"He was a little too sure of himself back then," says Marcia, "but everything worked out." They were married a mere two years later, when both were 17. "She was the homecoming queen, I was the football star. It seemed like the thing to do," says Colbert. He sold insurance after graduating from Kansas State in 1964, but a year of peddling policies convinced him that he should try his luck on the PGA Tour. By this time he and Marcia had three daughters. The decision to quit his day job was not one he made casually.
Nor, at first, did it appear to have been well reasoned. He won $1,897 his first season and almost lost his Tour card. He came back to earn $25,425 in '67. Two years later he won his first tournament, the rain-delayed Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Fla., edging Deane Beman on a Tuesday. "Of course, no one knew about it," says Colbert. "By the time we finished, the only person around was the shoeshine guy, waiting for his tip."
Colbert won three more tournaments over the next five years, and life got easier. In 1975, he began working with Jimmy Ballard, a swing doctor from Pell City, Ala. The collaboration yielded the finest golf of Colbert's career. But he was already suffering from the back problems that would severely limit his playing time from 1976 to '78. With an eye toward life after professional golf—this was before people realized there needn't be any such thing—Colbert, in 1974, accepted a spot on the Tournament Policy Board, a post he held for 14 years.
Much of the board's work during that time involved the creation of Tournament Players Clubs. Colbert had the opportunity to work with "players" of a different stripe: the chairmen of Coca Cola, the Eaton Corporation, Westinghouse, Citibank. This experience served as Colbert's primer on the Art of the Deal. "I got my M.B.A. sitting on that board," he says.
Colbert had a yen to get into the golf course business. There was yen to be made in the design and management of private courses, but, he says, "guys like Palmer and Nicklaus had worked that street pretty good." Colbert decided that his future would be in public golf.
In 1980 a friend informed him that the lease on a ratty municipal course in Las Vegas had expired. The course had gone to hell under the previous leaseholders, making the city reluctant to farm it out again. Colbert flew to Vegas 23 times, wooing the director of Parks and Recreation, members of the city council and the mayor, telling them, "You have a chance to help make it great." In the end they were swayed by his enthusiasm...and the $450,000 letter of credit he wangled out of a Kansas City bank.
Colbert got the course and he got to work, overhauling the irrigation system, refurbishing the clubhouse and replacing the greens. He talked his old friend Ron Fogler, a club manager from Manhattan, Kans., who also happened to be a chef as well as a PGA pro, into joining him and running the course. Colbert's business career was off to a nice little start.
In 1984 a second Las Vegas course, this one county-owned, became available, and Colbert pounced. He dubbed the course Desert Rose and borrowed $1.1 million to make improvements, including the rebuilding of two flood channels. After all, the course sat in what the locals called a "100-year flood plain," meaning the area floods about once a century. Colbert figured that you couldn't be too careful.
That summer he played in his only British Open. As a treat, he and Marcia returned on the QE2. At breakfast on the third morning of the cruise, fellow passengers started commiserating with Colbert about the terrible floods in Las Vegas. Colbert, who didn't know what they were talking about, sprinted to a phone.
Floodwaters had destroyed a partially completed flood channel and carried off hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expensive soil. Desert Rose needed $1 million in repairs.