By Charlie Hill :: Photography courtesy of Cordillera Ranch
It’s hard to believe, but 2016 marks the 10-year anniversary of the completion of the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Cordillera Ranch. As a celebration of the anniversary of that successful endeavor we look back at what it took to develop this highly acclaimed gem in the Texas Hill Country. This January issue is the first of a series of feature stories highlighting the major undertaking that the golf course and club development was and the vision and philosophies that were the key ingredients.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back now at the idea of adding a private club and golf course to the Cordillera Ranch development may appear like an obvious and fairly straightforward path. Most people that visit the community today probably don’t even know that the decision to add a golf course came many years after the community first started to develop in 1997. Furthermore, they probably don’t realize it was not a simple path to constructing the course out in the Hill Country. Initially, Cordillera Ranch was just planned as an acreage estate Hill Country escape from the stresses that life, careers and the city all bring. Although the inclusion of a resort-style private club, complete with a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course and numerous other lifestyle amenities, wasn’t part of the original master plan offering, those amenities were considered in the initial internal vision for Cordillera Ranch. The hurdles to include those amenities, such as market dynamics, economic feasibility and water availability seemed almost insurmountable at the time. When David Hill, the developer of Cordillera Ranch, began work on the initial planning for the development he asked Mike Sheridan to join the development team to head the land planning and development construction for the project. Hill and Sheridan had teamed up previously to develop one of the best golf courses in Louisiana at Southern Trace in Shreveport. In spite of potential obstacles to developing the golf course at Cordillera Ranch, Hill and Sheridan did set aside roughly 600 acres of the original 4,200-acre tract for the most suitable terrain on which to build a course. It’s now the 10-year anniversary of the completion of the Cordillera Ranch golf course construction, and this issue of the magazine starts a series detailing the story of how the golf course and club emerged from the rolling, rocky hills in Kendall County to a consistently top-5 golf course in Texas and one that has even earned Golf Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association.
To Build a Golf Course or Not?
As large home sites were being developed and sold during the first five years or so we would periodically get asked by prospective lot purchasers and existing residents, “Do you think you’ll ever build a golf course?” After all, the 1990s and early 2000s were an extremely busy period for golf course construction and private club community development in the U.S. One unique difference, though, was that most communities started with the private club and golf course development to help jump start sales in a community; by the early 2000’s Cordillera Ranch already had a few hundred property owners that bought property when there were no announced plans for a golf course. Nevertheless, with the continued growth in this area and the gorgeous natural setting it became increasingly apparent that pursuing the addition of a golf course community within Cordillera Ranch was the appropriate next step.
There were several hurdles to clear before proceeding with the course, not the least of which was water availability. “The Hill Country’s limited groundwater availability and lack of nearby municipal water systems had us facing a real challenge to serve the irrigation water needs for the golf course and the golf course area homes,” said Chris Hill, who at the time was Vice President of Development for Cordillera Ranch Development Corp. Without a sustainable solution to the water supply, the marketing, design and vision for a premier golf course were irrelevant. So in 2001, after developing several water model analyses about what amount of water would be needed in various drought scenarios, Chris and David Hill set out to secure Guadalupe River water rights permits, groundwater permits and a treated drinking water supply contract with Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA). GBRA was putting together the Western Canyon Regional Water Supply pipeline project to bring water to western Comal County as well as much of Kendall County, from Canyon Lake. Cordillera Ranch, along with the City of Boerne, City of Fair Oaks Ranch, Johnson Ranch and a few other participants, was one of the first commitments in this water supply project. “Our significant capacity commitment was instrumental in GBRA’s financing for the construction of the pipeline and GBRA’s timing in developing the project was critical to the addition of a central water system in Cordillera Ranch,” noted David Hill, President of Cordillera Ranch Development Corp. “A potable water supply other than groundwater was the key to launching the golf course development. The timing was a perfect fit for both GBRA and Cordillera Ranch.”
But sustainable water for irrigation means having reused or reclaimed water. That was fulfilled with the permitting and development of the Cordillera Ranch Water Recycling Center (WRC). The more the community grows, the more the irrigation supply source transitions to the WRC and away from a mixture of groundwater, river water and GBRA water. Modeling that sustainability was critical to getting comfortable with the long-term drought risks. That planning was tested immediately after opening with the start of an extreme multi-year drought in 2008, just a couple years after the course was finished. The water planning paid off, though, because the golf course handled the harsh conditions quite well during those years and maintained great conditions. “The water planning that Chris and David did was remarkable,” said Cordillera Ranch Director of Agronomy Mark Semm. “From a water resource standpoint, Cordillera Ranch is basically on an island out here, away from central water supply systems. Acquiring river water rights and building miles of pipelines from the river and from our WRC, along with a coordinated system that provides GBRA water and some permitted wells as contingency water, has reaped its rewards in the excellent quality of our zoysia fairways and bent grass greens we’ve had for the past ten years.”
While Chris and David focused on water sustainability strategies, Mike Sheridan poured his heart and soul into assessing the best routing for a golf course in the roughly 600 acres earmarked for a course. “I’ve probably routed 20-25 great golf holes on that land; it was just a natural piece of property that set up well for golf holes,” said Sheridan. His background in landscape architecture, land planning and golf course architecture in past roles with development and design firms, including Nicklaus Design, gave Sheridan the skill set to do some preliminary sketches of hole routings. Combine that experience with Mike’s incomparable passion for the game of golf, and it’s safe to say that the biggest challenge he probably had during the planning stages was getting any rest — his enjoyment of this type of work trumped his desire for any measurable sleep. “I was also involved with David in planning Southern Trace,” Sheridan commented. “David knows what he wants and shares my knack for attention to detail and passion for perfection, so it was great already having the background of working with him on a prior luxury golf course development and knowing how he thinks.”
With the perfect site for a course and surrounding home sites selected, Sheridan, David and Chris set out to narrow down the search for the best golf course architect. “We evaluated all of the top-tier architects as possible candidates and narrowed it down to Jack Nicklaus and a few other finalists. Although a Nicklaus Signature Course design fee commands a price, research showed that Nicklaus Design courses consistently had better real estate and membership success than industry competitors. The Nicklaus brand value was irrefutable,” noted David. In fact, in 2003 the leading industry research firm, The Golf Research Group, conducted a 10-year study of its 30,000-golf course global database and concluded that Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses were the overwhelming No. 1 in terms of delivering value. That detailed study evaluated both real estate and golf course values, and not only was the value of Nicklaus courses 17 percent higher than the nearest competitor, but Nicklaus golf course communities were widening that gap as compared to studies from five and 10 years prior.
“That tangible value proposition was a big factor but Nicklaus’ recognition among peers, critics and golfers as an elite and truly talented designer was equally important,” says David. As many as 100 Nicklaus Design courses have been ranked by major industry publications worldwide, and no fewer than 140 of their courses have hosted professional golf tournaments or significant national amateur championships (including a record 30 events in 2015). David continues, “All of that aside, the icing on the cake was that Jack shared a lot of the same values we have. He’s a dedicated family man which was never more evident than when, early into the planning, he invited us to his home in Florida for dinner and there in the main hallway of his home, in the most prominent place of his glass trophy case, was a father-son golf tournament trophy he’d won with his son Gary. Here’s the greatest golfer in the history of the game — a guy who’s won 18 major championships and scores of other tournaments — and he puts the father-son trophy at center stage. Right then I knew this man was the perfect fit for us.” So the choice was clear and the legendary golfer and designer Jack Nicklaus, Senior Design Associate Jim Lipe and the rest of the Nicklaus Design team were on board to design what would become the best new golf course in Texas when in 2008 the Dallas Morning News first rated and ranked the newly completed Jack Nicklaus Signature Course at Cordillera Ranch.
There were several design philosophies that were important to Nicklaus and the Cordillera Ranch team as they planned the track. First and foremost, utilize the land and natural beauty God gave us. “Cordillera Ranch’s community design theme has always been centered around minimal disturbance to the natural landscape and vegetation and we wanted the golf course design style to take on those same native Hill Country characteristics,” Sheridan said.
Jack Nicklaus has said many times before that one of the most enjoyable aspects of golf course design is to take the piece of property presented to him and “unlock it.”
”First of all, Cordillera Ranch was a good piece of property — no, a great piece of property,” the Golden Bear said. “Because of the quality of the existing property, we had to move very little dirt to create great golf. The holes were basically already there; it was like peeling back the layers of an onion.”
Other priorities for the design team: homes needed to be set far away from the golf holes; it should be a “core design” (a stand-alone course with homes on the outer perimeter of the golf); it should be a challenging championship-caliber course to push even professionals, while still being playable and enjoyable for the average golfer; and to capitalize on the scenic 20-mile-plus views and meandering creeks to create the best golf course in Texas. Creating larger-than-normal home sites around the golf course and setting them back 180 to 250 feet from the fairway center lines improved both the playability and aesthetics of the golf course.
“Our strategy of creating multiple teeing options for a wide range of skill levels, as well designing spacious landing areas for tee shots, was done with the average golfer in mind,” Nicklaus said. “Most players like to have driver in hand and we wanted to give them plenty of room off the tee. Then as you progress toward the green, the hole gets increasingly more challenging. While I don’t like to say that I have a certain design philosophy, I do like second-shot golf courses — such as an Augusta National — where the premium is placed on your approach. If you’re going to miss it, you need to miss it in the right spot. We tried to design a fun but challenging course that members and the average player can enjoy over and over again. I believe we were successful in doing so. Cordillera Ranch is a golf course that puts an emphasis on strategy, has good shot values, and a number of risk-reward opportunities.”
By late 2003, Nicklaus Design and Cordillera Ranch were engaged in design and the last step remaining was to do a membership offering and sell enough memberships to trigger the start of construction. “We had a membership offering party on what is now the clubhouse hilltop in October 2003,” David recalls. “It was well-attended by existing property owners in Cordillera Ranch and many others interested in the new club.” There was a short window of time, approximately 90 days, to sign up and post an initial membership deposit, and if the threshold was met to trigger final design and construction, then the endeavor would proceed. Needless to say, that trigger point was quickly reached and the progress continued. More on those design and construction details in the March issue of Cordillera Ranch Living. In the meantime, get out there and enjoy the course!