No one can doubt that golf's star has risen dramatically in the last couple of decades, and there are many explanations as to why: The crush of baby boomers entering their prime golf-playing years. Bull markets. Tiger Woods. A cosmic conjunction between the calming nature of the game and the psychological needs of an anxious era. But when it comes to how, not why, the culture of golf has changed in that time, one trend clearly eclipses all the others: the marriage of golf to real estate, and with it the blossoming of a new golf lifestyle.
Of the 100 communities presented in Travel + Leisure Golf's inaugural list of the nation's top residential golf properties, only a handful, such as Sea Island in Georgia, are even remotely historic. A few others were part of the first wave of "country club communities" in the 1970s and 1980s, but most are much newer. Fully half of the communities on our list have been built in the last dozen years. Of all golf courses in the United States today, only one in five is part of a planned residential community; but of those under construction, three in five are. And golf-home prices are surging. Yes, there are worries that rising interest rates will prick the so-called housing bubble, but developers show no signs of slowing down, and many real estate experts expect demographics to keep demand strong at the extreme high end of the market, even if the rest of the real estate market slumps.
The traditional golf paradigm—living in an ordinary neighborhood and pursuing the game at nearby private or public courses—is still the dominant one, of course, especially in the nation's northern tier. But across the Sun Belt, from the coastal Carolinas and Florida to Southern California, as well as up the Pacific Coast and even into the western mountains, master-planned golf communities have been booming. They draw not just locals but also passionate golfers from elsewhere in search of second homes and places to retire.
A few decades ago, when developers were putting up the first golf communities in Florida and the Carolinas, the best buyers might hope for were cookie-cutter fairways squeezed between bland condos. But since the early 1990s, as soaring markets stoked boomers' lust for luxury, there has been an explosion of communities offering heretofore unheard-of amenities and a sense of endless vacation.
The treatment can be lavish. In addition to ever higher quality golf, some communities dole out perks such as extensive concierge service and access to private jets. Others hire full-time master chefs and nature guides. Spas, horseback riding, hiking-trail networks, marinas and frequent, planned activities for both kids and adults are common.
Sociologically, the impact of this trend may be to further isolate the very wealthy from the rest of the world. In some cases, residents pass not one but two or even three gates to reach their homes. But for those fortunate enough to reside in such places, security is part of what makes the lifestyle sublime, as is the sense of belonging and the satisfaction of having reached the pinnacle of residential success.
In compiling this list, we began with the premise that the golf needed to be great: top course designs, impeccable maintenance, easy access for members. But we also recognized that a great community encompasses much more than golf, both tangible (superior housing, flawless facilities) and intangible (a sense of identity, breathtaking sunsets).
Of course, every list such as this is subjective in subtle ways, and this one favors communities offering sophistication and transcendent experience. The top twenty-five are ranked in order according to our criteria (see below); consider the rest tied for twenty-sixth. The bottom line is: Are these 100 communities the places in which we ourselves would most like to live? The answer, resoundingly, is yes.