Charting Your Own Course

Ever dream of your own golf haven? It just takes land, sand, and pluck -- oh, and millions

It would rank as every golfer's dream: a club where there's no wait for a tee time and where you never have to play with anyone you don't like. A course where, if you can't stay out of the greenside traps on the 13th hole, well, just move them.

For most golfers, such a venue will forever be a fantasy, but not for the dozen or so wealthy executives who have built their own courses -- a list that includes Blockbuster Entertainment founder H. Wayne Huizenga, casino mogul Steven Wynn, and Re/Max International founder Dave Liniger. Even for those execs who allow in enough members to defray the operating costs, having controlling ownership means you can avert the political battles that rock many country clubs. "It's kind of a one-vote deal -- me," jokes Jeff Shearer, who after retiring as an executive of Bennigan's and Blockbuster, built his own $12 million course, Lost Dunes, in southwestern Michigan.

For many of these men, having their own course is not just the ultimate status symbol -- which it is -- but also a reward for years of hard work. Jerry Rich, who made his fortune building one of the first integrated computer systems for Wall Street traders, recalls playing at Augusta National Golf Club with a friend. When Rich mused about how great it would be to become a member, his friend said curtly: "Forget it. You have to be invited by the board, and it's just about impossible to get in." Rich returned home and told his wife: "I don't think I'll ever be a member at Augusta National. So I'm going to build my own."

Rich contracted with a prominent designer, but when the staff was weeks late with the first assignment -- designing a simple pond to go in front of the clubhouse -- Rich took on the project himself. He began devouring every book he could find on course design. In 1988, he built his first three holes -- and added a few more every couple of years. In 1998, Rich finished the 18th hole at his $20 million Rich Harvest Links in Sugar Grove, Ill., which Golf Digest ranks as one of "America's 100 Greatest Courses." Rich Harvest Links turned out to be a blend of styles that borrows not only from Augusta National -- Rich even built a replica of the champions' locker room -- but there are also the sandy waste areas of New Jersey's Pine Valley and the tight, oak-lined fairways of Medinah, outside Chicago.

In hindsight, Rich isn't sure he recommends going it alone without an architect: "Designing and shaping and getting a hole just like you want it -- there are a lot of sleepless nights." And the trial-and-error approach means lots of error: Rich estimates that of the 102 bunkers on the course, he had to redo roughly 80.

So what does it cost for such a vanity project? The biggest cost, not surprisingly, is land -- and you'll need lots of it. Never mind that St. Andrews was compressed into a mere 80 acres. Today, you'll have a hard time finding an insurer who will provide liability coverage for any course on less than 150 acres. Shearer paid an average of just $7,000 for each of the 253 acres on which he built Lost Dunes -- or roughly a third of what he says some friends spent to build a resort course in Florida. Still, the acquisition process can get complicated when the sellers realize they're dealing with a well-heeled executive. When Herbert V. Kohler Jr., CEO of plumbing giant Kohler Co., approached a local utility that owned the 500 acres along Lake Michigan he coveted for a Scottish links-style resort course, the company agreed to sell only if Kohler could produce a similarly large tract to trade for it. It took Kohler nearly 18 months of negotiations with local farmers to secure the parcel, and he ended up paying more than he anticipated.

Once you've bought the land, the work has just begun. Architectural fees can easily run $1 million to $1.25 million if you want Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, or another top designer. It will cost a couple hundred thousand dollars if you're willing to entrust your project to a young designer still trying to make a name. Environmental engineering fees can vary from $60,000 to $1 million, depending on which state you're building in, while the sheer act of moving dirt and installing the proper drainage and irrigation systems can easily top $1.5 million.

Then there's the sand for bunkers ($200,000 to $600,000, depending on the number), construction of the 18 greens (as little as $6,000 for a small, basic green to as much as $60,000 each for larger greens meeting USGA design standards), a maintenance facility ($500,000), mowers and other equipment (a minimum $350,000), and a clubhouse ($1 million-plus). And all that doesn't include money for landscaping, where "the sky's the limit," according to Clyde Johnston, a Hilton Head Island (S.C.) architect. Johnston says he can build for as little as $3 million -- getting you "a decent course but nothing to shout about. For that, you can easily spend $8 million to $10 million without the land." Oh, and figure on an additional $500,000 to $2 million a year for maintenance, an expense that ultimately led builders such as Rich and greeting-card entrepreneur Mike Keiser to bring in small groups of members to share the upkeep.

Don't expect huge tax breaks. Boston attorney Stephen J. Small, a former tax specialist at the Treasury Dept., warns against tax schemes that "rely on grossly inflated appraisals that require the owner to say he's giving up the right to build 3,500 homes, a hotel, a conference center -- even when the course is really in the middle of nowhere."

Not surprisingly, clashes sometimes develop between the entrepreneurs who are used to having total control and the designers accustomed to building for faceless corporations that don't micromanage every step they take. Johnston, the architect, recalls a course he built for a wealthy individual on the East Coast. The client, who ultimately opened his course for outside play, refused to widen the fairways, built small greens with bent grass rather than with the Bermuda grass that Johnston recommended, and cut corners on the grading. "He kept saying: 'I can't afford that. And the golfers don't need it."' But some of the fairway grass died from lack of sunlight, the course flooded after heavy rains, and the tiny greens couldn't stand up to the wear and tear of weekend play. "He tried to spend 75 cents on the dollar, and he didn't get his money's worth," Johnston says.

From the executives' perspective, big-name designers often waste money in their pursuit of perfection. "A lot of architects don't give a darn about the budget. If there are five grades of timber, they say: 'Let's use the most expensive timber,"' says Re/Max founder David Liniger, who decided in the mid-1990s to build a course on 222 mountainous acres in Sedalia, Colo. Liniger entertained proposals from famous architects, but gave the task to a local designer, James J. Engh, whom he had met in a tournament. The two spent days hitting balls off the steep overlooks on the rugged property to know where to run the fairways.

Liniger admits his desire to save as much of the scrub oak and ponderosa pine as possible pushed Engh to great lengths. "We had to dig the root balls with backhoes and then come in with 90-foot cranes. We burned quite a number of clutches," Engh recalls. Their reward was the $30 million Sanctuary Golf Club. Liniger uses the course for Re/Max functions, but mainly opens it to charities -- which have raised $15 million.

For all the psychic pleasures of owning a private course, some of these builders have left themselves an exit strategy. That has meant leaving enough space alongside fairways for houses, which would allow them to sell to a residential developer.

Some, having created a course for themselves, are now itching to build for a broader audience. After constructing The Dunes Club near Lake Michigan in 1988, Keiser, co-founder of Chicago's Recycled Paper Greetings, has since opened Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, two links-style resort courses on the Oregon coast. Liniger says he hopes to do the same. "It would have to be dramatic, not just another city course that's blah," he says. With any of these executives, there's little chance it would be.

By Dean Foust

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.