To get from his home in Laurel Springs, N.J., to the parking lot at Bethpage Black, Ed Cybulski drives north on the New Jersey Turnpike, crosses the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn and then cuts through the heart of Long Island. The trip takes 2 1/2 hours each way, and when Cybulski twice made the journey during the last week of May, he was careful to stay near the speed limit, trying to squeeze a little better mileage out of his 1996 Ford Thunderbird, which has just under 100,000 miles on the odometer and a noisy front-end rattle that registers every pothole. Soft-spoken and slight of build, Cybulski, 49, has a personal aesthetic so simple that he doesn’t own a cellphone. Golf is his only bad habit, which only partially explains why he awoke in the Bethpage parking lot four mornings in a row hoping to snag one of the six tee times that are famously set aside every day on a first-come-first-served basis. His doggedness paid off when at 8:09 on Sunday, May 31 — the last day the public could play the Black before it was shut down for its U.S. Open primping — Cybulski teed off with a couple of buddies on a glorious, sun-kissed morning.
“It’s pretty special [that] we get to walk where Tiger is going to walk in a couple of weeks,” said Cybulski, a 6.4 handicap. He was striding down the Black’s 5th fairway, chasing after one of his sweeping draws. “That’s what this place is all about. We are public golf course players, always have been. We’re never going to get invited to a fancy club like Winged Foot or Shinnecock. But when you play the Black for one day, you can pretend you’re playing the U.S. Open.”
On Cybulski’s third morning in the Bethpage parking lot, at about the time he was peeling off his blankets and corkscrewing out of the backseat of his Thunderbird, another golfer was readying for a round in altogether different circumstances. Jim Clark was reclined on a yacht belonging to Liberty National Golf Club, a very private facility that will make its public debut in August when it hosts the Barclays, the first of the four FedEx Cup playoff events. Clark had been picked up at Manhattan’s 79th Street Boat Basin — a quick ride in a chauffeured car from his expansive apartment on Fifth Avenue — and was to be ferried to Liberty National, which is perched on the edge of New York Harbor in Jersey City, N.J. The club is accessible via the Turnpike, but the more elegant manner of arrival is the 10-minute boat ride down the Hudson River, past the gleaming towers of Wall Street and right under the nose of the Statue of Liberty, with views of the Verrazano and beyond.
With his golden tan and blond hair swept back rakishly, Clark radiated bonhomie, and he wore his wealth as comfortably as a vintage Patek Philippe. He is habitually referred to on Page Six of the New York Post as a techno-billionaire, and Clark’s adventures in Silicon Valley, including the cofounding of Netscape, turned him into the antihero of Michael Lewis’s best seller The New New Thing. Clark dropped out of high school to join the Navy and now owns a private fleet that includes one of the largest yachts in the world — the 292-foot, three-masted schooner Athena, which came with a price tag of $100 million. Clearly Liberty National’s $500,000 initiation fee is not a big deal for a man of Clark’s means.
On the ferry ride to the club he told the story of why he hadn’t taken up golf until three years ago, at age 62. “I grew up poor in Plainview, Texas,” Clark began, reminiscing about how he never had the required 75 cents for admission to the community pool. One day he was offered three quarters to caddie at Plainview’s nine-hole golf course. After one loop Clark was eager to collect and head to the pool when he was informed that a game meant 18 holes and he was expected to go around again. Clark refused, and his player begrudgingly tossed him 25 cents. Said Clark, “I concluded that all golfers were arrogant a——-, and from that day on I had no use for the game. Then three years ago I met a woman and she got me into it.” You can’t blame Clark for his change of heart; the woman who reintroduced him to golf is Kristy Hinze, 28, the SI swimsuit model who a few months ago became Clark’s fourth wife, in a lavish four-day celebration in the Caribbean.
Bethpage and Liberty National are very different worlds, obviously, but a deep love of golf defines both. The 2002 U.S. Open, the first one held at the Black, was a smash hit because diehards such as Cybulski provided its soul (and noisy sound track), as the gallery collectively felt an unprecedented bond with the course. Liberty National may not inspire the same fevered devotion among the lucky few who get to play it, but the course’s very creation makes it one of golf’s grandest passion projects, an audacious vision of how an otherwise unusable piece of earth can be transformed into something beautiful.
The land on which Liberty National sits has a long history of neglect and abuse, dating to at least World War I, when it was used as an ammo dump. In the ensuing decades it served variously as a junkyard, a petroleum-tank farm and the site of massive storage warehouses, one of which was a base of operations for the Gambino crime family. In the early 1990s a movement arose to rehabilitate the New Jersey waterfront, and a golf course was deemed one of the few appropriate uses for the Liberty National land. In ’92 Tom Kite, fresh off his U.S. Open victory, and his course-design mentor, Bob Cupp, were asked to scout the site, which had become an environmental disaster oozing toxic waste and littered with rusted-out cars, abandoned couches and a vast array of other detritus. “It was the junkiest piece of land I had ever seen,” Kite says. “But if you could ignore the smell and all the garbage, it was an unbelievably exciting opportunity because of the location. To build a course framed by the New York skyline, with the Statue of Liberty just offshore — we knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Kite and Cupp spent years designing and redesigning and tweaking and fine-tuning the proposed course through every step of a mind-numbing permitting process. By 1998, a new course with a residential component had been more or less approved, but no one seemed to have the will or the money to see the project through. Enter Paul Fireman.
Twenty years earlier, not long after his sporting goods distribution business had faltered, Fireman mortgaged his house to borrow $35,000 to secure the North American rights to sell an obscure brand of British sneakers named Reebok. Fireman ultimately bought the company and took it public, landing him on the Forbes billionaire list.
When he was a kid, Fireman had caddied at Thorny Lea Golf Club in his hometown of Brockton, Mass., sparking a lifetime love for the game. In the late 1980s Fireman bought a house on Cape Cod and he applied for membership at the Oyster Harbors Club, an old-money enclave that dates to the 1920s and boasts a Donald Ross course. Fireman was never welcomed into the club and later told The Boston Globe that he felt he had been blackballed because he is Jewish. So Fireman bought a course a few miles down the road from Oyster Harbors, upgraded it and sought out a diverse group of would-be members. The Willowbend Country Club opened in 1992 and was the first in a portfolio that would swell to a dozen courses in the U.S. and Caribbean. Fireman was thunderstruck when he first laid eyes on the Liberty National site. “Within five minutes,” he says, he resolved to build a world-class course there. “I knew it would be my legacy.”
The 140 acres Fireman ultimately purchased were dead flat and only 10 feet above sea level at their highest point. After the land was cleaned up and decontaminated, the soil could not be disturbed, so the course and all of its infrastructure had to be built from the ground up. Nearly every day for 18 months 200 trucks hauled in sand and soil, about two million cubic feet in all. In places Liberty National now rises 52 feet above the water level. “You can’t believe how much money we spent simply on dirt,” says Fireman, laughing as if to keep from crying.
Liberty National opened on July 4, 2006, a stirring mix of holes defined by a liberal use of water hazards, knee-high native grasses and imaginative green complexes with devilishly fast putting surfaces. The views are arresting. On the 2nd hole, a 219-yard par-3, the Statue of Liberty seems to hover just off the back edge of the green. The CBS coverage of the Barclays figures to be nothing less than golf porn.
Ever mindful of being inclusive, Fireman has invited a local high school to play matches at Liberty National, and the course has hosted numerous local and regional tournaments. At the expense of a couple of million dollars, a 1 1/2-mile public bike path was built along Liberty National’s waterfront, linking two Jersey City parks that club members figure never to visit. Last fall the $25 million clubhouse opened, a sleek, modern rethinking of what a 19th hole should be. Its huge set of stairs is available to the public as a prime viewing spot for July 4th fireworks over New York Harbor. For all of these efforts to court the local community, Liberty National was never destined to be a public course.
To recover his $250 million, Fireman hopes to sign up 300 members, but so far fewer than 100 have joined, though it is a glittering roster that includes New York icons Eli Manning and Rudy Giuliani as well as New England Patriots owner and longtime friend Bob Kraft, LPGA star Cristie Kerr and Phil Mickelson (who likes to hold his corporate outings at the club). There is a strong Wall Street element at Liberty National — no surprise given the proximity — and even with the economy in shambles the club has lost only one member.
This fall construction will begin on three-dozen waterfront golf villas to be built in the same style as the clubhouse. (Up to 2,500 housing units have also been planned.) “I am looking forward to getting my money back,” Fireman says, “but this project has never been about money.” The Barclays no doubt will be helpful in recruiting new members and generating interest in the villas, but Fireman considers the tournament a different type of audition. “We want to have a number of big-time events here,” he says. Already under way is a strong push for the 2013 Solheim Cup — Kerr’s husband’s marketing firm has been retained to lobby the LPGA — and Fireman shares the same dream of every deep-pocketed course visionary: a U.S. Open. “That would be the ultimate,” he says. But as Donald Trump and others have discovered, you can’t buy a U.S. Open. You have to earn it. The same can be said of a tee time at the Black course.
At bethpage, Ed Cybulski went on to shoot a hard-fought 95, but the rigors of the course were nothing compared with the difficulty of making it to the first tee. His Bethpage odyssey had begun days earlier, in the wee hours of Thursday, May 28, when he made the late-night drive to the Black while blasting classic rock to keep himself awake. He arrived around 4 a.m., parked in the numbered stalls to secure his place in line for Friday morning’s tee times and promptly fell asleep in the backseat. Cybulski spent most of the day reading (an unholy combination of golf magazines and a book of Lincoln speeches) and that evening was joined by John K. Mack, his longtime golf buddy and brother-in-law. Among friends, Mack goes by Jack, to distinguish himself from his son John, who also came along for the Bethpage adventure. On Friday morning they were to be the fourth group out on the Black when a powerful thunderstorm closed the course for the day. Heavy-hearted, Cybulski and the Macks drove home. That night Cybulski was watching TV when his wife, who is pursuing a master’s in nursing education, announced that she would have to spend the weekend working on a paper. Ed hopped back into his car at around 10:30 p.m. and returned to Long Island. “It’s crazy, I know,” he says, “but once you get the idea in your head to play Bethpage, it’s hard to get it out.” On Saturday morning Cybulski’s was the second car in the queue for Sunday morning’s times, behind Kevin Atieh, a 20-year-old Georgetown undergrad who had arrived seven hours earlier to save a spot for himself, his two older brothers, Mike and Steve, and one of their Wall Street pals. (Another friend, Rob Salaki, would be summoned to join Cybulski’s threesome.) Later in the day the Macks rejoined their vigilant buddy, and that night the parking lot overflowed with conversation and adult beverages. “There’s so much camaraderie,” says Jack Mack, “because we’re all there for the same reason. Everyone’s excited, talking about the course and their games and what might or might not happen the next day.”
One group brought a card table and stayed up late smoking cigars and playing poker. The Atieh boys and their friends had an impromptu frat party. “They had some kind of bottomless cooler,” says Cybulski. “I never saw them put beer in, but they kept taking it out.”
By contrast, Jim Clark has paid a handsome price to avoid this kind of communal experience. “One of the things I like about Liberty National is that there’s usually no one out there, and I can play at a good pace,” Clark says. Would he ever consider sleeping in his car to secure a tee time? “I can’t imagine having to wait half an hour for a tee time,” he says.
On the morning of May 31 Steve Atieh was the first to tee off, at 8 o’clock, in front of about three-dozen fellow golfers and assorted curious onlookers. Given the size of the crowd and Steve’s lack of sleep, his stiff back and his possible hangover, it’s no wonder that he cold-topped his drive. Up next was his brother Mike, who slashed a big slice into the village of corporate tents that had already been erected. Ryan Bolard followed with a snipe into the left rough short of the fairway. Only young Kevin Atieh, who had been in the parking lot for the preceding 38 hours, had the mettle to hit a decent drive.
Cybulski and the Macks were up next and, idling by the tee, they made nervous small talk.
“Look at this tee box — it’s spectacular,” said Cybulski.
“The nicest we’ve ever played,” said Jack Mack.
“It’s like carpet.”
The out-of-state green fee of $120 is “the upper end of what we’ve ever paid for a round of golf,” Cybulski said. But, he was quick to add, the experience was worth every penny.