By Ted McIntyre

Many courses have since folded and/or sold out to developers. But the economic storm clouds are beginning to part, suggests Toronto’s Tom McBroom, one of Canada’s heavyweights in the golf architecture arena.

“The golf industry has come out of the bottom. The number of courses that were in bankruptcy or a challenged state has significantly decreased over the last two years. Golf course construction as part of residential construction has picked up in the U.S., and that’s a very encouraging sign. It will be a slow recovery, but it’s coming back.”

Golf communities might well feed that recovery. “The majority of new golf courses built today are typically developed in association with some form of residential or resort development,” explains Doug Carrick of Don Mills-based Carrick Design, who along with McBroom have sculpted most of Canada’s “Best New Course” winners over the past 20 years.

“The costs associated with building and maintaining today’s courses often necessitates the development and sale of surrounding real estate in order to create a successful business model for golf,” says Carrick, whose golf course community partnerships include Ballantrae Estates in Stouffville (Schickedanz Bros.), RiverBend in London (Sifton Properties), Cobble Beach in Owen Sound (Cobble Beach Golf Resort Community/Georgian Bay Villas and Reid’s Heritage Homes) and Muskoka Bay in Gravenhurst (Freed Developments)—the last two of which, in particular, have claimed multiple provincial and national awards. He’s also working on a new course at Friday Harbour on Lake Simcoe, as part of a development with Geranium and the Pemberton Group.

For home builders seeking a competitive edge, “a well-planned golf course community can create a strong marketing advantage over other residential developments and will generate increased property values for surrounding real estate,” says Carrick. “It not only increases the value of golf-course-fronting lots, but the value of interior lots throughout the development.”

Today’s golf community plans, though, are a far cry from those of a little over a generation ago. At that time, logic dictated lining as many fairways, tees and greens with the backyards of as many homes as possible. Arriving closely on the heels of that philosophy, of course, were multiple lawsuits resulting from errant golf balls striking private property. When it was overseeing its Millcroft development in Burlington during the late 1980s, in an effort to foster goodwill, Monarch Homes would replace windows broken by golf balls at no charge for the first five years after someone purchased a home. The builder also spent an estimated $25,000 a year planting trees in strategic locations to prevent further damage to homes.

While Millcroft’s course routing, which weaves through the neighbourhood, spurred the development’s financial success, golf community design has evolved into something much more organic. Today there is mutual appreciation for the importance of buffers between a course and residential units, McBroom explains. “I think the quality of golf residential communities has improved over time because the developers realize they need to have those buffers, and that the larger the buffer, the better. We now try to minimize fairway frontage. Thirty years ago, the typical golf community was trying to get homes on both sides of every fairway, and it really dragged down the quality of the golf course, because people don’t want to play golf in a canyon of homes. I think the real estate development industry has learned that it’s not about frontage feet; it’s about the quality of the community and the golf course, and that’s how you command higher prices for land.”

Putting golf first

The importance of the golf element as a draw to potential residents is being embraced by many builders. In its first kick at the can in golf community development, Eden Oak Homes’ research suggested that it was better to initially construct the golf course at its Oak Bay community to allow potential buyers to witness first-hand the melding of homes and land, explains Eden Oak president Romas Kartavicius. “The golf course features and attributes are much more powerful when the buyer is looking at the real thing, rather than looking at a rendering or being told about the benefits. They can see the grandeur of the golf course, the beautiful green, open space and manicured lawns.”

Located just outside Honey Harbour, 90 minutes north of Toronto, the four-season master-planned community features the Residences of Oak Bay, complete with a marina (under construction), fitness facilities, swimming pool, walking trails and other lifestyle amenities. The centrepiece, the Shawn Watters-designed course that opened in the fall of 2010, is highlighted by one of the most memorable par-3s in Ontario, a stunning 170-yarder over wetlands to a raised green perched upon a granite outcropping.

While Eden Oak took a long-term approach by unveiling the golf course well in advance, nobody has demonstrated more patience than the folks at Cobble Beach Golf Resort Community and Georgian Bay Villas. Having purchased 574 acres on the shores of Georgian Bay in Owen Sound in 1998, Willis McLeese and his son Rob opened the Doug Carrick-designed Cobble Beach on May 22, 2007. With only 29 completed homes to date, there are eventual plans for 1,000 residences as part of a 20-year project that relied heavily on the expertise of Reid’s Homes in the early stages, according to McLeese. Although the development has focused on advanced environmental practices, the golf course is the primary lure.

“We thought, ‘If you build the golf course and use the waterfront as its primary anchor, instead of using it for houses, which is what most builders would do, then people will always have that view of the water; it will never be blocked,” says company president Rob McLeese. “The real estate people thought we were crazy, but it was really important for us to preserve that waterfront for everybody.”

Most of the single-family homes range from 2,200 to 4,000 square feet and average between $700,000 and $900,000. McLeese estimates a premium of $100,000 for homes situated on the property, versus a location in a generic community elsewhere in Owen Sound.

One of Ontario’s best marriages of high-quality homes and golf can be found at Lora Bay in Thornbury, a Reid’s Heritage Homes/McBroom partnership. “It’s an outstanding golf community—it just works,” says McBroom, whose portfolio includes celebrated residential-related courses Tobiano and Tower Ranch in B.C., and who is currently working on the Links at Brunello in Halifax. “Five holes were built along the top of the escarpment. Ordinarily, a developer might have said to me, ‘We want to preserve that land for development because it has the outstanding views out over Georgian Bay.’ But I said, ‘You’ll create more value for yourselves if you put golf holes there. Then you’ll have homes paralleling the golf course but that have views out over the course and Georgian Bay.’”

While a golf course can potentially hook homebuyers, residents are typically required to support the economic model of the golf course, whether the golf division is run independently or by the developer itself. In its recent Lora Bay Living newsletter put out by Reid’s, Larry Dunn, Chairman of Lora Bay Corporation, observed, “real estate continues to be a very important component of Lora Bay (Golf Club). In addition to growing the community, I truly believe the golf club members of tomorrow will come from our real estate sales, allowing us to reach our goal of becoming a private golf club.”

Business models vary, though. In London, Sifton’s affordable and award-winning RiverBend residences are propped up by an underrated 2002 Carrick design—run separately from the community—that maximizes the backdrop of the Kains Woods and the rolling contours of the development. The development is a leased-land community, with 49- and 99-year lease options—each averaging in the $700-a-month ballpark, although a new 52-home release—the 13th Green at Riverbend—runs  around $1,200.

High rolling

Of course, a great golf experience requires a great piece of property. Most golf designers prefer rolling land broken by natural vegetation. “With rolling land and a treed landscape, you create visual separation between the golf and the residential development, which is desirable,” says McBroom. “With a flat piece of land, you can see other homes and adjacent fairways. That’s not so appealing.”

“A site that allows for dramatic grade separation between golf fairways and elevated home sites will provide homeowners with more privacy and is not as intrusive visually and psychologically to golfers as a site with flat, open terrain that is devoid of trees,” adds Carrick.

Moderate changes in elevation add interest to the layout, but it also allows golfers to walk the course. “The ease of walking a golf course is an important factor for first-home communities, where the higher frequency of play from regular members and residents necessitates the option to walk the course,” notes Carrick. “At golf resorts and second-home communities, visiting golfers are more conditioned to accepting a cart-only policy.”

Regardless of the terrain, the golf architect should be the developer’s partner in any planning discussions. Carrick, a former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, compares fashioning a golf course community to piecing together “a complex 3D puzzle that must balance the requirements for a variety of golfers with different skill levels, the desires of discerning homebuyers, the financial model of the client, the environmental concerns of various regulatory agencies, engineering limitations and a distinctive marketing strategy.”

That marketing strategy, as with other elements of any new development, can benefit from good environmental practices.

“Sustainability, including the recycling of storm water along with the use of effluent water for irrigation purposes, is a critical element in land planning for golf course communities today,” says Carrick. “It also provides a method for improving the quality of runoff from developed areas.

“Identifying and protecting key sensitive site features and habitat areas early in the design process helps developers establish credibility with regulatory agencies and planning authorities. It also builds respect and credibility within the local community (and) provides homeowners with a valuable resource to enjoy for many years.”

Beyond increasing land value, protecting greenspace and desirable views for as many of the potential residents as possible is an excellent way of creating a sense of place and value that extends throughout the entire development,” suggests Carrick.

Similar value can be attained through the golf clubhouse, which can serve as a great gathering place, not merely for golfers but for family meals, weddings and other events. Consequently, positioning it “in a prominent location with scenic views over the surrounding countryside and over the golf course can help to establish a strong identity and sense of community.