Lowcountry Living at The Ford

Lowcountry Living at The Ford

By Drew Beard

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CERTIFIED SANCTUARY. The Ford Field & River Club has met the environmental management standards of Audubon International.

For over a century, The Ford Field & River Club has provided a sublime refuge to a fortunate few. And that includes man as well as beast.

Birds are particularly abundant on the 1,800-acre property, especially on the small islands dotting Lake Clara between the Ogeechee River and the Pete Dye-designed golf course. “We’ll get hundreds of nesting birds each year,” says Cason Kinstle, The Ford’s director of outdoor pursuits. “We think on the whole lake there were 400 to 500 nests last year,” he says.

“My Favorite Pete Dye Course”

The club’s namesake, the American industrialist Henry Ford, became enamored with the area’s charms while on a trip to his former winter hideaway in more fashionable Florida. The pioneering manufacturer eventually acquired 80,000 acres along the Ogeechee River. In 1936, he made it his winter home. Ford spent much of his later life here, hosting Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and countless other friends.

Following Ford’s death in 1947, the sprawling property was divvied up and sold off. Decades later, the heart of the estate was acquired by a Saudi executive who wanted to entertain his guests in grand style. No better way to do that than to have your own golf course, right? In 1987, he hired World Golf Hall of Fame designer Pete Dye to build a golf course unlike any other.

“I’ve played a lot of the top courses around the world. This one is probably my favorite Pete Dye course,” says David Engram, The Ford’s director of golf. It’s essentially two courses in one. The front nine is a parklands-style with majestic live oaks and shapely lakes that will look familiar to fans of other Dye-designed tracks. The back nine, however, is an entirely different playing experience: a gently rolling links-style course that juts into a picturesque bend in the Ogeechee River and is bordered on three sides by the tranquil Lake Clara.

“The variety that you have here, I can’t name another golf course that has that,” says Engram.

The Ford Becomes a Member-Owned Club

The original course and the remaining 1,800 acres of Ford’s estate changed hands again in 1998. Seeing the potential in such an unspoiled property, developers set about carefully placing neighborhoods and homesites among the lake and river frontages, oak alleys, and emerald fairways. The first buyers to snap up lots at The Ford converted it into a member-owned club in 2008. Of the 400 homesite memberships, some 150 remain for sale.

In 2014, the Dye-designed golf course received a complete renovation from the maestro himself. “We like to say Pete Dye designed it not once but twice,” says Facilities Director Jared Nemitz.

Because year-round club membership is available only to The Ford’s property owners, they enjoy rare access to the course. “A very busy day is between 40 and 60 members playing. A general golf course would see more than twice that,” Nemitz says. There are no tee times at The Ford or reservations at the dining facilities, for that matter. “That kind of access, you can’t find it. You can hardly buy it any longer,” says John Johnstone, The Ford’s general manager.

But The Ford isn’t just a golfing community. “I couldn’t imagine joining a club like this and not playing the course,” Engram says, “but this is a club that I think has a little something for everyone. People use The Ford in their own unique ways. We’ve got people on property who are dedicated equestrians or boaters, and that’s why they’re here.”

A Menu of Activities

The first thing you notice upon arrival at The Ford’s main entrance is the equestrian center — rows of white fences, 20 manicured acres of turnout paddock, and a spotless, ivory barn seemingly airlifted straight from bluegrass country.

“We encourage members to get into the saddle,” says Equestrian Director Lindsay Goff. The Ford stables horses for member use and offers training for all skill levels in a variety of disciplines like dressage and hunt. Members can even keep personal horses stabled on their own property, depending on lot size.

On the other side of the property, the Silk Hope Harbor Village neighborhood with its marina and direct access to the Ogeechee River is tailor-made for boaters and fishermen. The Ford is just 25 nautical miles from the Atlantic Ocean, a leisurely two-hour boat ride, and the property’s many lakes, including those on the golf course, are stocked with bass and catfish.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to see golfers stop to fish a while in the middle of a round. The annual Hook and Slice event, a member favorite, marries both pastimes with teams competing to shoot the lowest score and catch the biggest fish. “It’s an event as unique as The Ford,” says David.

Club Membership

There’s something at The Ford for everyone, and with a membership that extends privileges to parents, children, and grandchildren, the whole family is welcome. Additional amenities include a full spa, tennis and pickleball courts, lake-side pool facilities, a 7,000-square-foot fitness center, and shooting sports in partnership with the nearby Dorchester Shooting Preserve.

While it wears its first 25 years well, The Ford will soon receive a significant facelift with planned improvements and expansion for the property’s dining facilities, pool complex, golf practice area, and fitness and wellness center. “We still want to keep growing,” says Johnstone whose resume includes time at Augusta National Golf Club.

That growth, however, won’t be at the expense of the convenience and charm that The Ford’s members currently enjoy. “There are fancier club houses and clubs with more restaurants. If you’re looking for bling, there’s plenty of bling out there. Here that’s not what our members are looking for,” says Johnstone. “They’re looking for understated elegance and an appreciation of nature. And don’t forget, accessibility. Careful planning and design will allow us to keep the intimacy and that sense of community.”

Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary

Despite its many impressive amenities, The Ford is treasured by its members above all for the property itself. “Year over year, members tell us in surveys that the number one reason they join this club is its natural beauty,” says Nemitz. “When you look at the property holistically, it is very much wildlife, environment, and habitat. We are focused on being stewards of that environment.”

That stewardship is reflected in The Ford’s selection in 2020 as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, after a rigorous certification process across multiple categories including habitat and wildlife management, water conservation, and education. “It shows the commitment of The Ford to sustainability, environmental stewardship, site assessing, making sure we’re doing our part to move the needle environmentally,” says Nemitz.

Those commitments resulted in another certification in 2023, one of only 16 awarded in the entire state. “The Georgia coast has natural and environmental protections you just don’t find in other states, and we take advantage of that,” says Kinstle. In addition to supporting the recent Audubon recertification, The Ford’s naturalist helps to educate and engage members on how to improve The Ford’s natural habitats which support an array of wildlife.

Member Buy-In

But it’s not just Nemitz and Kinstle working to keep The Ford a beautifully wild sporting community. “We’re getting a lot of buy-in from the members,” says Nemitz. In addition to actively supporting the Audubon certification and participating in several wildlife monitoring programs each year, The Ford’s members show their commitments to sustainability by planting native vegetation on their own properties.

“A lot of high-end communities would maybe say that doesn’t look good, but at some point, you have to blend what’s best for the environment with what’s aesthetically pleasing. That’s what we believe in.” Those kinds of shared values and personal commitments can be rare for a high-end sporting property.

“What sets this club apart,” says Johnstone, “is the engagement between our members.”  That uncommon sense of community is on full display at weekly “Cookies and Cocktails” happy hours in Mr. Ford’s restored Greek Revival style mansion, periodic “Buds and Suds” gatherings at the marina where members discuss environmental initiatives or plan for Audubon-related activities, and at various sporting events like the Hook & Slice.

“A lot of people tell us what a hidden gem we are,” says Johnstone. Everyone at The Ford seems to agree.


Published in The Land Report Spring 2024.

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