When dirt is more precious than grass. Why some golf courses are closing, making way for development

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – For many people, especially those looking to retire, living on a golf course is a dream come true, but as some people in New Hanover County have discovered, this dream can turn into a nightmare.

“We fell in love with it, sold the house up there bought here, and literally it was to retire and live on a golf course, it was our dream,” said Robin Webb, a landlord who lives on the golf course of The said Cap.

The Cape’s neighbors have been embroiled in a lawsuit for several years, hoping to stop developers from turning the once-lush fairways and greens into new residential units.

“So when we heard the golf course was closing right after Florence – totally disheartened. What did we do, did we make a horrible investment, what’s going to happen? What has resulted is nothing but gross negligence,” Webb said.

Once lush fairways are now replaced by overgrown weeds, a bad sight for owners who have paid a premium for their golf courses.

Mike Bodnar also lives on the course; he says it’s not just the aesthetics, but the overgrown course welcomes unexpected new neighbors.

“There is a bear. We don’t have any bears here, other parts of the Cape do. There are bears, there are deer of course, there are alligators. Now, since the course is overgrown, we’ve seen bobcats, we’ve seen coyotes,” he said.

Course closure is nothing new, in fact, golf courses across the country have been closing with developers moving in and replacing green space with residential units for about 15 years. Greg Nathan is the Chief Commercial Officer of the National Golf Foundation (NGF). He says what we are seeing, in part, is a supply correction.

“Between 1986 and 2005, a 20-year period, the number of golf courses increased by 40%, just in that 20-year period,” Nathan said.

That’s a lot of lessons. In fact, the United States has over 16,000 golf courses according to the NGF. For comparison, that’s more golf courses than there are Starbucks or McDonalds.

“What you had, a point where the construction of new golf courses continued well beyond where attendance was satisfied,” Nathan said.

It was good for a while and things continued to grow, but in 2006 the market started to change.

“It was the first year that you had more golf course closings than openings,” he said.

Since golf courses are expensive to maintain and often don’t bring in a lot of money, closing them and selling the land makes sense for owners, especially when land in the area is selling for record prices.

For landlords who often buy land on land for a premium, this can come as a shock. As a rule, they do not know that the yards often do not belong to the neighborhood, but to private owners. While some courses are owned and maintained by the communities in which they are located, private management companies are not uncommon.

In Wilmington, where developable land is at an all-time low, it’s often a simple decision for landlords.

“So when you now hear about a golf course being closed, it means nothing compared to the drop in demand for golf; what it really means is that land is more valuable than grass,” Nathan said.

At the end of the day, golf courses offer beautiful views and are often the perfect place to retreat. But, as with any investment, buyers should do their homework before they buy, because when it comes to golf courses, once they’re gone, there are no mulligans.

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Michael C. Ford