Millard Callicott doesn’t think of himself as a developer. “I’m a golf guy,” says the fifty-three-year-old Baton Rougean, commercial realtor and former sales executive, who purchased The Bluffs golf course and clubhouse from former owner Jerry Dodson for $4.5 million in June, 2022. The Arnold Palmer-designed course and clubhouse had been shuttered since October, 2021, after experiencing years of financial losses and bitter disputes between the golf course’s management and homeowners in the neighborhood that surrounds it. Callicott understands that restoring the course to its former status as one of Palmer’s finest designs, while also mending the relationship with the surrounding community and returning one of West Feliciana parish’s most valuable attractions to commerce is no small undertaking. But with plans for a naturalistic course makeover and a tiered membership model that separates the fortunes of the golf operation from those of the neighborhood, Callicott believes that this time, the course, the community that surrounds it, and West Feliciana parish, all have a chance to hit a hole in one.
History of The Bluffs
For golfers, The Bluffs has always been special. The course—threaded delicately through 7300 yards of sandy loess hills and hollows along Thompson Creek—was regarded as one of the South’s finest when it opened in 1988. It was one of the last designed by the American golfing icon Arnold Palmer, whose Palmer Course Design Company built more than three hundred golf courses all over the world prior to his death in 2016. The magazine, Golf Digest, has listed The Bluffs as one of the top 100 public courses in the United States,and it has consistently been ranked among the top three courses in Louisiana during the past twenty years. Palmer co-designed the course with Ed Seay, who was lead course architect for the Palmer Course Design Company when he described The Bluffs by saying, “The sand hills and the sweet woods of the Felicianas in Louisiana: there’s no better property to build a golf course.” Millard Callicott agrees. “Of all the golf courses I’ve played, it’s so unique,” he said. “From a golf perspective, it’s sand hills, which make the most ideal golf course-growing conditions. It’s got this amazing routing through these creeks and hollows. People who build golf courses move earth to create what we have here as a natural landscape.”
People who build golf courses move earth to create what we have here as a natural landscape.”
So when, after a decade of ownership changes and financial struggles, The Bluffs closed in October, 2021, Callicott was crushed. Also crushed but for different reasons were the homeowners whose properties surround the course, the values of which rise and fall on the fortunes of a golf course they do not control. When the closure was announced, Callicott was working as a commercial realtor with Saurage Rotenburg in Baton Rouge, having recently left a twenty-year career in medical device sales. Keenly aware of The Bluffs’ pedigree and appeal within the golfing community, he started thinking about ways of getting the course open again. He reconnected with Ken Arimitsu, a senior vice president at Avison Young Commercial Realtors, an acquaintance of Callicott's with extensive experience brokering the sale of golf courses. Together the pair approached owner Jerry Dodson about getting the listing to sell the course. When Dodson wasn’t interested, preferring to try and sell the course privately, Arimitsu found a high-net-worth buyer who expressed interest in buying the course, adding a lodge and spa to an existing pad on Thompson Creek, and operating it with Callicott as a partner. After that deal fell through, Arimitsu suggested Callicott consider a third option—buying The Bluffs himself. “Ken said ‘At the end of the day, all I’ve done is support your ideas,’” Callicott explained. “He said, ‘You don’t need me. Go get owner financing. Raise the dollars and go do it yourself.’” Callicott assembled a group of investors, and in June, 2022, purchased the course and clubhouse from Dodson for $4.5 million with plans to institute a comprehensive makeover before reopening the course as a “members-only” private course operating under the brand “The Bluffs Club.”
After months of closure and years of deferred maintenance, Callicott says that The Bluffs needs a lot of work to regain its reputation as one of the best courses in the Gulf South. To achieve that he has contracted with Brandon Johnson, Senior Golf Course Architect with The Arnold Palmer Design Company to supervise a $4 million renovation that will overhaul the course’s fairways and greens, add new putting and practice facilities, and affect a more minimalist, naturalistic approach to the course’s surrounding landscape. The scope of the improvements will include:
• Re-construction of all 18 greens with TifEagle® dwarf bermuda grass.
• Redesign, reconstruction, and reduction of bunkers.
• Re-design of 3 to 4 holes to reflect contemporary course design principles.
• Reconfiguration of the second hole to a par 5 in the spirit of the original design.
• Conversion of non-playing fairway and rough areas into native areas, similar in style to that of top courses in the North Carolina sand hills.
• Rerouting and removal of current cart paths, replacing them with native sandy corridors where possible.
• Replacement of the helipad in front of the event center with a 20,000 square foot “punch bowl”-style putting green.
• Addition of a new short game/practice facility to the left of the driving range.
Course renovation work is scheduled to begin in April and is expected to take around three months. After a growing-in period, the course should be ready for play by the fourth quarter of 2023.
When course work is complete, Callicott says that The Bluffs Club, carrying the coveted “Arnold Palmer Signature Course” designation, will reopen as a members-only club for West Feliciana Parish/Baton Rouge Metro residents, with additional “Regional Subscription” and “National Subscription” membership options designed to make the course an attractive second-club destination for golfers from further afield. Given The Bluffs’ history of financial struggle while operating as a public/private course, and drawing on recent golfing trends, Callicott is confident that converting to a private membership model proven to work at clubs in other metro areas, represents the path to financial stability. Citing statistics compiled by the National Golf Foundation, Callicott notes that golf has boomed coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the number of rounds played increasing by 14% in 2020, and another 5% in 2021. He points out that Baton Rouge, where private clubs are relatively crowded, and the other well-utilized clubs within easy driving distance, represent a market opportunity.“We want to make this everyone’s second club getaway,” he said. “There are probably 40 private clubs in Louisiana and Mississippi, and we’re creating an experience that people will want to come and enjoy as a getaway from their standard Wednesday or Saturday game. Our goal is to elevate The Bluffs to one of the finest private golf experiences in the region, and no longer to be dependent on 50 guys in The Bluffs, and 20 from town, and day fee players driving in for the day. That’s been tried four times and it doesn’t work here.”
The club’s restaurant, driving range, and tennis courts are due to open by May 1. While course renovation work is ongoing, The Bluffs Club is offering prospective members an opportunity to join at a reduced rate*. To accommodate non-golfing residents, also available is a Dining Membership, which will provide access to the club’s rebranded Camellia’s Restaurant & Bar. Noting that initiation fees for membership will rise significantly once the course opens, Callicott hopes that West Feliciana residents, and particularly homeowners in The Bluffs—no longer required to subsidize golf course operations—will take advantage of the opportunity to join and enjoy the Arnold Palmer golf course reopening in their midst.
To learn more about membership opportunities at The Bluffs Club, email firstname.lastname@example.org for a prospective member presentation.
*Heritage Member Plan offer including reduced initiation fee expires April 7, 2023