Tiger Woods’ first U.S. golf course is just the start of how Bluejack National plans to redefine the club business.
Tiger Woods gazed out in the direction of a flagstick nearly 630 yards away. But his thoughts weren’t about the wind, his swing or how his back might hold up to the test.
“Guys,” he finally said to the others in his group, after an extended silence. “How are kids supposed to play this hole? We need to put in another tee.”
Finding The Needle
Woods made his comment near the end of last year, while reviewing the construction progress of a new 18-hole golf course at Bluejack National, a new community/resort property being developed near Montgomery, Texas, outside of Houston. Located on the site of the former Blaketree National Golf Club, the course is the first designed in the U.S. (and just the second in the world) by Tiger Woods Design.
Woods’ firm was hired by Beacon Land Development, which is partnering with Lantern Asset Management on Bluejack National, in part because of the obvious impact and attention his name would bring to the project. And there certainly has been no disappointment to date where that objective is concerned.
“We found quickly that Tiger doesn’t just move the needle—he is the needle,” says Casey Paulson, PGA, a former General Manager and Chief Operating Officer of the Vaquero Club who is now a co-Founder of Beacon. “Every YouTube video we post featuring him talking about the course immediately gets over 100,000 hits.”
|At a Glance: Bluejack National
Location: Montgomery, Texas
Ownership: Beacon Land Development/Lantern Asset Management
Golf Course Design: Tiger Woods Design
President (Beacon Land Dev.): Michael Abbott
Vice President (Beacon Land Dev.): Casey Paulson
CEO (Lantern Asset Mngmt.): Andy Mitchell
Director of Agronomy: Eric Bauer
Co-Head Golf Professionals: Rich Barcelo, Matt Marino
Club Chef: Gilbert Moore
Director of Marketing: Josh Governale
But Michael Abbott, Beacon’s other co-Founder, says Woods’ off-the-charts recognition factor wasn’t the sole reason for bringing him on board. “We think that golf has lost its way because of how challenging it’s become, the time commitment involved and the loss of social interaction, as people split up in carts and spend a lot of time going off on their own looking for their balls,” says Abbott, the former Vice President of Operations of Discovery Land Company who is identified by all involved as the lead “visionary” for Bluejack National. “As a result, not only is the game not as fun as it used to be, it’s also a big reason why clubs have stopped being as interactive as they once were.
“So playability of the golf course was a major objective, no matter who we had design it,” Abbott continues. “And we found that Tiger Woods can articulate playability in ways that really make sense—having the ball roll more, no forced carries, and in general making it possible for all four players to walk together and finish together, to help bring the social part back to the game.”
Woods’ suggestion that another kids’ tee (which are being called “Frank” tees at the club, as a nod to the character created around his own tiger-doll driver-head cover) might be needed on one of Bluejack’s longest holes spoke to how he’s sought to put his preachings about playability into practice as his first U.S. course has taken shape. (Stymied by near-Biblical rain patterns in the Houston area last spring and summer that the developers cite for delaying construction by anywhere from two to three months, Bluejack National was able to open seven holes in November, with the rest of the front nine now scheduled for completion in mid-January, followed by the back nine later in 2016.)
And, perhaps as a reflection of how his views not only on golf, but also club life, have changed as he’s raised his own children, Woods’ involvement has also extended to include an understanding and endorsement of the larger identity Bluejack National’s developers are seeking to establish for the property as a resort-themed community.
“I think Tiger may really get as excited about all of the lifestyle amenities we’re going to have here as about the golf,” says Andy Mitchell, Chief Executive Officer of Lantern Asset Management.
“Contractually, Tiger Woods is ‘just’ our golf course designer,” adds Paulson. “But it’s been important from the start—and evident—that he’s bought into the whole experience of what we’re creating here, and that he trusts in our ability to execute his golf course successfully in that broader framework.”
Many other components of that broader framework are scheduled to come on stream at Bluejack National throughout this year and beyond. Some will be designed to enhance and expand golf-related experiences around the core provided by Woods’ course.
“The Place,” created in partnership with Nike Golf, will house a golf performance center that includes a golf-related exercise room, instruction and performance-testing studios, and open bays for hitting out into an expansive and feature-filled practice course that will be fronted by a 27,000-sq. ft. putting green. “The partnership we’ve been able to create through Nike and its relationship with Tiger is going to provide members with the type of access to equipment and instructional features and benefits that you typically wouldn’t see at a private club,” says Paulson.
Adjacent to The Place will be “The Playgrounds”—a half-acre, ten-hole, par-3 layout, on which Tiger Woods Design also had input, with “lengths” ranging from 30 to 140 yards. “It’s not just a putting course, and it’s going to have much broader appeal than an ‘executive’ course,” says Bluejack National’s Director of Agronomy, Eric Bauer.
Bauer and his staff are preparing to give The Playgrounds ample and regular maintenance attention—the layout includes bunkers and contouring, and will feature M85 dwarf zoysia greens, which Bauer said will thrive better in the course’s purposely shaded environment and avoid the need to cut down trees. Plus, The Playgrounds will be lighted for night play, which promises to add to its expected popularity.
“We fully expect [The Playgrounds] to be a member favorite, as a much more elegant and broader delivery of the type of fun and appeal that Topgolf has tapped into,” says Josh Governale, Bluejack National’s Director of Marketing. “It can be used in so many ways—for post-round camaraderie among those coming off the [18-hole] golf course, for a father and daughter who can play [The Playgrounds] with just two clubs, or for ladies who have just come from the spa and want to play it while having a glass of chardonnay.”
Developing Study Habits
While they usually express some reluctance to go on the record with the sentiment, many involved with Bluejack National confess that they may actually be most excited about some of the non-golf-related features that are being developed for the property.
In particular, “The Fort” is pointed to as the spot that is really expected to eventually capture and embrace the spirit of the project. Positioned on one of the 755-acre property’s six lakes, The Fort (see rendering, pg. 22) is being designed as “the world’s coolest hangout.” Once fully executed, it will certainly take the club industry’s drive to provide a full range of family-friendly activities to new levels. In addition to a resort-style swimming pool, sunken tennis and sports courts, and a game room, plans call for a 60-yard, multi-purpose field marked for flag football or other sports; a “Little Fenway” wiffle ball field modeled after Boston’s iconic stadium; a bowling pavilion and a skate park; and much more.
The full plans for The Fort even call for an outdoor “story-telling corner” created around a fire pit, and a study hall pavilion. “It’s all about creating spaces where people are comfortable,” says Abbott. “When you can do that, your club can truly be an extension of all that [members’] lifestyles involve.”Activities and features at Bluejack National will also include a ropes course, zip lines, miles of walking trails and an active fishing program. “This will certainly not be your typical master-planned community, “ says Mitchell. “It will be a private, resort-style community, and people will choose to live here for a lifestyle that they will be able to define for themselves, and so they can enjoy the types of relationships that happen in this type of setting.
“The family element is what moves the needle now, so you need to be sure your concept offers plenty of ways to entertain every generation of the family for years to come,” Mitchell adds. “The Fort is the type of amenity that will now sell as much real estate as golf; the first couple that bought here, in fact, were not golfers. This is where clubs are going now, even when they’re tied to property sales.”
(Plans call for Bluejack National to have 386 private residences when fully developed. Outside memberships are also available, but the club’s management expect the vast majority of members to be property owners.)
The club also plans to provide a full complement of food-and-beverage venues, ranging from fruit stands featuring fresh produce from on-property orchards to a burger-and-shake joint in The Fort to a coffee house featuring Bluejack Coffee (the property has also partnered with a local brewery to be able to offer Bluejack Ale).
The half-dozen or so F&B outlets (including on-course comfort stations) that will eventually be created will come under the direction of Club Chef Gilbert Moore, who brings experience with Marriott and Ritz-Carlton operations to the property. The emphasis in all cases, Moore says, will be on on-site preparation, using smaller satellite kitchens, to prepare “simple food done really well, with great quality ingredients.”
Other items that are expected to quickly approach signature status at Bluejack National include fresh-made jerky, tri-tip sliders and grilled peanut butter-and-bacon sandwiches. But the real signature objective, says Paulson, will be to simply promote the “magic of a kid—or adult—being able to ride a bike around to places where they can always find something really special to eat or drink.”
That aspect will be further promoted, Bluejack National’s management stresses, by the one thing that won’t be found on the property. “There won’t be a 100,000-sq. ft. clubhouse,” says Governale. “The entrance will be subtle—no black-iron gate or red brick walls. This is not going to be a ‘billboard community,’ and everything will be focused on telling the right story and making sure the content is authentic and engaging throughout.”
Ready for Business
So as all of this is built, who does the Bluejack National management team expect will come?
The property’s developers acknowledge that there have been plenty of eyebrows raised over what they are doing. But they have also already seen enough excitement generated among the various segments they are seeking to attract to more than counter-balance any skepticism, or cynicism, they might encounter.
“Meteors concern me, too,” says Paulson, when asked about potential obstacles to success. “First of all, I don’t think golf is dead. It can still be very successful, but you just might have to program it differently, because of how people’s time is compressed and how they’re placing a greater value on their free time. Even when we were only able to first open seven holes instead of nine as we hoped, it was great to see how people were happy to adjust to playing seven-hole loops.”
What about being closely tied to the Houston-area economy, which in the past has cratered during times of depressed oil and gas prices? “The Houston economy is now unbelievably diverse,” Paulson says. “Our first members came from the health care and insurance fields. And there are more millionaires in Houston than any other metropolitan area.”
Bluejack National’s management is also expecting to see the property’s location gain new appeal, even though it may now still be perceived by some as a bit remote, as other parts of the Houston area, and in particular The Woodlands, a high-end suburb, continue to become built out.
“ExxonMobil relocated its North American headquarters to The Woodlands and brought 13,000 jobs to the area,” notes Gary Short, a real estate agent who has contracted with Beacon Land Development to do business as Bluejack Realty and serve as the property’s Director of Sales. “The schools there have become much more crowded, and that’s pushed a lot of people to look into relocating. When they come out to see what’s out this way, they’re amazed to see how much different it is. You feel like you’ve gone 800 miles, to Tennessee or North Carolina or Georgia, instead of just 50 or so.”
The perception of distance stands to be reduced even further, the Bluejack team notes, as new roads are built that will greatly reduce travel time from Houston. At the same time, an equally significant growth push is anticipated from the other direction. “The College Station/Bryan area [about equidistant to the northwest of Montgomery as Houston is to the southeast] is really growing, too,” notes Paulson. “And that’s created a real ‘Aggie Expressway’ [College Station is home to Texas A&M University] between the two cities that we’re right in the middle of. We’ve already seen a lot of evidence that we’re perfectly positioned for people from either area who want second homes or weekend retreats, in addition to those who are interested in relocating here full-time.”
Further, Abbott notes, Bluejack National has been conceived as a place that’s prepared to change with the times and as new economic or demographic conditions evolve. “This place will still be here in 50 years, because it’s been created so it can adapt to new climates and continue to create fresh uses for the property,” he says.