In Dedman's view, "Most of what is out there is being pushed by a small number of lawyers interested only in their own aggrandizement." At Pinehurst Country Club, Dedman says, "the overwhelming majority of the members are very embarrassed about the lawsuit. That is typically the case."
In fact, though, more than 3,000 of Pinehurst's members (55%) have contributed to a Membership Defense Committee, raising more than $400,000 to cover the legal fees arising from their suit against ClubCorp. The crux of this debate centers on a 1980 consent decree that guarantees the members half of all tee times and puts a ceiling on dues increases, tying any increases to the cost-of-living index. ClubCorp contends that the consent decree applies only to those who were members when the decree was handed down, which would cover fewer than 1,000 people, since Pinehurst memberships are typically tied to home-sites and often transferred. Last month a North Carolina Superior Court agreed with the members' contention that transferred memberships should also be covered under the decree. ClubCorp filed its appeal at 8:30 the next morning.
"They don't go gently into the night," says David Bland, an attorney who has spent 10 years representing the Raintree Country Club of Charlotte in various judicial motions against ClubCorp. Raintree succeeded in forcing ClubCorp to give up its lease on the club and, as part of a settlement, pay a penalty for what amounted to trespassing, because ClubCorp had used some of the club's land to build a cellular phone tower without the blessing of the homeowners association. "Once they move onto your property, it takes an act of God or an act of Congress to get 'em out," Bland says.
Last year's Times article claimed that in the preceding two years 10% of ClubCorp's clubs had been involved in some sort of litigation with the parent company. Terry Taylor, ClubCorp's chief legal officer, calls that number inflated and says that about three clubs are now embroiled in any legal action. "The vast, vast majority of our members are thrilled with the service they are receiving," he says.
This may be true, but ClubCorp's aggressive stance in dealing with the dissidents seems to highlight whatever disputes may exist. Robert Dedman is unapologetic. "Just because we have a great reputation, people think that if they make a few grandiose statements we'll cave in and pay their blackmail," he says. "We can't afford to do that. We have had people go to obnoxious lengths to try to get a settlement. We have zero tolerance for that behavior. Our philosophy, to quote one of our former Presidents, is millions for defense but not one cent for tribute."
Dedman is obviously referring to the Pine-wild case. When asked specifically about it he says, "What it came down to was that the guy pushing all that was a nut." That would be private detective William N. Graham, the self-styled Fat Man who has made a career out of his eccentricity, appearing on Late Night with David Letterman and 20/20, to say nothing of his starring role in the nightmares of various ClubCorp executives.
ClubCorp first bought an interest in Pinewild in 1987, but four years later was bought out by Tohato, and in the exchange ClubCorp got an annual fee to manage the club. According to the Journal, Tohato's reason for filing the lawsuit was because ClubCorp was using Pinewild for spillover play from Pinehurst without compensating the club, and that ClubCorp was mismanaging Pinewild in hopes of running it into the ground so that the club could be bought on the cheap. When Tohato hired Graham, things turned personal. He kept a photo of Dedman on his desk, telling the Journal, "I just want this guy nailed to the wall." In August 1997 Graham sent a fax-blast across the nation on Tohato letterhead detailing an alleged 33 "civil and criminal violations" that ClubCorp was supposedly engaged in, charges that were at the heart of Club-Corp's libel suit.
Soon reporters for The Times and the Journal started snooping around. "I have no respect for Graham as a human being," says Taylor, "but I will say he was effective at pushing his agenda." He admits to great personal satisfaction in sticking it to Graham and says, in what sounds like a boast, "I hear he's relocated to South America."
In fact, Graham is alive and well and working out of Seneca, S.C. Bound by the settlement's confidentiality agreement, he would not comment for this story except to say, "I've just been through the s—-storm of the century, and I'm lucky to have made it out alive."
The clouds above Pinewild, mean-while, have finally lifted. Tohato has brought in another management company, and life has returned to normal around the club. "It's like in The Wizard of Oz, when the Wicked Witch is finally killed," says Glynn, who recently played a round at Pinewild. "All the Munchkins are out celebrating."