For $450,000, Golf Bliss and CEO Buddies

Ultraluxe Liberty National is the course many want to play but few can.

January 08, 2009, 12:18 AM

June 14, 2007 — -- Augusta National? Eh. Pinehurst Resort? It's OK. Oakmont -- the course where the U.S. Open golf championship kicks off today? It's all Tiger's. Hard as it may be to believe, a new club carved out of a toxic wasteland in Jersey City trumps them all.

When New York's tycoons and titans want to play golf, Liberty National is where they go — or at least, where they want to go. But with a maximum membership of just 300, the ultraluxe club overlooking the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty probably won't have room for all of them.

At a cost of $150 million, the budget for the 1-year-old course dreamed up by former Reebok CEO Paul Fireman and his son, Dan Fireman, surpasses the price tags of courses built by casino mogul Steve Wynn outside Las Vegas and Donald Trump in Los Angeles. Golf Digest senior editor Ron Whitten said the course was one of the most expensive in American golf history.

And, it shows. Click here to see photos.

The designers hope the game doesn't end on the green. When Liberty National's add-ons are complete in 2009, including residential towers, a rooftop ecolounge, a gourmet restaurant and a luxury hotel, Dan Fireman, CEO of course-builder Willowbend Development, envisions a golf experience like no other.

"We live in a different paradigm where people can play golf and do things that never existed," he said during a break between rounds on a steamy June afternoon. "What we've tried to create is a lifestyle."

That lifestyle, of course, doesn't come cheap. A Liberty National membership costs an initial $450,000, with annual dues of $25,000. Despite, or more likely because of, the fees that dwarf those of almost every course in the country, Liberty National has attracted high-profile members including presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, real estate mogul David Simon, Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone and the NFL's New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Fireman hinted that the club's roster included many more household names. But when Liberty National's golfers fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with access to the course, they also get anonymity if they want it.

"It's something that we keep very private," Fireman said of the club's membership list. "A lot of people who are members are presidents of public companies and they really don't want to have the negative connotation of, 'What are you doing squandering all this money on a golf club?'"

What do members get for all that money? According to Fireman, they get the ability to play a world-class a stone's throw away from their corner offices. All have access to Liberty National cars that can take them from the concrete jungle of Manhattan to a private boat docked at a nearby port. From there, it's just 10 minutes to golfing bliss.

Because while the club's members have piles of money, most don't have much time.

"A lot of these people are victims to their calendar," Fireman said. "I think what they truly appreciate about this is it gives them the ability to relax. People like the idea that they can come here, play nine holes after work, then go back and see their kids."

And soon, Liberty National's members will have the option of never leaving. Three residential high rises, currently in the planning stages, will allow golf lovers to literally live, breathe and play the game. Though the 36-, 43- and 50-story towers will stand in Jersey City, they'll have all the trappings of luxury Manhattan apartments.

"A lot of people are going to be very surprised at the quality," Fireman said. "We're going to have this sort of eco-environment on the top floor of the 36-story tower that overlooks the city. It'll have an ecolounge with a whole planetarium and this beautiful balcony."

Also in the works is an ultraluxe clubhouse that the creators hope will be far removed from the stale vibe of most country clubs. The multistory construction, slated to open in 2008, will boast a gourmet restaurant by "Top Chef" judge and New York City restaurateur Tom Colicchio, a cigar lounge and a martini bar with views of the Manhattan skyline.

Fireman seems to be crafting the ultimate fraternity for business bigwigs, and like any exclusive social circle, getting in is a job in itself. To become a member of Liberty National, it's not enough to just cough up $450,000 in cash — potential candidates are usually referred through existing members and undergo a five- to six-week-long interview process.

"We require that people come out to see the course and go for a drive. It gives us a chance to get to know them," Fireman said. "We don't solicit. We don't advertise. We go on word of mouth. We do get some calls, and we'll interview them and give everyone the same consideration."

Fireman insisted he was not trying to keep people out.

"We're not snobby, but we are careful," Fireman said. "You get one bad seed and it really can contaminate the whole bunch."

Like a good stock portfolio, Fireman has built up Liberty National's membership with care. With 65 people currently in the club, he anticipates membership will grow to 250 or at most 300 in the coming years. But with members bent on anonymity and exclusivity, Fireman thinks they may pay to make sure the club's gates eventually get locked.

"At some point the membership may say, 'Hey, we don't want anymore members, we'll buy out the rest of the membership,'" Fireman said. "They want to preserve the exclusivity, and more importantly they don't want it to be overplayed."

Though Liberty National's gilded gates may keep out a lot of golf lovers, there is one way everyone can experience its grandeur: through the TV, when the club hosts the Barclays PGA tournament in 2009.

"Having a tournament really opens it up to the public and lets them see some of the best players in the world play here," Fireman said. "Even though maybe you can't play on it, you can at least experience it by watching the pros play."

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