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Whole in One

“It’s an excellent buying opportunity right now.” — Tom Noyes, general manager of Wildcat Run Golf and Country Club

During the boom in the early 2000s, it seemed like every week another golf course community was slated for construction. They often sold out before the grounds were complete. And owners could re-sell quickly, pocketing nifty profits.

But times change swiftly. Now Southwest Florida is left with a glut of homes on the market.While most portfolios have seen their balances return to something like summer 2007, the cost of buying property is, in some cases, pre-millennial.

All of this is great news if you want to get into one of our area’s plethora of golf clubs. Although many local clubs have held their ground on initiation fees and dues, the cost of joining a bundled golf club—where membership is a requirement of purchasing a home—has dropped along with housing prices.

And even if membership in the club of your choice is a significant additional cost—as it is in some of the region’s more upscale neighborhoods where initiation fees can top six figures—the decrease in property prices is easily enough to offset the upfront costs of joining a country club.

But before plunking down the green to hit the greens, you need to consider a few factors.


Debt free

Finding the right golf club is about more than just the price of admission. The costs going forward need to be considered. The annual dues, which locally range from less than $3,000 to more than $15,000, should be part of your calculations.

Just as important to your long-term costs is the financial health of the club. Ask members of the clubs formerly run by the Bonita Bay Group. They’ve had to pool funds together and buy their clubs, except for members at TwinEagles who saw their club sold to another developer. But those happy endings didn’t come without a lot of teeth gnashing and litigation. People who wanted out were held at bay while Bonita Bay went through a reorganization.

Clubs without debt started using that fact as a marketing tool. Check out any advertisement for the Vineyards and you’ll notice the prominent mention of debt-free status.

But there’s more to it than just a balanced account.

“Certainly people are looking for minimal debt,” says Michael Zigler, general manager at Spring Run Golf Club in Bonita Springs, “but they are also looking for a strategic plan. They want to know you aren’t going to zigzag all over the place. It’s that kind of management that costs members money.”

Michael Saadeh, CEO of Vineyards Development Corp., agrees. When business was booming, his company didn’t succumb to the temptation of cashing out some of the profits, but instead kept it in reserves or funneled it back into the community itself. “We’re doing fine; don’t get greedy,” was Saadeh’s mantra.

Jack Waldron, a 61-year-old part-time resident of Wildcat Run who purchased his house earlier this year, says infrastructure is also important.

“Make sure those things have been upgraded recently,” he says. “Anything with roads is especially important, because those are the things that are going to lead to assessments.”


Amenities rule

While just about all clubs offer a basic set of amenities—a pool, tennis courts, a fitness center, a pro shop and a dining room—there are a few amenities that can put a club over the top.

Mediterra, a former Bonita Bay club that straddles the Lee-Collier county line, offers members access to a private beach club. In Naples, Pelican Marsh’s members can also join the yacht club, as can those at Golf Harbor Yacht & Country Club in Fort Myers.

In Lee County, Sabal Springs Golf & Racquet Club boasts a library, while the Pelican Preserve Golf Club points prospective members to amenities such as softball fields, biking paths and a movie theater.

But think about the amenities you are most interested in before letting the sheer number of options available sway your decision. If you aren’t a boater, what is the point of a yacht club if the golf course doesn’t meet your needs? And even if you are a boater, if the rest of the club doesn’t work for you, then you always can find a club that does and a separate place to dock your yacht.

Dennis Palmer, 64, looked at Pelican Marsh when he first was searching for a club in 2004. But he and his wife, Linda, fell in love with the Vineyards, so he joined Hamilton Bay for his boating needs. When the call of the Gulf got too great, they left the community for a home in Park Shore near Seagate.

“But we missed the Vineyards,” he says.

So two months ago, he bought a new place in the community, bigger and better than the one he purchased seven years ago.

Jim Magnusson, director of marketing for WCI’s amenities programs, says clubs have looked for ways to keep initiation fees and dues steady during the recession by adding in benefits they hope will bring more value. WCI’s latest plan is to give its members access to all five of its local courses, as well as partnering with a national golf course company to provide players opportunities at another 160 courses across the country for only cart fees.

“It’s a competitive advantage to offer this kind of access year round,” Magnusson says.


Golf, golf, golf

Tee times and playability. Ask people what they are looking for in a golf club, and those are likely the two biggest concerns.

If being able to consistently get a tee time is your main concern, look for a smaller club. Some of the most exclusive purposely limit membership to low numbers so members can play whenever they like.

Waldron, the Wildcat Run resident, said he wanted to make sure he was comfortable with both when he originally bought into the club in 2000. He liked the idea of a small membership so that he didn’t struggle to get a good time.

“I didn’t want to be in one of the bigger clubs,” he says. “And I wanted a challenge.”

Waldron sold his first home at Wildcat Run in 2008 but rejoined the club in February because the economic conditions just made sense, he says. He had options to look at a different location. But after playing other clubs, he kept coming back.

“It’s a great golf course,” Waldron says. “It’s very playable, while being interesting every day on every hole.”

At Spring Run, Zigler says it’s very important for players to understand their game, both limitations and aspirations, before joining a club.

“You don’t want a course that’s too difficult because you aren’t going to want to play if it’s no fun,” he says. “But you also don’t want a course that is so easy that you are going to get bored.”


Money talks

In the end, the most important part of the calculus of buying a golf membership or a home in a golf community is price. When you are talking about the costs of membership, the dollar amounts have stayed relatively steady during the economic downturn in an effort to “protect price integrity,” Magnusson says.

“The conventional wisdom in private golf clubs is to stay away from price slashing,” Zigler says. “A country club membership is a luxury. And it’s supposed to be something that has a certain price.”

Some clubs have made deep cuts but also slashed the equity stake. At the Naples National Golf Club, the membership has dropped from $135,000 to $75,000, but the equity plunged from 60 percent to only 1 percent.

The cost of housing has made bundled communities, such as Lexington Country Club off Bass Road in South Fort Myers, a great bargain, says Al Kinkle, general manager and chief operating officer. “The bundled community is becoming the way to go,” he says.

At clubs where golf is optional, the trend has been either to hold things steady or to persuade potential homebuyers to buy into a bigger house with a golf membership thrown in. Palmer, who recently returned to the Vineyards, had to buy a golf membership in 2004. When he returned to the community this year, the developer threw in the golf membership as part of the deal on a new home.

Although he says he didn’t need much arm twisting to go back, “that really enticed me to come back.
—Carla Bernwood contributed to  this story.


Green with Envy

With hundreds of courses to choose from locally, finding the right one for you is a challenge. We picked four clubs we’d join if money wasn’t an object.

Grey Oaks Country Club
You don’t go to Grey Oaks looking for a bargain. At $175,000 for non-residents, it’s one of the most expensive clubs in the area. No, you go to Grey Oaks for the ability to play three different courses and unwind in one of the two luxurious club houses. Plus, no matter where you are in Naples, it’s only a 15-minute drive to the club. 2400 Grey Oaks Drive N., 262-5550

Hole in the Wall Golf Club
With its great location off Goodlette-Frank Road, its limited membership of less than 300 and a newly renovated club house area, Hole in the Wall might be the perfect Naples golf club. Just don’t ask how much it costs to join, because club officials don’t give out the costs. Rest assured, if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it. 3600 Goodlette-Frank Road, Naples, 261-0756

Old Corkscrew Golf Club
Golf called this Jack Nicklaus course one of the best “you never heard of.” Well, the secret is out. Old Corkscrew’s secluded location and golf-only focus makes it a world-class course. And with dues less than $5,000, it’s pretty affordable, too. 17320 Corkscrew Road, Estero, 949-4700

Verandah Golf Club
It’s telling that, with all its troubles, the club the Bonita Bay Group fought hardest to keep was Verandah. Nestled along the Orange River between Fort Myers and Buckingham, the club offers two signature courses, one by Bob Cupp and the other by Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus Jr., for a very reasonable $15,000 membership fee. 12211 River Village Way, Fort Myers, 694-4229


The Pro Knows

Matt Oakley, head golf professional at The Dunes in North Naples, outlines four things to consider before joining a new club.

Prioritize. Is golf your priority, or are you looking for a club that offers special programs or a top-notch restaurant? Decide what you want from the club amenities-wise.

Consider your lifestyle. “If you’re a bachelor, you might not want to join a club that allows kids to play. Or if you’re married with children–and it’s important to you to play golf with your family—you need to know if the club allows it.”

Match the course to your game. Be honest about your game as you consider what type of course you could play on a consistent basis. “You want to make sure the style of the golf course suits your style [of play].”

Read the fine print. Most clubs require members to pay fees beyond that of membership. Some require members to spend set amounts at the pro shop or in dining fees. Find out the fees ahead of time so you aren’t shocked when the bill arrives. —Kristie Aronow

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