Ford Field & River Club Reimagines Historic Southern Roots


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   As seen in Golf Business May/June 2024   

By Scott Kauffman, Contributor, Golf Business

At the dawn of the new millennium, Ford Plantation was being developed by a new ownership group with ambitious plans to create an exclusive 1,800-acre private sporting community. Like many other large-scale real estate developments in the mid-to-late 2000s, however, the developer’s grand plan for the historic property near Savannah, Ga., was never fully realized in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Fast forward a century after Henry and Clara Ford bought the property in 1925 as their private winter playground, and the famous namesake property is being reimagined yet again. And this time, the member-owned private community has a new name, impressive new club management and fiscal profile as strong as the club has ever been.

Case in point is news The Ford Field & River Club recently approved a transformative $22.5 million amenity upgrade initiative in conjunction with award-winning Kuo Diedrich Chi Architects, the international   firm known for specializing in master planning and designing Platinum-level clubs worldwide. Most of the initiative focuses on enhancing and expanding key dining and lifestyle-related amenities at the clubhouse, Lake Dye Grill and Sports Barn.

Additionally, Love Golf Design, which is led by Davis Love III and his brother Mark, is overseeing major improvements to the golf practice facility, including expanded driving range and short game practice areas, a new larger short game area, an expanded family putting course and practice green, a connector path, cart parking and staging, dedicated teaching tee, and patio dining and firepits all aimed at accommodating increased member usage.

Ford Field’s overall $22.5 million project represents one of the largest amenity projects ever for a member-owned private club community in the ultra-luxurious Lowcountry loaded with top private golf and resort-style destinations.

"Our members are the stewards of our community, and this financial commitment reflects their desire to remain the finest coastal sporting club in the country," said John Johnstone, who became the club’s general manager/chief operating officer in December 2022 after prior senior-level stints at The Broadmoor and Augusta National Golf Club. “We’re fortunate The Ford Field & River Club is member-owned and that the voices of our community are the driving force behind this multi-year amenity transformation that generations of members will cherish.”

Perhaps two of the most anticipated changes are those to the clubhouse and Lake Dye Grill. The highly popular clubhouse overlooks a stunning oak alleé with vistas of the Ogeechee River, and Pete Dye-designed golf course coveted for having no tee times. The clubhouse currently features a restaurant, bar and lounge on the second level with a marketplace, men’s and women’s locker rooms, and golf pro shop on the first floor.

Forthcoming facility improvements include new indoor and outdoor dining areas, an expanded bar, and a multi-season porch that can offer varied dining experiences and social activities/opportunities. Plus, plans call for 18th-hole access to the bar and lounge and new men’s and women’s locker rooms.

Meanwhile, the smaller Lake Dye Grill, which architect JC Chi describes as the “ultra-casual” venue next to the Lake Dye Pool along the namesake lake, will be completely rebuilt and outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. Ultimately, the facility will maintain the existing “look and feel,” but feature more modern amenities and touches, according to architect JC Chi, including an open kitchen, a multi-use beverage center, and a new wrap-around multi-season porch designed to maximize the peaceful views at Lake Dye.

The ambitious changes coming to Ford Field & River Club appear to be well received from a real estate perspective with in-house Ansley Development Group surpassing $80 million in sales after back-to-back record years in 2022-23 with another $19 million of pending transactions at the start of 2024. Another newsworthy development was the club’s $600,000-plus investment to restyle and update Ford Field’s centerpiece amenity, The Main House, which originally served as Henry and Clara Ford’s winter home.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 7,000-square-foot Greek Revival estate is now used for guests/prospects visiting the pastoral playground frequented by other famous Ford family friends at the turn of the century such as Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison. Situated 20 miles south of Savannah along southeast Georgia’s picturesque Ogeechee River, renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, upon visiting the antebellum rice plantation in 1853, declared: “I have hardly in all my life seen anything so impressively grand and beautiful.”

Indeed, while all the physical improvements and new amenities being designed by Chi’s firm will certainly be impressive, it’s Ford Field’s natural setting and the beauty of the land itself that Chi describes as the ultimate “amenities.” And despite some challenging economic conditions after the 2008 recession, Chi commended the private club for preserving the environmental sensitivities and priorities of the place.

“They never reneged on the original vision and compromised the special geography and persona of the natural setting,” Chi adds. “There’s a lot of open fields and expanse, and such a rich ecological appreciation for everything from bird watching to fishing and all things nature. Whether it’s boating or equestrian, Ford Field is very much an outfitter’s lifestyle. More so than just golf. That’s the experience and lifestyle you can achieve here. That’s the glamor.”

Natural elements or attractions that not only represent a special place in pre-revolutionary American history, but something no person can ever create.

 


This article was featured in the May/June edition of Golf Business Magazine.

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