Houston Business Journal: Charting A New Course

Houston Business Journal: Charting A New Course

How Houston’s most luxurious family resorts will revive the game of golf

Golf is at a major crossroads.

A decade ago, the Scottish game of swings and strokes was a force to be reckoned with. Crowds packed PGA tournaments, eager to get a glimpse of Tiger Woods. Business professionals flocked to the links, where deals were struck and relationships were solidified. Developers built a flurry of golf courses to lure families and retirees alike to master-planned communities across the country.

However, the game of golf now finds itself in a conundrum as interest in the sport has waned.

The number of Americans who played at least one round of golf in the past year has fallen from a high of 30.6 million in 2003 to about 25 million in 2015, according to the most recent data from the National Golf Foundation. Other metrics, such as TV ratings and golf equipment sales, have also recorded steep drop-offs in recent years.

In addition, more golf courses have closed than opened each year since 2006. More than 700 U.S. golf courses — including about 10 golf courses in Houston — have shuttered over the past decade, according to NGF. Many have been replaced by single-family homes or kid-friendly amenities such as water parks and splash pads. Pine Crest in Spring Branch and Wedgewood in Conroe are some of the most recent Houston-area golf courses to close.

The reasons for golf’s decline is varied: Younger players lack both the finances and attention span to engage in an expensive, five-hour round of golf. Modern-day fathers would rather spend their weekends at home with their families than with their buddies at the local country club. Golf courses have gotten bigger, harder and more frustrating to play. The list goes on.

Yet despite these challenges, a new crop of developers have embarked on new resorts and ranches around the Houston area, each boasting a PGA championship-quality golf course that seeks to make the game of golf fun again for players of all skill levels. These courses feature a wide range of tee boxes, from traditional championship men’s and ladies’ tees to junior tees for younger golfers; faster and larger greens; shorter roughs and wider fairways that make it easier to locate lost golf balls.

“I just think that the game of golf needs to get back to its roots,” Tiger Woods said at the March opening of Bluejack National, his first U.S. golf resort located in Montgomery County, north of Houston. “The game of golf has changed. Let’s try to change it back a little bit.”

Here are three of Houston’s most luxurious resorts and ranches that are trying to revive the game of golf.

Bluejack National

When Tiger Woods was growing up in Southern California, he honed his golf skills at a park about a quarter-mile from his childhood home.

It was practice, but it was also play, Woods said. At night, Woods and his friends would practice hitting golf balls over trees, around the jungle gym and through an old tire.

“We found a place — a park — and created something fun,” Woods said. “That’s what I grew up with.”

So when Woods decided to create his first golf course in the U.S., the professional golfer and course designer knew he wanted to create a different kind of place. Instead of the stodgy, rule-driven golf club of years past, Woods wanted to design a high-end but casual resort where people can relax with their families and enjoy the game.

Enter Bluejack National, the first Tiger Woods-designed golf community to open in the country. Dallas-based developers Beacon Land Development and Lantern Asset Management worked with Tiger Woods Design for about a year before breaking ground on the former Blaketree National Golf Club in July 2014. They wanted to create a fun golf course that was forgiving for the average player but also challenging for professionals.

“It’s really difficult to hit the ball straight up in the air with a lot of spin,” Woods said. “We find that at all levels.”

Woods and a team of developers and designers revamped most of Blaketree’s golf corridors, clearing some trees and opening up the landscape. They went old school in Bluejack National’s design, eschewing tall grasses and roughs in favor of short Zoysia fairway greens rimmed with mulch and thin trees. Players can now hit through trees and putt through the fairway, ensuring that fewer golf balls are lost.

“I think that golf should be played on the ground,” Woods said. “My favorite place to play is the British Open. I love being creative and hitting a bunch of different shots. That’s what I think the game of golf can get back to.”

Players can also customize Bluejack National’s course to fit their schedules, choosing between three-hole, five-hole and nine-hole routes. That speeds up the pace of play, a pervasive problem in the game today. Bluejack National allows busy corporate executives to spend as much or as little time on the course as they want.

There will be comfort stations throughout the course that allow players to take a break from the game. A fruit stand will offer fresh yogurt, homemade jam and fruit on the back of the fifth hole. An old barn-style shack with a tri-tip grill will serve up meat and Bluejack ale on the back of the 12th and 17th holes.

Bluejack National will cater to the entire family. Serious golfers can check out the Nike Performance Golf Center— one of only three in the world — to analyze their swings and get fitted with the latest club technology. Nongolfers can relax at their cottage or spa and play at The Playgrounds, a shorter, 10-hole course that will be lit up at night.

“I thought the game of golf was always fun and competitive because my dad allowed it to be that way. He always stressed that the game should be fun,” Woods said. “Let’s try to bring the enjoyment back into the game of golf.”

Bluejack National (click here to tour it)

  • Address: 4430 S. FM 1486 in Montgomery County
  • Size: 755 acres
  • Amenities: Golf course, restaurant, clubhouse, Nike Performance Center, fitness center, The Fort, a 3-acre amenity park with a burger joint, pool, skate park, whiffle ball diamond, tennis courts, a flag football field, zip lines, tree houses and a fish camp.
  • Homes: 386 single-family homes and member suites
  • Members: 100