Real estate community golf course architecture: a guide

Developers are putting more attention into their golf courses than ever. If you are looking to live within a golf community, you need to learn how to distinguish high-quality from mediocre residential layouts.


Pebble Beach Golf Links is one of the world's earliest - and best - golf courses integrated into a residential development.

Over the years, short-sighted developers and golf course architects along for the ride have churned out countless layouts that meander through canyons of smushed-together houses that are largely indistinguishable from one another.

It's often the cost of doing business. The dream of ultimate creative control over routing, width and strategic design often takes a backseat when the main goal of a project is not to produce the best possible golf course, but rather to maximize the number of residential units with golf course frontage.

At best, playing one of these cobbled-together courses is disorienting. At worst, it is miserable.

At this community in Florida, the golf course was clearly an afterthought, squeezed in as tightly as possible in order to accommodate as many houses as possible. Would you enjoy playing here?

Forced to shoehorn golf into what scattered, disconnected space developers have given them, architects have built thousands of holes that merely guide players between out-of-bounds stakes along corridors that are often too narrow to permit truly compelling golf course architecture.

Why has this gone on so long? One reason, beyond developers' desires to maximize profit, is that around two-thirds of people who live on golf courses do not even play the game themselves. To non-golfers, a course is just green space that buoys the value of surrounding real estate; nothing more.

Historically, developers have had similar apathy for the content of their courses. In many cases, golf is simply a means to the end of realizing revenue from lot and home sales. In the high pre-Recession times, many such projects were more about opulent clubhouses and fake waterfalls than great golf. The initial marketing excitement may help sell memberships and lots, but years later, when maintenance costs mount and membership drags thanks to an over-built, often excessively difficult course, it puts residents in a tough spot, because they're often the ones tasked with overseeing the club after the developer exits the project. There is an industry adage that a course's third owner is usually the one that has any real shot at making money.

In recent years, it has become clear even to golfers who aren't architecture junkies that the quality of a real estate golf course's design is crucial. Why live on a golf course that doesn't inspire you?

To their credit, developers are reaching the same conclusion, so they are making different choices when it comes to architect selection and the land they set aside for golf. As a result, new-build golf community courses are better than they used to be, while renovations to existing real estate-based courses are leaving them more interesting than ever.

Some developers are completely overturning the old paradigm. Ben Cowan-Dewar, CEO of the Cabot group of resorts, which is gradually incorporating real estate into its projects, is steadfastly course-first in his priorities. During the planning stages of Cabot St. Lucia and its clifftop Point Hardy Golf Club, Cowan-Dewar said to architect Bill Coore, "Figure out what land you want for golf and what’s the best golf course we can build, and we’ll work around that."

Anyone who has played a golf course near an ocean that only offers a token view or two knows that this is a radical departure from the status quo. Cowan-Dewar, like mentor Mike Keiser, knows that building an irresistible golf course will help achieve a project's real estate goals and leave a lasting legacy, even if it means fewer oceanfront lots.

On a flat, blank-slate Florida project, putting maximum effort into the golf is especially important, because there's no real natural splendor to fall back on if the golf fails to inspire. Brandon Johnson, one of the principal architects of the Arnold Palmer Design Company, produced not one but two first-rate golf courses at Lakewood National, a master-planned community east of Sarasota. Lennar, the multi-billion-dollar, Fortune 500 homebuilder, developed the project.

Why live on a golf course that doesn't inspire you?

"They expressed a desire to elevate the community and create something different from what they had done previously," said Johnson. "We were excited about their approach and project because it gave us a chance to rethink what a successful 'traditional' residential golf course could be."

Lennar gave Johnson wider corridors than usual, and as a result he built strategic holes with bold features, including some of modern Florida golf's most adventurous greens, making both the Commander and Piper courses truly memorable. And even though the original tract of land was not particularly dynamic, it does border wetland preserves, which Johnson was able to incorporate into holes on both courses.

"The end result has been a huge success," said Johnson. "Homeowners and club members joined specifically because of the golf course," in addition to the typical marketing pitches about home furnishings and floorplans that developers typically rely on. Continued Johnson: "The record pace at which lots and homes sold should be evidence enough that evolved land planning ideas and really interesting golf course architecture is a successful and sustainable combination."

In last year's Golfers' Choice ranking of the most popular courses, Lakewood National's two courses ranked among the top five nationally, and were the top two on our Florida list. The success Johnson refers to has enabled the development to sell hundreds of homes and helped the club to fill its membership and go private.

At Lakewood National Golf Club near Sarasota, Fla., Arnold Palmer Design Company's Brandon Johnson laid out two courses of considerable architectural sophistication - Commander and Piper (pictured above) - in an otherwise typical high-density Florida housing development. The quality of the golf makes the fact of playing through rows of houses far more palatable, and augurs well for future projects. Give credit to developer Lennar for giving Johnson ample room to build interesting golf.

Golf community courses: How to separate the good from the mediocre

The pandemic has inspired many avid golfers to look at buying homes on golf courses. If this is you right now, or might be you someday, it will help you tremendously to know that all golf community courses are not created equal, and that how a course is routed is of crucial importance.

A little extra preparation could save you thousands of dollars and months of deliberation as you hone in on which golf course you might choose for your next home.

As a rule, if a course is going to be tied to some sort of housing development, the fewer homes directly on the course, the better. And of those homes that do see course frontage, the farther set back they are from play, the better.

"The ability to utilize the terrain in interesting ways and preserve natural features of the site while siting development parcels on the land in ways that create desirable lots without hindering golf is key," said Brandon Johnson. "When the golf course is allowed to shine and take advantage of the attributes that make the site and development desirable for residences in the first place, it will only elevate the entire venture."

Golf community course routings can be broken down into roughly four types:

1) Core golf courses

Mayacama's low-density housing gives way to a great core golf experience.

If you are thinking of buying a house in a golf community, you want to see the word "core" associated with its routing. A core golf course is one where the hole corridors sit along an undisturbed tract of land, with housing only at the perimeter. Such courses are likely to be walkable, with OB stakes and road crossings kept to a minimum. At best, they don't even feel like golf community courses - rather, they are golf courses that happen to have some houses within sight. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is the private Mayacama Golf Club in Santa Rosa, Calif., a Jack Nicklaus Signature design from 2000.

One of Mayacama's advantages is its low density; the 675-acre property contains fewer than 65 residences, and the majority of them are perched high on hillsides overlooking the course. Though Mayacama is a vigorous walk, it's because of the terrain, not the need to cross roads and snake between property lines going from one green to the next tee.

Other notable core golf courses
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
Bluffton, South Carolina
La Quinta, California
Montgomery, Texas

2) Double-wide corridors

Somewhat inferior to a true core golf course but still generally enjoyable, these courses are routed so that two holes share a given corridor, often running in opposite directions. This means that while there may be houses down one side of a particular hole, the other side is more open, with the adjacent hole providing some relief if needed.

Pete Dye's famous Stadium Course at PGA WEST adheres to this design, with both nines primarily running clockwise so as to give right-handed slicers of the ball some extra room off the tee. The exception: the corridors housing holes 1 and 9 and 10 and 18 are flipped, putting the trouble on the right, rather than the left. Classic Pete Dye mind games.

Other notable double-wide corridor golf courses
Naples, Florida
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Humble, Texas
Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

3) Single-wide corridors

With homes lining both sides of practically every hole, Orange Tree Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. is one of the tightest golf courses you are likely to find.

Generally, you can expect these courses to be the ones where the real estate took precedence over the golf, leaving narrow corridors with white stakes seemingly a step off both sides of every fairway. The most egregious example I have encountered is Orange Tree Golf Club in Orlando, where an otherwise well-executed Joe Lee design is constricted by homes lining both sides of practically every hole. There are times when the distance between out-of-bounds on both sides of a given fairway is less than 50 yards. It is not my cup of tea, but it is no doubt a strenuous tee-shot test for the many professional golfers who practice there.

Part of Harbour Town's genius is that its sense of intimacy includes many homes along the course, but is not compromised by their presence.

There are exceptions to the rule, however, and Harbour Town Golf Links is one of them. Even though Harbour Town meanders through a mature neighborhood, there is enough room to play on practically every hole, and even though the fairways feel narrow, it is actually rather rare for an off-line shot to go out of play. Most often, the tall pines and bushy oaks will knock an errant ball down, setting up a potentially thrilling recovery shot.

As is true of all real estate golf courses, the key to successfully-routed single-wide golf community courses is space. When the homes that border the holes are kept at a comfortable distance, the experience does not suffer and can even be enhanced if the developers manage to tie the residential and golf portions of the project together. Harbour Town strikes a harmony.

Other notable single-wide corridor golf courses
Palm Desert, California
Spring Island, South Carolina
Greensboro, North Carolina
Windermere, Florida
Eatonton, Georgia

4) Hybrid routings

More than a century after its course and surrounding community were laid out, Mountain Lake in Lake Wales, Fla., remains one of the greatest meetings of golf and real estate.

As the name suggests, this approach combines two or all three of the routing types. Most courses in communities have irregularly shaped plots of land, so they likely fall into this group. In many cases, the fact these courses don't adhere to one particular routing style means that the architect was given freedom to create as good a golf course as possible, or at the very least, the routing process was a collaboration between architect and developer.

Nowhere is this truer than at Mountain Lake, my favorite golf course in all of Florida. Fredrick Law Olmsted, Jr., whose father laid out Central Park and many other great American outdoor spaces, planned the Mountain Lake community, and Seth Raynor tuned the golf course to match it perfectly. The quality of the golf and the beauty of the homes within the gates create a powerful sense of place, which very few latter-day golf communities have even tried to match.

Other notable hybrid-routed community golf courses
Pebble Beach, California
Orlando, Florida
Weybridge, Elmbridge
Casa de Campo, La Romana
Pawleys Island, South Carolina
Eatonton, Georgia
Bluffton, South Carolina
Ramona, California

New Urbanism and golf

My favorite course here in Vero Beach is Windsor, which is an example of the New Urbanist concept of community planning. In short, New Urbanism often incorporates higher-density arrangements of homes that simulate a city environment in a distinct community or development. Founded in 1989, Windsor is one of the world's best examples of such a community plan, with many of its West Indies-style homes laid out in a central hub, while larger estate homes grace the periphery of the Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed golf course.

Windsor in Vero Beach, Fla., integrates its golf course and real estate in a way that benefits both aspects of the community.

But for a forested loop of holes on the front nine, the course is defined by expansive views across the interior of property, surrounded by some of the nicest homes you'll ever see on a golf course. It is a rare community where the golf course and real estate have a mutually beneficial relationship with one another, giving Windsor a distinct sense of place. New Urbanism and golf are a perfect fit.

August 6, 2018
Learn more about the intersection of golf, real estate and lifestyle here.

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Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.

Fascinating article. I have been researching the history of the ‘urbanised golf development’ as an important part of our historical research to save a neglected and mismanaged municipal golf course in Derby, England from destruction by its local authority owners.
I have restricted my research to the venues designed and built by Harry S Colt.
The first major such undertaking was St Georges Hill in 1913.W G Tarrant was the builder of the houses and he allowed Colt to create the grounds to complement the houses and vice versa. They recognised that having luxury houses enhanced a luxury golf course and the concept was first born.
WW1 intervened and the next project was a Wentworth. Again, the builder was Tarrant supported by Colt who has an established global reputation.
Five properties used the Colt Country Club Concept that was eventually copied around the world. Luxury golf course supported by luxury housing each adding value to the other.
St Georges Hill. 1913
Wentworth 1922
Effingham. 1927
Allestree Park. 1929
Ham Manor 1936
Allestree Park was initially an esteemed private club in the Midlands. It’s first club professional was runner up to Bobby Jones in the 1926 Open at Lytham. He took over at Allestree Park bringing in support from a junior golfer and caddie master called Johnny Fallon. He went onto become a Ryder Cup Captain.
The current owners, the local council, have decided to abandon it to rewild treating it as having no value. The more times I write that the more ridiculous it seems.
This venue is a ready to buy, off the shelf, Harry Colt original with irrigation system. Academically validated history and proven provenance.
We are very close to having the venue designated by the governments historical agency known as Historic England as the first ever UK golf course with a grade II listing. We have also established that the design layout he created remains exactly as it left his 1929 drawing board. Unchanged through the neglect of its owners as it was acquired by the local authority in 1948. It also features the only known Colt example of an island tee box anywhere in the world. This was Colts idea to ensure the players learnt how to play aerial shots rather than “the scuffling Scottish ground shots” prevalent at the time.Having bought Allestree Park in 1928 the Commercial Construction Company Ltd intended to create a luxury development utilising the Colt Country Club concept. I have newspaper advertisement from the time that are beautiful illustrating many of the points you make in your article.This concept was later copied around the world but only 5 examples exist in the United Kingdom. Now only 4!
All were privately owned hence the ability to commission the world’s leading golf course architect in the design of the venue. Happy to talk more about the issues as it is a crazy but true golfing story. I have some amazing photographs of the venue if you are interested.

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Real estate community golf course architecture: a guide