Billionaire entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga didn't start out to build his own private golf course. When he began acquiring some 2,000 acres about 30 miles north of West Palm Beach, Fla., in the 1980s, the co-founder of Waste Management Inc. and Blockbuster Entertainment Inc. began mapping plans to develop an exclusive golf club -- with enough estate homes on the property to cover his costs.
But Huizenga's plans took an unexpected turn several years later after a Mediterranean vacation aboard a friend's yacht. On the flight home, his wife, Marti, asked how much he thought their host paid for the 175-foot yacht. Probably $20 million, he replied. And how much more to maintain it each year? Probably $2 million to $3 million, Huizenga said, assuming Marti was finally ready to buy the big boat they had always talked about. But Marti surprised him. "Instead of buying a yacht," she said, "why don't we just keep the golf course for ourselves -- and invite friends?"
Huizenga's retreat has also become a refuge for tour pros such as Jaspar Parnevik and Nick Price, who use the club to host fund-raisers, shoot instructional videos, or work quietly on their game away from a prying public. "It's the prettiest and best golf course in Florida," marvels golf legend Chi Chi Rodriquez, who on this Saturday morning in March is regaling Huizenga on the range with his plans for a new mini-tour for senior players.
Also scattered around the course are pros Bruce Fleischer and J.C. Snead, as well as Office Depot Inc. Chairman Bruce Nelson. And earlier, as Huizenga was having coffee on the back veranda of the clubhouse, 67-year-old South African pro Gary Player -- who designed the course -- bounded out with his young grandson Luke to share some news. "He just caught his first fish, Wayne! It was such fun!"
Huizenga insists that for years he instructed his financial advisers not to tell him how much he had sunk into the Floridian. "I figured if I knew how much money I've got in this, I'll say, 'I've got to build houses or do something to get some of that money back."' But when I tell him I've heard cost estimates of $15 million, Huizenga shoots back: "Hell, I wish!" He then admits he has probably invested more than $75 million, counting the 1,700 adjoining acres he hasn't developed, but which would make the property more attractive to a developer if he or his heirs ever chose to sell. Huizenga, who usually shoots in the low- to mid-80s on his course, admits he has his moments. "When I shoot a 90, I think, 'Screw this. Just sell the place,"' jokes Huizenga, who has whittled his handicap down to around a 12.
To anyone who would come down on him for spending so lavishly on a private golf course, he says: "I busted my butt all my life building companies. I have a friend who's my age (65), and the last thing we say when we hang up is 'QTR' -- 'quality time remaining.' I don't know how many years I'll be able to play golf, so I'm going to enjoy every minute of this."
The Floridian gives him a lot to enjoy. Spread over 300 acres, the course -- with its sweeping views of the St. Lucie River -- sports two helicopter pads, two guest cottages, a deepwater marina, a sprawling four-story clubhouse, and lush landscaping. "I gave my wife an unlimited budget on the clubhouse, and she exceeded it," he deadpans. Inside, Huizenga displays a lifetime of memorabilia, including the 1997 World Series trophy from the Florida Marlins (a team he has since sold) and trophies for the club's "Huizenga Open," whose past winners include Wall Street banker Robert F. Greenhill.
It's clear he has spared no expense on the course: Huizenga shrouded the unsightly cart paths behind screens of plants, and interspersed whimsical bronze statues of children and golfers. As he pulls up to the 15th tee, he points to the field of scrub brush on the left. "See that?" he asks. "That used to be a road. Our maintenance shed was on the other side, so our workers had to keep crossing the road. Plus, the traffic was pretty distracting when you were trying to tee off." After the state refused to reroute the road, he agreed to do it himself.
For all his passion for golf, Huizenga didn't pick up a club until age 40, and even then he played just a half-dozen or so rounds a year. But in the early 1990s, the golf bug bit him, and he began working hard to shave his handicap. After hiring Player, Huizenga asked only that he build a tough, fair course that weekend golfers like himself and his friends could manage. "I told Gary, 'Don't put any bunkers in front of the greens. I want my ball to roll up."' Player agreed to put no bunkers on the opening hole, and on other holes tucked most of the traps to the side and back of the large greens -- so as not to penalize golfers who hit it straight but short.
Similarly, Player sculpted the fairways to include wide landing areas, advising Huizenga that he could bring in the rough over time as his game improved. "Unfortunately, we still have those wide landing areas," Huizenga sighs. "I'm still spraying the ball around."
Huizenga worked with club pro John McNeely to straighten out his slice and add more punch to his short, looping tee shots. Now, having traded in his Ping TiSI Tec driver for one with a stiffer shaft, Huizenga hits his drives with a lower penetrating trajectory -- and lots of roll. On this Saturday in early March, Huizenga's driver is hot. On the front nine, he keeps all of his drives in the fairway and on the seventh hole -- a par five that stretches 485 yards -- Huizenga, with the wind at his back, blasts his drive 285 yards to set up an easy par.
But Huizenga's true strength is his short game. Playing from the 6,636-yard "Dolphins" tees, the Miami Dolphins owner keeps his drives in the fairways but misses the green with his approach shot on each of the first five holes. Thanks to good wedge play, he chips to within a few feet of the pin to save par on holes one, four, and seven. With another par on the ninth, Huizenga cards a 41 at the turn.
Huizenga settles down on the back nine. On the 373-yard 10th hole, he opens with a 240-yard drive and then knocks a seven-iron to within 10 feet of the hole for another par. He pars the next four holes as well, nearly holing out his chip on the 13th. With bogeys on the 15th and 16th, and a par on 17, Huizenga approaches the last hole within reach of his personal best, a 79.
But on the 18th hole -- a 495-yard par five -- Huizenga sprays his tee shot into the bunker that stretches along the left half of the fairway. He recovers with a long wood out of the sand, but once again just misses the green. He lips out his par putt, giving him an 80 for the round. Given the Floridian's 130 slope rating, that equates to an 8.2 index for Huizenga.
Huizenga has no time for celebrating. After a quick sandwich on the Key West-style veranda overlooking the St. Lucie, he hustles out for a second round with Bill Esrey, until recently CEO of Sprint Corp. By borrowing a couple of juiced-up carts used by his maintenance crew -- which can hit 25 miles an hour -- "Bill and I can take separate carts and play nine in 50 minutes," Huizenga says. With that, he is gone, off to enjoy some of the quality time remaining.
By Dean Foust