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The Growth of Destination Golf

When golf washed up on our American shores in the early 1880s, the game – both on the public and private side – grew around big cities and population centers.

It made sense. Courses and clubs were built close to where the people were.

In more recent years, we’ve seen a shift.

As urban areas expanded over the decades – sometimes at the expense of older golf courses that sat on increasingly valuable land – golf began to move further from cities and towns.

Today, that’s the case more than ever, especially given the limited amount of new construction.

Consider that almost half of the new 18-hole courses to open over the past 10 years or so have been built over 50 miles from a major city (pop. 50K+).

As detailed in this accompanying Fortnight story, what’s being built today — when it comes to traditional golf courses — is quite different from the development boom back in the 1990s and early 2000s. A higher proportion of high-end private clubs, short courses, and… destination golf.

Back in 1994, Sand Hills ushered in true destination golf on the private side when the minimalist Coore-Crenshaw course opened in the middle of nowhere in western Nebraska. Owner Dick Youngscap even balked at requests to build an airstrip because he thought the drive was part of the journey, letting people slowly unwind rather than hopping off a private plane to play golf.

Bandon Dunes did the same for golf resorts, but when it opened on a remote stretch of Oregon coast in 1999 questions about its viability outnumbered accolades. At the time, Bandon Dunes broke the mold in many ways:

  • It was North America’s first build-it-and-they-would-come public property, with no assurances it would be successful.
  • It was links golf in the U.S.
  • There were no carts and no cart paths.
  • Developer Mike Keiser hired an unproved 26-yo Scottish designer.
  • They didn’t put a clubhouse on the water, saving the best land for golf.

Today, Bandon Dunes has become the ultimate pilgrimage for many golfers and is the predecessor to not only its Dream Golf brethren — Sand Valley (WI), the original Cabot property (Canada), and the soon-to-come Rodeo Dunes about 50 miles outside of Denver — but other public golf destinations. All of the below are highly-ranked U.S. destination golf properties to open within the past two decades:

  • Big Cedar (MO)
  • Silvies Valley Ranch (OR)
  • Streamsong (FL)
  • Gamble Sands (WA)
  • Prairie Club (NE)
  • Forest Dunes (MI)
  • Sand Hollow (UT)

Consider a resort like Johnny Morris’s Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri, not far from the Arkansas border, which has five courses and counting. It’s remote, in the Ozarks, but is within a day’s drive of 50% of the U.S. population.

And then there’s the Retreat & Links at Silvies Valley Ranch in Eastern Oregon, where players can use goat caddies. The resort intentionally uses the term “frontier” rather than remote because it “elicits a different kind of feeling about making the journey.”

Streamsong has pulled people away from the coasts to an old phosphate mining property in the middle of Florida that looks nothing like what most visitors expect from the Sunshine State.

And one of the hottest new destination public courses might be Landmand (Danish for “farmer”), which sprawls across 580 acres of farmland in the northeast corner of Nebraska. This is the first full year for the course, built by the same team that created the cult favorite Sweetens Cove in Tennessee, and almost every possible tee time is taken.

There are also destination golf resorts that are well-known for golf, but offer a range of other amenities and activities for visitors and guests — and, perhaps most notably, are relatively easy to get to because they’re closer to metropolitan areas. Examples here include Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, Reynolds Lake Oconee in Georgia, the American Club/Kohler in Wisconsin, Pebble Beach in California, The Greenbrier in West Virginia, and Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina.

On the private side, the success, allure – and in large part the remoteness — of Sand Hills has given rise to other destination clubs with a national membership:

  • Ballyneal (CO)
  • Ohoopee Match Club (GA)
  • Rock Creek Cattle Company (MT)
  • Sutton Bay (SD)
  • The Dormie Network’s six clubs (and counting)
  • and the newest breed like Red Feather (TX), Old Barnwell (SC) and The Tree Farm (SC)

When it comes to the current appetite for golf travel, online search activity indicates that’s almost as high as it’s ever been.

This is driven in large part by Baby Boomers, who are only about halfway through their retirement cycle and still retiring at a pace of 10,000 a day. Not only is there a greater likelihood that those within this group will have more discretionary time and money, but they generally demonstrate an increased engagement and passion for golf.

We recently surveyed Core golfers about their interest in the topic of destination golf; namely, which of three categories we identified has the most appeal for golf travel. Here were the results:

  • 46% – Geographic golf destinations
  • 28% – “Destination Golf” properties
  • 26% – Resort golf destinations

Notably, older golfers indicate a greater preference for geographic destinations known for their golf — places like Southwest Ireland, Scotland, Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, and the Monterey Peninsula and Palm Springs in California. All have an abundance of golf as well as a lot of other things to see and do.

Meanwhile, it’s the youngest golfer cohorts who find a greater appeal in the true Destination Golf properties, especially experiential and immersive golf getaways like Bandon Dunes, which sees buddy groups planning trips years in advance to play its six courses.

The adoption of remote work has been another plus for destination golf, whether it’s a golf-only property or one of the more modern golf lifestyle communities. Some of these are essentially self-contained resorts, where golf is one of the many amenities.

But the ability for many – especially in golf’s participation base – to work from where they want and when they want makes “remote”… well, not quite as remote as it once was.

That said, in an ever-connected world, sometimes the biggest appeal of these remote destinations is that rare opportunity to get away. To disconnect. Or to reconnect with yourself, the game, friends and family.

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