Going Public

Georgia’s 262 semi-private, daily-fee and municipal golf courses give golfers a wide range of options. The numbers reflect the golfing boom of the last 20 years and the changing landscape of the game itself.

“Golf is the pursuit of the infinite,” wrote Jim Murray, the late virtuoso sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

For a particular breed of enthusiast, golf is the infinite pursuit of the perfect track; a quixotic quest, to be sure, and the prolific, golf-addicted Murray has an angle on that also: “Don Quixote would understand golf. It is the impossible dream.”

It really is, for many reasons, not the least of them this endless mission to find an 18-hole nirvana that meets certain requirements of cost, proximity, course quality and most important, accessibility.

Georgia has a well-known collection of golf paradises, such as Augusta National, Peachtree, East Lake and Hawk’s Ridge, to name very few. But these private courses are out of reach for many a Ping-wielding adventurer, whose epic hunt is generally confined to the state’s vast realm of public golf courses.

For one thing, the law of averages demands it – almost two-thirds of Georgia’s golf courses are public (and the median cost for a round of golf is below $40). According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), 262 of the state’s 412.5 golf courses are public, or 63.5 percent, slightly less than the national average.

That high public-to-private ratio reflects how much the golf landscape has been altered in the past century, says Whitney Crouse, president of the Georgia Golf Course Owners Association (GGCOA) and managing partner of Alpharetta-based Affiniti Golf Partners, which owns and manages several Georgia clubs.

“For so many years, golf was, let’s face it, elitist, strictly a wealthy man’s game,” Crouse says. “During the golden age of the 1920s to 1940s, you have incredible growth, and almost all of it was private clubs. The next wave, really, was the 1960s, the era of Robert Trent Jones and the growth in daily-fee and resort courses.

“The third wave, the boom of the past 20 years, has been fueled largely by real estate growth, and the upscale daily-fee course. Today, two thirds of the 16,000 golf courses in the U.S. are public courses, a reversal of an equation that lasted for 60 years.”

There are roughly 26 million golfers in the United States (people who play at least one 18-hole round in a year). The Tiger Woods phenomenon has been partially credited with the escalating interest in the game; but the growth in accessible places to play started long before Woods captured national attention.

In 1989, with hundreds of thousands of golfers around the country unable to get onto the fairways due to capacity, an NGF forecast set into motion a massive golf boom.

“The National Golf Foundation came out with that mantra that said we need to build one golf course per day in this country, 365 a year, from now until the end of the century, because we needed more public golf access,” Crouse says. “A lot of people took that to heart. What happened is, we overbuilt.”

The building boom reached its height in 2000, when nearly 400 courses opened (375.5 net, when closings are factored in). But net growth has fallen dramatically since then: 252 in 2001, 103 in 2003, 31 in 2005 and last year, for the first time in six decades, the number of national course closings (146) actually exceeded the number of openings (119.5).

Almost all closures nationally (97 percent) were public-access facilities – nine-hole, or par-three executive-type courses, mainly. And nearly 70 percent of new courses are tied in with residential real estate – many of these courses are classified semi-private, which means almost anyone can play on a daily-fee basis.

“We’ve got developers who build golf courses as amenities to sell homes,” says Crouse, whose company manages a couple of semi-private golf clubs in John Wieland developments – Reunion (Hoschton) and Woodmont (Canton), both highly rated public-access facilities.

Hammers, saws, rooftops and garages have replaced drivers, wedges, bunkers and cart paths at some longtime favorite public-access tracks, like Metropolitan (Lithonia) and Field-stone (Conyers).

Even a successful facility like The Hooch, a par-61 short course in Duluth, and one of Affiniti’s most profitable clubs, is under contract as real estate. “It’s worth three times as much as real estate,” Crouse says.

Public Haze

The definition of “public course” depends on who’s defining it. The NGF lumps semi-private, daily-fee and municipal courses (those owned by tax-based entities, i.e., city, county, state) under the public-course umbrella. This is the correct model.

Cindy Acree, executive director of the GGCOA, observes a slightly different terminology. “There’s a change in definition. Now when we say ‘public course’ we’re referring to state parks, you know, the munis (municipal courses), as opposed to traditional ‘daily-fee,’ which means the course is publicly accessible, but privately owned.”

It can get confusing if you’re all hung up on semantics. A little common sense comes in handy when embarking on the quest.

Sometimes, resort courses get mixed into the public-course haze. In Georgia, for example, fabled courses like those at Sea Island and Reynolds Plantation rank high in the listings of “best public courses” by magazines like Golf Digest and Golfweek. But those courses are open only to members, their guests, and anyone willing to book a room (the Ritz-Carlton at Reynolds, the Cloister and several other high-end options at Sea Island).

On the other hand, some resort courses are open to outside play. The Hampton Club, owned by the King and Prince resort, offers a stunning Joe Lee design that artfully coexists among salt marshes and tidal creeks, with four holes on the back nine delicately carved from marsh islands, linked together by 800 feet of elevated cart bridges. Here, one of the nation’s most highly-regarded resort courses is open to the daily-fee treasure-hunter (about $90, including cart); and it’s pretty wide open during off season months, getting about 20,000 rounds a year, which would be pretty low for a public-only course.

“We’re still primarily a resort course, pretty busy in the spring and fall, pretty slow for part of the year,” says Rick Mattox, general manager and head professional at The Hampton Club. “But we’ve been getting more summer play in recent years, and we never had that in the past.”

As an amenity for a classic resort hotel, The Hampton Club’s accessibility is a happy bonus for the itinerant golfer – so its business fortunes are not overly tied to golf.

For most daily-fee courses – whether they are privately owned or an amenity for taxpayers – need bodies on the course. Privately owned courses need the income to turn enough of a profit to make it worth their while – self-contained courses often occupy land that would be more valuable as real estate, as Crouse points out. Municipal courses need the rounds to maintain the property, or make improvements.

“The busiest courses in the state are the [Atlanta] city courses, because of their location and very available rate structure,” Crouse says, referring to places like venerable, and extremely busy, Bobby Jones Golf Club in Buckhead, where fees run in the $16 to $39 range. These courses go well beyond the magic 40,000-rounds-per-year yardstick.

“In our business, if a course plays over 40,000 rounds a year, it’s a measure of how well it is liked,” Crouse says. “Courses playing less than 30,000, and down in the 20,000 range, lose money.”

Crouse’s company manages what may be the busiest municipal course outside of Atlanta. Cobblestone in Acworth is a Cobb County owned course that does more than 40,000 rounds a year. It’s part of an impressive collection of taxpayer-supported courses in Georgia, including the state park system’s eight diverse courses, one of which, Arrowhead Pointe (Richard B. Russell State Park near Elberton), was ranked the nation’s second best “new affordable public course” for 2005 by Golf Digest. It was also the only public course on TravelGolf.com’s list of top 10 Georgia courses, alongside the likes of Augusta National, TPC at Sugarloaf and Ocean Forest at Sea Island.

One of the state’s most revered munis, the Chattahoochee Golf Course (owned by the city of Gainesville), originally designed by Robert Trent Jones and a Northeast Georgia fixture since 1960, once played 47,000 rounds in a year. That was before another semi-private daily-fee course, Chicopee Woods, opened nearby.

“We lost about a thousand rounds a year until we bottomed out at 28,000,” says Mark Bowen, Chattahoochee’s director of golf. “We don’t expect to do 40,000 rounds a year again, because of all the courses that have come to this area.”

Chattahoochee, home course of former Masters champion and Gainesville native Tommy Aaron (who serves on the course’s advisory committee), is one of the oldest courses in Northeast Georgia. It is also, now, the newest, having just reopened in January following a yearlong, $3 million facelift.

“This is a totally different golf course,” Bowen says. “None of the greens or tees are in exactly the same place, the back nine is now the front. We still have large, undulating greens, but instead of 7,000 square feet they’re more like 6,500 square feet.”

Chattahoochee hired architect Kevin Hargrave and Course Crafters, a golf renovation and construction company whose portfolio also in-cludes some of Georgia’s, and the world’s, premier tracks, such as Augusta National and East Lake.

“So, yeah, we’re pretty confident,” Bowen says. It will take about 32,000 rounds a year to fund future capital projects at Chattahoochee, where you can play 18 on a weekday for under $43, $52 on the weekends for Hall County residents ($62 for nonresidents).

Keeping Pace

The daily-fee enthusiast can go in any direction and find a place to tee off, but his choices are getting a little thinner as some previously semi-private golf clubs (like Crooked Creek in Alpharetta and Gold Creek in Dawsonville) go totally private.

Another golf management firm, Newnan-based Canongate, has developed a successful business model by buying Atlanta-area courses (including some former public-access courses) and folding them into a growing collection of affordable private clubs. For a one-time initiation fee of $500 to $750 and monthly dues in the $100 to $200 range, depending on the membership plan, Canongate golfers have access to 18 clubs, where their green fees are kept very low.

Canongate’s courses ring Metro Atlanta and include Eagle Watch (Arnold Palmer design in Wood-stock), Windemere (Davis Love III design, Cumming), Flat Creek (Peachtree City) and Mirror Lake (Villa Rica).

“It’s affordable private golf,” says Glenn Grant, who grew up in Peachtree City and worked for Canongate, cleaning golf carts. “For private golf, you won’t find a better deal.”

Most of Canongate’s properties are on the south side of the metro area, though, and Grant, who works for Penske Truck Leasing, now lives in Flowery Branch, north of metro Atlanta, where he’s hit paydirt in his search for the right public course.

“Reunion [Hoschton] is always in great shape and you will finish under four and a half hours on the weekend,” he says. “Chicopee Woods [Gainesville] has a great layout, is very affordable, but the pace is sometimes slow.”

Across town from Chicopee Woods, on a windy Saturday morning, Allen Haile is on the Chat-tahoochee practice tees, waiting for his tee time. “They’re slammed today,” says Haile, a freelance photographer who specializes in photographing golf courses – a nice racket that allows him to continue the quest. Haile has played and photographed most of the top public-access courses in North Georgia, but he has his personal favorites.

“The Frog [Villa Rica] is absolutely outstanding, a Tom Fazio design, ultimately very playable, nothing tricked up, no goofy holes – it’s golf, right in front of you,” says Haile, who used to run Big Ten Tires in Buckhead, one of the state’s more lucrative locations, and basically right on top of the Capital City Club Brookhaven Course.

His former client list reads like a “who’s who” list of the top names in Georgia golf: designer Bob Cupp, amateur champions and Georgia Golf Hall of Famers Dan and Danny Yates, PGA star Billy Andrade, among others.

“I couldn’t wait to get to work every day just to see who was going to walk through the door,” Haile says. “It was a golf haven.”

A young retiree at 50, Haile now spends much of his time seeking out golf havens on which to test his eight handicap. “I’m one of these guys who will drive 100 or 200 miles just to play golf.”

Drawing an imaginary perimeter around Metro Atlanta’s thriving golf universe, Haile counts Birch River (a Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Dahlonega), Brasstown Valley Resort (Blairsville), Cherokee Run (Arnold Palmer design, Conyers) among his preferred public-access courses.

These days, Haile golfs mostly on Mondays through Thursdays, for the most part avoiding the heavy weekend traffic. “This is an exception,” he tells his caller, while working on his swing that Saturday at Chattahoochee.

“I rarely play on weekends anymore because I don’t like the six-hour rounds,” he says. “People who play tend to get into a rhythm, and you can’t do that during a six-hour round. A golf course doesn’t want to develop a reputation for six-hour rounds, otherwise you’ll be paving it over for a parking lot.”

Public courses rely on warm bodies playing rounds of golf, so pace-of-play etiquette is critical. “Family guys can’t spend an entire day playing golf,” 12-handicapper Glenn Grant says. So the marshals are typically more adamant at the public course than the private course.

“Public courses make their money on green fees, and when it’s taking four and half or five hours, instead of three and a half hours, they’re missing out on business opportunities – people on the golf course,” says course architect Mike Young.

Based in Athens, the prolific Young has designed a number of critically-acclaimed courses in Georgia and across the country, including a number of public-access gems such as Wolf Creek (Atlanta), Cateechee (Hartwell), Southern Hills (Hawk-insville), River Pointe (Albany), Oak Grove Island (Brunswick) and Lane Creek (Watkinsville).

One of Young’s newest, Long Shadow Golf Club in Madison, opened its front nine last October with the back nine set to open this spring. It was one of the new public courses to open in Georgia last year, and is just a short drive from Georgia’s perennially top-ranked public-access course, The Golf Club at Cuscowilla (Eatonton, on Lake Oconee).

Last year, while the nation experienced its first golf-course construction deficit in decades, Georgia finished in the black – nine new courses to 4.5 closures. Still, golfers like Glenn Grant will mourn the loss of a Lanier Club in Cumming (“decent shape, great pace of play”), which is reportedly closing to make room for houses. But for every lost Lanier Club, there is a new track, a Long Shadow, or a fairly recent addition, like Kinderlou (Valdosta, one of Golf Digest’s top 20 courses in Georgia), or an old reliable, like Chattahoochee in Gainesville or Innsbruck in Helen (sharp elevation changes, spectacular scenery, low green fees).

The national leveling out of golf properties isn’t a depression as much as it is a market correction, says Whitney Crouse. It was inevitable.

“It certainly isn’t a doom and gloom scenario,” Crouse says. “I came to Atlanta in 1991 to build my first golf course, and since then about 120 courses have been built around Metro Atlanta, and about 90 of them are daily-fee.

“Georgia is still well ahead of the curve. There is a plethora of places to play for anyone who wants to play.”

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