In a press conference this month, Tiger Woods and his developer partners announced a new, super-luxe private golf club in Mexico, 65 miles south of San Diego on the Pacific Ocean. To be called Punta Brava, it will sell one-acre lots for $3 million and condos for $3.5 million. Many of the holes on the course, Mr. Woods said at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, will be "framed by natural rock outcroppings, steep cliffs and crashing waves." Since his design fees for golf projects are said to push well into eight-figure territory, plus a share of real-estate profits, you can bet Punta Brava won't be cutting corners and stocking low-thread-count towels in the locker rooms.
As a reporter for a financial newspaper, I recognize that there are more than enough extremely rich people in the world to sell out Punta Brava, which, after all, is projected to accommodate only 40 homes and 80 condos. Woods's name guarantees cachet and, judging by the layout shown at PuntaBrava.com, it's possible that the course will break into the world's top 20 rankings on the day it opens. It looks to be a new and improved version of Cypress Point on California's Monterey Peninsula.
But it's hard not to wonder how a development like this fits into golf's new economic landscape. The announcement came as the Dow Jones Industrial Average staged a historic free fall and the presidential candidates debated whether we're on the brink of another Great Depression - not great timing if the sponsor, the Flagship Group, was hoping for some quick impulse buys. How will the economic fallout ripple through the golf world?
At the ultra-high Punta Brava end, there may be some immunity. Just as the poor will always be among us, so will the fabulously wealthy. In North America alone, there are more than 40,000 families with investable assets of $30 million or more, according to the CapGemini/Merrill Lynch World Wealth Report, and approximately 300,000 U.S. taxpayers with reported annual incomes greater than $1 million, according to the IRS. Among them are many golf nuts. To say nothing of the huddled masses of superrich abroad.
Woods has two other golf projects under way, both targeting the mega-moneyed. The first is Tiger Woods Dubai, a residential community in the oil-rich emirate that will be limited to 200 members, with houses reportedly going for between $12 million and $23 million. Twenty-two will be "palaces" averaging 33,000 square feet apiece. Woods's 7,800-yard course there, called Al Ruwaya, Arabic for "serenity," will feature massive elevation changes, waterfalls and lush tropical landscaping, despite being built on the desert floor. Thousands of trees and plants are being imported from Thailand and South Africa.
The second is in North Carolina, the newest outpost in the Cliffs archipelago of golf communities that spreads into South Carolina. Woods has been given a unique mountaintop outside Asheville on which to build his course, called High Carolina. The volcano-like bowl features a natural lake surrounded by gently contoured meadows. At an elevation of 4,000 feet, the course will be relatively cool in summer but protected from chilling winds in the shoulder seasons by the higher northern slopes. The views in every direction are Olympian. Premium lots at High Carolina will sell for up to $5 million.
These and other projects for the ultra-affluent, such as the new Quivira community near Los Cabos, Mexico, with two Jack Nicklaus oceanfront courses, seem likely to hang in there no matter what. The fortunes of potential clients for properties in this price stratum are presumably well-hedged.
But just a step lower, the market is vulnerable. The last few months have seen the demise of at least two high-profile projects. One was a projected $70 million corporate golf club called The Presidential in Dulles, Va. Partially open since April, the club was reasonably on schedule in its quest for 150 corporate memberships at $60,000 a year, according to a former consultant to the club. But financing problems, at least partially related to the home-mortgage crisis, forced The Presidential to close in September. Through a third party, the lead developer, Eric Wells, declined to comment.
The other was a luxury residence club in a transformed dormitory overlooking the first tee and 18th green of the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. Phil Mickelson signed up early, but too few other rich people seemed interested in forking over $1.8 million to $3.7 million for time-shares in the building, especially with no guarantee of tee times on the Old Course.
New residential golf developments in the U.S. are few and far between, leading to a net standstill in golf-course openings generally. More courses closed than opened in both 2006 and 2007, according to the National Golf Foundation, a sharp contrast to the course-building boom that started in the 1990s
Even top-drawer designers are feeling the pinch. "I've got quite a few projects in the U.S.," Nicklaus said recently, "but they have all kind of slowed down or are on hold or are kind of waiting until the economy turns a little bit." Tom Doak, the celebrated designer of Pacific Dunes in Oregon and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, doesn't lack for work but in recent months has seen two of the courses he designed struggle: St. Andrews Beach in Australia is closed and for sale, and Beechtree in Maryland will shut down in December.
"The people I really worry about are the young designers and apprentices coming up, and the talented course superintendents and club pros who are suddenly out of a job," Doak said.
For golfers still clinging to jobs, there is an upside. Less demand and more supply equals bargains. But even many seemingly successful clubs and golf communities aren't filled to capacity, which often means higher fees and assessments for members and, in some cases, extreme difficultly leaving without taking a bath.
Predicting which developments will thrive and which will dive in these troubled times is as tricky as a double-breaking putt, but the surest bet may be on those geared to the uberwealthy. The developer behind the St. Andrews residence club, David Wasserman of Rhode Island's Wasserman Real Estate Capital, says he hopes to restart the project soon with his sights set higher. He would reconfigure the building from 23 apartments to as few as a dozen, and offer full ownership, not fractions. "At the very high end where the oxygen is thinnest, people are always willing to pay for something that's unique," he said.