging in a two-bedroom townhome and golf on each of its two excellent courses, is more than reasonably priced at just $250. However, for Home On The Course subscribers, the folks at Savannah Lakes will throw in a third night of lodging and an extra round of golf. That works out to $83 per night, with golf each day!
Savannah Lakes is located on Lake Thurmond in McCormick, SC, about a half hour from the college town of Greenwood and 45 minutes from Augusta, GA. Real estate prices in the community are comparably lower than similar golf communities, and its homeowner association fees represent the best bargain I have found, especially with golf membership and other amenity access included for just $125 per month. (Golf members pay modest green fees, but they have the option to play as much golf as they want for one additional low annual fee.) The community offers some unusual extra touches, such as a four-lane bowling alley.
To take advantage of this special discovery package offer, please subscribe now to our free newsletter and contact me for more information, a referral to the community’s top real estate professional and to begin the arrangements for a visit to Savannah Lakes.
Many of us will look on with awe tomorrow (Sunday) during the final round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass when players in competition for victory face the daunting 17th hole with its tiny island green. That green is on my bucket play list, but I have played a par 3 surrounded by marshland maybe 100 times that is every bit as intimidating.
Although from all appearances, the 13th green at Pawleys Plantation Country Club is smaller than the 17th green at Sawgrass, published measurements indicate it is a couple hundred square feet larger. But I can't imagine the Sawgrass hole is any more intimidating than Pawleys short par 3. Jack Nicklaus took care of that in 1988 when he used the old rice plantation dike as the site of the four tee boxes on the hole. (The dike also serves as the tee locations for the longer and hardly less intimidating tee shot to the par 3 17th hole.) At only ½ mile to Pawleys Island Beach and the Atlantic Ocean, the tee-to-green shot over an expanse of marshland is fully exposed to the elements. Rare is the day when the wind is not blowing one way or the other and, oddly enough, the only “good” wind on the hole is straight in your face because the extra lift of a decent shot will pretty much ensure your ball does not bounce over the typically firm green. The toughest wind is the one that blows out across the marsh to the island and ocean beyond.
That said, a shot to the back of the green under such conditions leaves a strongly downhill putt with the wind blowing back toward a middle or front hole location, running the risk of putting the ball through a thin strip of collar and into the marsh short of the green. Whereas the entrance and exit to the 17th green at Sawgrass is from the back left, at Pawleys the route is from the right, providing a dubious bailout that is no more accessible than the thin runway at Sawgrass.
I am sure those who have played #17 at Sawgrass have their pet names for the hole, some not so genteel. At Pawleys Plantation, members like myself have a stock response for first-time visitors who stand on the 13th tee box, mouth agape at the shot before them.
“Yup,” we say, “the shortest par 5 you will ever play.”
For months, rumors have been strong in and around the Cliffs communities in the Carolinas that South Street Partners, the firm that owns the amenities at Kiawah Island, were negotiating to purchase The Cliffs from Arendale Partners. An agreed-upon deal was finally announced late last week. No financial terms were disclosed.
The deal was announced separately by both Arendale and South Street. In their announcement, the new owners indicated that "we acquired all Cliffs Land Partners and Cliffs Club Partners entities previously owned by Arendale Holdings Corp...South Street will oversee the development, management, operations, sales, and marketing for The Cliffs."
The 50 year old South Street Partners maintains more than $1 billion in assets under management and is headquartered in both Charlotte, NC, and Charleston, SC. If they work their magic at The Cliffs as they have done at Kiawah, which they purchased in 2013, Cliffs owners can look forward to enhanced real estate values and a continuation of top-drawer club amenities.
"Since acquiring Kiawah Partners, the master developer of Kiawah Island, SC, in 2013," the South Street letter to Cliffs owners indicated, "median pricing of properties within the community has increased significantly, new home construction is at an all-time high, inventory levels have decreased to the lowest levels in over a decade and sales have topped $1.5 billion."
Prior to Arendale taking over at The Cliffs, the deluxe group of communities had something of a topsy turvy history. Jim Anthony acquired thousands of acres of land in the upstate region of South Carolina and began to build high-end golf communities that attracted well-to-do buyers from the Atlanta area and elsewhere around the country. Drawn by the luxury nature of the amenities Anthony installed inside the gates of the multiple communities -- an equestrian center here, a wellness center there, and beautifully groomed golf courses everywhere -- buyers signed up for club memberships that, at one point, required an initiaion fee of $125,000. Membership was mandatory at the point of property purchase; if you did not choose to join the club, you were not permitted to join it at a later date, and anyone interested in buying your lot or home at a later date could not join the club.
Anthony ran into financial trouble just before the recession started in 2008. A project to build another Cliffs community featuring Tiger Woods' first American design was scrapped as the Anthony real estate empire began to unravel. After a Texas couple, residents of The Cliffs, stepped in with some temporary life-saving injection of cash, Arendale and others combined to purchase some acreage and the amenities, including the golf courses.
A new purchaser must still sign up for membership within a few weeks of closing, but joining fees are now a much more reasonable $50,000, not outrageous when you consider the six clubs and the high standards of maintenance at each. Given South Street's record at Kiawah, we should expect a continuation of those high standards and, at least, some initial investments to enhance the quality of The Cliffs experience.
If you are interested in more information about The Cliffs or an introduction to a professional agent who can provide you with a tour of any of the communities, please contact me.
Golf Community Reviews is my day job, but every couple of months I moonlight for CarolinaLiving.com, where you will find a few dozen articles you have not read in this space, all dedicated to the golf life in the Carolinas. A few of those articles may seem familiar to dedicated readers, such as musings about hurricane threats, how to search for a golf home, as well as reviews of some of my favorite golf courses. For those who are targeting the Carolinas as a vacation or full-time destination, you should find a rich trove of new material.
Check it out at Carolina Living.
When Jack Nicklaus’ golf course design career was in its infancy, he developed a particular design quirk to call his own -– like Pete Dye’s railroad ties, or Tom Fazio’s cloverleaf bunkers and “buried” cart paths. For Nicklaus, it was trees in fairways. Nowhere was this quirkiness more in play -– literally and figuratively -– than at Pawleys Plantation, a semi-private layout in Pawleys Island, SC, that is a scoring challenge for newcomers and members alike.
Whereas many designers punish tee shots that stray from the center lane of fairways, Nicklaus puts obstacles in the middle of the typically safe areas off the tee, forcing play to the edges. For example, on the par 5 4th hole, a string of three fair-sized bunkers split the fairway in two about 180 yards to 230 yards off the men’s tees. Using the fairway to the right of the bunkers provides the best angle for a long approach shot; a play to the left of the bunkers provides a shorter approach shot, but over a wide fairway bunker that extends all the way to greenside.
But it is Nicklaus’ fairway trees at Pawleys that have been a constant thorn in the side of members and visiting golfers looking to at least shoot around par, once they subtract their handicap from their scores.
The first close encounter with a tree at Pawleys Plantation is on #5, a medium sized par 4 whose main feature is a large pond in front of the green. A well-smacked drive is required to leave a short, lofted iron approach to a typically firm green. But Nicklaus left a tall pine standing at the left edge of the fairway, and a perfect looking drive toward the middle can catch one of the tree’s branches, leaving almost 200 yards over the water to the tightly guarded green.
The epitome of Nicklaus’ design idiosyncrasy is the sprawling and tall live oak at dead center of the 9th fairway that covers 60 percent of fairway. On the theory that a tree is 90 percent air, I typically try to fly my ball over, especially if I am playing the “executive” tees. That works out about half the time. The best play is either to the right of the tree, bringing rough and woods into play; or the narrower path to the left, where even more woods and a sprawling oak just to the left of the fairway may necessitate a pitch out to the middle of the fairway on the par 4. No matter the approach, the green is extremely difficult hit as it is the most elevated on the golf course and not very deep.
Two weeks ago, after a visit and tour by Nicklaus in January of his 30-year-old course, workmen cut down a tree that was dead center on the par 5 14th hole. It wasn’t a huge tree, but it was about 10 to 20 yards beyond most good drives, and if you were behind it, you had no choice to skim a shot under its branches. Its position forced one to think about placement off the tee.
A wide swatch of fairway to the right was the safe path but forced a layup shot over marsh. A shot to the left of the tree made for a shorter shot at an easier angle, but the cart path there and tight out of bounds along the edges of residents’ properties made a tee shot in that direction a fool’s paradise.
Nicklaus admitted during his visit in January that he thought the golf course was too hard for even decent players, and he recommended that greens that had drifted away from bunkers be restored to their original sizes, that many of the fairway bunkers be grassed in and that “a copper nail” would be enough to fell the tree on 14.
A few years ago, with Nicklaus’ affirmation, the club removed a couple of live oak trees that guarded the green at the long par 5 11th. (See my original article here. I don’t miss those trees, although they were a lot prettier than the solo tree on the 14th. But the latter tree’s demise, in my opinion, was a bad decision, an accommodation to those who felt punished after a self-described “good” drive ruined their prospects for a layup short of the green -- as if a shot straight down the middle of every fairway is always a good drive.
Even excellent golf course designers aren’t always right.