How the Golf Course Designer Affects Property Values and Sales

By Robert Whitley
President, Whitley Developemnt Group, Inc.

Just as the Golden Age of golf architecture had its dominant personalities—Ross, Tillinghast, Mackenzie—so has our modern era produced its own ‘Big Three’ course designers. Officially or unofficially, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and Pete Dye have come to be recognized as the contemporary triumvirate of golf architecture.

Just as our society has become label-conscious in so many market segments, from clothes to cars to almost anything else you can name, golfers have developed a designer mentality that hardly existed even 30 or 40 years ago, much less earlier in golf’s evolution.

Today, the overwhelming majority of properties market themselves according to the designer of the golf course. Advertising often features not only the architect’s name but his picture, as well, indicating that the designer has become as much a selling point as a photo of a beautifully, dramatic hole. It’s not uncommon to be asked if we’ve played “that new Nicklaus course” or hear from a friend how much he liked the “new Fazio layout” he played last week.

At times, it seems that the architect’s name has become interchangeable with that of the course itself. Sometimes, they are even one in the same. Take the Pete Dye Golf Club in West Virginia or the Robert Trent Jones Club in Virginia as examples. Resorts like Barefoot Landing in Myrtle Beach and Palmetto Dunes and Palmetto Hall in Hilton Head feature courses named solely for the designer - the Fazio Course, the Dye Course, Love, Hills, Jones, etc. Not that this is a ‘trend’ in golf, but it certainly happens more today than it did in the early years of the game when courses rarely boasted of their designers and it doubtful that more than a few golfers even cared enough to ask.

So what does all this “designer label” mentality mean? How does the architect’s name affect the value of our investment when we are considering purchasing property within a golf community?

First of all, let me say that there are a number of talented architects doing a lot of good work presently. While I have separated Dye, Fazio and Nicklaus as the so-called, modern Big Three, designers like Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Jay Moorish and Tom Weiskopf, the Jones brothers, Robert Trent Jr. and Rees, Jim Fazio and a number of others are producing quality golf courses.

As one who has developed a number of properties and worked with a variety of designers—from the biggest names to those lesser known—I have developed my own philosophy as it relates to the value of the ‘name.’ I don’t care who does the golf course; it’s only as good as it is. As a developer, I personally feel that what a big-name architect gets you is pre-sales. But that’s looking at the question from my side of the desk.

What does the name mean to you, the buyer?

Let’s say that you are going to design a golf course. Well, if you look at history, some of the greatest golf courses in the game were designed by someone who only did one golf course. Pebble Beach, where Douglas Grant consulted with Jack Neville, comes to mind immediately and there are others out there too. Henry C. Fownes and his son, William Clark Fownes, Jr. (a case where Junior was actually named after Henry’s brother William) designed Oakmont and that was it. George Crump, who collaborated with H.S. Colt to design Pine Valley, never worked on another golf course.

Therefore, I’m not positive that a developer can be more certain of getting a great course by hiring a name architect or hiring a first-timer. But the public, and thus you, the potential buyer, is more confident of getting a higher quality golf course from Jack Nicklaus than if Joe Blow is the architect. Ultimately, ol’ Joe’s golf course might turn out to be better. But until you get to play it and the course develops its own reputation, nobody is going to know of Joe or his course because Joe doesn’t have the track record that Nicklaus has.

So what you get with the big name is a track record. There is an implied guarantee that with a name architect, you are going to get a certain level of golf course. They all put their heart and soul into their work. Of all the ones I’ve done with Jack, I know from personal experience that he is really, intimately involved in the design. Pete typically moves to the course that he is designing and is there almost every day. And Tom is very hands on. So I think there is a level of confidence that you are going to get a golf course equal to the architect’s reputation.

We sometimes hear that having a Nicklaus course or a Fazio course adds to the price of your investment, but I don’t believe that. Do you get communities with higher prices because one of the ‘Big Three’ did the golf course? Or is one of the ‘Big Three’ there because the community is being developed in such a manner as to command higher prices for the real estate? I suspect that the latter is more often the case.

Generally, going into the project, the name architect is going to get a better budget with which to work. That goes hand in hand with the fact that the better site usually draws the bigger name architect. Pebble Beach may be the exception to that, but in the era when Pebble Beach was built, America wasn’t so conscious of ‘designer labels,’ so I don’t believe it was nearly as important whose name was on a design.

No one puts together a business plan to build a low-budget project, then hires one of the big three to design their golf course. They don’t do that because they can’t afford it. So by definition, the second-tier designers sometimes get the second-tier projects, with regard to both site and budget.

While it’s true that property in a community that features a Nicklaus, Fazio or Dye golf course generally costs more initially, it is also true that such a purchase represents a better investment because these properties typically appreciate at a better rate.

However, don’t be misled. Just because a developer hires one of the big three, don’t automatically think that the developer is stronger, financially, than the developer who hires Tom Doak, Steve Smyers or any of a number of very talented architects who are doing some very fine work. It may be true in some cases, but there are exceptions to both sides of that rule.

You cannot look at a project and judge the strength of the developer, just on the basis of the golf architect hired to design the course. There have been a number of projects that featured a name designer that have gone belly up, just as there have been a number of properties featuring courses by lesser-known designers that have done extremely well.

The main thing is, regardless of whose name is on the design, make sure to select a club where you feel comfortable. This is a leisure time activity, something you want to enjoy. Yes, we want to be challenged by the course, but you want to pick a course you enjoy playing, one you feel you can play for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the golf course; the course is only as good as it is. Despite names, marketing and hype, the final product ultimately must speak for itself.

— About The Author —

As the president of Whitley Development Group of North Palm Beach, Robert “Bob” Whitley has been involved with some of the most successful real estate developments in the country over the past 30 years.

Partnered with Rockwood Capital, Whitley is currently developing Currahee Club, a 1,150-acre master planned, lakefront community located on Lake Hartwell, near Toccoa, Georgia. In addition, The Whitley Development Group, in partnership with Jack Nicklaus, is a principal in the development of two Nicklaus signature clubs in the North Palm Beach area, The Bear’s Club and The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa of Jupiter.

Whitley was also instrumental in developing Golden Bear Plaza, the 250-000-square-foot office complex that houses Jack Nicklaus’ Golden Bear International headquarters.

From 1984 through 1990, as managing partner of Old Marsh Partners, Whitley developed the Pete Dye-designed, Old Marsh Golf Club, a 452-acre, 217-unit, single-family development in northern Palm Beach County.

Following Old Marsh, Whitley developed the award-winning Colleton River Plantation, a 697-acre, 395-lot residential community near Hilton Head Island. Colleton River’s Jack Nicklaus signature course was voted "Best New Private Course in America" in 1993 by Golf Digest.


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