Maryland's Beechtree Golf Club was a profitable public course. But that didn't keep it from folding. Could your course be next?

Thursday January 28th, 2010
Beechtree was ranked No. 91 on <i>Golf Magazine's</i> "Top 100 Courses You Can Play."
Larry Lambrecht

It was a tradition. When Tom Doak completed a course, he and his father, Tom Sr., played it together. On July 1, 2001, Young Tom unveiled Pacific Dunes on a raw, secluded sliver of Oregon coast. For the rising designer, this was a game-changer. The craggy masterpiece vaulted to No. 3 on Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play and made Doak an instant brand name. His father never saw it. He was 83, ailing and too frail to travel. He died before Pacific Dunes elevated his son's name — which was his name, too — and brought comparisons to Ross, Mackenzie and Tillinghast.

The final course that father and son christened together? That would be Beechtree Golf Club in Aberdeen, Md., 30 miles north of Baltimore, where they'd teed it up three years earlier.

"That was the last time we played together," recalls Doak, 48. "My dad died knowing I'd had increased success, but he barely lived long enough to see the reviews of Pacific Dunes. The closest he came to seeing that success was Beechtree, which was maybe the best course we'd done up to that point. It propelled us forward. My dad and I played with my Uncle Lowell, who also passed away. It was the last round we all played together and probably the last time my dad played golf. After Pacific Dunes, Beechtree faded into the background. But I have a spot in my heart for it."

When it opened in 1998, Beechtree Golf Club's marriage of parkland and links styles charmed critics and public golfers alike. ("Truly sensational," raved The Washington Times.) Doak was 37 then, and it was his creation that drew national acclaim. His firm, Renaissance Design, has since gone on to place four courses in Golf Magazine's Top 100 in the World, including Ballyneal in Colorado and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Beechtree carried on as a respected, profitable (if not lucrative) public course.

But on December 7, 2008, it closed, only the second time a Top 100 You Can Play track has folded since this magazine began its rankings in 1996. Like its predecessor, the East course at Blue Heron Pines in New Jersey (shuttered in 2006), Beechtree will become a residential development. That's right — while 6 percent of American homeowners can't pay their mortgages, the course will give way to more homes. Bulldozers will soon shred 300 acres of intricate greens, bluegrass rough and proud hardwoods to make room for 735 houses and townhouses. They're being built in anticipation of 8,200 new jobs coming to a nearby military installation. It's just business, says a spokesman for property owner James F. Knott Realty. The land has more value as real estate. So Beechtree will become a housing project.

"This is how a great course dies," a Doak fan wrote on golfclubatlas.com, an online community where course-design junkies debate and dissect golf architecture in acute detail. "To the sloshing and ka-CHING-ing of the cash register."

"When I heard Beechtree was closing, I thought, 'Are you kidding? An architect at the top of his game has a course closing?' " says Chip Gaskins, a corporate developer for a wireless startup in the D.C. area. Gaskins, 38, was so saddened that he recruited a group of fellow golfclubatlas.com regulars to pay Beechtree their final respects. On a warm Saturday in October, 14 of them tossed their clubs in their trunks and journeyed to play the course before it was plowed under. "We had to come," Gaskins continues. "I loved Pacific Dunes and Ballyneal, and I had to play this one before it was gone. Doak was still cutting his teeth as a designer, but he paid great attention to the greens. They're subtle but bold." He pauses. "I know I sound like a wine snob: 'It had a chocolatey-licoricey bouquet....' But what makes Doak great are the subtle things." Case in point: The par-5 eighth, which had a blind tee shot. The clubhouse's steeple lit the way, peeking over a hill and providing the line, a tip of the cap to the blind shots at St. Andrews, where Doak caddied for a summer.

At dusk, the group clicked beer glasses on the clubhouse veranda and watched the sun drop. Mike Malone, 58, compared Beechtree to a puzzle. "Some courses throw bunkers or mounds at you to make you worry about your shot," he says. "Beechtree makes you think about your shot. Take the 4th hole, a 200-yard par-3 with no bunkers. You stand on the tee and think, 'This is easy.' Then you notice how the green slopes west-to-east, not back-to-front, and how you have the option of flying the pin or running it up. You have a decision. That's golf for me, a 14-handicap. I might not execute the shot, but before I swing, in my mind, I'm Tiger Woods. I'm thinking about strategy, the shot, the shape."

Malone runs an investment firm in Philadelphia. "So I understand that [Beechtree closing] is a business decision. But to me, it shows a misplaced value system. Some things are worth saving. Someone should say, 'Hey, this is a jewel. Let's shine the jewel.' It's sad and indicative of what's happening in the industry."

What's happening in the industry? Tough times. Consider: Course openings have dropped 34 percent since 2003, while closings — hundreds of them — have risen 79 percent, mostly in Arizona, Florida and Michigan, according to the National Golf Foundation. Recent high-profile closings include the $70 million Presidential in Dulles, Va., a corporate club where weeds now infect Nicklaus-sculpted fairways. Beyond boarded-up clubhouse doors, Sea Island Resort in Georgia — home to 54 holes, including the revered Colt-Alison-designed Seaside course — laid off about 500 employees in October because of the real estate and tourism slumps.

How bad will it get for golf? No course is safe, says Daniel Wexler, author of Missing Links and Lost Links, books that detail course extinction. "Golf overdeveloped [in the '90s]. It's now overextended and too damn expensive. We don't know how bad things will get, but when times are tough, golf is not a necessity in people's minds."

Doak is glad he didn't have to brave this economic environment when he was an up-and-comer. "The business in general is darker now that it's been for 80 years," he says. "If you're a young person looking to be a course architect, your chances just went down."

Golf lost more than a Tom Doak design when Beechtree closed, say course regulars and employees. "It was a dream place to play," says Rick Princinsky, 57, a 13-handicap who commuted 45 minutes every Saturday — happily driving past his private club — to meet his regular foursome for its 7 a.m. tee time. "Me, Gary, Bruce and Marty, we all belong to private clubs, but we always made it to Beechtree. You'd pull up and be greeted by three guys opening your door and grabbing your clubs. They'd say, 'What's your tee time, sir?' They wanted to be there. The range was immaculate. The course mascot was a sheepdog, Kyle, who followed you for several holes. He'd bite the tires on your cart, chase away geese. I loved that dog! It's a sad, sad thing."

Princinsky crossed cart paths with George Johnson, 74, a starter straight from central casting, with silver hair, a swift wit, and a scar snaking down his left leg from quadruple-bypass surgery. ("I'm in the zipper club.") After giving guests the lay of the land, Johnson sent them to the tee with a joke, often this one:

"So this couple gets married and moves into a new house," Johnson says. "The husband shows his wife a little box and says, 'Never open this or I'll divorce you on the spot.' Fifty years later, he's on his deathbed. She can't help herself! She opens it. Inside there's $1,500 and two golf balls. She says, 'Honey, I looked in the box, but I don't understand what I found.' He says, 'Well, every time I was unfaithful, I put a ball in there.' She says, 'Two balls over 50 years? That's not so bad. What about the $1,500?' He says, 'Every time I got a dozen balls, I sold them.' "

He laughs. "That's a good joke! I mostly told that to men, not wives."

Johnson joined Beechtree's staff nine years ago. He took the job for the perks, not the money. "The bread was nice. I could take the wife out for dinner some nights, but it was about being close to the game and playing for free."

He'd heard rumors about a closing but never paid attention. Until one morning last spring. "I noticed these big white 'X's made of cloth, each about 10 feet by 10 feet, on spots all over the course. They were surveying the course from the air, figuring where houses were gonna go. That's when I knew." The announcement came a few months later, in July. "I thought we'd have more time. Another year or two. Even if you had money, would you build houses in this market? Why would you want to plow this under?

"It's the people I'll miss most. How often do you have a job where you want to get up at 5:30? It's because of the people. The bag-drop guys, Lee, Mike and Jim. Manny the chef. Jeanette at the snack bar. We've shared secrets. We're a family. I'll miss those slow Mondays when we'd joke around — 'slack time,' we called it. I'm 74. I have an application in at another course. And there's Bulle Rock [the Pete Dye course in nearby Havre de Grace]. What'll I do? My wife says, 'You can't stay home.' Wherever I go, it won't be like Beechtree. It's all downhill from here."

PUBLIC FIGURES
Beechtree is one of more than 3,000 daily-fee courses that have opened in the U.S. since 1990. If that sounds like a lot, it is. Supply has outpaced demand, and daily-fee closures have comprised nearly 85 percent of course closings in the last decade, according to the National Golf Foundation. The slump in openings also reflects this market correction.

Daily-fee course openings in the U.S.
2004: 87
2005: 74
2006: 68
2007: 64
2008: 47

Average revenue of a U.S. daily-fee: $2.54 million
Average expenses: $1.95 million
Average earnings: $382,435

Source: NGF survey of 94 daily-fee courses with green fees of at least $60.

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