Sam Pate was selling business forms in Greenville, SC when opportunity knocked in the form of a par-3 golf course that was eventually called Crosswinds Golf Club. Sam reached out to world-renowned architect John LaFoy to design the course. And John reached out to some of his colleagues — including Bob Cupp, Pete & Alice Dye, Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay, Tom Fazio/Tom Marzolf, Rees Jones, and Clyde Johnston — to each design one hole. In the following golf conversation, Sam explains how Crosswinds was created … and sold … and bought … and, well, it’s complicated!
Golf Conversations: What were you doing before you built this golf course? You weren’t in the golf business, were you?
Sam Pate: No. I had a sales job.
GC: How did you come to build/buy the course?
SP: The downtown airport is just across the Interstate from where this property is.
SP: Right. And I’m a friend of the Executive Director at the airport. He and I had been out to lunch and he pointed this property out to me. He said, “That’s been one big headache. We can’t put anything else in there because of the noise restrictions.”
And they had to clear cut the trees out of here. The neighbors were complaining. It was just a mess. He said, “I wonder what else I could put in there?”
And I said, “A par-3 golf course would be a possibility but I doubt you have the room.”
He said, “It’s 29 acres.”
And I said, “Well, you might have the room.”
GC: Had you known anything about golf? Had you been a player?
SP: Yeah. I had played sporadically since I started when I was 27.
GC: 10 years ago.
SP: Yeah, that’s exactly right!
I played 3 or 4 years and I got married. And I’d stop. Then I’d start again and have a child and stop again. I’d play for a few years then stop for five. But I’ve always enjoyed it.
GC: So you were familiar with the concept of a par-3 course?
SP: Yes. Because golf is so prevalent in this area; I’ve kept up with the trends. The Executive Director of the airport put a bid out to develop this property. Myself and a few other people were awarded the bid for a lease on the land.
GC: Was it one of those situations where the city is required to take the best offer?
SP: Yes. They also looked at financial stability and other factors. And I had met John LaFoy – who was the president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. I got in touch with my banker. To borrow $1.4 million you have to have $1.4 million in the bank.
SP: Yes. Without cash, they don’t have any collateral if they loan you the money.
GC: What about the value of the land?
SP: There’s no value to the land if you don’t own the land. You own the lease, but not the land.
GC: Duh! As you can tell, I’m a real whiz when it comes to finance.
SP: I was fortunate enough to have several fairly wealthy friends so I formed a partnership. Jay Haas was one of the partners, John LaFoy being another. Another friend of mine owned a driving range. I formed a limited liability company and with that group, the bank was more than happy to loan us the money. The signatures were plenty strong enough for them.
I made a proposal and they agreed to lease me the land for a period of time. One of the reasons I got it at a fairly low rate is because they can’t put anything else in here with it being in the flight pattern of the airport.
GC: What year was this?
SP: About 14 years ago, so it would be around 1998.
GC: And these partners … did they have to put up cash or were their good names…
SP: Their signatures were fine. They were all plenty well off.
GC: How much was John LaFoy worth back then? I might have to borrow some money from him.
SP: John didn’t have to put up anything – not even his signature. We gave him, I think, 13% or 16% of the course in lieu of a design fee. It turned out well for him. And when we sold it, it turned out well.
It took us a year and a half to build it. The neighbors were very much against the course because they didn’t understand what was going in here. It’s a blue-collar neighborhood. They had some idea of it being an amusement park with lots of teenagers.
I wasn’t able to explain to them what golfers were like. We had to go to the city council and it was not approved. The next year, we went back to the city council and it was approved and we started construction a year later than we intended to.
John, in looking at the topographic map, thought it would be neat if he got 18 of his architect friends to each design one hole.
GC: But he didn’t have 18 friends, did he?
SP: Everyone he asked, complied. The only person he didn’t ask was Nicklaus. John said he didn’t have the nerve to ask Nicklaus to do it. But all the other ones – Dye, Arnold Palmer – everyone else was happy to do it.
GC: Wow! You must have been over the moon!
SP: Yeah, it cost us 18 lunches to get the 18 signature holes.
GC: When you say 18 lunches, are you talking about McDonald’s Happy Meals?
SP: Whatever John sprung for, we would reimburse him.
GC: Did all the architects come to the site to look at the property?
SP: No. John sent them a topographic map and the requirements for each hole. The one he sent to Pete Dye, for example, they saw that it was about the same length as No. 14 at Harbour Town, which is one of the most famous par 3s in the world.
John got the drawings back from Pete Dye and on the plan there’s a note that says Pete will take credit for this design – just like he took credit for No. 14 at Hilton Head. But the note was written by Alice Dye.
GC: When John got in touch with the other architects, did he decide which designer was going to get which hole?
SP: That’s correct.
GC: And you had known John LaFoy before you got into this project?
SP: Just socially.
GC: In other words, you guys used to hang out at the same bars.
SP: No, no, no! Ken Gurley owned a large driving range here. He knew Jay Haas personally and knew a lot about golf in the area and he was a big attribute to the group. We had an attorney who was also an attribute. And another partner who was very well-to-do.
GC: A total of how many partners?
GC: Five including you?
SP: Yes. We finally started construction and we were moving right along. We started getting some interest from other people throughout the country. Family Golf out of New York owned another facility here and they found out about our par-3 course. They approached us before we even opened and offered to buy it.
We said “No, thanks, we think we’ll keep it.” And after we’d been open 3 months, they came back and offered us substantially more than we had in it. So we let them have it.
GC: You let them have it. Do you want to mention numbers?
SP: They bought it for twice what we had in it.
GC: Which was how much? Come on, Sam. GolfConversations.com readers want to know!
SP: They bought it for $2.6 million.
GC: Is that American money or Confederate dollars?
SP: That’s Yankee money!
At that time, they had 104 courses. Family Golf was started by Dominic Chang who had a background in securities. He was a stockbroker. And the stock rose from 6 or 8 to 28.
SP: It dropped to 2 and they ordered Family Golf to sell 40 of its properties at a federal bankruptcy auction in New York.
GC: What were you doing after you sold the course to Family Golf?
SP: I was playing golf here a little bit and I still had the other job. Everybody got their money back and then a good bit.
GC: You were lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills?
SP: No, no!
GC: So you were taking it easy, playing golf, and then Family Golf went into bankruptcy.
SP: About a year, year and a half later.
GC: That’s 1999, 2000.
SP: And this property was one that was going to bankruptcy court. So I flew to New York to bid on it. There were people there from all over the world who were bidding on the different properties. I waited all day long in the bankruptcy court. The clerk came out 4 o’clock in the afternoon and said, “A bidder has proposed buying all 40 properties.”
So I thought, “What a waste of my time.” I got out at midnight out of LaGuardia and flew back to Greenville. Klack Golf out of Chicago bought all the properties. They had this course for about 9 months. It wasn’t doing well and I wanted to make a proposal to buy it just for myself.
I’m not a very good negotiator and I thought about people that might be good negotiators. So I contacted the accounting firm I use and they said they had a man who would be delighted to do it. He spent about 6 months negotiating with Klack and I got the course back for 17 cents on the dollar. So that worked out really well. I don’t think anyone else knew the potential of the course other than me.
GC: When you say 17 cents on the dollar, that was on…
SP: $2.6 million.
GC: 17% of $2.6 million. That’s very nice. Good for you. That was smart.
SP: It wasn’t smart. It was very fortunate.
GC: You say “fortunate” but I say “smart.” How did you know that this fellow at the accounting firm was a good negotiator?
SP: The manager of the firm told me that “Kent enjoys doing things like that.” So I talked to Kent about it and he got all excited.
GC: Was Kent a golfer?
SP: No, Kent’s not a golfer.
GC: 17 cents on the dollar – he sounds like a stone-cold killer!
SP: Kent negotiated for 6 months and got the property for an extremely low figure. And Kent charged me less than the closing attorney did to negotiate the deal. What a friend he was.
GC: You should have had Kent negotiate with the attorney. This course and you … you just can’t stay away from each other.
SP: That’s right, that’s right! It’s been a lot of fun. I haven’t made a whole lot of money but I’ve had a whole lot of fun. It’s fun trying to think what you can do to increase business.
GC: What about having a topless starter?
When did you get the course back from Klack?
SP: It was about 2002.
GC: You’d never operated a golf course before, is that correct?
SP: I’d run a retail business before. I know how to treat people right, how to work with employees. I’ve hired good people. The manager I have is honest and very knowledgeable about golf. He’s been great. I’ve known him for 25 years.
GC: Tell me about your manager.
SP: Jim Cadieu played junior golf at the same club I was playing. He graduated from college and was an assistant pro at a course in Texas. That didn’t work out; he came back to Greenville and worked here part time for me.
But I sold the course so he became an assistant pro at The Cliffs community. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them.
GC: Oh, yes. I played one of their courses. I think I hooked a ball into Dottie Pepper’s deck.
SP: When I was proposing to buy back the course, I went to Jim Cadieu and said, “If I buy this back, will you be my manager?” And fortunately, he said yes. So that sealed the deal for me to have someone honest and capable of running it.
GC: That was fortuitous.
SP: And he’s been here ever since. He does a great job. I handle the golf professional a little bit differently. A lot of the golf pros never see their sons play soccer, for example. They work 70 hours a week during the golf season.
GC: Yes, they do.
SP: Jim does such a good job, I let him make out his own schedule. He works 40-42 hours a week. If he needs a day off to be with his girls, he arranges it and that’s enough of an inducement for him to work for me rather than going back to The Cliffs or somewhere else.
GC: Are there other employees here?
SP: We have a superintendent … and probably 8 to 10 employees who are retirees. They work 8 to 20 hours a week. They’re always on time, there’s never any theft, everything I could ask for.
I have a fellow who’s in here working part-time Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons just because he likes golf and he enjoys it. That’s what I want. I don’t want somebody in here that doesn’t like work.
GC: Why are you staring at me when you say that?
And the retirees, I’m sure, play for free?
SP: They play for free and their family plays for free.
GC: But that’s it. Friends of the family don’t play for free?
GC: You gotta draw the line somewhere.
SP: Exactly right.
GC: What’s the most enjoyable part of owning a par-3 golf course?
SP: I enjoy doing something worthwhile … and making some money, too. I’m at an age that I’m not gonna do something that I don’t enjoy doing.
GC: I think it would be nice to be part of an industry where people walk in and they’re looking to have fun.
SP: And if they start throwing clubs and using bad language in front of a child, I’ll suggest they take up bowling and not come back here. You need to find another hobby if this isn’t fun.
GC: Have you had instances where you’ve had to ask people to leave?
SP: No, just once a year or so. I take them off to the side, just explain to them, golf should be fun. You don’t want to be out here and get all upset. Then they cool down and understand.
GC: Is the course open 7 days a week?
SP: 7 days a week. In the summer, it’s open from 8 in the morning until 10:30 at night.
GC: The original investors have all departed. It’s just you now?
SP: Just me.
GC: Jay Haas ever drop by?
SP: Jay comes by occasionally. He and his son, Bill, were by maybe 9 months ago.
GC: Do they hold the course record?
SP: They’re nice enough people; they’re not going to say what they shot.
We can set up the course just as hard as you want to. We had a tournament out here that Bill Haas and several other pros played in. It was 2-man team, better ball. You would think that some of the pros could shoot 8- or 10-, 12-under on their own ball. Well, the winning score was 5 under.
GC: I guess you can put the flags in some precarious positions.
SP: That and the greens were cut down a little bit. It’s not a chip and putt like you see at the beach. A lot of people don’t know that until they get here.
GC: That’s good. Golfers want a challenge. How often do you play?
SP: I play 3 times a week here.
GC: Do you ever go to a regulation-size course?
SP: I can embarrass myself here. I don’t have to go to a large course.
GC: I know exactly how you feel, Sam!
Thank you for your time.
SP: Sure did appreciate your stopping by.