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Golf Getaways

Luxurious homes, spectacular spas and the privileges of a private sanctuary add spice to golf vacations
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

The urge to escape, to retreat, to get away from it all comes upon us irresistibly. When the rigors of business and domestic life empty the psychic coffers of inspiration and energy, there is a longing to be somewhere else. For some, this may mean a vacation, a temporary distancing from the office, house and the all too familiar. Will it be the Caribbean this winter? Or the south of France? Disney World for the children? Sonoma vineyards for the adults? For many, though, only golf will do.

Golf is by its nature a retreat from the everyday routine, from carpeted hallways to grassy byways, from the confining desk to the expansive links. Golf is doing something for a few hours on the opposite side of the psyche. A golf retreat is being on the opposite side for days, even weeks. Hundreds of resorts around the United States, from Florida to California, Michigan to Texas, have lush courses and posh hotels. It's all very nice, very elegant, very away from it all.

But is it enough? For those with means and imagination, there are retreats that embrace the most elegant and refined leisure lifestyle, places that are for the few and select. They are for those who have amassed wealth, and are not for the masses. There are a number of retreats that stand head and shoulders above the rest. They have names like the Santa Lucia Preserve, The Promontory and Lajitas. They have grand golf courses by architects like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and Pete Dye. Beyond the golf courses, there are lakes for fishing and boating, equestrian centers, spas, tennis courts and shooting centers. In essence, they are the perfect escapes.

The Santa Lucia Preserve, Carmel, California

The Monterey Peninsula of California has for a century been one of the world's most desirable places for vacations, second homes and dreamy sunsets. The Lodge at Pebble Beach and its Pebble Beach Golf Links, legendary in the American game, hug the Pacific Ocean on the southern part of the peninsula. The artsy town of Carmel, with enough galleries to fill a major museum, has been a sanctuary to the privileged.

Just a few minutes' drive inland from the sea sits a vast property known as the Santa Lucia Preserve, an area encompassing 20,000 acres (some 31 square miles). When real estate executive Tom Gray came to look at the land in 1989 and saw its rolling hills, lush meadows, streams, redwood groves and ancient oaks dripping with lace lichen, he knew he had to have it.

"There is the old adage about real estate—location, location, location," says Gray. "Being near the ocean, Carmel, Monterey, Pebble Beach, Big Sur, what better location could you have? Plus the scale of the place, this amazing 20,000 acres, was all together."

Gray had been into California real estate for years as a partner in the Pacific Union Co., which had many diverse holdings. But this was a unique opportunity, one not to be squandered. "You are always told not to fall in love with your real estate," says Gray. "But when you come to this place, it's pretty difficult not to."

For $70 million, Gray obtained one of the finest pieces of land in the United States and certainly one of the most spectacular. From the outset he knew that land use issues would be paramount in being able to develop the property and sell real estate. What had long been a ranch would now become a development. Preservationists and environmentalists were continually asking developers to tread softly on the land, disturb as little as possible and maintain as much as possible in a pristine state. And that's what Gray and his partners set out to do, tread softly on the land as they stepped lightly through the mine fields of the permit process. It took four years.

Now, the Santa Lucia Preserve might be the ultimate development, because it doesn't seem like a development at all. Only 2,000 acres, one tenth of the total land, will be developed. A conservancy was funded with $25 million to maintain the rest of the land in perpetuity. Only 300 homesites were designated and 230 of them, at an average of 20 acres, have already been sold for prices starting at $1 million. They were sold in less than a year and a half.

"We've been fortunate to be part of an incredible real estate market," says Gray. "We have given people a chance to be part of an irreplaceable, timeless community. We have given them a chance to be part of history and to create something that will be a cherished family heirloom. More than 100 years from now, there will be members of the same families who will look around here and say, 'What an incredible place this is.' "

Golf had to be part of this landscape. The course by architect Tom Fazio takes up 354 acres that flow seamlessly through the immense habitat. It takes advantage of streams, trees and elevation changes, all the elements necessary for a world-class golf course. "It really is a mind-boggling piece of property," says Fazio. "You just seem to have the world to yourself here."

From the opening tee shot to the perfectly framed fairway and green below, through the meadows and along the shoulders of the muscular, wooded hills, the course is both a test of golf and a journey. With all sorts of bird life and deer, the course is more like a game preserve with some patches of grass mowed very short with a hole in the middle of them.

"The kind of people who want to be part of this are the kind of people who like to play golf," says Gray. "We did a market study that determined that 30 percent of the people who might want to buy here wouldn't do so without a golf course. We made sure that the course had as little [environmental] impact as possible, while having Tom create for us a really special course."

There are 300 golf memberships selling for $150,000 each; home ownership is not a prerequisite for membership. There is also the Ranch Club, which revolves around the old hacienda on the property and includes equestrian and swimming facilities, and more than 100 miles of trails.

"My passion," says Gray, "is to keep this land in its natural state. So many of the great ranches of California were broken up piecemeal with no respect to the landscape and that leads to the deterioration of the land. It's our goal here not to let that happen."

From his first sighting of the land in 1989 to the successful completion of a land plan that allowed development to begin in 1998, Gray knew he was dealing with a special place. "Something like this could be viewed as a giant act of stupidity, but when it's successful it's a leap of faith," says Gray.

Lajitas, Texas

Lajitas calls itself the ultimate hideout. It is certainly "out" there, more than 200 miles from the closest town. It's far away from the country's urban centers yet close enough to be accessed comfortably by private jet, which is why Lajitas has its own airport.

When you are in far west Texas, in the Big Bend area of the Rio Grande River, and you are trying to attract a clientele used to convenience and elegance, an airport is more than just an amenity. And for those without a private plane, Lajitas offers a fleet of jets that will transport you from several Texas airports.

Lajitas was an old family resort town that was put out to auction in 2000, all 25,000 acres of it. Excel Communications multimillionaire Stephen Smith bought this arid expanse for $4.25 million and then poured in about another $50 million to transform the area into an upscale resort and second-home retreat. The old resort hotel was completely redone to five-star standards; well-known chef Jeff Blank, renowned for his Texas Hill Country cuisine, was brought it to modernize and energize the menu; a spa was added; and a hunt club and bird sanctuary were created. The airport will include a community for fliers who will have their own hangars. About 400 homesites have been designated. About 80 percent of the 25,000 acres will remain as part of the wild, wild West.

Golf has played a central role in Lajitas's transformation. The Ambush Course by Roy Bechtol and Randy Russell is an oasis in the middle of a starkly beautiful desert landscape. Lajitas is set between the mountain ridges of Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park, and borders Mexico at the Rio Grande. Bechtol and Russell even built an international par 3 as a 19th hole: No. 11A is a 99-yard shot across the Rio Grande; players hit only the tee shot for a chance at a hole in one. The course has been critically acclaimed, not only for its design but also for its use of bent grass instead of the more traditional Bermuda grass used in hot climates.

The Ambush Course is open to resort guests, though members get preferential tee times. A second course is under construction and will be for members only. Golf membership stands at $50,000.

"This is not meant to be a place that's filled with people," says president and managing director Daniel Hostettler. "This place is very remote and by its nature it will never become a huge destination. That's the whole idea. We want people who really want to get away from it all, and that goes for aircraft owners especially. We give them very rich amenities when they get here. We have wonderful golf courses, great dining. But Lajitas is really about just being here in a completely casual, unhurried place."

Briar's Creek, near Charleston, South Carolina

If Lajitas is at the far end of the road, Briar's Creek couldn't be more convenient, yet still hold a certain mystique of remoteness. Briar's Creek is on John's Island, 25 minutes from the lively heart of downtown Charleston and 10 minutes from an airport for private planes. You can get there efficiently, and disappear in a heartbeat.

Briar's Creek, at 915 acres, isn't nearly as vast as the Santa Lucia Preserve and Lajitas. Golf is the central focus here. The Rees Jonesñdesigned course was voted best new private course in 2002 by Golf Digest magazine and sprawls over 300 acres.

On the other side of the namesake creek that borders the property to the south is Kiawah Island, famous for its Ocean Course and other inviting links. When Briar's Creek developer Steve Koenig set about doing a deal for the land in South Carolina, he had in mind those people on Kiawah Island who coveted just a little more privacy. "I wanted something that would take advantage of the people who had invested in Kiawah," says Koenig. "They have wonderful courses over there and Kiawah is a great place, but I thought about doing something that would be strictly for members only, giving them a very high-class course and pristine site."

Founder member Mike Martin, an owner of property on Kiawah, saw the appeal immediately. "When you drive down this long dirt and gravel road through these really beautiful old oaks, you know that this is a special place," says Martin. "I'm a member of the Kiawah Island Club and we have two wonderful courses, the River Course and Cassique. But there is more play there and they have tee times. Briar's Creek is completely unhurried and relaxing. We don't have tee times. And it's very much a family place."

The course is low-country ideal, winding around marshes and lagoons and through stands of oaks. There will be 62 homes at Briar's Creek, some of them near the course but discreetly sited. Most of the housing will be across a lake that is stocked with fish. Lots sell from $350,000 to more than $1 million. Golf club membership stands at $110,000.

Like so many of these developments, Briar's Creek attempts to tread lightly on its landscape. About 50 percent of the property will be designated a conservancy and there is an established nature walk. A large equestrian center is nearby. "More than anything, I think Briar's Creek is just about being a really tranquil place," says Martin. "It's one of those places where you can have a permanent home if this is the area you live in, or a second home that's very easily accessible, certainly from the East Coast. You come here, kick back and play golf, or do nothing if you like."

The Promontory, Park City, Utah

For those with a hankering for Big Sky, The Promontory is 6,500 acres of rugged mountain and valley terrain blanketed by the natural big blue dome. You can be excused if you think that you are on the edge of the stratosphere. It does take your breath away.

The area is well known for skiing and a few golf courses. The golf ante was decidedly raised at The Promontory with the creation of the Canyon Club course by Pete Dye and the soon-to-be-developed Valley Course by Jack Nicklaus. Based on demand, as many as three additional courses may be built. Playing on Dye's exquisite layout, you may have a gallery watching you that could include deer, elk or moose.

The Promontory also has an equestrian center, tennis facility with a stadium court that converts to an ice rink in winter, miles of hiking and biking trails, fishing and hunting, and a convivial family atmosphere. It, too, has a conservancy, and 75 percent of the land will be reserved for green space. Homesites start at about $250,000, with the average selling prices pushing $400,000. Some of the $95,000 golf course membership fee is included as a promotion by the developer in the cost of the homesites, which generally range from one to four acres.


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