In the Pipeline: What’s New and Next for U.S. Golf Courses Under Construction
There are places in this world where the length of the journey is quickly overshadowed by the reward of the destination.
Who would’ve thought a former phosphate‑mining site on the outskirts of Lakeland, Florida, would qualify as such. There, architect Gil Hanse and his team have carved out a 7,331‑yard par‑73 layout that spreads south of Streamsong Resort’s acclaimed Red and Blue courses at the 15,000‑acre resort. Streamsong Black is big, bold, strategic and fun, and its developer, The Mosaic Co., expects the property’s third course – which recently opened to public play in September — to spark exponential, not linear, growth.
“It almost makes visitors have to stay there,” explained Hanse, “because you could come in for a day and play 36 and then leave, but if you want to come in and play 54, you can’t get that done in a day. So now you’re actually staying at the resort and you’re participating in more of the amenities that the resort has put in place for you to do.”
The Black also joins an impressive array of courses both in the U.S. and abroad that have quickly climbed onto the must‑see list for golfers. Consider that in the past few years the new course openings include Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Canada; Quivira and Diamante Dunes in Mexico; and Gamble Sands and Sand Valley in the U.S.
“If you like courses that are about real beauty rather than real estate (and who doesn’t?), then you have to agree that we are in the midst of a very special period in the history of golf architecture,” wrote Linksmagazine in its Fall 2017 issue.
Entering this year, there were 92.5 18‑hole equivalent courses in the development pipeline (in the U.S.), according to NGF data, with 37 under construction and the others still in the planning stages.
Among those in the works were 17 new courses and 20 expansions of previous facilities. Of those, 27.5 were daily‑fee facilities (12 new and 15.5 expansions), while only one was a municipal facility and 8.5 were private (five new and 3.5 expansion of an existing property). The NGF measures in 18‑hole increments, so the .5 would reflect nine holes.
Of those projects underway, Mike Keiser Jr., the project manager for Sand Valley and 2018’s grand opening of sister‑course Mammoth Dunes, said most of them are being built for the right reasons.
“That’s exciting to me. It’s a whole lot better than 2010 when we opened Old Macdonald and there was no interest in building great golf,” he said.
And the excitement level should increase with more course openings drawing headlines and acclaim. There’s Banyan Cay in West Palm Beach, Florida, a Jack Nicklaus signature design as part of a resort with a 150‑room boutique luxury hotel opening in November; The Ridge Course, a Coore-Crenshaw design at Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri is fully‑grassed and scheduled to open in 2018; the prairie‑like setting of Sage Run in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; and Mammoth Dunes, the latest from course developer Mike Keiser, who has turned the town of Nekoosa in the Wisconsin heartland into his latest bucket‑list destination.
While new course openings are down significantly from the go‑go days of the 1990s, the current wave of projects is being built with golf as its core function. Most follow some kind of general theme — a special location, multiple courses, a destination, or an owner with a special passion for the game. If there is one other common trait these courses share it is embracing a simple, unapologetic emphasis on playability and fun.
Gone are the masochistic days when golfers bragged of conquering a course with the highest slope and course rating, and “resistance to scoring” became one of the key ratings benchmarks. It inspired course designers to build the most diabolical courses they could. Usually, those courses brought golfers’ to their knees.
“It turns out people like making pars,” Keiser Jr., said.
And not losing a dozen balls. Perhaps no one preaches the gospel of playability and fun more than Keiser’s father, who developed Bandon Dunes by following a simple formula: hire a genius architect, build along the ocean on land blessed with pure sand and make it fun and playable.
Sand Valley is an inland version that follows the same playbook. Keiser Jr. said it exceeded projections for the first six months, and he credits it, in part, to Wisconsin’s evolution into a golf destination.
“We benefit from the fabulous courses already in the state,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of business from golfers doing the Erin Hills‑Kohler‑Sand Valley trifecta. That’s really helped us.”
The opening of Mammoth Dunes follows another ingredient in the Keiser mantra for a successful golf property: one is a course, two is a destination.
In Missouri, Johnny Morris, who built Bass Pro Shops from 8 feet of shelf space in his father’s liquor cabinet into the leading outdoor retailer, thinks three is the magic number. He has grown Big Cedar Lodge from 10 cabins he acquired in 1987 into an outdoor recreation paradise that spans fishing, hiking, shooting, horseback riding and water sports.
Morris is making a valiant effort to make the Ozarks in the southwest corner of the state, not far from the Arkansas border, the next great golf destination. The resort’s family appeal inspired Morris to create a golf center that caters to beginners and juniors, and helps introduce them to the sport in a welcoming environment. He did this for good reason: the most popular family activity at Big Cedar Lodge is Putt‑Putt golf. (Prepare to putt through the mouth of a bass rather than a clown.)
“If we can have a course that is the next step above putt‑putt, then the whole family can come and play,” Morris said.
He sees golf and the other outdoor sports he has spent a lifetime championing as facing a lot of the same challenges.
“How do you make golf or fishing exciting through the eyes of a kid when young people today spend an average of 50 hours a week on electronics?” he said.
That was the thinking behind the Gary Player‑designed 13‑hole Mountaintop Course, which opened for play at Big Cedar Lodge earlier this year. It is a walking‑only, short course with no forced carries and caters to players of all skill levels, and is perfect for families pressed for time.
As if adding a second championship course to Buffalo Ridge Golf Course, a Tom Fazio design that co‑hosts the PGA Tour Champions Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf every spring, wasn’t a big deal, Morris already has broken ground on a third. As Jack Nicklaus, who designed the resort’s splashy nine‑hole par‑3 course Top of the Rock, put it, “Johnny is never finished.”
Nicklaus. Fazio. Player. Coore‑Crenshaw. A Tom Watson putting course. In April, Morris announced plans to have Tiger Woods design his first public‑access golf course, Payne’s Valley, an homage to local favorite Payne Stewart. As part of the deal with TGR Design, Woods also will design a par‑3 course at Big Cedar Lodge Resort.
The Woods course is scheduled to open in 2019, and it surely will bring added attention to one of the fastest‑growing golf destinations in the country.
“When you can travel to one resort and play courses by these five guys it creates excitement,” said Steve Friedlander, Big Cedar Lodge’s vice president of golf. “You have to think people are going to travel from around the world to see what these courses are like.”
Woods described his design philosophy as limiting forced carries, creating options for players to use their imagination, and making golf fun.
“Use the ground as your friend,” he said. “That’s an element that has been taken out of the game.”
Gone, too, is a cookie‑cutter approach in which selling fairway homes garnered priority. Economic viability still matters — arguably more than ever — but the vision for golf is at the forefront.
“It’s refreshing,” Hanse said. “It’s the ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality of if you build it they will come. If we build something outstanding, people will figure out a way to get there.”
That is the hope for Dave Esler and partner Jim Haley, who plan to build Pacific Gales in Oregon, 25 minutes south of Bandon, in the tiny town of Port Orford.
“If you can imagine Bandon Dunes with a couple of massive sand dunes on it, that’s our site,” he said.
The Elk River crisscrosses the layout, and both nines finish at the edge of land and sea. Only one course has been permitted so far, a process that took six years, which is one reason Esler is convinced that with nearly a mile of the layout hugging the coastline, Pacific Gales may be the last course built fronting the Pacific Ocean.
Constructing the course and a clubhouse overlooking the ocean will be an expensive undertaking. So it has taken a novel approach used at courses such as Spyglass Hill and TPC Sawgrass before it, and more recently at Sand Valley, to underwrite the construction.
“We’re asking 200 or so founding members to loan us $50,000, which we pay back over the course of 25 years and they become our construction financing because institutional money is not available for new construction; the Textrons and the Bank of Americas and those folks are out of that business,” he said. “In exchange, our founding members get to play golf and their families get to play golf, their fathers, their sons and daughters and grandmothers get to play golf for up to 100 years.”
Esler says construction is budgeted at $6 million and they will not begin in earnest until Pacific Gales has secured 120 investors to secure its completion. He expects to have the funding in place to start the layout by the middle of next year, if not sooner, and have a few holes available for preview in late 2018, with a grand opening slated for 2019. There’s over 1,100 acres surrounding Pacific Gales, which means plenty of room for a sister course or three there, too. Will this be the first of many?
“Our business model is to be smaller and more intimate than Bandon Dunes, and having an awful lot of golf courses makes us begin to look like Bandon,” Esler said. “My guess is one will be just fine, two is probably the right number.”
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