Lords of the links

Lords of the links

Rogers, Paul

These days, conspicuous consumption is out-except among CEOs who build their own golf courses.

Years later, Wayne Huizenga still remembers the conversation. He and his wife, Marti, were flying home to Florida on their private jet after sailing the Mediterranean on a friend’s 175– foot Feadship yacht when she turned to him and suggested what at first seemed an outlandish idea.

Huizenga, the billionaire entrepreneur who made his fortune building Waste Management and Blockbuster Entertainment, was in the process of developing a golf course on 300 acres he owned on the banks of the St. Lucie River, north of Palm Beach. He planned to build some houses for sale on the property to help defray the cost.

But now Marti Huizenga had another idea. Why not scrap the houses, she proposed, and keep the entire preserve to themselves? At first, Huizenga says, he thought she was kidding. But when he realized she wasn’t, he soon came around. Their golf course -a championship 18-hole layout designed by the legendary Gary Player-opened six months later, in 1996. Within two years, they built an expansive Old Florida-style clubhouse, replete with a cherry-wood wine cellar, wrap-around verandas and paddle fans, along with twin guest cottages, two helicopter pads and a 68-slip deep-water marina. The Floridian Golf and Yacht Club was born. Official membership: two.

Extravagant? Absolutely, says Huizenga, 64, who, now in semi-retirement, owns the Miami Dolphins, is chairman and CEO of Boca Resorts and serves as nonexecutive chairman of three other public companies, including AutoNation, the largest car dealer in the U.S. “What are you supposed to do with money?” he asks matter-of-factly. “You work hard to get it and you have to spend it; you want to enjoy it. Some people build big houses, other people build big yachts. It just depends on what you want to do.”

Beginning with John D. Rockefeller, the patriarch of corporate golf, America’s captains of industry have been building their own links for over a century, not all of them as exclusive as The Floridian. But thanks to the economic boom of the ’80s and ’90s and the burgeoning popularity of the sport, the phenomenon has clearly picked up. “It has become a status symbol of sorts,” explains Chad Ritterbusch, spokesman for the American Society of Golf Course Architects, based in Chicago. “And I think there’s no doubt that it is a growing trend, not only among chief executives but others with significant means.” He said he has seen no indication that the trend has slowed due to the economic downturn.

Rockefeller was such an avid golfer that at the turn of the 20th century, shortly after learning the game, he had a 12-hole course laid out for his personal use at Pocantico Hills, his Tarrytown, MY., estate. In 1962, Walter Annenberg, the publishing magnate and future ambassador to England, commissioned a nine-holer called Sunnylands on his property in Palm Springs, Calif.

Recent examples are more lavish. Casino mogul Steve Wynn paid a reported $45 million to transform a barren desert plain in Las Vegas into a verdant oasis of rolling fair-ways, imported trees and a man-made three-quartermile creek. Wynn’s Shadow Creek Golf Club opened in 1989, and for 10 years he was its only member. He’s since sold the club to MGM Mirage, which offers tee times to guests of its nearby resort for $500 a round. In 1997, the aptly named Sanctuary Golf Club opened in Sedalia, Colo., the private preserve of Dave and Gail Liniger, founders of the real estate empire Re/Max. The course, which the couple says cost well over $12 million, is carved out of scrub oak and ponderosa pine, featuring waterfalls and steep elevation drops.

Huizenga chooses not to say how much he’s spent on The Floridian. In fact, he insists he purposely doesn’t know the total amount. “I told the guys in my Fort Lauderdale office,” he says, “`Don’t ever tell me what I’ve got invested -I don’t want to spoil the fun.”‘

By almost any standard, the cost of such a project is enormous. Generally speaking, it takes at least $7 million just to build an upscale 18-hole course-plus several million more for other expenses such as acquiring the land (typically about 200 acres), hiring environmental consultants and building a clubhouse, says Jay Morrish, president of the golf architects society. On top of that are annual maintenance fees of $1 million or more.

“Twenty years ago,” explains Morrish, “we used to say a developer needed to have $8 million in his pocket to get started. Now, it’s hard to say. But I think you’d feel very uncomfortable if you didn’t have a $15-20 million line of credit.”

Given the size of his investment, Huizenga has made sure to create an exit strategy should he, or his heirs, someday want to sell The Floridian: He purchased 1,700 acres across the street, which, if packaged with the golf course, would be attractive to residential developers. “Right now, we’re feeding it every month,” Huizenga says of his financial commitment to the club. “But sometime in the years to come I might not be around. My kids could recoup the expenses we’re paying today.”

While the Huizengas remain the only official members of The Floridian, each year they give honorary memberships to about 100 of their friends. The privileges include free golf-the course is open from late October through early April-and the opportunity to stay over at the club and bring guests. The only reason honorary members aren’t invited back, Huizenga says, is if they haven’t shown up in years. The list is a Who’s Who. There are CEOs past and present, including Jack Welch and Bank of America’s Hugh McColl, as well as professional athletes such as Bob Griese and Dan Marino, the former Dolphins greats. As Huizenga famously once said, “We don’t ever have to worry about playing golf with someone we don’t like.”

It was the opposite of exclusivity that spurred Mike Keiser to build Bandon Dunes, a year-round 36-hole resort outside the town of Bandon on the southern Oregon coast. The co-founder of Chicago-based Recycled Paper Greetings, Keiser, 57, considers himself a “missionary” of golf. A decade before Bandon Dunes opened in 1999, he built the private Dunes Club on the shores of Lake Michigan, which, he says, as a nine-hole course in a remote area couldn’t have sustained itself if it were public.

With Bandon, Keiser sought to replicate the feel of the great links of Scotland and Ireland: pure golf played on foot in a natural seaside setting open to all. “The last thing I wanted,” he says, “was a totally private course. I think those are, I won’t say obscene, but they’re not in keeping with the spirit of golf.”

So Keiser took something of a populist approach. After buying the land-a stunning moonscape of dunes, wild grasses and gnarly Irish gorse-he considered running a contest in Golf Diet in which readers would design the holes. When an editor told him the site was too special for that, Keiser hired a young, virtually unknown Scottish architect named David McLay Kidd to design the first of the two courses. But still, in a sense, Keiser reached out to the everyman. He assembled a group of what he calls retail golfers-friends he’d made over the years, both top-notch players and high handicappers, bankers and blue-collar workers-and sought their input as well. The greens fees at Bandon Dunes, though, aren’t exactly populist. For guests of the resort, an in-season (July through October) round of golf costs $140, for nonguests $175.

Above all, he says, developing Bandon Dunes offered a chance at posterity. “It’s not about me or my kids or my friends,” says Keiser, who declines to say how much he’s invested in the resort. “You don’t get too many chances to build something that will be there in a hundred years.” Of course, building his greeting card business, which has 700 employees and sales approaching $100 million, also has been satisfying. “It’s great fun to start something from scratch that employs a lot people,” he says. But making decisions in a boardroom simply isn’t as “organic,” he adds, as standing on a windswept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and deciding the shape of a green.

For Ron Joyce, co-founder of Tim Horton’s, a hugely successful Toronto-based doughnut and coffee chain that was purchased by Wendy’s in 1995, building a golf course enabled him to indulge his fancy and also, he says, give something back. Last year, he opened Fox Harb’r, a gated resort and residential community in northern Nova Scotia not far from Tatamagouche, the tiny farming village where he grew up. The amenties include a private airstrip, a marina and lighthouse and an acclaimed 18-hole course skirting the sandstone cliffs of Northumberland Strait. In season, from mid-May through October, Fox Harb’r employs a staff of 120.

“It’s given an awful lot of pride to a lot of people,” says Joyce, one of Wendy’s biggest shareholders, who is spending $35 million on the project. “No one’s ever done anything like this in Atlantic Canada.” Of course, owning your own golf course also has its perks. Joyce, who at nearly 72 is essentially retired, regularly hosts senators and premiers as well as fellow CEOs. One morning in early August, he teed it up with Ron Corey, former president of the Montreal Canadiens, who, Joyce proudly says, “couldn’t say enough kind words about the golf course.” Later that week, Wayne Huizenga stopped by for a round on his way home from a trip to Ireland. As a friend of Huizenga, Joyce has been an honorary member of The Floridian for years. When he built Fox Harb’r, he returned the favor.

Copyright Chief Executive Magazine, Incorporated Oct 2002

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