HARDEEVILLE, South Carolina – When Riverton Pointe reopened here in October, following a “refresh” renovation by Houston-based course builder Heritage Links and Nicklaus Design, the 18-hole course and surrounding real estate development perhaps struck observers as a throwback.
Owner, Toll Brothers, plans more than 900 new homes on the property, which is 15 miles from Hilton Head and 25 miles from Savannah. Additionally, the lots at Riverton Pointe are largely landscaped in the traditional ‘fairway living’ fashion, with generous slivers of golf holes just waiting to be flanked by new homes, on one side or the other. From above, the project looks even more like “2008” – which makes sense, as this golf course was completed in 2008. When the recession hit, Toll Brothers mothballed the 18 holes for 12 years, just waiting for the right time to reopen.
A moment like this.
Few periods in modern golf history have seen the rise, sunset and intersection of such colossal industry trends. After more than 1,600 facilities have closed since the Great Recession of 2008, for example, the golf market correction may finally be ending: 146 courses closed or were redeveloped in 2020, down 31% from compared to 2019. The National Golf Foundation reported that 130.5 courses closed in 2021. At the same time, and not coincidentally, the NGF reported that 500,000 new golfers joined the fray during 2020 ravaged by COVID. Another 300,000 participants were added to the game in 2021.
This unexpected era of good humor extended to the game’s red-haired son-in-law: golf-affiliated real estate, the element most often blamed for the oversupply of new courses from 1998 to 2008. However, with stocks of non-golf housing at historically low levels on both coasts and in many intervening metropolitan areas, real estate components are no longer seen as anchors around the neck of a golf development.
Courses continue to close for a wide range of reasons, including hosting a direct real estate development: 20-year-old Farmstead Golf Links in Calabash, North Carolina was recently sold to a developer who will transform the course in a series of subdivisions. The 50-year-old Forest Oaks Golf Course at Lucerne Lakes in Palm Beach, Florida will soon be replaced by a 450-unit residential development.
However, the 21st century American golf industry is discovering that not all course closures are permanent. Riverton Pointe headlines a growing list of mothballed courses that have either reopened in 2021 or announced plans to revamp:
• Stonehouse Golf Club outside Williamsburg, Virginia closed in 2017 after a long period of decline. It reopened in July 2019 and hosted record rounds in 2020.
• South of Phoenix, the owner of Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course plans to reopen the golf course this winter. He closed it in 2013.
• Osprey Meadows Golf Course opened in 2005 as part of the Tamarack Resort development, located one hour north of Boise, Idaho. The resort never took off and the course closed in 2016. But Tamarack has been revived, with plans to open the OMGC driving range this summer and reopen all 18 holes in 2023.
“The housing element at Riverton Pointe caught my eye,” says Jon O’Donnell, President of Heritage Links. “Here is a project that has been dormant for more than 10 years — and a housing element is clearly at the center of the business plan: 950 units, if I’m not mistaken. It’s not something we’ve seen much, not since 2006!
“I cannot discuss specifics, but we have another client, a private club, where a new housing component is central to our renovation and eventual reopening. This course has been inactive since 2014. For a long time, people in the golf industry avoided housing projects: everyone knows what happened in 2008. My crystal ball is in the store, but it may be the pendulum begins to swing backwards.”
Stonehouse Golf Club.
The ground was broken on the Riverton Pointe project in 2006. Back then it was called Hampton Pointe. Development all around the completed golf course came to a halt when the real estate market crashed in 2008, but development continued to be maintained, in a limited way, for a dozen years. This induced maintenance coma started as a temporary waiting pattern – and never stopped, according to project manager Heritage Links jorge huerta.
“It was strange walking around this place when we arrived last year,” Huerta says. ” Almost nobody. Certainly no golfers. Just a few locals. I think they had planned 2,800 houses but only built 50.
“We’ve done several jobs like this where we’re bringing a course back to life after a long downtime. Hampton Pointe was pretty typical of what happens: you could barely see any sand in the bunkers. They were overgrown and maintenance around them had not been done recently. The faces were eroded. The whole place had this “abandoned” look.
Not for a long time. Huerta and the Heritage Links team, in conjunction with Chris Cochran of Nicklaus Design, have resurfaced 120,000 square feet of green surface at Riverton Pointe. The seeder was identical on all 18 greens: strip each turf surface, remove the top 4 inches of ground mix, replace with 4 inches of fresh mix, then re-grass.
Each bunker was also rebuilt. Well, almost.
“We actually reduced the amount of sand compared to the original design,” says Huerta. “We had a bunker area of around 130,000 to 140,000. We reduced that to 115,000 square feet. But we have also completely modernized them, using capillary concrete and fabric [JM Duraspun]. We also used Tour Angle sand, which makes such a big difference. It’s such beautiful white sand. It makes all bunkers look so fresh and clean. Night and day from where we started.
“The new superintendent, Steve Colossi, did a great job, especially bringing the fairways down. The cart paths were fine, much as originally built. The native areas were still the native areas.
Heritage completed all of its work here during the winter of 2020-21. O’Donnell is there: where 2,800 homes were planned in the early 2000s, only 950 are planned today. According to matt jonespresident of the South Carolina division of Toll Brothers, Riverton Pointe will offer 15 one-story home designs ranging from 1,680 to 3,500 square feet, with prices starting around $300,000.
Of the 146 golf facilities that closed in 2020, there are dozens that did so in the spring, when the pandemic was wreaking havoc on American businesses of all kinds. Many course owners, thinking golf would not be spared, closed doors or simply did not reopen in the spring. Instead, the rest of 2020 brought a mini turnout. If this continues, courses closed at any time in the past 3-4 years may be reconsidered.
The current housing market would seem to invite such a reassessment. In thousands of communities along the East Coast, unprecedented housing shortages have resulted in exorbitant prices. Toll Brothers is about to add 950 units to the Low Country housing stock in Riverton Pointe. Even established, “built-up” golf communities see opportunity in today’s real estate economy.
“It looks to us like housing and golf are making a comeback,” says Bryce Swansonvice president/senior designer with Rees Jones, Inc. “The housing markets in so many of these places are just ridiculous. On Seabrook Island, next to Kiawah, we did a bunker renovation in 2020 and built two new green complexes. This course dates back to 1960. William Byrd did one course and Rees’ dad did the other, Crooked Oaks. These were the first golf courses/real estate developments in the area, prior to the arrival of Kiawah.
“Seabrook has been sitting quietly for a long time, but they just moved something like 50 new homes! And they are tearing down the old ones to make way for new constructions. People all over the East Coast and major cities in the Midwest are ramping up their retirement plans, cashing in, and returning to the idea of living on the fairways.