Fairway to Heaven?

The PGA Tour visits Jersey City’s ultra-exclusive Liberty National Golf Club in August. What will pro golfers, and the masses, find there?

As players approach the 14th green at Liberty National, they can focus on the dense rough, or enjoy the inviting view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
Courtesy of Liberty National Golf Club.

One might presume that Paul Fireman and his son, Dan, don’t have the greatest timing. After all, this is not the best economic climate in which to be selling $500,000 memberships to a golf club that cost $150 million to construct just three years ago.

But the founders of Jersey City’s Liberty National Golf Club don’t seem worried. “It goes without saying that we’re going through one of the most challenging economic periods in our lifetime,” says the low-key Dan Fireman, 37. “However, ironically…we feel very good about where we are as a golf club.”

Where they are is on the doorstep of national attention. This very private club—currently with approximately 90 members—will be introduced to the general public in late August when it hosts the Barclays, the first of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff tournaments.

When Liberty National opened on July 4, 2006, the sky appeared to be the limit. Paul Fireman, the former Reebok CEO and chairman, was projecting his new club could potentially become another Augusta National—home of the Masters tournament. “I want to produce a Rembrandt,” he told the Wall Street Journal. Liberty’s accoutrements included $1 million worth of Belgian-stone cart paths.

The Manhattan skyline views were, as the saying goes, priceless. The Statue of Liberty stood in all her glory less than 1,000 yards from the 18th green. Lady Liberty even graced the club’s logo.  In strode well-heeled founding members—reported to include Rudy Giuliani, Eli Manning, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, oil scion Billy Getty, and venture capitalist Kenneth Langone. Plans called for a clubhouse inspired by the Sydney Opera House, a luxury hotel, and a three-tower residential complex, with the least expensive condo starting at $1.5 million.  Those heady days seem forever ago. At a time of blistering rage against Wall Street excess, Dan Fireman acknowledges that compromises have been made. The $60 million clubhouse has been completed, but the hotel and residential towers have been put on the back burner.   

Things could be much worse. The Firemans sold Reebok to Adidas in February 2006—superb timing, as it turned out—in an all-cash deal worth $3.8 billion. The family’s cut: $800 million. Liberty National was the prime beneficiary.  “We chose not to use leverage or other traditional methods that were used to do real estate projects at that time,” Fireman says. “Liberty is very shored up and stable. We’re continuing to find ways to reduce our carrying costs and our operating deficits to make this course long-term sustainable.”
Such accounting jargon is a long way from the bravado of May 2007, when Fireman told the New York Times, “Tiger Woods wants to conquer everything out there. Until he conquers Liberty, he hasn’t.” Today’s more measured tone reflects the dramatic recent implosions on Wall Street and the fairways.

Fireman claims that LNGC’s membership goal is about 300, and emphasizes that only two members have resigned since Liberty’s launch. Contrary to rumors of a drop in initiation fees in 2009, Fireman says the price has been raised from $450,000 to $500,000.  “Arguably, you could have increased it more, but you had to increase it,” he says. “You had to argue that you were getting more, even though times are bad.”
Adding value for members is the newly opened clubhouse.  “In some ways, it’s as impressive, if not more so, than the golf course,” Fireman says. “It’s a clubhouse like no one has ever seen.”

This may not be hyperbole. The typical high-end clubhouse is a stately brick or stone structure meant to evoke the club’s storied history—real or imagined. Liberty’s glass structure, ship-like in form and taking full advantage of the unparalleled views of New York Harbor and downtown Manhattan, is unabashedly modern and forward-looking.

The clubhouse is being counted on to support the club’s bottom line by hosting member, corporate, and not-for-profit events—although limited in number to “maintain the exclusivity and selectivity of it all,” Fireman says. While the proposed hotel has been removed from the mix for now, the club is moving forward this summer with a 36-unit townhouse project near the clubhouse. Liberty also recently added private ferry service from Wall Street’s mega-yacht marina, North Cove, complementing its three other West Side ferry routes and its helistop. Post-Barclays, of course, the members also will enjoy the bragging rights of belonging to a PGA Tour host course.

At the same time, the club has made concessions to the current economic climate. New members can now pay off their initiation fee in stages over five years, and guest fees have been eliminated for at least the 2009 season. Fireman also indicated that the club has become increasingly willing to open its doors to prospective members via high-end outings and more preview rounds. Liberty seems less intent on keeping the world at arm’s length, even if it’s still not recruiting golf’s huddled masses. “We recognize that we need to get creative in giving people the opportunity to play and experience Liberty,” Fireman says. “Part of our goal is to build the community and build the membership even in this tough time.”

It’s reasonable to ask whether those able to shell out a half-million dollars to join a golf club are of a mind to do so, given the new national aversion to lavish spending. “It hasn’t yet reached the point of insanity where we’re telling the presidents of corporations—titans of industry—that it’s a bad thing for them to do what they want with their money and join a private golf club,” says veteran industry analyst James Koppenhaver, president of Pellucid Corporation, based in Chicago. Still, Koppenhaver has been taken aback by anecdotal evidence of elite private clubs struggling. “The biggest surprise to me is that the big-boy clubs are in fact suffering. When I hear that the most established blue-blood golf clubs are…willing to open their doors for outings, it tells you there’s a bigger impact than expected.” 

In August, Liberty National will open its tee boxes to the world’s best golfers. No one doubts that the waterfront setting and skyline backdrops will impress even the most jaded pro (and fans behind the ropes or in their living rooms), nor that the clubhouse will dazzle, nor that the state of the art facilities and world-class dining will ensure a memorable experience for players and their families. The big remaining question: How will the $150 million golf course be received? 

The initial response to the Bob Cupp/Tom Kite design among media tastemakers was rather muted, especially if viewed (borrowing Wall Street lingo) from a price-to-rewards ratio. The course has yet to emerge on any of the major golf magazines’ Top 100 honor rolls. It ranked only seventh on Golf Digest’s Best New Private Courses of 2007 list (behind two other metropolitan-area courses, top-ranked Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island and—no doubt more galling—fifth-rated Bayonne Golf Club, LNGC’s neighbor).

Liberty National’s stratospheric construction costs, high membership fees, and guarded attitude toward much of the press likely put off a few ink-stained wretches. Conceived as a tournament-ready course, Liberty is an extremely challenging layout for the average golfer, with narrow, curving fairways and smallish greens that are hard to hit even on the rare calm day. There are holes, like the painterly 14th, a 150-yard par 3 along Upper New York Bay, that are as beautiful and unique as any in the world.

But frequent eye-popping visuals aside, no one would mistake Liberty National for an ego-massaging members’ course: At its core are brawny par 4s that separate golf’s Masters of the Universe from the mailroom boys.

Some of the reserved reception may owe to the fact that Liberty National—built upward on a flat, 160-acre site formerly graced by an oil refinery—runs counter to the prevailing trend toward minimalism in course architecture. Many of golf’s better-known architecture critics now prefer layouts that are more found objects than marvels of engineering. Brad Klein, architecture editor of Golfweek, finds that Liberty National has “a manufactured look to it…like a course you’d build in Florida.” Still, Klein expects the course to look “spectacular on television,” and the pros—who “have a visual orientation that’s about comfort and ease and the ability to adjust to the course”—will find Liberty National “appropriate and pleasing.” As a course built with world-class players in mind, it could be argued that in this instance the opinions of pros should trump the critics.

Soon enough, everyone from major champions and potential members to weekend duffers and curiosity-seekers will have an opportunity to weigh in on Liberty National’s merits. Dan Fireman will have “the showcase for the course that we always hoped for.” He has no doubts that the club—which he has described as more of a legacy than a business venture—will be generously received, just as he remains confident in the project’s long-term prospects.   “I can’t say when things are going to turn,” he says. “But I know that if you build it the right way, and you have a great product, it’s going to work.”

Evan Rothman is a former executive editor of Golf magazine.

Click here to read Going Clubbing—a recount of a local businessman’s attempts to join elite NJ golf clubs.

Click here to read Recovery Shot—a piece on how golf clubs are faring in this economy.

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