Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 23, 2021

A Golf Course For The 1%

A case can be made that Liberty National Golf Club was an entirely appropriate setting for the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust tournament.  After all, the event, which wasn’t decided until Tony Finau prevailed over Cam Smith after one hole of sudden-death early Monday evening, thanks to Hurricane Henri sideswiping greater Gotham on Sunday, was the first leg of the Tour’s three-part season-ending playoff that is open only to a select number of players.  Just the top 125 golfers, based on the year-long competition for FedEx Cup points qualified for the Northern Trust, and that number will be reduced to 70 at the BMW Championship before a mere 30 get to play for the $15 million prize that goes to the eventual FedEx Cup winner.  That fat check is in turn but a portion of the $70 million bonus pool that will be distributed to the top 150 golfers in the final standings.  Compared to the long string of zeroes on the winner’s payout, the $70,000 that goes to each player ranked from 126 to 150 seems puny.  Then again, those guys don’t even have to tee it up over these three weeks to see their bank accounts fattened by just a shade less than last year’s median U.S. family income.

While the words “exclusivity” and “wealth” aren’t embossed in gold leaf above the doors to Liberty National’s futuristic glass and steel clubhouse overlooking New York harbor, there’s no doubt they are the watchwords of the private country club, making it the perfect venue for hosting the elite of the golfing world in their quest for phenomenal riches.  Although the haul that awaits even the last golfer standing at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta two Sundays from now pales next to the earnings of the captains of finance, industry, and entertainment who comprise Liberty National’s membership.  The club is the product of Paul Fireman’s lifelong love of the game and ability to see fairways and greens where virtually anyone else would have seen an industrial wasteland.

Fireman grew up in the working-class city of Brockton, Massachusetts, where he caddied at the local club.  While working in his family’s sporting goods business he met the owner of the English running shoe company Reebok, then a relatively minor player in a U.S. market dominated by Nike.  Fireman bought Reebok’s U.S. sales rights in 1979, and by 1984 he owned the rapidly growing company.  By the time he sold his no longer little shoe company two decades later, Fireman had invested in a handful of golf courses, and, in 1995, had also purchased a mile-long strip along New Jersey’s Hudson River shoreline.  The view looking east from his acquisition was spectacular, taking in the nearby Statue of Liberty as well as the familiar skyline of Manhattan across the harbor.  But the site itself was much less scenic.  Having housed everything from a World War I ammunition dump to an oil refinery, the property was little more than acres of contaminated soil on which sat vacant warehouses and decaying oil tanks.

Not surprisingly, it took a massive investment of $300 million to make Fireman’s vision a reality.  The land was stripped clean of structures, and the contaminated soil was covered with a plastic barrier.  Six million cubic feet of clean fill was brought in, raising the site by some fifty feet.  That allowed course architects Tom Kite and Bob Cupp to sculpt a rolling layout with even a few elevated tees and greens among the eighteen holes that wind tightly around several large, man-made ponds.  The breathtaking views are omnipresent.  On days when the pin is on the left side of the green, the best targeting advice on the par-3 2nd hole is “aim for the Statue of Liberty’s torch.”  From the raised tee on the dogleg 10th, out at the farthest edge of the property from the clubhouse, the best line for one’s drive is at 1 World Trade Center, rising above all other buildings on the horizon.  Both the par-3 14th and the par-4 closing hole play along the edge of the Hudson, with the water and the sights beyond a constant distraction to any golfer, whether a Fortune 500 CEO in a weekend foursome or a touring pro fighting to advance to the next round of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Of course, anyone willing to drop $300 million on building a golf course really can’t be faulted for showing off their wealth a little bit.  At Liberty National, that excess is seen most clearly on the cart paths.  Yes, the cart paths, which for many recreational golfers are dirt or gravel lanes at their local muni, or, if one is more upscale, strips of blacktop at a private country club. Winding from the 1st tee to the 18th green, the Liberty National cart paths are extra-wide thoroughfares of individually laid paving stones.

Despite that ostentatious touch, a day spent touring Liberty National during Friday’s second round left the impression of a playable course.  To be sure, the layout can be stretched to nearly 7,400 yards when the PGA Tour stops by.  But from the green “Member” tees, it measures a little over 6,200 yards and plays to a rating of 72.2 with a slope of 134.  And from the white “Regular” tees, which one suspects are where a lot of the members actually tee it up, the course is just 5,748 yards, and rated 69.6/120, numbers that are respectable but not daunting.  Perhaps the best evidence that Liberty National is not a brute came in Saturday’s third round.  Shortly before Henri came calling and disrupted the schedule, Australia’s Smith vaulted up the leader board by shooting a course record 60, a round that was one missed birdie putt on the final green away from golf’s magic score of 59.

Come to think of it, while the initial investment of $450,000, plus $25,000 annual dues, probably rules out a Liberty National membership for On Sports and Life anytime soon, investing $300 million in golf may not be all that unusual.  That number feels close to what many duffers believe they’ve spent on new equipment over the years.  Some of us hackers just can’t resist the siren call of ad campaigns that promise this year’s technology will produce drives that fly twenty yards farther down the fairway than was possible using last season’s model.  And since year after year after year those marketing promises are always true, the 580-yard tee shot from my newest driver sure is awesome to watch. Even if it is only in my mind, and at a course with dirt cart paths.


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