Jerry Rich is the Richie Rich of golfers, a man so wealthy he built a course just for himself and his friends. As one might imagine, Rich Harvest Links, part of his 1,600-acre estate 50 miles west of the Chicago Loop in Sugar Grove, Ill., is no ordinary course. For one thing Rich designed it himself, hiring for the construction a mom-and-pop company that specialized in excavating basements. For another, until he completed the course in 1998, it had only six greens, to which Rich ingeniously built multiple fairways and tees so that each of the holes could be played as a par-3, a 4 or a 5, providing endless variety.
Rich, a four handicapper who says he's "61 and holding," was first exposed to golf in the '40s when he worked as a $2.50-a-bag caddie at Brookwood Country Club in Wood Dale, Ill. He got hooked on the game a few years later, while playing for York High in Elmhurst. The idea for his own course came after a trip to Augusta National. "I said to myself, Gee, what a wonderful job they've done with this," Rich says. "To a golfer it's a five-star facility. I didn't know anything about the club, so I asked a member how one became a member. He said, 'You don't ask; you get invited.' I didn't get it, so I asked for an application. The member said, 'We don't have one, and Jerry, I wish you wouldn't ask any more questions.' That's when I understood. When I got home, I told my wife, Betty Ann, 'I don't think I'm ever going to become a member at Augusta National. We'll build our own course.' "
No problem. Rich had made a fortune by developing computer terminals in the late '70s that enabled stockbrokers to monitor disparate information on a single screen. He retired in 1988, after merging his company with Reuters and buying eight farms that became his Sugar Grove estate.
Nowadays, Rich is intent on turning the place into a real golf club. There are 25 members, and Rich plans to add 25 more. (As at Augusta the club has no applications to fill out, and if you have to ask how much it costs to get in or what the dues are, you can't afford to belong.) Several farm buildings have been turned into charming guest quarters. One cottage, which overlooks a small man-made lake, has a thatched roof. Another, a Georgian-style mansion, has been renovated to house an elegant dining room downstairs with guest suites above. Across the road are stables that will soon be transformed into a locker room.
A staff of 45 tends to the 7,446-yard (145 slope, 76.7 rating) course, which is meticulously maintained even though on a busy day only a few foursomes will play it. Rich uses the pro shop to show off some of his antique carriages. (He's especially proud of an English coach from the 1850s.) Rich Harvest is also home to his antique car collection, which includes a dozen Ferraris, nine Lamborghinis, five Corvettes, two T-birds, a gullwing Mercedes and, his favorite, the 1986 English-green Rolls Royce used by Princess Di whenever she visited the U.S. A full-time mechanic keeps the cars running, so Rich can take one for a spin when the mood strikes him.
Lest you get the wrong idea, Rich Harvest is more than a diversion for a guy with a lot of money and time on his hands. Rich says his current goal is to land a significant tournament, and to that end he has already planted a field with bluegrass (a hardy grass suitable for a parking lot). He has his eye on the Western Amateur, which is under contract until 2003 at Point 0' Woods in Benton Harbor, Mich., and ultimately a Tour event, maybe even a major.
Remembering his caddie roots, Rich is also intent on spreading the golf gospel. "I learned things as a caddie-honesty, integrity—that I used in business throughout my life," he says. "I went to college [ Northern Illinois], and I can't remember any course that taught me those things."
Rich is particularly fond of, and active in, Hook a Kid on Golf. The program, which introduces youths to the game, has spread to 29 states and Canada. He started the foundation that funds the operation in Illinois, where last year 1,500 kids attended five-day clinics. Now he would like to see Hook a Kid spread to all 50 states. Unlikely? So was Rich Harvest Links.