A New Generation of Golf Communities

That old expression about every cloud having a silver lining has special resonance in golf real estate these days. The communities and clubs that made it through the economic earthquake of a few years ago have come through the other side having learned some very valuable lessons.

Probably the most important is that things have changed—dramatically. The world communicates differently, works differently, and spends differently. Which means that we relax differently, too, a truth not lost on those trying to sell homes and club memberships around golf. What was popular a decade or so ago—a nice course, a nice house, and a lifestyle built around winding down—doesn’t cut it anymore. Today, there is nothing “retiring” about retirees, more young people are looking at second homes and golf communities, and consumers are much more savvy.

When we asked the members of LINKS Magazine’s real estate panel—managers, sales people, and consultants with decades of experience in golf properties—to enlighten us as to what’s new in golf-related amenities, their responses reflected this new world and proved as wide-ranging as the communities themselves.

It may seem obvious to report that golf is the most important activity a golf community offers, but it’s not. Not obvious and not always true. The game is getting some stiff competition.

“We have seen a shift in the baby-boom buyer,” says Tom Jackson, owner and broker-in-charge at Gateway Realty in the South Carolina Lowcountry. “Golf is not the overriding factor anymore: It’s family, grandkids, outdoor activities, and exercise.”

“Eight years ago, 60 percent of our target buyers listed golf as the main reason for choosing where to buy a second home,” says David Sawyer, executive vice president of The Cliffs, seven clubs spread across North and South Carolina. “But we recently did that survey again and 52 percent now list health and wellness as the top priority.”

According to our panel, fitness is the second—and sometimes the first—amenity on the minds of buyers. To keep up with the rush to wellness, communities around the country are adding equipment and services. St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla., expanded its fitness center to nearly 9,000 square feet with the addition of a room dedicated to spinning. In nearby West Palm Beach, Ibis Golf & Country Club recently opened a new Sports Village and Aquatic Center, a four-building complex with a two-story fitness center.

“We’re doubling the size of our current center and building separate rooms for Pilates, yoga, spinning, and aerobics including Zumba,” says John Jorritsma, Ibis’s director of sales and marketing. He noted that two nontraditional forms of exercise—suspension training and Kangoo (jump boots)—”have really gained in popularity, especially with younger members.” Ah, those younger members.

It seems they—and their young families—are driving many of the other changes in clubs and communities, as well. “We’ve seen the most impact from amenities that have broad appeal to all family members,” says Dan Collins, president of IMI, the marketing and exclusive real estate brokerage firm for Martis Camp, which sits in the Sierra Nevada Mountains high above Lake Tahoe, Calif. “The Family Barn at Martis Camp set the tone several years back and has been replicated in a number of projects around the country. At our property on Kauai, Kukui’ula, the Outdoor Pursuits group is famed for crafting incredibly unique experiences for all ages on the water and land around the island.”

“We have marinas, equestrian, field houses, barns, general stores, ropes courses, kids’ camp, walking trails, hunting sports, fly fishing, great food and wine, outdoorpursuits programs, and much more,” reports Steve Adelson, a partner in Discovery Land Company, one of the pioneers of family-focused communities, which built Gozzer Ranch in Idaho, Baker’s Bay in The Bahamas, Estancia in Arizona, and many others. “All these and more are keys to creating the lifestyle that our buyers and current members are looking for. But what they value most is the interpersonal relationships between family and also the staff.”

Torreon Golf Club in the White Mountains of Arizona recently added a family fishing pond, kids’ golf course, and family activity center, while the menu at the pool features kid-friendly food and milk shakes (not that everybody doesn’t love milk shakes). Children’s programming, like summer camps, is important at the Daniel Island Club near Charleston, S.C., as is fitness, a wine club, croquet and bocce, and what Carolyn Lancaster, the club’s vice president of marketing, calls “distinct restaurant-like dining venues—from an adultsonly gastropub to family grillroom and pool-side dining.”

Variety is very important to the new buyer. “The club has to engage a surprisingly younger membership base—with young children at home—as well as empty nesters/pre-retirees, retirees, and second-home owners,” reports Lancaster. “Because of the diversity of ages within our membership, there are a lot of interesting crossgenerational friendships. It’s not unusual to see a 35-yearold in a regular golf game with a 65-year-old. Or find different ages paired up by choice in event play.”

At Sailfish Point—a club in Stuart, Fla., that is at least as popular for its boating, fishing, and ocean access as it is for its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course—the “Kid’s Area” was just renovated to include a game room, playground, and pool, while also opening an alfresco community café. At Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel, Calif., “We’ve added dog shows, father/child events, grandfather/child campouts, and excursions one doesn’t get in a normal urban environment,” says Tony Dawson, managing partner of Carefree Hospitality. “The lifestyle programming needs to be relevant to society’s wants and needs. The emphasis is away from golf as the sole amenity. At one of our communities, we actually recommended ‘golf ‘ be removed from the name of the club to satisfy the role of the spouse in deciding which community/ club to join. If a community cannot check all the amenity boxes for the entire vertical family, you will lose a buyer very quickly.”

The move to wider family involvement has had financial implications, as well. The Reserve at Lake Keowee in South Carolina is one of a number of clubs that changed its membership rules and pricing to accommodate more generations. “We added a legacy component to our membership five years ago,” says Rutledge Livingston, The Reserve’s director of sales. “The point was to encourage generational zuse from grandparents through grandchildren, with all falling in those categories considered members.”

“Many clubs are revising and restructuring dues to appeal to younger members,” says Robert Whitley, president of Whitley Development Group, which has developed many top golf communities primarily in Florida and the Southeast. And Whitley sees another revision in the works as a result of the next generation joining and reshaping clubs: “They desire a more relaxed and informal atmosphere.”

“Today’s buyers have little knowledge of or loyalty to the old stuffy game,” says IMI’s Collins. “This is particularly true with regard to attire and logistics. For example, they may want to play 12 holes with an untucked shirt and sandals or slippers. There is, of course, a fine line in being liberal with dress code, but removing the strictures of the country club game is vital to getting new golfer/owners excited about playing more than one or two rounds a year.”

Despite the recent doom-saying in the media, golf is not going away. Certainly not at golf communities. But if these properties are to survive and grow, they’ll have to keep bending the rules and finding clever ways to answer to many masters, across many ages and interests.

“We’re all going to have to live outside the box to attract the next generations of buyers,” explains William E. Langley, general manager of Quail Ridge Country Club in Boynton Beach, Fla. “All we know for sure is that they will be different and have different needs, wants, and desires from our current members.”