Golf, formerly a must-have amenity in master planned communities, has landed in the rough. Nationally, new course construction has slowed, with just 171 new 18-hole equivalent courses built in 2003, compared with 398 in 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation. In some markets, residential developer interest in golf is waning as well. Rather than build an $8 million golf course and the upscale homes golf tends to require, developers are downscaling with such features as walking trails, a less expensive and less time-consuming commitment for builders and new-home buyers alike.

To some, the situation smacks of a saturated golf market. Others say that's only half the story.

Barbara Hanley, a golf consultant who teaches at Harvard University, says the problem started in the 1980s, when developers began turning to big-name golf architects to put their course and, by extension, their community on the map. “It was a great marketing move,” she says.

But it wasn't the right move for most golfers. On average, only one-third of golf course community residents play golf, and many not terribly well. Women who move into active adult communities, for example, are often interested in golf but new to the sport. Their husbands may be more experienced golfers but lack the advanced skills required for these difficult, celebrity-designed courses. “Golf courses started missing the market,” Hanley says.

Land constraints only exacerbate the situation as developers try to fit home sites and a golf course on the same parcel. “You often end up with narrow fairways because the developer is trying to squeeze as much land into lots as he can,” Hanley says. The result? Tee shots that only Tiger Woods can make.

Other common problems include rolling topography, which leads to uneven lies (shots that land in rough ground that isn't level); too many water hazards (which attract beginners' golf balls like a magnet), and poor tee box design that pushes golfers toward more difficult shots, according to Hanley, who's often hired to diagnose and treat a failing course. The solution “could be as small as a $10,000 fix, although that's unlikely. Most of the time, it's much more,” Hanley says.

Of course, there are developers who do golf right the first time. At Windermere Golf Club, part of Newland Communities' 1,332-home Windermere development in Atlanta, the course is intended to be challenging but playable. Fairways are generous, giving golfers room for error. Water hazards are limited, with no forced carries (where a golfer has to hit a ball over water to reach the green). The club pays $4,200 monthly to place global positioning system units on its 75 golf carts, allowing golfers to map out their shots for greater success. And each hole has five tee boxes, providing options for players at all levels. “Just like the community itself, we wanted Windermere to have something for everyone,” says Patrick Quernemoen, head golf professional.

Market research, too often overlooked, helps tremendously in creating the right course. In Florida, luxury public builder WCI Communities builds everything from five-star resort courses (highly difficult, as would be appropriate for a golf destination) to moderately priced (and easier) private club courses, using the results of its extensive market research to tailor its offerings. “We want to create an experience that is unique in the marketplace,” says David Fry, senior vice president and general manager at WCI. “That may or may not be a more difficult course.” Data guides the decision. “There is a direct correlation between that information, the market we are serving, and the price point [of the homes],” Fry says, and the higher the price point, the tougher the course.

But WCI does its best to accommodate all golfers, sometimes including as many as eight tee boxes on a course. At Old Palm in Palm Beach, Fla., where golf memberships go for $200,000, beginners can hone drives at a three-hole, 35-acre practice facility. At the more moderately priced Venetian Golf and River Club in Venice, Fla., the greens are challenging, but the fairways are forgiving. “Our philosophy has been to place difficulty on and around the greens,” Fry says. “When you're losing golf balls, that's no fun.”