The masterplanned golf and housing estate is over a century old. First pioneered at St George’s Hill in Surrey, England, by developer Walter Tarrant and architect Harry Colt, it was for decades the dominant model of golf development in much of the world. Especially in the United States, literally thousands of courses have been built as the anchor amenity for a real estate development.
But the great recession of 2008 brought the creation of such developments crashing to a halt. At that time, many sources said that the days of golf and housing estates was past; that the model was somehow broken.
In truth, though, there were a number of things going on. One, across much of the golfing world, was a straightforward oversupply; the recession left housebuilders in the US and elsewhere with a substantial overhang of unsold property, and even when the houses were sold, as was the case for example across much of the Middle East, the bubble nature of those markets had seen many of the homes bought, not to live in, but by speculators to resell. Thus the estates were largely empty and devoid of life. Two was the perception among golfers that development golf was second rate; holes strung out down corridors of houses, with homes (and thus out of bounds) on both sides, in the quest by developers to maximise golf frontage, courses that were unwalkable because of the long distances between the holes, and golf holes that were dumbed down so as not to offend anyone; the lowest common denominator.
2008 was something of a Year Zero for the golf design and construction industry; though the rate of creation of new courses had slowed dramatically from the high point of the early 21st century by then, the crash pretty much stopped it entirely. But in the years since, golf and housing has started, albeit slowly, to come back, in certain areas where economic conditions and local housing markets made for low supply; in the Houston area a few years ago, for example, before the oil price fell, a number of projects made their debut. And, what is encouraging, both golf architects and developers seem to be more savvy about the balance of power between course and homes.
What went so wrong with development golf is that many of the courses that were built simply could not wash their feet once the houses had been sold. Maintenance costs, clubhouses and the like – which were basically engineered into the projects from the start – were so high that there was no way the course could ever operate without subsidy, which developers who had, as far as they were concerned, finished their project, were understandably reluctant to provide. So, hopefully, as markets recover and development comes back, site masterplans and golf designs will be created that are more golf-sustainable.
Arnold Palmer Design Company’s latest course, Lakewood National outside Sarasota/Bradenton in western Florida, is a pretty textbook example of how developers and golf designers can work together to ensure a successful project for all concerned. In some senses, Lakewood is a typical Florida development course; many of the holes are bordered by lakes, dug to provide fill to construct the golf and ensure drainage across the property, and the course’s routing is relatively spread out to give a good selection of home sites with views over holes. But there the standardisation stops.
Palmer architect Brandon Johnson says that Lakewood developer Lennar Homes knew that ‘the same old story’ would not work on this development, and thus encouraged him to be bolder with the golf course design. South Florida golf course contractor Ryan Golf teamed with Lennar and APDC to execute the work.
Both companies relished the opportunity to break the mould of traditional development golf. “We saw an opportunity to adjust initial masterplan efforts and take advantage of existing northern and southern wetland buffers. This created golf corridors that used the natural features as borders on one side while incorporating ponds necessary for site drainage and lot development on the opposite side, as a buffer and aesthetic element between golf and homes.” says Johnson. “Our intent was to create a fun and beautiful golf course that uses meaningful width and contour, rarely found in this region of Florida, as the main aesthetic and strategic elements. Golf is a game that is meant to be fun blended with a playful challenge. It also possesses a wonderful strategic element that should engage the mind and players’ intellect. It was important for us to design a course that was enjoyable and playable for the mid- to high-handicap golfer while captivating and thought provoking for the more advanced player.”
This he has done in spades. Though the property could never be described as hilly, Johnson has used the fill generated by the lake construction to create some significant contours in the golf holes, and, in particular, some quite aggressive greens.
Prime among these is the short par four thirteenth, only 318 yards from the very back tees, and around 280 from the set that will be played by most handicap golfers. Sand, a drainage ditch and woodlands occupy the lower left side; on the right, Johnson has raised the ground and built a central fairway bunker to make golfers ponder the best position for the tee shot. But it’s the green that really stands out; set behind a rise, the front half is relatively gentle, but the back corner is quite remarkable, falling away dramatically to the back left. Put the pin down there and a fairly simple hole for most players will become very interesting indeed. No-one will want to be putting down the slope and trying to stop their ball near to the flag.
Other standout holes include the par three fourth, which features another brutal green, this time tilted severely towards the golfer and sloping also to the right, in the manner of the Eden green at St Andrews, and the tenth, a very strong par four with water all along the right side and some more of those central fairway bunkers asking questions of the player.
A housing development golf course on a fairly ordinary piece of ground in the west of Florida might not be seen by many architects as the ideal opportunity for them to show off their skills. But it is testimony to Brandon Johnson – and also to his client, Lennar – that Lakewood is both interesting, challenging and genuinely fun to play. It is a very fine piece of work that could and should act as a model for many developments to come.
This article first appeared in issue 48 of Golf Course Architecture