High roller golf

Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

When Alister MacKenzie’s epic Cypress Point design opened in 1928, the English physician-turned-architect touted the project’s inexpensive nature. “We not only completed the whole course for US$90,000, but did a great deal more work than we undertook to do,” he said. The final construction cost for Cypress Point was probably closer to US$120,000. Nonetheless, it was a bargain.

In today’s money, the cost of the Del Monte Forest, California course would translate to US$1.3 million, while the total expense of land acquisition, clubhouse construction and development fees equals nearly US$4.8 million. Almost eighty years later, the very thought of an architect bragging about the inexpensive construction cost of his high-end design might get him banned from the property. As with soaring film costs driven by celebrity salaries, the general public appears increasingly captivated by the lavish expense necessary to create an epic course, often by big name players. Today’s exclusive golf developments run up huge construction bills and require correspondingly big money to play them. Secrecy abounds to ensure the privacy of members, except when it comes to announcing the high cost to build and join such a club. The financial information, whether accurate or not, is bandied about to enhance prestige.

But what else besides privacy do people see for their £145,000 membership at Queenwood that they can’t get for their £2,000 at Alwoodley? Is this an issue for the game, or a minor blip compared to say, the effects of ‘championship’ golf and the costly chase for distance that comes with its mysterious allure?

Ever since the game spread beyond the Scottish linkslands, golf has had its exclusive branch. But starting in the late 1980s and culminating with the opening of Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn’s US$40 million Shadow Creek course in Las Vegas, a course’s price tag and its eyepopping fees have become common knowledge.

And unlike the days of MacKenzie, the higher the price the better.

“It began as a dream,” says Shadow Creek’s flashy website. “To build a monument to golf. To respect all that is beautiful and perfect about the game.” Apparently all that was beautiful and perfect would start at US$1,000 per round, and more importantly, on a course you would have to yourself.

Though it was never intended to be a private club (except to developer Wynn whose home is on the 18th fairway), Shadow Creek was intended only for high-roller guests of Wynn’s Mirage Hotel. They were guaranteed never to see other golfers on the tree-lined layout. The quest for solitude is a key selling point for the wave of high-end clubs popping up all over the world. Even if you are not a celebrity, you pay lavishly to feel like someone hounded by paparazzi right up to the moment you pass the large security gate, only to find peace and quiet at the golf club.

While the trend towards ‘high-roller’ golf clubs started in the United States (and continued with literally hundreds more wannabes), such facilities are popping up around the world, including the United Kingdom, where inexpensive and accessible golf clubs have long been a virtual birthright.

Commencing with Loch Lomond and continuing with Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire and now Archerfield in Edinburgh, this wave of high-end golf development has raised concerns that golf is becoming more elitist than ever. Others say that as long as there is a real estate component, nothing is wrong with Archerfield’s £10 million clubhouse or its 100 housing plots going for as much as £2 million.

“When it is a real estate project, you can justify greater costs,” says architect Peter Harradine, who has been involved in a diverse range of projects, including some expensive site transformations in the Middle East. “However, the area required for a real estate course has become incredibly large because of modern equipment. Golf has become a very dangerous game.”

Still, are some of the costs and ensuing fees for standalone projects justified when so many classic courses across the globe were built for so little? Long before Las Vegas’s Shadow Creek and Cascata (US$60 million), the king of high-roller, mega-dollar expenditures was Long Island, New York’s Lido, a now defunct Seth Raynor/CB Macdonald design that succumbed to World War II. But not, it should be noted, its exorbitant construction tab.

Over a four-year period starting in 1914, two million cubic yards of sand was sucked out of the bottom of the nearby channel to create Lido. Enormous scaffolding was erected to support dredge piping and there was even a site railroad constructed. Eventually, over 100 acres of sand was filled to an average depth of eight feet to create the wondrous grounds for golf. The US$1.4 million bill for Lido translates to over US$20 million in today’s money. Still, that’s an average tally for necessary similar site transformation projects in barren locales such as Dubai, and a third of what Donald Trump claims to have spent stabilising just one hole at his Trump National Los Angeles course.

Some are not so sure these projects are spending what they claim. “You better divide by at least two to get the real cost,” says American architect Brian Silva. “It is ‘in’ to inflate your costs – and that gives the average or even above average golfer a wrong impression.”

The wealthy used to build mansions and pretend to be embarrassed by talk of the actual cost. Today, many are willing to pay excessive prices for the opportunity to tout eye-popping dollar figures during dinner party conversations.

“In testing out some initiation fees, the lower dollar totals raised eyebrows,” said one developer of two American clubs who did not want to be named. “A few thought that some people might get the impression that the facility was not world class, simply because we weren’t charging enough to join.” Architects are in a difficult position when talking about this subject. After all, why offend potential clients or question what a developer wants to claim was spent?

Of those contacted, the architects who have varied their projects between high end and minimalist seemed more comfortable speaking on the subject. “I feel like a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character on this one,” says architect Tom Mackenzie who has worked on ultraexclusive and acclaimed projects like Redtail in Ontario, Canada and Cherokee in South Carolina, while also “taking huge pride” in Ballindalloch, a nine-hole course built in the mountains of Scotland for less than US$500,000 (including drainage and irrigation).

“With very few exceptions, great courses are not created out of awful sites and certainly not without spending a cripplingly large amount of money doing so. The style of our more exclusive courses is such that they were built for relatively small amounts, compared to Trump’s creations or any of the similar projects.”

Scottish architect David Kidd has seen both worlds. His Bandon Dunes design was built on a tight budget, as will be his forthcoming course near Machrihanish in the far west of Scotland (see GCA issue 2, p6). He has also designed the rarely seen but enthusiastically received high-end clubs at Queenwood in Surrey and Nanea, an ultra-private Hawaiian retreat for financier Charles Schwab.

“It’s obvious to me now having done a few that the financial rewards have to be higher for these ultra private clubs because there’s no spin-off from them,” says Kidd. “I’m sure there’s a word of mouth among the elite, but the average guy never hears about them.What these guys do with their money is up to them. I’m a capitalist. If these guys want to build a private club for two of them, that’s up to them.”

Harradine agrees: “I don’t think golf is really going down because of the expensive clubs. It’s supply and demand. For every expensive course there are plenty of cheap ones too.

“Besides, the media will not talk about a nice, simple golf course where people enjoy themselves. They only write about the championship courses, the ‘signature’ par-72 courses. I’m often asked to design for the Tiger and the Bear and the Shark. And I don’t know if I’m supposed to design a golf course or a zoo.

“The Americans have started it and it’s a big bubble, and one of these days it’s just going to fall apart because people are sick and tired of a six-hour round.Which is how long it takes on a so-called championship course. It’s certainly not because of the amount of money spent on the golf course.”

“I do not consider myself to be a golfing communist where all golf has to be affordable and accessible,” says Tom Mackenzie. “But I do believe that for the game to have a future it has to be within reach for a broad cross section of society. This is achieved by building courses on reasonable sites where construction costs can be controlled to sensible levels and also by tailoring the target market to the quality of the site.

“Too much time is spent talking about rankings and so on, when what people want are courses that are fun year in year out and in good condition, balanced against a sensible cost of membership.”

Silva believes that courses spending big money and handing out “cooled towels at the turn” tends to send many golfers and panellists “into an astral plane.”

“Because of the amount of money spent and only because of the amount of money spent, people think that these courses are examples of great design,” he says. Still, Silva has little problem with high-end courses taking a small part of the marketplace, as long as people see them as just that.

“Golf is not a socialised event. Not all courses should be available to all golfers. That is how life, sadly, is. I only get passing glances from Cindy Crawford. I think the negative here is far more insidious and entirely overlooked – these places get lots of talk and even more ink. It makes folks think they are the only courses getting built – it further cements the idea outside the world of golf that the game of golf is only an elitist game.”

Ran Morrissett, founder of GolfClubAtlas.com and a longtime panellist for Golf Magazine’s World Top 100 ranking, wonders about the long term prospects of high end clubs where the architecture is vanity-driven instead of emphasising fun, classic golf values.

“It seems to me that the long term prospects of any club or course depends on the number of appealing holes and shots that the course offers,” he says. “Without a high number, why join or bother coming back for a return game? And with very few exceptions,my experience has been the more big budget the project is, the less fun shots there are as the place either takes itself too seriously by striving for difficulty first, or the place is over-manicured, unnatural and over-watered, reducing all ground game options.

“Plus, to get someone to pay a zillion dollars, there is the warped mindset that the ‘club’ needs to show them something for it, like waterfalls, fancy bunkers that are probably difficult to maintain, and other forms of eye candy.Whereas a slight two-foot bump in front of a green won’t garner much praise as the need for more overt eye candy must rule the day. The end result is a cluttered course.”

As for the exorbitant entrance fees to some of these clubs, Morrissett believes: “There’s a chance that it’ll be like musical chairs, and at some point the music’s going to stop and you’ll look like a fool because you’re still standing.” And he wonders: “What kind of a chump in hindsight will look back and feel good about spending $250,000 to join a club?”

Tom Mackenzie believes there will always be a small market for ultra private, high-roller golf, but does worry about its impact on traditional projects. “It skews the market because the construction costs can be so astronomically high that it is easy for the golf market to believe that expensive is good. Every million dollars spent moving dirt needlessly costs 100,000 golfers at least US$10 per round, once interest is added in. It is important not to lose focus on that. How important is the quest for perfection in any case? As Tom Simpson wrote, ‘Imperfect courses are among the most interesting and amusing to play over’.”

If Simpson were around today, perhaps he would change ‘imperfect’ to ‘affordable.’

This article first appeared in issue 3 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2006.