Golf and housing go together like… well, like what? Love and marriage? Or oil and water? Although thousands of developments all over the world have integrated golf and homes over the last century, there remains a niggling doubt, especially among ‘purist’ golf lovers, that such courses are ‘real golf’. And since the crash of 2007-8, there have been precious few new such developments taken on, especially in the United States, the traditional hotbed of the golf and housing model.
So the question must be asked: is the model broken for good? Or is there a better way to do golf and housing that will still allow the real estate component to be successful, while rendering the golf better and more sustainable – and perhaps even more ‘real’?
When asked ‘What is the best way of building a mixed golf and housing development?’ some industry experts take the question head on and propose ways in which a development could be structured to give both components the best chance of success. But several gave a very simple and straightforward answer: don’t do it.
‘Don’t do it’ at least has the virtue of being easy to comprehend. On the other hand, though, for much of the last half century, if most golf architects had turned down housing projects, they would not have had much work. So, perhaps, we need to find a more nuanced response.
Architect Colton Craig explains the problem: “The vast majority of golf development prior to 2008 was artificially propped up by the real-estate market and urban sprawl. Pre-recession, we saw the greatest increase in golf course development in the history of the game. However, housing-lot location and roadway drainage took priority over the golf course, and many of these courses lacked interesting design. Golf architecture enthusiasts label this period as the Dark Ages of design. But, does a real-estate golf course automatically mean it is of lower quality? Golf courses being connected to a community is as old as the game. The Old course is a prime example of how a community can become one with its golf course. The town of St Andrews is not a real-estate development, but we can take many of the principles and apply it to modern day developments.”
Golf architects naturally tend to the view that the balance between course and housing has been out of kilter on many such projects. Certainly in the boom times, it was quite commonplace for a golf architect to be hired to design a course, and, on making his first visit to the site, to be presented with a site master plan, done by a land planner, that basically locked in the routing of the golf course. Naturally, this cannot possibly make for the best golf.
One of the most fundamental aspects of golf design is that the site is key. Architect Jason Straka says this is, if anything, even more so with real estate projects. “Choose better sites. Just because you can build a golf course with homes surrounding it doesn’t mean you should,” he says. “For example, housing in flat farm fields is likely better developed with parks, ponds and interconnected walking trails in many circumstances. It takes a lot of mass grading and revegetation to otherwise build an interesting golf course, and few of those types of projects are truly financially sustainable. Additionally, golf development was traditionally pushed into the worst ground of a housing development site such as flood plains. Again, golf became expensive to build, maintain and manage.”
One development, currently underway, where housing is part of the mix, but definitely not the main reason for it, is Cabot Links principal Ben Cowan-Dewar’s new project on the West Indian island of Saint Lucia, where the golf course is being designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. They are not the first names that spring to mind for development projects, so we spoke to both Coore and Cowan-Dewar to find out a bit more about what makes the project tick – and whether their experiences hold lessons for others trying to do similar, if perhaps less dramatic, projects.
“We have 370 acres of land, and the master plan includes 300 housing units, but quite a few of them are either townhouses or flats, which reduces the footprint of real estate,” says Cowan-Dewar. “But the golf course always came first. Part of the reason the master plan works so well is the nature of the property, which has a lot of big, broad slopes that we were never going to put golf on. So, the houses cascade up the hillside and everyone has a view. It reminds me of the Seychelles in that aspect. There’s a fair bit – over 100 feet – of elevation change and the coastline juts in and out. That’s good both for golf and housing – we have nine greens right on the water, and you can see the ocean from everywhere on site. If we had tried to maximise the amount of real estate on the site, we wouldn’t have allocated so much land – and the best land – to the golf course. But that’s how it is at a number of classic courses that have homes. No-one says that Pebble Beach or Cypress Point are spoiled by the housing, and I think those are really great cues to draw from.”
So that’s our first lesson – don’t prioritise housing over golf to the extent that the real estate gets all the best land. Another site planning issue is central to this: the vexed question of the master plan. “Bill was on site before Ron, the masterplanner,” says Cowan-Dewar. “We said to him, ‘figure out what land you want for golf and what’s the best golf course we can build, and we’ll work around that’. We have always tried to make sure that we won’t cheapen the experience when the homes are built. If you take the same approach to land planning as you do to golf course design, then that won’t happen.”
Coore emphasises a lot of the same points as his client. “Ben was very generous with us. He knew that it was an extraordinary site. I’ve said that it could be the most visually amazing site we have ever worked on, and that’s saying something,” he explains. “Ben said, ‘Go and lay out the best golf course you can first. Use the shoreline, use the cliff edges for golf’. The shoreline was pretty easy. It was not hard to see individual golf holes along the shore. The problem was dealing with the elevation change once you left the shore.
“Once we had laid out a preliminary routing, we began some give and take as to where residential areas might be. We did some tweaking to address how to get infrastructure on some of the steep slopes – how would they get streets and the like into some of their residential areas. Quite frankly, it was a pretty comfortable give and take. We think the routing is of utmost importance, especially on a site like that. You want to take advantage of these amazing visuals, but you also have to make the golf course playable and enjoyable. We did move some things around. At one time I had a short par five running atop a long ridge and Ben good-naturedly reminded if we could put it in the adjacent valley, the real estate on that ridge would probably pay for the entire resort!”
Robert Trent Jones Jr, whose recent golf and housing projects include Costa Palmas in Mexico and Hoiana Shores in Vietnam, emphasises the need to embrace the community: “People want to live in neighbourhoods that are relaxing and inviting. Today’s designs need to embrace that ethos. Solutions can be as simple as adding fun, forward tee positions. Other times it’s by making the course not just a focal point for golfers and adjacent homeowners, but by turning it into a focal point of the entire community by integrating amenities such as trail systems for runners, walkers and cyclists into the overall design. I think many people today would much rather live in a community without golf frontage, but with a core golf course at its centre that offered other amenities, like trails. Value is about perception and finding alternatives that look good to the player and the home buyer.”
Jay Blasi points out that residential golf should reflect the needs of those who will be living in the community. “It can be useful to have non-traditional golf [six, nine, 12-hole loops], as these are places where people live so they can play early morning or late evening.”
Colton Craig adds that the nature of the development is a key factor. “I do not mind buildings near or on golf courses if they have character. The Old course is surrounded by historic and unique buildings,” he says. “On the other hand, there is nothing worse than playing through a box farm of the same house over and over. The front door should face the golf course. People put unsightly things in their backyard for a reason. I hate playing a golf course and seeing someone’s playground equipment with bright pop-art colours or their boat they keep covered with a worn tarp. By moving the road onto the side of the golf course, the front door will face the course. People walking their dogs and riding bikes are things that should be married to the greenspace. The Old course is an example of this design benefit.”
British architect Howard Swan emphasises a similar point. “Looking at natural sustainability, it is very important that the characteristics of the houses are not alien to the character of the golf course. Hide a little bit, glimpse the properties,” he says. “Then there is the safety issue – the obvious answer is mounds alongside the holes, but house buyers want to see the course. House buyers don’t want balls in their gardens, but they still want to live next to a golf course. Yet it must be safe. If you are working for a developer of properties, his focus will be to build houses – the right number, in the right place, for the maximum return. And sometimes safety takes a back seat. You can get a premium price for the best views, but the best views are the ones most likely to have a safety problem.”
“When integrating golf and residential it is essential that all the safety setbacks are adhered to and wherever possible increased, especially in risky areas like the inside of dog-legs,” says Gary Johnston, a designer at European Golf Design. “We generally try to supplement this with physical elements such as water or trees that dissuade golfers from playing too close to property boundaries.
“At Dubai Hills, the developer was keen to maximise the amount of golf frontage but maintain a degree of privacy for the homeowners. Being desert there were no natural lakes and very few trees. The solution was to supplement the safety setbacks with a significant change in elevation created by lowering the golf course and using the resulting material to raise the residential platforms. The result is a golf course that averages five-to-six metres below the housing, and can be as much as eight-to-ten metres, but has a genuine feeling of separation for both golfers and homeowners alike. An additional benefit is the increased safety that the elevation change creates as stray shots need to be much higher and longer to reach the housing.”
Craig says: “By now we can hopefully all agree that narrow corridors with housing on both sides, make for weak designs. Having out of bounds on both sides of the golf hole makes for a claustrophobic feel and takes all enjoyment away from the game. The Old course, however, has out of bounds on almost every hole, but because there is the width of at least two golf holes before the other property line it creates a great playing experience.”
Kevin Ramsey of Golfplan says that development golf is a double-edged sword. “There are conflicting players in this question,” he stresses. “On the one side you have a developer that wants to minimise risk and maximise revenue and potential profit – more houses, tighter corridors. On the other you have the golfer, who wants the quality of the experience – natural and pure golf – and a homeowner that wants a beautiful setting, most golf course homeowners are not golfers, and want a home that will hold or increase in value. There have been a few exceptions to this rule where golf is the driving force, but these are few and far between and typically are either resort based or the uber-wealthy lover of golf creating and fulfilling a dream. These are great clients to have, ones we cherish and hope to have once in our career, but there are not many out there.
“I think this is why we have seen a rise in the development of core golf courses – less land and less frontage – built in the last 10 years and less corridor golf – more land but much more frontage – being developed. Developers are willing to give up some frontage for less land used. When developers line fairways with house after house or a solid row of condos it takes away from the golf experience and typically developers are reluctant to give up the land to provide truly safe corridors for the golf. They tend to minimise the width and with today’s technology that width is antiquated.
“Vegetation and topography play a huge role in what distance from housing is considered safe and in reality, nothing is 100 per cent safe as we know how golfers can hit the ball anywhere. But when the corridor is tight it makes golfers uncomfortable and therefore a negative experience and hence, the growing popularity of a core course. Some developers have embraced the idea that they will use less land and create a much better golf experience, thereby adding to the value of all homes because of the quality and reputation of the golf course rather than the quantity of golf frontage homes on a mediocre golf course.”
Read more: Kevin Ramsey outlines the four key approaches to a golf and housing project.
Jason Straka suggests two themes that can improve the quality of development golf, without necessarily affecting its profitability. “Promote a walkable golf course,” he says. “Long connections between holes, through house lots, down roads, are awful. It totally prohibits walking in many cases, kills the experience and ruins the ambience of a place. Even with golf carts it takes more time. I fully understand the need for vehicular connections between some holes, but those can be done tactfully, without long walks. Keep or create environmentally rich golf courses. This usually means a themed development or selling lots with the understanding that the golf course will not just be a totally mown green lawn of irrigated turf. We’ve retrofitted courses as such but not all homeowners are on board. It’s easier to set the tone from the beginning.”
American architect Drew Rogers, who has spent much of his career working on development courses especially in Florida, offers a conclusion that, perhaps, helps to explain why projects such as Cabot Saint Lucia are the exception to the rule. “It is really up to the developer – they have to be willing to sacrifice volume for quality. Golf courses need space for safety and strategic variety. When developers dictate or mandate maximum lot yields and frontage, that completely alters the golf experience. Most real estate developers truthfully don’t care much about the golf experience – their focus is selling lots and houses. The golf course tends to be an added investment that adds value and price to their product offering. As long as its green, they get what they want. And don’t forget, the developer is also looking to sell the club/course to the members once the real estate is sold, as they typically have no interest in managing things from that point forward. They don’t want to be in the golf business.”
This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.