A list compiled by the National Association of Home Builders found that only elevators were less desirable than golf courses for new home-buyers. “Just shoot me if I ever mention developing another golf-course community,” an unidentified real estate developer in Southwest Florida said.
Millions are being spent in Southwest Florida to keep existing golf courses in top condition, even while local developers are shy about building new layouts, the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune reported.
“Just shoot me,” said one real estate developer, who asked that his name not be used, “if I ever mention developing another golf-course community.”
Only elevators ranked higher than golf courses on a list of new-home buyers’ “most unwanted” features, compiled in 2013 by the National Association of Home Builders, the Herald-Tribune reported.
Lakewood Ranch has no intention to build any courses in its proposed Villages section south of the Manatee-Sarasota county line, said vice president of sales Jimmy Stewart. “We at SMR, no. Somebody else, perhaps,” he said, adding: “I grew up in the golf business, but I haven’t played in five years. Takes too much time.”
In Sarasota, the Foxfire, Sarasota Golf Club, Oak Ford, Forest Lakes and Sunrise courses have closed in the past decade. On the other hand, said Jim Schell, General Manager of Venice Golf & Country Club, those people who still play golf remain passionate about it, the Herald-Tribune reported.
He feels the pressure of an increasingly competitive market fed by discretionary spending. The VGCC is investing $2.5 million in course upgrades and employing rules changes to make the game more fun and faster to play, the Herald-Tribune reported.
Sabal Trace Golf & Country Club in North Port is doing an extensive course renovation, too. It should reopen early next year with a new, par 71-course, called Valente at Sabal Trace, replacing the old par-72 layout. Nine of the holes will be replicas of famous holes from such courses as Augusta National, Winged Foot and Bay Hill. The community also will get 280 new houses and paired villas, and a new clubhouse, the Herald-Tribune reported.
Serenoa is investing $50,000 in clubhouse improvements this summer. Esplanade on Lakewood Ranch, developed by Taylor Morrison, has a new golf course, supported by the owners of 1,250 paired-villa homes. A little farther east, Lennar also is developing a “golf community,” the Herald-Tribune reported.
Forest Lakes, the local poster child for golf-course disaster, is being redeveloped by Mattamy Homes with 220 town houses, and the old course is being made over as a short, par-63 layout, to open this fall, on which rounds will take less time to play. This ends nearly a decade of misery for Forest Lakes’ homeowners, in which they watched their course turn into an ugly weed patch. A boomtime developer had purchased it but then walked away from plans to replace the layout with housing after the market collapsed in 2007, the Herald-Tribune reported.
Even The Concession, the king of local courses, is constantly tweaking its layout to keep the well-heeled members happy. The course’s designer, Jack Nicklaus, has stopped by to play the course and suggest tweaks, which are dutifully carried out, the Herald-Tribune reported.
At VGCC, steps are being taken to make the game more enjoyable for the novice or average player, such as the occasional placement of two cups on greens (aim for the closest one), extra-wide cups so that the long putt is more makeable, and tees that are farther down the fairway, the Herald-Tribune reported.
“The game is supposed to be fun,” said Schell, noting that these adjustments to the staid rules of the game are popular with couples playing on Sundays. Those same couples might play tennis or enjoy social activities at the country club. “If you are not having fun, you shouldn’t live here.”
Fully two-thirds of home buyers do not want to live on a golf course, according to the NAHB survey, which is done every five years. That is more than even having a master bathroom that has no tub (51 percent), laminate countertops (40 percent) or ceramic-tile counters (30 percent), the Herald-Tribune reported.
“Too many rules and regulations for my clients. They want waterfront,” said agent Ellen Bussear Baker. “You know, it’s hot down here.”
Builders and developers are listening. For every development like The Founders Club or The Concession, both luxury residential communities with outstanding golf courses, there is at least one The Lake Club, which has comparable luxury homes and lots of water hazards but no sand traps, fairways or tees.
While the national outlook is worrisome, locally, golf is still a viable amenity for residential subdivisions, said Mark Bruce, a PGA professional and co-publisher of the golf tourism magazine “Play Golf Sarasota,” the Herald-Tribune reported.
“Our market—Bradenton, Sarasota, Venice—has seen a resurgence in memberships and rounds played versus three to five years ago, for sure,” Bruce said. “It doesn’t mean operators don’t face challenges. They always do, because a golf course is not a cash cow. It is a depreciating asset with everything under the ground — the greens, irrigation, root system, pump stations — everything it takes to grow the grass and make it pretty, deteriorates over 10 to 20 years. So you always have to be willing to reinvest.”
The market is extremely competitive, said Jay Tallman, who co-developed The Founders Club in 2004, just in time for the market bust, and resurrected his career as developer of the Aria condominium on Longboat Key’s beachfront. “The upper echelon of courses that are newer are doing OK. The tougher ones are the ones that haven’t had the capital to upgrade. They are struggling to hold on. You have the haves and have-nots. It is a tough industry.”
Courses without strong member support will start to look ragged, as the greens fees only pay for the operational expenses and not course upgrades and makeovers. Such courses eventually have to invite in non-resident members, and perhaps even become semi-public daily-fee courses, the Herald-Tribune reported.
“Some courses in this area are on the brink of trouble, with rounds down and no membership base,” Bruce said, “but unless they are really burdened with a ton of bank debt, it would be real tough for them to go under. The Palm-Aires, Sara Bays, four or five years ago, they were treading water. The last two years, they have managed to get above the line and are ahead of the game and have a few dollars to make some improvements.”
“It is competitive,” said Schell at VGCC, which opened in 1991 with a course designed by Ted McAnlis. “There have been a great number of courses that have closed over the past five to 10 years. And very few new courses were opening. That was a product of oversupply. And then you get the downturn. That is a double whammy to golf.
“We have to have a premium product with great playing conditions, or you have to be a daily-fee course and try to get every single penny you can out of it. You can be low-price or you can be high-quality and sell a high-quality lifestyle.”
Schell’s course is a requisite-membership country club, which means you have to join the club if you buy a home there. Venice Golf & Country Club has 587 homes and 364 golf memberships. The other households have social or recreational memberships. To pay for the current course revamp, $1.7 million of which is for a high-tech sprinkler system that will reduce water usage by 40 percent, VGCC has “a 10-year long-range plan and we charge members each year to fully fund the depreciation schedule, and put it into the capital plan,” Schell said.
While acknowledging that Esplanade is the only new course to come online locally in years Bruce says he is “confused when I hear people say golf is struggling.”
“Thousands and thousands of kids tried to qualify for ‘Drive, Chip and Putt’ at The Masters (tournament). It is an unprecedented way to get kids interested in golf,” Bruce said. “The challenge of golf that middle-aged parents or working folks face is not the desire to play, it is the time commitment.
“The developers that are doing bundled golf communities, Taylor Morrison and Lennar, that formula has proven to work for them time and again when they are bundling club amenities and the purchase of a home inside of a gated community.”
But mandatory-membership communities, while helping assure that the course and country club are funded, can be hard to sell, real estate agents and developers say, the Herald-Tribune reported.
“It is a double-edged sword,” said Tallman. “While that may help better support the club, it also can hurt real estate sales” if the initial fees are too pricey for the average buyer there.