HARDEEVILLE, S.C. — When Riverton Pointe reopened here in October, following a “refresh” renovation from Houston-based course builder Heritage Links and Nicklaus Design, the 18-hole course and surrounding real estate development may have struck observers as something of a throwback.
The owner, Toll Brothers, plans more than 900 new homes on the property, located 15 miles from Hilton Head and 25 miles from Savannah. What’s more, the lots at Riverton Pointe are largely laid out in the traditional “fairway living” fashion, with generous ribbons of golf hole just waiting to be flanked by new homes, on one or either side. From above, the project looks even more “2008” — which makes sense, because this golf course was completed in 2008. When the Recession hit, Toll Brothers mothballed all 18 holes for 12 years, just waiting for the right moment to reopen.
A moment like this one.
Few periods in modern golf history have featured the emergence, sun-setting and intersection of such colossal industry trends. After the closure of more than 1,600 facilities since the Great Recession of 2008, for example, golf’s market correction may finally be winding down: 146 courses shut their doors or were otherwise repurposed in 2020 — a 31 percent drop from 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 COVID-ravaged 2020. Another 300,000 participants were added to the game in 2021.
This unexpected era of good feeling has extended to the game’s redheaded stepchild: golf-affiliated real estate, the element most frequently blamed for the oversupply of new courses from 1998 to 2008. However, with non-golf housing inventories at all-time lows on both coasts and in many metropolitan areas in between, real estate components are no longer viewed as anchors around a golf development’s neck.
Courses continue to close for a wide spectrum of reasons, including the accommodation of straight-up real estate development: 20-year-old Farmstead Golf Links in Calabash, North Carolina, was recently sold to a developer who will transform the course into 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 U.S. golf industry is discovering that not all course closures are forever. Riverton Pointe headlines a growing list of mothballed courses that either reopened in 2021, or announced the intention to rejuvenate:
• Stonehouse Golf Club outside Williamsburg, Virginia, closed in 2017 after a long period of decline. It reopened in July 2019, and hosted record rounds during 2020.
• South of Phoenix, the owner of Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course plans to reopen the golf course this winter. He closed it down in 2013.
• Osprey Meadows Golf Course opened 2005 as part of the Tamarack Resort development, located an hour north of Boise, Idaho. The resort never got off the ground 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 got my attention,” says Jon O’Donnell, president of Heritage Links. “Here’s a project that has been dormant for more than 10 years — and a housing element is clearly central to the business plan: 950 units, if I’m not mistaken. That’s not something we’ve seen much of, not since 2006!
“I can’t discuss the details, but we have another client, a private club, where a new housing component is central to our renovation and, ultimately, a reopening. That course has been dormant since 2014. For a long stretch, folks in the golf business shied away from housing-related projects: Everyone knows what happened in 2008. My crystal ball’s in the shop, but it may be that the pendulum is starting to swing back.”
Stonehouse Golf Club.
Ground was broken on the Riverton Pointe project in 2006. Back then, it was called Hampton Pointe. Development all around the completed golf course stopped when the housing market crashed in 2008, but the layout continued to be maintained, in a limited way, for a dozen years. This induced maintenance coma started out as a temporary holding pattern — and never stopped, according to Heritage Links project manager Jorge Huerta.
“It was eerie walking around that place when we first arrived, last year,” Huerta says. “Hardly any people. No golfers certainly. Just a few residents. I think they had planned 2,800 houses but built just 50.
“We’ve done several jobs like this where we bring a course back to life after a long down-time. Hampton Pointe was pretty typical of what happens: You could hardly see any sand in the bunkers. They were overgrown and the maintenance around them had not been done anytime recently. The faces were eroded. The whole place had that ‘abandoned’ look.”
Not for long. Huerta and the Heritage Links team, working with Chris Cochran of Nicklaus Design, resurfaced 120,000 square feet of green surface at Riverton Pointe. The drill was identical at all 18 greens: strip each surface of turf, remove the top 4 inches of soil mix, replace it with 4 inches of new mix, then regrass.
Each and every bunker was rebuilt, as well. Well, almost.
“We actually reduced the amount of sand from the original design,” Huerta says. “We had bunker square footage in the neighborhood of 130,000 to 140,000. We reduced that to 115,000 square feet. But we also totally modernized them, too, using Capillary Concrete and fabric [JM Duraspun]. We also used the Tour Angle sand, which makes such a big difference. It’s such a white, pretty sand. It gives all the bunkers such a fresh, crisp look. Night and day from where we started.
“The new superintendent, Steve Colosi, has done a great job — especially bringing the fairways back down. The cart paths were fine, pretty much as originally built. The native areas were still the native areas.”
Heritage completed all its work here over the winter of 2020-21. O’Donnell is spot on: Where 2,800 homes had been planned back in the early 2000s, just 950 are planned today. According to Matt Jones, Toll Brothers’ South Carolina division president, Riverton Pointe will feature 15 single-story home designs ranging from 1,680 to 3,500 square feet, with prices starting in the mid $300,000s.
Of the 146 golf facilities that shuttered during 2020, there are dozens that did so in the spring, when the pandemic was wreaking havoc on U.S. businesses of all kinds. Many course owners, assuming golf would not be spared, closed the doors or simply did not reopen in the spring. Instead, the remainder of 2020 brought with it a mini participation. Should it continue, courses closed anytime during the past 3-4 years may reconsider.
The current housing market would appear to invite such reassessment. In thousands of communities located up and down the East Coast, unprecedented housing shortages have resulted in eye-popping asking prices. Toll Brothers is poised to add 950 units to the Low Country housing stock, at Riverton Pointe. Even established, “built-out” golf communities see opportunity in the current real estate economy.
“It does seem to us that housing and golf are making a comeback,” says Bryce Swanson, vice president/senior designer with Rees Jones, Inc. “The housing markets in so many of these locations are just ridiculous. On Seabrook Island, next to Kiawah, we did a bunker renovation in 2020 and built two new green complexes. That course goes back to 1960. William Byrd did one course and Rees’ dad did the other, Crooked Oaks. They were the first golf course/real estate developments in the area, before Kiawah came along.
“Seabrook just sort of sat there quietly for a long while, but they just moved something like 50 new homes! And they’re knocking down old ones to make way for new builds. People from all up and down the East Coast and larger cities in the Midwest are moving up their retirement plans, cashing out, and going back to the idea of fairway living.”