2006: Cuscowilla’s quiet charm speaks volumes

By Adam Bruns

EATONTON, GA.

Mary and Hugh Gelston had been talking about moving from Atlanta to a small, “laid-back” community, especially with Mary retiring from her human resources post at Emory University in December 2002. Talk turned to action the following spring when the couple made the short trip to the post office.

“It took about 20 minutes to go three miles,” Mary recalls. “We said, ‘That’s it.’ ”

The Gelstons, who sell underground construction materials for 11 manufacturers in the Southeast, went looking for property that offered water, golf and a gated community, soon settling on Cuscowilla on Lake Oconee in central Georgia.

“We came here because of the beautiful golf course and the natural beauty of the land,” Mary says.

That combination has been drawing many home buyers and vacationers to the 700-acre property. And the golf course has been a magnet for honors. Golfweek ranks the Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore design as the nation’s second-best residential course and the best public course in Georgia, and in February the National Golf Course Owners Association dubbed Cuscowilla the best golf club in the state.

The golf course complements the laid-back, tight-knit community the Gelstons were seeking. Walking is strongly encouraged – caddies are mandatory for nonmembers – and the community’s network of walking trails is a favorite amenity. The relaxed sense of place is further cultivated by the earth tones of the buildings, including the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired clubhouse, and the red clay of Cuscowilla’s bunkers.

“ ‘There’s nothing going on there,’ ” Cuscowilla CEO Andrew Ward says of some overheard comments about Cuscowilla. “We love hearing that. Because it’s all about time in America, and people want to narrow the time between their home and their leisure base.”

Eighty is an important number at Cuscowilla.

It’s the number of miles from Atlanta, and also the proportion of business Cuscowilla sees from that city. Cuscowilla also is 80 miles from Augusta, explaining why 10 percent of annual rounds are played in the fortnight prior to the Masters.

The golf course offers a variety of topographies within its boundaries, from the linksy feel of its opening holes to lakeside around the turn and piney woods along the inward half. It culminates in the majestic and gentle sweep of the closing hole, a 485-yard par-4 that doglegs left.

The same variety characterizes the residential homes, only a handful of which are located near the course. Those few golf cottages and villas are carefully placed to blend into the Cuscowilla experience, not overshadow it. In fact, when Ward and his crew were staking out the original cluster of cottage sites, owners Pete Bailey Jr., Heinz Nathe and Rolf Witt downsized from 22 to 18 units, giving up $500,000 in annual revenue.

Many of the community’s lakeside homesites sit on grassy, gradual slopes that stand in stark contrast to the sometimes precipitous drops on Cuscowilla’s greens.

There’s no drop in lot prices, which have doubled over the past four years, says Jimmy Branan, head broker of Cuscowilla real estate. Lake homes are going for $2 million on lots that have in some cases escalated in price from $75,000 to $750,000.

Golf memberships also have risen in price, from $12,000 to $20,000. The course’s rounds per year figure to rise too, but in a more gradual fashion, from the current 18,000, nearly a quarter of which come from resort rental customers. The room to grow rounds is midweek, which in part explains the role of the resort’s new conference center that opened this spring and accommodates 120, as well as a stay-and-golf discovery package. The club already sees many meetings of 20 to 40 people, as well as up to 20 weddings per year.

Jon Butler, 28, a banker at Peoples Bank, was in one of those weddings, and he and his wife, Courtney, subsequently built a home in the Parkside gated community at Cuscowilla.

“We knew we wanted to live in a golf community,” Butler says. “At Cuscowilla the houses are not stacked on top of each other, and when you play the course you don’t notice rows of houses down every hole.”

Ward enthusiastically points to the drawings for the club’s next project: A banquet hall and meeting facility lodge topped by 11 condominium suites.

“People are now looking for vertical product instead of individually owned lots,” says Ward, noting that the same level of service and amenities, without the hassles of upkeep, is what will drive people to the resort’s 36 new Arbors Cottages under construction not far from the 12th fairway.

Just as Ward thinks the sky’s the limit for state tourism, he believes the small-meeting niche – already a successful one for the club with 85 percent of corporate clients re-booking – is full of promise.

To fully exploit that niche, Ward says the key is to “get the right piece of land, develop the real estate and the golf course separately, then get the right people here to run it and reward them. Cash flow is key, so it’s important to stage it. We have virtually no debt.

“The only thing we can’t offer is a nightclub atmosphere,” he says with no regrets. “Our people are the type who mend ball marks and pick up their broken tees.

“We have no formality, but we have professionalism. We aim to put a European

twist on Southern charm.”

– Adam Bruns is a writer and editor who lives in Norcross, Ga.

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