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June 14, 2009
At New York City's two Tour venues—one for the people, one for the privileged—the price of entry is dear, but the rewards are great. Which is better?
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June 14, 2009

Public Vs. Private

At New York City's two Tour venues—one for the people, one for the privileged—the price of entry is dear, but the rewards are great. Which is better?

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The 140 acres Fireman ultimately purchased were dead flat and only 10 feet above sea level at their highest point. After the land was cleaned up and decontaminated, the soil could not be disturbed, so the course and all of its infrastructure had to be built from the ground up. Nearly every day for 18 months 200 trucks hauled in sand and soil, about two million cubic feet in all. In places Liberty National now rises 52 feet above the water level. "You can't believe how much money we spent simply on dirt," says Fireman, laughing as if to keep from crying.

Liberty National opened on July 4, 2006, a stirring mix of holes defined by a liberal use of water hazards, knee-high native grasses and imaginative green complexes with devilishly fast putting surfaces. The views are arresting. On the 2nd hole, a 219-yard par-3, the Statue of Liberty seems to hover just off the back edge of the green. The CBS coverage of the Barclays figures to be nothing less than golf porn.

Ever mindful of being inclusive, Fireman has invited a local high school to play matches at Liberty National, and the course has hosted numerous local and regional tournaments. At the expense of a couple of million dollars, a 1½-mile public bike path was built along Liberty National's waterfront, linking two Jersey City parks that club members figure never to visit. Last fall the $25 million clubhouse opened, a sleek, modern rethinking of what a 19th hole should be. Its huge set of stairs is available to the public as a prime viewing spot for July 4th fireworks over New York Harbor. For all of these efforts to court the local community, Liberty National was never destined to be a public course.

To recover his $250 million, Fireman hopes to sign up 300 members, but so far fewer than 100 have joined, though it is a glittering roster that includes New York icons Eli Manning and Rudy Giuliani as well as New England Patriots owner and longtime friend Bob Kraft, LPGA star Cristie Kerr and Phil Mickelson (who likes to hold his corporate outings at the club). There is a strong Wall Street element at Liberty National—no surprise given the proximity—and even with the economy in shambles the club has lost only one member.

This fall construction will begin on three-dozen waterfront golf villas to be built in the same style as the clubhouse. (Up to 2,500 housing units have also been planned.) "I am looking forward to getting my money back," Fireman says, "but this project has never been about money." The Barclays no doubt will be helpful in recruiting new members and generating interest in the villas, but Fireman considers the tournament a different type of audition. "We want to have a number of big-time events here," he says. Already under way is a strong push for the 2013 Solheim Cup—Kerr's husband's marketing firm has been retained to lobby the LPGA—and Fireman shares the same dream of every deep-pocketed course visionary: a U.S. Open. "That would be the ultimate," he says. But as Donald Trump and others have discovered, you can't buy a U.S. Open. You have to earn it. The same can be said of a tee time at the Black course.

AT BETHPAGE, Ed Cybulski went on to shoot a hard-fought 95, but the rigors of the course were nothing compared with the difficulty of making it to the first tee. His Bethpage odyssey had begun days earlier, in the wee hours of Thursday, May 28, when he made the late-night drive to the Black while blasting classic rock to keep himself awake. He arrived around 4 a.m., parked in the numbered stalls to secure his place in line for Friday morning's tee times and promptly fell asleep in the backseat. Cybulski spent most of the day reading (an unholy combination of golf magazines and a book of Lincoln speeches) and that evening was joined by John K. Mack, his longtime golf buddy and brother-in-law. Among friends, Mack goes by Jack, to distinguish himself from his son John, who also came along for the Bethpage adventure. On Friday morning they were to be the fourth group out on the Black when a powerful thunderstorm closed the course for the day. Heavy-hearted, Cybulski and the Macks drove home. That night Cybulski was watching TV when his wife, who is pursuing a master's in nursing education, announced that she would have to spend the weekend working on a paper. Ed hopped back into his car at around 10:30 p.m. and returned to Long Island. "It's crazy, I know," he says, "but once you get the idea in your head to play Bethpage, it's hard to get it out." On Saturday morning Cybulski's was the second car in the queue for Sunday morning's times, behind Kevin Atieh, a 20-year-old Georgetown undergrad who had arrived seven hours earlier to save a spot for himself, his two older brothers, Mike and Steve, and one of their Wall Street pals. (Another friend, Rob Salaki, would be summoned to join Cybulski's threesome.) Later in the day the Macks rejoined their vigilant buddy, and that night the parking lot overflowed with conversation and adult beverages. "There's so much camaraderie," says Jack Mack, "because we're all there for the same reason. Everyone's excited, talking about the course and their games and what might or might not happen the next day."

One group brought a card table and stayed up late smoking cigars and playing poker. The Atieh boys and their friends had an impromptu frat party. "They had some kind of bottomless cooler," says Cybulski. "I never saw them put beer in, but they kept taking it out."

By contrast, Jim Clark has paid a handsome price to avoid this kind of communal experience. "One of the things I like about Liberty National is that there's usually no one out there, and I can play at a good pace," Clark says. Would he ever consider sleeping in his car to secure a tee time? "I can't imagine having to wait half an hour for a tee time," he says.

On the morning of May 31 Steve Atieh was the first to tee off, at 8 o'clock, in front of about three-dozen fellow golfers and assorted curious onlookers. Given the size of the crowd and Steve's lack of sleep, his stiff back and his possible hangover, it's no wonder that he cold-topped his drive. Up next was his brother Mike, who slashed a big slice into the village of corporate tents that had already been erected. Ryan Bolard followed with a snipe into the left rough short of the fairway. Only young Kevin Atieh, who had been in the parking lot for the preceding 38 hours, had the mettle to hit a decent drive.

Cybulski and the Macks were up next and, idling by the tee, they made nervous small talk.

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