Two months after Tom Kite won the 1992 United States Open, the crowning achievement of his Hall of Fame golf career, he was playing in a law firm’s company outing near Baltimore. A lawyer at the event asked Kite if he had ever designed a golf course. Kite just so happened to have a fledgling course design firm, partnering with the veteran architect Bob Cupp on several projects.
The lawyer’s face brightened, and after the round, he returned with an aerial photograph.
“He rolled it out and said, ‘Here is the Lower Manhattan skyline and here’s the old immigration clearinghouse on Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty off to the left, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge reaching over the New York Bay behind it that connects the boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn, and here’s our site,’ ” Kite said. “And it was like, ‘Whoa.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
The lawyer, who worked for British petroleum company Lasmo, said he had access to federal Superfund money to transform a toxic waste dump into a golf course.
When Kite visited the raw, 160-acre site for the first time a month later, his jaw dropped at the iconic views in the distance. But behind him stood a string of grimy refineries belonging to oil companies interested in exiting their polluted grounds. For a time during World War II, the land was used as an ammunition dump. One storage warehouse had been property of the Gambino crime family.
“It was the most despicable piece of property you’ve ever seen,” Kite said. “Bob later said that every travesty known to man took place on that site. It is here where the architects built Liberty National Golf Club, an engineering marvel and one of the most expensive golf courses ever built. The property that once oozed with chemical sludge and toxic waste this week will host to the Presidents Cup, the biennial competition between 12-man teams from the United States and the rest of the world outside of Europe.
Reclaiming the land was no easy task. More than 90 routings were sketched before the permits were approved. By that time, many of the original parties had lost interest, moved on to other jobs, or died. Kite and Cupp were left to resurrect the project by finding a new owner.
“It had the location and these incredible views so all you had to do was find somebody with really deep pockets that would dream with you,” Kite said.
In stepped Paul Fireman, who had turned Reebok into one of the biggest athletic-shoe companies in the world. When he first saw the property, Fireman decided within five minutes to buy it. But it took several more years to manage the environmental obstacles, negotiate with state agencies and acquire the remaining land. Fireman, chairman of Fireman Capital Partners, said “it took an act of Congress” to seal a deal to buy 40 acres from the adjacent Army reserve base.
When construction started, plastic covered the contaminated area of the property. More than 3 million cubic feet of soil and sand were brought in to create a protective cap. Liberty National was Fireman’s Fields of Dreams. “It’s incredible to think that my grandparents came through here and the first thing they saw was this land,” he told Fortune in 2005. “And today I am building this golf course. That’s the American dream.”
These days, Fireman is less sanguine, describing it as an ambitious project, “maybe a little foolhardy,” he said.
To avoid the contaminated ground water, even the lakes and streams are built above the protective cap. Subterranean mechanical devices continue to test the groundwater. About 5,000 fully grown transplanted pin oaks, golden maples and flowering pears were planted.
“It is as far away from the minimalist golf courses that are in vogue right now as you can get,” Kite said. “But it took a piece of property that was a liability to the state of New Jersey and turned it into a real asset.”
Liberty National opened on July 4, 2006, almost 14 years after Kite’s first visit. Including the construction of a 65,000-square-foot glass-and-steel clubhouse modeled after the Sydney Opera House, the course cost “north of $300 million,” said Fireman’s son, Dan, managing partner of Fireman Capital Partners.
Paul Fireman likes to stroll on the veranda outside the library overhanging the 18th green for the view of the Manhattan skyline. Cupp, who died last year at 76, considered Liberty National his crowning achievement, and marveled at how the Statue of Liberty was a mere 2,000 yards from one of the greens. Not everyone shared Cupp’s enthusiasm for Liberty National. The course hosted the Barclays, a FedEx Cup playoff event, in 2009, and the pros criticized the layout.
“Who designed it?” Robert Allenby said. “Was it his first?”
Tiger Woods reportedly joked to his pro-am group that Kite, who wore thick glasses during his prime, must have designed the course before he had Lasik eye surgery. If that wasn’t bad enough, a 2012 Golf World survey asked pros to assess 52 courses that hosted Tour events, and Liberty National finished last.
“They should have left it as a dump,” one anonymous pro said.
Kite admitted he was not surprised by the criticism.
“We are PGA pros,” he said. “You have to be able to bitch a little bit. If you can’t do it, you can’t get your Tour card.”
Fireman always envisioned hosting one of golf’s premier events. The negative reviews were damaging, but the visual splendor won out.
“The Tour came to us and said, ‘Look, the good news is we want to come back. The bad news is you’re going to have to make some changes, and I said, ‘Hey, that’s within our control,’ ” Dan Fireman said.
Completed in 2011, the redesign consisted of 74 changes, including three greens being rebuilt to lessen the severity of the slopes. The course hosted the Barclays again in 2013, but the Australian pro Geoff Ogilvy said if the 2009 setup was too severe, the one in 2013 was a cupcake.