Living on a golf course is finding fewer players

In the rough: The golf craze of a few years ago saturated the country with new links. Many developers are wary of building any more golfing communities.

July 23, 2000|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Kara Urban is not a golfer, but she lives the life everyday. The beauty of the course. The neighborhood camaraderie. The perpetually mowed grass.

"It's a pretty course; well-maintained and attractive," said Urban, a resident of Carroll County's River Downs golf community. "We're not right on the course because we have small kids, and it was a concern about balls. So we get the benefit of the community but not [errant balls] from the course."

Urban's attitude is par for the course. About 80 percent of golf community residents never get into the swing of things - but they typically pay 25 percent to 75 percent more in the home's purchase price to live near a fairway than in a comparable, non-golf development.

While the look-but-don't-play attitude is common in golfing communities, it's also a factor that could hinder new development, analysts predict. The number of people picking up the game has been flat since 1997 - and that's not good news for course developers.

"I view the market as favorable, but pockets are overbuilt," said David Wells, vice president of Legg Mason Real Estate and Sports Consulting Group, part of Legg Mason Real Estate Services. "The residential course is one of the only ways you'll see it done in high land cost areas. Otherwise, you'll have $150 golfing fees [in noncommunity courses]."

Rigid environmental regulations, fewer large plots of land and the fight among courses for the golfing dollar is helping to contribute to a tightening market and slowing of residential course construction.

"The tragedy is that in Anne Arundel County it's more than likely, with the current zoning, that I couldn't replicate South River Colony," said William Slenker, president of Slenker Land Corp., developer of the 1,400-acre golfing community in Annapolis. "We're befuddled ... . We believe South River Colony is beautiful and has added to the quality of life in the county."

Despite "Tigermania" sparked by golf superstar Tiger Woods, the number of golfers has stagnated for the past three years. Though golf exploded during the 1980s and has had a revival under the Woods phenomenon, recent reports say television has created more spectators than players.

National Golf Foundation data show about 26 million American golfers played 530 million rounds last year, nearly the same as 1998. But only 5.4 million are "avid golfers," who pump the real money into golf courses. Analysts say golf is considered too expensive, time-consuming and too difficult - and as many people are quitting as starting.

At the same time, course saturation is appearing in many areas. A record 509 courses were built in the United States last year - for a total of 16,747. This year, 936 more are under way. Greens fees of $60 to $100 (at peak times) are required to make the courses stay in the black. Add competition from municipal courses, at about $30 a round, and just $36 for commercial public courses - and it's a battle for the buck.

As a result, many developers are backing off, or at least being extremely careful where they build golf communities. Some say they'll never do another.

"Be selective," Wells said. "Don't build on fringes. The key is to be accessible."

Dick Moore of Gaylord Brooks Investment Co. Inc. in Phoenix was more blunt.

"Anyone building one today is nuts, asking their head to be handed to them," said Moore, whose company is the managing general partner of the River Downs Partnership, which developed the 124 lots at River Downs golf course in Finksburg, in Carroll County.

"The only thing to do is survive. The strong will last. Hopefully the cycle will pass."

Moore says he's not interested in building more golf course communities. His company had expected to earn 25 percent more on River Downs lots than lots in non-golf areas but failed to reach that goal, he said.

"There are some areas of Carroll County that have done as well without a course," Moore said.

Because residents traditionally have not supported golf courses with homeowner association fees or required membership fees, it's up to the course operators themselves to sink or swim on their own. It costs from $600,000 to $1.5 million a year just to maintain 18 holes, and many courses can't stay on top of that.

"It's an alligator to feed," Moore said. "Our concern now is to ensure the course succeeds. It's hard work."

In golf communities, the developer buys the parcel as a whole, profits off lot sales and usually gives the actual golf course land, about 10 acres a hole, to a golf-course developer who usually then operates it. Most of the community courses are open to the public.

"The presence of golf adds such value to each lot that it's worth giving away the course," Slenker said of the homes in South River Colony, where fairway homes go for $400,000 to $600,000. "The quality of life in South River Colony is equivalent to a country club."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.