Online Extra: Teeing-Off in the Shadow of Gotham
Paul Fireman, the founder and CEO of Reebok International (RBK ), has always been a huge fan of windswept-links courses, the kind that run along the Irish and Scottish coastlines. "The winds coming off the water give you a different golf course every day, and that's when golf is most exciting," says Fireman, 61, who has traveled to Ireland to play the great seaside courses such as Ballybunion, Tralee, and Waterville.
So in 1999, when Fireman was shown a blighted industrial site on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, he saw the potential to convert it into a world-class golf course. Of course, it didn't hurt that the site rested no more than a thousand yards from the Statue of Liberty and featured panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline. "The property was just horrible, a hideous mess," he says. "But this was such an iconic location. There were views you could never replicate anywhere else in the world."
Fireman snapped up the 160-acre parcel for an amount he won't disclose and embarked on an improbable mission to convert the toxic land into a high-end golf course for New York's business elite. But even as Fireman readies the course for its official opening next July 4, he's in the process of selling Reebok to Adidas-Salomon for $3.8 billion. (He plans to stay on as CEO.)
The money will come in handy, to say the least. When Liberty National Golf Club makes its debut, it will be one of the most expensive courses ever built, with a price tag approaching $150 million. But with its priceless location, it has already become one of the nation's most talked-about new courses.
"From a location and setting and design perspective, this has the potential to be one of the landmark courses in the country," says David Simon, chief executive officer of mall developer Simon Property Group, who has signed on as a founding member.
In time, it's possible that Liberty will boast a membership roster to rival that of Augusta National Golf Club. In addition to Simon, other founding members include ex-New York mayor Rudy Guiliani, Wall Street investment banker Kenneth Langone, Boston buyout mogul Thomas Lee, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
For an initiation fee of $500,000 and annual dues of $20,000, Fireman is selling not just exclusivity but convenience: He plans to run a high-speed water ferry to get members from the World Financial Center to the course in less than 15 minutes. "The ability to get off of Wall Street at 3:45, tee up at 4, play nine holes, and be home for dinner is unheard of," Fireman says as he walks the course one afternoon in late September.
Even with the steep assessments, Fireman says he didn't go into the venture to make money. "No good businessman would ever develop this course," he says. "But if you look at the great courses of the world -- Pine Valley, Shinnecock [Hills] -- they weren't built to make money. I like to think I'm leaving something precious for posterity."
In this case, posterity includes more than the monied elite. Already, he has promised some of the local high schools in Jersey City that they can use Liberty as a practice venue. "I would be thrilled if we had young people out here, because I want to give back. I was on the golf team in prep school, and we got to play for free at the Kittansett Club, a club in Marion [Mass.] that hosted the 1953 Walker Cup."
WILD BILL'S RAMPAGE.
For Fireman, golf has been a lifelong passion. The son of a sporting-goods distributor, he grew up in Brockton, Mass. ("just a blue-collar manufacturing town"), and at age 10, began caddying at a local country club. "A dollar a bag, $2 for two bags," he recalls. "In the winter, the golfers would pack their bag with nips [of alcohol] and extra clothes, so the bags would weigh 50 pounds each."
In the early evenings, Fireman and his friends would scale the tall fence at a nearby club to sneak in a few holes before dark, much to the chagrin of the club's pro. "His name was 'Wild Bill' Shields, and he would come roaring over the hill in his old Ford Fairlane trying to catch us. But we would always run and hide over in the trees because we knew he couldn't see well."
During his teenage years, Fireman also became exposed to the ugly side of golf. "At the age of 14, on the ninth hole, in the middle of the course, I was asked to leave because they had realized I was Jewish," he recalls. He still wonders if he fell victim to the same prejudice in 1990 when he applied to a club on Cape Cod. After a member invited him to join, Fireman submitted his application, then saw it inexplicably languish. "I never got into the club, but I can't say why. I do know they had restrictive policies in the past," he says.
So when another course on Cape Cod, Willowbend Country Club, fell into bankruptcy in 1991, Fireman bid $9 million in a sealed auction -- and won. In the years since, he has taken pride in building an inclusive club with a diverse membership. "At any course I own, there are no blackball policies," he says. "At Willowbend, we have people of color and people of moderate means who all have a wonderful time."
Willowbend only whetted his appetite for the golf business. In the early 1990s, Fireman formed a course-management company -- run by his 32-year-old son, Dan -- that owned or operated nine courses, mostly in the Southwest and Caribbean. But it was only when he stood for the first time on that site overlooking the Hudson River that Fireman saw his destiny. "It's one chance in a hundred million that you ever come across a piece of land like that," he says.
Fireman plunged into the project with Dan, but the two quickly discovered the immense engineering challenge that lay ahead. Because of the heavy amounts of lead, arsenic, and PCBs in the ground, work crews couldn't shift the existing soil. If they wanted to build any contours on the pancake-flat site, they would have to truck in dirt.
And truck they did, bringing in 3 million cubic yards -- roughly 200 truckloads a day, every day for two years. To provide additional definition to the course, the architects, Robert Cupp and tour pro Tom Kite, put in five man-made lakes, a waterfall, an expensive underground air-duct system to keep the course green during summers, and had 500 mature maple, oak, and evergreen trees planted.
"I told them, 'Whatever you think I want, I want you to take it up another level,'" Fireman says. The result is a 7,400-yard, par-70 course (that will play 6,996 yards and at par 72 from the member's tees) that blends the best of Scottish links golf with traces of traditional parkland architecture. In the second phase of development, Fireman will begin construction next year of a 50,000-square-foot clubhouse and will start selling units in the first of three high-rise condominium towers he plans to build with partner Applied Development.
On a gusty afternoon in late September, Fireman flew in from Boston to play his first-ever round on the course, or at least the eight or nine holes that are completed. He's still a seven handicap, despite playing no more than 35 rounds a year. We start at the 14th hole, a 149-yard waterside par 3 that he expects to bedevil golfers given the gusts blowing in from the Hudson. Fireman launches his shot toward the postage-stamp size green with a 7-iron, which starts at the center of the green, before a gust carries it several yards to the right.
"See how the wind blows? Wind management, that's going to be the real test of this golf course," he says. On the green, he hits his putt too firm, pushing it a good three feet past the hole. He misses the comebacker, leaving him with an opening bogey.
After another bogey on No. 15, and a par on 16, we move to No. 17, a 448-yard par 4 that plays straight toward the Statue of Liberty. Fireman booms his drive a good 250 yards or more on the lush fairway but leaves his approach shot just short of the green.
When my approach shot lands safely on the green, Fireman asks what club I had used. "A Nike (NKE ) hybrid," I answer, before realizing I had committed a faux pas. "I guess that's a four-letter word?" I ask. "Nike is definitely a four-letter word," he smiles.
As we chat during the round, Fireman makes clear his interest in hosting a major championship at Liberty. Indeed, the course was designed to accommodate throngs of spectators as well as space for hospitality tents. But Fireman doesn't worry about what the future may hold for Liberty. "I think this course will find its own destiny," he says as we wrap up the round. One thing seems certain: It will be one of the hottest tee times in all of golf
By Dean Foust in Atlanta