CLEVELAND, Texas — Not every golf course community has a community golf course. That much becomes clear when looking back on the development boom of the 1980s through the economic downturn of a decade ago. In many cases in this era, golf courses were viewed as little more than vehicles for home sales and higher property values.
The Great Recession took its pound of turf out of these facilities coast-to-coast. Now, thanks to messy legal entanglements, developers and residents struggle to figure out what to do with abandoned fairways in backyards. On paper, the idea of fairways weaving through roads and backyards evokes an interwoven relationship between residents and golf. But done poorly without enough space - intensified by golf equipment advances over the past few decades - errant balls into rooftops and swing-interrupting noises lead to frustrated players and homeowners at best, and lawsuits and fights at worst.
As golf participation remains largely flat in the U.S., it's become apparent that the golf community of the future must be proactive in not just attracting current avid golfers as residents or members but introduce the community to the game of golf in a compelling and welcoming way. Eight percent of Americans (per the National Golf Foundation) are golfers and a majority of golf course homeowners do not play the game at all.
A push for more thoughtful and sustainable golf development is afoot, and among its most daringly different concepts to date is Grand Oaks Reserve, a new community north of Houston, Texas. The team of a new developer and little-known architect have a curious plan aimed at recruiting new golfers as much as attracting already avid ones.
Nine Grand, Three Grand and Grand Putter: Golf for everyone
From the future site of the clubhouse at Grand Oaks Reserve you overlook a one-acre putting green. To the left of it is the first tee of Three Grand, a nine-hole short course with holes ranging from 26 to 176 yards. Stroll down a path past the short course and you'll arrive at Nine Grand, a nine-hole, par-35, 3,262-yard layout. Golf course architect Mike Nuzzo envisions how the welcome in the future pro shop would go to a person or family who walks in with effectively zero knowledge of the game.
"The goal is the person walks up and we can ask, 'Have you ever played before, how long do you want to play for, how much do you want to spend and what's your skill level? And we have a piece for everyone."
Due mainly to the environmental sensitivity of a 110-acre section of the development where golf was feasible but home sites were not, the holes are well away from where McKinley Homebuilders will place the housing. The golf is also far from the main road, Highway 321, meaning the experience will be a vastly more pleasant escape compared to hole corridors squeezed along roads and through development. The layout is eminently walkable, with a connected routing save for some pleasant strolls between a few greens and tees beneath mature forest. Paved cart paths are minimal and small wooden bridges wind over a series of bayous: a setting sure to draw interest from non-golfing residents, too.
"It's like a nature walk," said Nuzzo. "One partner is playing and the other partner is walking."
The long-awaited, accessible follow-up to Wolf Point
Nine Grand is Nuzzo's first solo design since his debut at Wolf Point Ranch in 2007, the mysterious and acclaimed private estate course on the Texas coast that is currently for sale following the sudden death of owner Al Stanger in 2016. The audiences for these two projects couldn't be more different. Nuzzo enlisted a familiar and trusted team here, including Don Mahaffey of Greenscapes Construction; and Keith Rhebb, who designed Florida's acclaimed Winter Park Golf Course and is also one of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's most trusted shapers.
Nuzzo's team's directive was to create as much golf as possible on the 110 acres provided. Many crucial decisions were done in the field on the fly and in response to where water flowed around the property following heavy rain. Puzzles to solve included a delicate 12-acre area near the clubhouse full of environmentally sensitive restrictions. Noticeably absent in the final plan is a staple of the modern American golf club: a driving range.
"At one point I had mapped a putting course, pitch 'n putt course and a little driving range and a chipping green," recalled Nuzzo. "I tried to jam everything into this one area, and Don [Mahaffey] pushed me and said, "How much do you like to practice? Let's just make this as good of a par-3 course as we can.'"
The team's final plan has something for everyone except the golfer dead-set on the full-on 18-hole experience. But they are believers in the final offering. In fact, at one point ownership informed Nuzzo of the option to acquire additional acres needed to create a proper 18-hole course, but Nuzzo advised against it.
"The size and shape didn't have a highest-and-best use for golf," said Nuzzo. "It seemed to fit something else. Demographically, it seemed like they only needed a nine-hole course as an amenity for the development."
Podcast: Mike Nuzzo and Brandon Tucker talk Texas golf from Wolf Point to Nine Grand and Memorial Park
The experience at Nine Grand
Like Wolf Point, playing corridors at Nine Grand are wide with little rough to speak of. The greens feature a good amount of movement, but are generally accessible from the ground or air. Like Wolf Point Nine Grand's routing makes use of a large retention pond at one point in the middle of the routing. It adds some drama and variety to the course, as well as practicality.
Nine Grand will allow the accomplished golfer the thrill of attacking tucked pins on complex greens while affording beginners the chance to run up shots and spray it some off the tee. There aren't many bunkers (only seven) but a few reasonable forced carries. One neat land feature is a grassy arroyo on the standout par-4 3rd hole that bisects the dogleg left. The more the tee shot is willing to challenge this feature, the shorter the approach shot will be. However, golfers who end up in the arroyo will still have a reasonable recovery attempt. Shorter hitters willing to challenge the arroyo could have a shorter approach in than a longer hitter who stays to the right.
While the course begins and ends with holes mostly surrounded by tall hardwoods and a series of bayous, the middle of the course shifts: two drivable par 4s, back to back, hug a new 40-acre, manmade pond, dug out in order to fill homesites above the floodplain. No. 5 offers the chance at a heroic carry, daring golfers to bite off 200-plus yards of hazard and go straight at the green The 6th presents no such carry but the pond runs down the entire left-hand side.
The 9th hole is the lone par 5 and, at close to 590 yards from the tips, figures to be a true three-shotter for most. It also has a pair of Spectacles-style bunkers about 140 yards from the green. Steering a layup left of them affords a better angle into a green with more humps and mounds on the right. Wrapping up a game on the 9th hole of Nine Grand means a short walk past a couple holes on the par-3 course - and perhaps just enough steps to egg partners into an encore. Or, play the putting course instead.
Targeting a spring 2020 opening, the rate structure for the three courses aren't set but the experience will be open to the public with a green fee in line with a working-class community offering homes from the $200,000s. The facility will have the added benefit of virtually no golf competition in the immediate area. With Cleveland's 9-hole Kirbywood course having closed a few years ago, this will be the lone access point to the game for miles around. If the amount of nearby highway expansion is any indication, the area can expect a surge in residents and, if this grand trio presentation catches on, more golfers, too.
Would you prefer a golf course community with 18 holes and a driving range, or a three-pronged concept like Nine Grand? Let us know in the comments below!