Way Beyond the Buddy Trip
Published: May 2009
By Bob Cullen
As American ideas of leisure change with the times, top golf destinations follow suit
Reynolds Plantation, on the leafy shore of Lake Oconee in central Georgia, has ninety-nine holes of golf designed by the likes of Tom Fazio, Rees Jones and Jack Nicklaus. Each course is beautifully groomed. Each has a fine practice facility. Each plays along the blue waters of the lake or on the hillsides sloping toward it. But the golf courses are not what make Reynolds Plantation one of the places blazing the trail into the future for American golf destinations.
On the second floor of the clubhouse at the resort's Oconee course, beyond a very imposing, vault-like steel door, Reynolds Plantation hosts one of the country's first two TaylorMade Performance Lab franchises. Inside, guests can have a club fitting similar to a Tour pro's. The client dons a hat, vest, knee pads, belt and gaiters, all black and all fitted with special reflective nodes. Fully suited up, he looks like a cross between a ninja warrior and a Christmas tree. He gets a special club, also studded with nodes. The lights go down. He hits a golf ball into a screen. Nine cameras and a launch monitor record some forty thousand data points for each swing. In seconds, a computer analyzes things like how the clubhead's center of gravity might respond to different shaft profiles, given the golfer's typical swing. Then it spits out a recommended set of specifications for new clubs, tailored to the client just as scientifically as Retief Goosen or Sergio Garcia's sticks are custom-fit for them.
To further see where golf destinations are headed, walk a few hundred yards along the lakeshore to the Ritz-Carlton Lodge. Next door is a low-slung building with cedar siding. Inside it's light, airy and soothing, with earth-tone tiles, blond wood and stacked stone accents, and the faint scent of eucalyptus. This is the Ritz-Carlton Spa, Reynolds Plantation. It's got an indoor lap pool, a gym, steam and sauna, and massage rooms. Golfers can get an herbal massage featuring arnica, which is said to soothe irritated joints. If they've forgotten to apply sunscreen before playing, they can even get a special facial treatment. And, of course, pedicures and manicures are available.
That's not because the typical male golf patron has developed a sudden yen to have his toenails buffed; it's because American golf destinations no longer think they can cater primarily to men. These days, women are highly prized customers. So are children. And newer resorts are being built around services that attract them. The spa is just one of the things that make Reynolds Plantation a fully modern golf mecca.
The Ritz-Carlton Lodge itself epitomizes the new model. Its design is rustic luxury, without the brass and glass that characterize a city hotel. With 251 rooms, it's small for a resort with access to five and a half golf courses and another (a private layout by architect Jim Engh) under construction. That's because the hotel is not the center of Reynolds Plantation's business model. The community was founded twenty years ago as a second-home development, and that is still its core business.
From the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Colorado to the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina, small, intimate, luxurious hostelries in second-home golf resorts are increasingly the norm, and this figures to become even more so as the baby boom generation moves toward retirement. Second-home sales generate the bulk of the profits at these resorts. Their hotels, though they may be quite successful, exist in part to give prospective home buyers a taste of the community experience. They also provide the existing residents with a spa and a fine-dining option, without attracting so many guests that residents feel crowded on the golf courses.
There are statistics behind this new emphasis on attracting families and second-home buyers. According to the National Golf Foundation, which collects data for the industry, the number of male "core golfers"—men who play at least eight rounds a year—has been declining since 2001. Resorts that depended on groups of men coming in to play thirty-six holes a day over a long weekend—the classic buddy trip—have felt the impact. "The buddy trip is dwindling," says Tim Greenwell, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Troon Golf, which operates courses at a number of American resorts. "The percentage of Generation X men that plays golf is lower than the baby boom generation." As a result, resorts must reach out to golfers who have been classified as "occasional players." Women and children fall disproportionately into this category.
Fundamental changes in values and lifestyle lie behind the changing statistics. "The parents of the baby boomers are people who spent all their time making money," says Mike Kelly, a senior executive at Reynolds Plantation. "The baby boom generation spends all its money making time."
One of the things both boomers and Generation Xers most want to make time for is family. "People want to do things together when they have some free time, not just take turns looking after the kids," says Diana Permar, a Charleston, South Carolina, real estate consultant who advises Reynolds Plantation. That's why resort marketing departments are sure to highlight the hiking trails, the boating and fishing, and the area's points of historical interest. It's why empty-nesters are buying homes with four or more bedrooms: They'll pay for the extra space and the nongolf amenities to have a place where multiple generations can reunite and do things together.
Golf may be one of the activities that a family can enjoy in these places, but it's not the only one. "The range of options [offered by a resort] has to be really broad,"Permar says. "Wellness and fitness will be very important."
Indeed, the line between health spa and golf resort is blurring. This year Miraval, the very luxe spa in Catalina, Arizona, began offering four- and five-day programs for golfers, led by Extraordinary Golf guru Fred Shoemaker. Guests can spend a few hours each day at a nearby course learning to think of the hole, rather than the ball, as their target. Then they can partake in seminars on nutrition or exercise in the spa's Life in Balance program. "Golf teaches mindfulness, being in the moment," says Harley Mayersohn, the spa's vice president of branding and marketing. Programs like Life in Balance can also induce men to join their wives at the spa. Just as the golf segment wants to attract more women, spas want to attract more men—or families.
Some major resorts are even edging into the medical services field. For years, the Greenbrier has run an executive clinic that offers clients a chance to combine a thorough physical exam with several days of golf. The WellMax Clinic at La Quinta Resort & Club in La Quinta, California, offers guests a variety of diagnostic tests, from measuring hormone levels and "oxidative stress" to ultrasound imaging of major organs and blood vessels, as well as nutritional and physical fitness evaluations. And the Cliffs Communities in the Carolina mountains has broken ground on a new "wellness resort." When it opens in the spring of 2008, it will offer guests a Tom Fazio golf course plus a clinic that will feel more like a spa. Physicians there will offer diagnostic physicals, and the staff will include nutritionists, exercise therapists, cognitive psychologists and a chef who will demonstrate healthy cooking. "It's about changing behavior, and it will be geared toward families," says Richard Hayduk, vice president of hospitality at the Cliffs. "We think baby boomers are concerned not just about their own health but about their grandkids' health."
Wide-ranging choices suitable for families are the motif of a new resort being developed on Kauai called Kukui'ula. The plan is to have a Tom Weiskopf golf course, a twenty-one-room inn, a spa and a community of 1,500 luxury homes. But what will set it apart, according to development president Dick Holtzman, is a twenty-person concierge staff that will take personal service to a new level. Want to scuba?A staff member will take you. An ecotour of the island?Of course. If you want ukulele lessons, they'll be available too.
Meanwhile, established resorts are retrofitting to adapt to these new demands. Kiawah Island recently added a boutique luxury beach hotel called the Sanctuary. Resort president Roger Warren reports that it is more popular with female guests than the villas that were the staple of Kiawah accommodations for the resort's first three decades. The Sanctuary features an extensive spa, and guests can select from a broad range of activities. "Women generally don't want to play thirty-six holes a day," Warren says. "They want to play a round of golf, and then they may want to go to the spa or take a bike ride or go shopping." Women, he says, now account for 8 to 10 percent of the resort's golf guests, and their number is growing.
Kiawah has also retrofitted "family tees" on its courses. They're located in existing fairways, within a short distance of the green. On summer evenings kids can play nine holes for free if they're with parents (who pay a reduced rate and also play from the family tees). Tee times during this family hour are spaced fifteen minutes apart so that beginners won't feel rushed. Warren says it's not uncommon to see kids prancing with glee because they've managed to best mom or dad on a hole or two.
For the avid, traveling golfer, the changing character of the golf resort has advantages and disadvantages. Being at one of the new small luxury resorts can be more like playing at a private club than at a big hotel course at high season. The golf courses designed for these resorts are usually player-friendly, the rationale being that there isn't much future for a resort with a course that beats up the customers. Developers want beautiful scenery and visually arresting features. They want their courses to be fun. But there is also the danger of what golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. calls "fairway robbery." When a golf course is designed as an amenity for a second-home development, the developer can get "voracious," Jones says. The result can be fairways lined tightly with homes or condos. Worse, developers might take a good par five and turn it into a cramped par four for the sake of more building lots. The smartest developers realize that both property values and profits are enhanced when homes are placed unobtrusively around the golf course.
In the final analysis, the evolution of the golf resort means more choices for everyone, including serious golfers. There will always be room for a pure golf project like Bandon Dunes, the most artistically successful new American golf resort in years. It does quite well without an elaborate spa, in large part due to its location on the Pacific Ocean. As Kukui'ula's Holtzman observes, there just aren't that many thousand-acre parcels of undeveloped oceanfront left. Developers without that sort of land probably can't follow the Bandon Dunes model.
It's no coincidence that Pinehurst, the patriarch of American golf resorts, has seen some significant changes in the past few years. It has a new 31,000-square-foot spa and five of the resort's eight courses have recently been fitted with kids' tees. Donald Ross, the crusty Scotsman who designed Pinehurst's first four courses, may well have thought a spa was best left to the decadent Continentals. He may also have thought that the proper place for children at a golf resort was the caddie yard. But Ross, for all his genius, was a man of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—and this is a new millennium.