Rison, ARK., is a depressing town of 1,318 in the south-central part of the state known as the River Bottoms, and it was there, during the Depression, that Dedman was introduced to the harsh ways of the world. His youth had all the flourishes of a Dickens novel: The family of six lived in a tiny two-room house with no electricity or running water and a circular tub 22 inches wide in which to bathe. His father's two favorite pastimes were drinking and uprooting the family to chase after a string of ill-fated get-rich-quick schemes. Says Dedman, "He was the living embodiment of that line from Browning, 'A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?' " At an early age Dedman grasped that education and a stout work ethic were his ticket to a better life. When he was 14 he and his younger brother, Phil, went to Dallas to live with an aunt so they could attend one of the city's better high schools, North Dallas, and it was there that he became enthralled with the great poets who shaped his world view and still make frequent cameos in his conversations.
On June 1, 1944, after graduating as North Dallas's valedictorian, Dedman reported for duty in the Navy. D-Day came five days later, and he was able to forgo fighter-pilot school and pursue his studies through a college program for active duty personnel. He was a maniacal overachiever, taking 60 units in his first three trimesters and earning an engineering degree in only one year, all the while playing sailor by day. Over the next three years Dedman kept piling up academic credentials, getting a degree in economics as well as a law degree. When he got out of the Navy the first thing he did was pursue a master's of law in oil, gas and taxation at SMU, while selling insurance during the week and real estate on the weekends. By the time Dedman was in his mid-20s he was a partner in a prominent Dallas law firm, through which he came to the attention of oil baron H.L. Hunt, at the time considered the richest man in the world. Dedman soon became Hunt's righthand man, but it was the proximity to Hunt's fortune that left Dedman feeling as if he were falling behind in an oft-stated goal. Rather fancifully, Dedman had decided during his teens that his life's purpose was to make $50 million by the time he was 50 and then give away a million dollars a year thereafter. "Unfortunately I was finding out that there are only two ways to get really rich as a lawyer," says Dedman. "Marry a rich girl or work your tail off for 50 years and then marry a rich girl." It was during a vacation to Palm Springs with his bride, Nancy—who was many wonderful things, rich not being one of them—that Dedman struck upon the idea that would rocket him to the kind of wealth even he didn't have the chutzpah to dream of.
Dedman caught wind of the real estate craze surrounding the newly built Thunderbird Country Club, on which fairway lots were being snapped up at exorbitant prices. However, in conversations with a few of the investors, he was surprised to hear them complain about how little money they expected to earn, because back then it was a truism that whatever you made on the course you lost in the clubhouse. That's when it hit Dedman like a ton of gold bricks: Why not build three courses around one clubhouse? That way a club could triple the income without increasing the operating costs. The larger membership base would allow the club to charge less per member, thus expanding the pool of viable candidates into the burgeoning upper-middle class families eager to cash in on the good life that came with the postwar economic surge. The idea was as simple as if was inspired. When Dedman got back to Dallas, he put his plan into motion, securing a chunk of land on the desolate outskirts northwest of the city and then unleashing a full-court press on what he termed the upper 10% of the community, instead of just the upper 1% that most country clubs of the day catered to. Within three months he had taken deposits on 2,000 memberships for the Brookhaven Country Club, which established its charter in November 1957, when Dedman was 31. All the upfront money allowed Dedman to build an expansive clubhouse and 54 holes without having to take on a loan. A new philosophy in course management, and a new company, were born.
ClubCorp's early growth was fueled by a couple of factors. For starters, Dedman still fancied himself a lawyer, and as he was initially unwilling to give up his practice, he was forced to put the golf operations in the hands of good people, a surprising number of whom are still with the company. (Beginning in 1965 ClubCorp also branched out into the lower-profile but highly lucrative world of city clubs, which are like country clubs without the golf courses.) Second, the first stirrings of the golf boom had left many country clubs ripe for the plucking. Run as nonprofit entities by volunteer member committees, these clubs were awash in red ink. After Brookhaven, ClubCorp didn't need to build its own clubs. The company simply gobbled up existing ones that were in financial distress. Then, as now, selling to ClubCorp made sense for many memberships. The company had more money for capital improvements, and the individual members didn't have to worry about getting socked with assessment fees. National contracts and bulk purchasing lowered the costs of food and merchandise. Thanks to Dedman's homespun rules—"Every guest is treated like a member, and every member is treated like a king"—enthusiastic service was the highest priority. By the 1970s, ClubCorp also offered reciprocal privileges at its properties.
With this seductive sales pitch it wasn't long before Dedman was tooling around Dallas with vanity license plates that read 30 PCT, which was the rate at which ClubCorp was growing annually. Dedman's not exactly sure when his net worth climbed north of $50 million, but says, "One day I realized, Hell, I'm rich, and I went out and made what to this day is probably the most extravagant purchase of my life: I bought a bunch of cashmere socks. Growing up in Arkansas we didn't have shoes, let alone socks, so I will tell you that cashmere sure felt nice."
ClubCorp hit the big time in 1975. It bought 13 clubs (to run its total to 49), including the Inverrary Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, which was not only the most prestigious acquisition to date but also boasted the cachet of being the venue for a PGA Tour event. "That told the world that we had arrived," Dedman says. In the years since, ClubCorp has begun to horde courses that are part of the pro golf firmament, including Firestone, site of the World tour's NEC Invitational; Mission Hills, home to the Dinah Shore; and Indian Wells, which is part of the Bob Hope Classic rota. The acquisition of Pinehurst also signaled a major shift in strategy. Previously ClubCorp had steered clear of the complexities of resorts, but Dedman persuaded his lieutenants that resorts were simply country clubs with beds. In the wake of purchasing Pinehurst, ClubCorp has acquired large, upscale resorts such as The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., Barton Creek in Austin and Daufuskie Island, off Hilton Head, S.C.
ClubCorp has seen even more varied expansion under Dedman's son, Bob. After a stint on Wall Street, Bob was elected president of ClubCorp in 1989 and in '98 became chief executive officer. (His sister, Patty, is on the board of directors, but has forsaken an active role in favor of her psychiatric practice and three children.) Bob has none of the charisma of his father but has already earned the reputation as a more effective CEO. "No question about it," says Dedman Sr. "Bob is more organized, more detail-oriented than I ever was."
Over the last year, in a flurry of aggressive deal-making, Bob has reshaped the future of the company, forging alliances with other management companies while stepping up ClubCorp's presence in the foreign market and in to-be-builts, original projects in the spirit of Brookhaven. In July 1998 ClubCorp entered into a joint venture with Golden Bear International that could result in as many as 36 new Jack Nicklaus Signature courses, which ClubCorp would co-own and operate. This February the company teamed up with American Golf Corporation, which is the ClubCorp of daily fee golf, to buy 45 properties from Cobblestone Golf for $393 million, the largest acquisition of courses in the history of the industry. In other deals, ClubCorp has kicked in $32.5 million to become the largest shareholder in Canada's ClubLink Corp., which has 23 courses north of the border, and ClubCorp is building a chain of courses overseas in concert with the European tour.
In addition ClubCorp is poised to become a major player in Asia, where the economic upheaval has left a number of prime courses available at a "deep discount," as Bob puts it, trying not to sound too gleeful. In his modest office atop the company headquarters, the kind of monolithic tinted-glass building typical of Dallas, Bob keeps a moody black-and-white photo of a flock of sheep on his wall, his reminder to continue his father's tradition of leadership. "We will never stop acquiring," Bob says. "In this business you acquire or perish."
In Robert Dedman's recently published autobiography, King of Clubs, a book that sags under the weight of his aphorisms and homespun stories, he writes, "We believe in that old Scottish saying that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." It is no surprise, then, that when asked to explain what he calls the "disputation" that has recently engulfed Pinehurst, Dedman dips into his vast library of jokes. "Do you know what happens to lawyers when they take Viagra?" he asks. "They grow taller. That's a hell of a statement coming from a former lawyer."