Where To Golf Next

Youth at core of golf communities' evolving offerings

While there is no actual fountain of youth, private communities — such as Belfair in Bluffton, S.C. — and country clubs are finding that, in addition to golf, members want more family-centric amenities in the quest to stay forever young

If Mark Twain did believe “golf is a good walk spoiled,” then the famed writer should have joined a private golf community and he might have thought differently about the game. That’s because Twain, much like many Baby Boomers comprising private club memberships these days, apparently shared the same never-ending desire of staying forever young.

To put it in Twain’s philosophical words, “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen,” as quoted by William L. Phelps in a book about Twain published 80 years ago titled, Autobiography with Letters.

Long before Twain’s wisdom on the nature of aging, civilized humans as far back as Alexander the Great roamed the planet in search of age-defying secrets and solutions. To be sure, there is no fountain of youth in Florida or some mythical fantasy land where you never get old, but there is a place where people are seemingly living younger.

That place is the evolving modern private golf and country club of the future — where communities from coast to coast are investing hundreds of millions in reimagined or newly built leisure-oriented amenities in the past couple years. This dramatic shift toward leisure-time pursuits outside of golf is especially pronounced inside Belfair’s lovely Lowcountry surrounds in Bluffton, S.C., which now features $8 million worth of sweeping new amenities and attractions besides the club’s highly acclaimed 36 holes of Tom Fazio-designed golf.

Among the highlights of Belfair’s new $8 million capital improvement project is a new 21,000-square-foot fitness center — more than twice the size of the previous facility — and an outdoor pool complex that rivals any top-ranked resort. Not to be left out of the fun, Belfair even built a 1,200-square-foot splash pad with interactive toys and a new playground for the growing number of younger families moving into the development with children.

Another popular new attraction is the fast-casual bistro-style restaurant next to the resort-style pool that features a pizza oven, interactive open kitchen and roll-up indoor-outdoor bar that serves craft beers and cocktails. Also, the club added an outdoor firepit, bocce and pickle ball courts, and shuffle boards.

Ken Kosak, general manager and chief operating officer of Troon Prive, which oversees the club, says Belfair isn’t the golf-centric private club it once was when it opened 25 years ago. Though golf still scores as the No. 1 amenity based on recent member surveys, Kosak notes that fitness and food-and-beverage are making incredible gains, driven by the youthful nature of the club.

Belfair Golf Club, East Course — Hole No. 14
Belfair, a private residential community in Bluffton, S.C., features two 18-hole, Tom Fazio-designed courses, the East (hole No. 14 shown) and West.

Indeed, where private clubs once were the bastions of mostly golf and card-playing men being boys a generation ago, today’s clubs are increasingly reflecting the look and feel of world-class resorts. This is appealing to be both men and women, and the growing desire for multi-generational experiences. Yes, this isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s country club anymore.

At least this is how Atlanta-based architectural group Kuo Diedrich Chi sees the future as it continually collaborates with club boards and owners on master plans that address the emotional and fiscal sustainability of 21st-century club communities. As KDC principal Mark Diedrich likes to put it, part of his philosophical approach to the business is “declubbing” the club.

Simply put, it’s about embracing inclusive leisure places and spaces where all facets of the membership — especially those younger members still working in their 40s and 50s with children — can enjoy a healthier and more active club lifestyle and even children can be fulfilled and entertained.

“Members are flocking to (the pool complex), and we’ve taken the stance as long as you’ve got a shirt, shorts or flip flops on, it’s OK,” Kosak said. “We just want you to be able to come down and have a good time.”

And kids of all ages are coming to this new lifestyle center, just as it was envisioned by Kuo Diedrich Chi.

“Belfair’s a very family-centric community neighborhood and we’ve got generations of families visiting each and every season and coming to the club,” Kosak said. “So, we made the commitment with our board to really look and see how we could enhance the club experience for families visiting and make it more attractive for everybody. (The kid-focused amenities) have been very successful because it’s really giving them their own space when they come down to visit.”

Diedrich was instrumental in designing Belfair’s new club amenities and remains busy “placemaking” similar leisure lifestyle hubs at numerous other private developments like Lake Toxaway and Balsam Mountain in the North Carolina mountains and Forest Lake in South Carolina.

“We wanted to create a village center for sports, wellness and lifestyle, and this would be the center of energy for the whole community,” Diedrich said. “It’s a place where everybody who wasn’t playing golf wants to be. A place where you can come in the morning, stay there all day long and enjoy casual dining and a variety of leisure activities. And it’s for every member of the family. All in one place.”

Belfair — Fitness Center's New Pool Rendering
An artist's rendering of the new indoor pool, which is part of Belfair's new fitness center.

Another place where the membership yearns to stay active, healthier and more youthful is Audubon Country Club in Naples, Fla. Audubon already features an 18-hole course designed by the late Joe Lee and a 36,000-square-foot clubhouse, but the club’s newest attraction creating quite the buzz is the newly minted 19,000-square-foot Lifestyle Center.

This two-story, $7 million amenity replaces what was once the club’s modest 2,500-square-foot Courtside Café building that had a small little kitchen with a few tables and small tennis shop, according to club general manager Michael Rodriguez of Troon. The focal point of the new Lifestyle Center is the vastly improved Courtside Café which will be substantially larger and feature an indoor/outdoor bar separated by a NanaWall that can slide open for the pleasant fall/winter months, display kitchen, poolside dining, and increased outdoor lounge areas with fire pit tables.

The new fitness center, located on the building’s second floor, will feature state-of-the-art strength training and cardio equipment areas, two exercise rooms for fitness classes, a massage waiting lounge and two new massage treatment rooms, and men’s and ladies’ locker rooms. Meanwhile, the second-floor balcony can be used for outdoor fitness classes such as tai chi and yoga or to accommodate seating for social gatherings.

If that’s not enough leisure-oriented options, the new lifestyle center is adjacent to the club’s seven Har-Tru tennis courts and two bocce courts. Additionally, a new HydroGrid exhibition tennis court was added to the mix as well as two gel surface pickleball courts.

As Rodriguez puts it, the club’s 300 full-time golf members still play the game on a regular basis at Audubon but golf no longer drives the heartbeat of the club.

“The general lifestyle of being healthy and being outside is really important,” said Rodriguez, who was named Troon’s general manager of the year in 2019. “It’s a touch more casual but still having a semblance of class to it. There’s less of a sport coat (mentality) and just as people try to age gracefully, they’re more worried about their health.”

And doing everything they can to be forever young.

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