The golf community located nearly an hour west of Little Rock, Ark., has quietly become popular as word about the courses and its amenities trickles out
The only other time I had spent any time in Arkansas was years ago, aboard my old Triumph motorcycle piled high with soft bags on a solo blue-highways, cross-country tour.
My memory of that crisp, sunny day was plenty of quality two-lane blacktop, exhilarating high-speed turns through forested countryside, punctuated by one stunning, but fleeting, hilltop view after another followed by a steep descent into yet another river valley.
In short, motorcyclist heaven.
Driving through the gates of Hot Springs Village on a similarly brilliant fall day in 2020, the leaves were just turning gold and red. It was the type of day I wanted that motorcycle back. The rollercoaster hills of this Arkansas town spoke to me, begging to be carved.
But I was here for the golf.
Chuck Miller, a golf writer who lives in Hot Springs Village, had invited a friend and me to see what he’s been bubbling about since he moved to the region eight years ago.
“Basically, I’m here for good,” Miller said. “I love it. I would never move. Why would I? I can play a different course every day of the week.”
Hot Springs Village, a community of 14,000 people about an hour west of Little Rock, boasts eight 18-hole courses — one of them private, seven of them public, one of those a 27-hole complex. If there’s a golf capital of Arkansas, it’s here. With just 1,473 residents per course, it has 1/10th the golfers per venue as the rest of the state.
And then there’s the quality of the parkland-style courses that rise and fall over hilly yet walkable terrain.
Golf Digest ranks Diamante, the village’s private course, No. 3 in the state. Over the years, most of the others were ranked as the best new course in Arkansas when they opened.
And a golfing place it is. The village has two men’s leagues and three women’s leagues. Tom Heffer, the community’s director of golf, estimates that 40 percent of the population plays. He said the 18-hole courses did a total of 212,000 rounds in 2019, which works out to about 37 rounds per resident per year, although Miller, the writer, says he plays every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday — or 208 annually. We all should be so lucky at age 82.
“We have some spectacular golf here, some of the best I’ve played,” Miller said over dinner one night. And it’s not like this native of San Diego, a fit 82-year-old, is an easily impressed golf newbie. In 2016, he wrote a self-published book, “Golfing the U.S., Reflections on a 50-week, 50-state Golf Odyssey.” So Miller’s been around.
When Hot Springs Village opened in 1970, Heffer said, golf was the No. 1 reason retirees moved there. “The gates, the security they offer, the trails and the lakes are attractions, but golf is still up there in the top three,” he said.
The weather in Hot Springs is mild enough that golfers can play year-round. The weather website Wunderground.com shows annual snowfall is negligible. In August, highs typically are in the 80s or low 90s.
In terms of land area, Hot Springs Village is the largest gated community in North America, covering 40 square miles. By comparison, The Villages retirement community in Sumter County, Fla., has more people (51,000) and more courses (50, most of them nine-hole layouts); but with just 32 square miles, The Villages is three times more densely populated.
Hot Springs Village has no town center per se. There are just a few businesses inside the gates, but plenty just beyond. Every mile or so, roads branch off the main thoroughfare, leading to individual neighborhoods that are not necessarily interconnected. What you see as you drive the 15 miles from the east gate to the west gate is trees, lots of them.
There was more than golf that Miller wanted to show off. Our driving tours took in houses priced between $200,000 and $1.6 million, some of the 11 recreational lakes, beaches, the 650-seat performing arts center, restaurants, fitness center, and even the pickleball, tennis and bocce ball courts.
And Miller’s not alone. The enthusiasm for the place of some of the folks encountered — marshals, starters, other players — bordered on cult-like. “I didn’t play golf when I moved here but now I play every week in a men’s league,” said Charlie Neal, a retired Navy veteran from Albuquerque. “This place has everything we could want.”
Greg Jones, an IT manager, arrived in 2003 from the Dallas metroplex after visiting friends. “I had had enough of Dallas traffic,” he said. He liked the relaxed lifestyle, but longed for a neighborhood hangout, which the village lacked at the time. So he renovated an old flower shop and opened a brewpub/barbecue restaurant/music venue. Then came a lakeside fine-dining restaurant and later, a breakfast and coffee shop that his wife manages.
Over time, Jones has seen the community attract more young people. His own son, 32, recently bought a house there. “Grown-up kids are coming back to raise their own kids,” he said. In stark contrast to The Villages in Florida, Hot Springs Village has 800 children attending three schools, two public and one private.
Clara Nicolosi, who retired there after a career in the U.S. Coast Guard, now runs the local Remax brokerage. “We’re getting more people who are not yet retired but thinking about it,” she said. “And we’re getting more young people who can work remotely.”
Part of the attraction is the affordability of housing and low taxes. A three-bedroom, three-bath home can be had for between $200,000 to $250,000. And Arkansas doesn’t tax military retirement incomes, which is why Neal moved there.
“People come here for country living, the moderate weather, the golf courses and the security a gated community offers,” Nicolosi said.
And the golf is a steal. Homeowners and lot owners pay $20-$27 a round and $12 per cart by virtue of their HOA fee. Although the vast majority of rounds played are by residents and their guests, non-residents can play the village’s public courses by calling ahead, Miller said.
For people shopping for a change of lifestyle, Hot Springs Village offers three-day, two-night stay-and-play packages for $349, as well as vacation rentals.