A golfing paradise built on rubbish and rubble

New Jersey is affectionately called “the Garden State”, but it wasn’t long ago that the land that became Liberty National Golf Club gave credence to the state’s less flattering moniker: “The Garbage State.”

The Statue of Liberty provides a fitting backdrop for this par 5 at Liberty National Golf Club. Picture: Chris Condon

The property that once oozed with chemical sludge and toxic waste this week plays host to The Presidents Cup, the biennial competition pitting 12-man teams from the US and the rest of the world, outside of Europe.

The making of the course is a story in itself: Paul Fireman, the founder of sneaker giant Reebok, purchased the land and financed its construction on the banks of the New York Harbour, overlooking the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Liberty National is a feat of modern-day engineering. It’s more man-made than the Kardashian sisters. When co-designers Bob Cupp and Tom Kite visited the 160-acre site in 1992 for the first time their jaws dropped from the iconic views in the distance.

Behind them, though, stood a string of oil refineries where the ground was infiltrated with petroleum, beryllium, lead and toxic PCBs. The oil companies that owned them had access to federal Superfund money to transform this toxic waste dump into a golf course.

Former US presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama, with golfing legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, greet members of the US team on the first tee yesterday at the start of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club near New York. Picture: Elsa

The clean-up work was lengthy and costly. By the time the land was decontaminated, many of the original parties in the project had lost interest, moved on to other jobs or even died. Kite and Cupp had to find a new owner to keep their vision for a golf course alive.

“It had the location and these incredible views so all you had to do was find somebody with really deep pockets that would dream with you,” said Kite.

Firstly, Fireman had to negotiate buying multiple parcels from several owners and manoeuvre through a complex bureaucratic maze of state agencies that ran from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to the Army Corps of Engineers. Clay and a plastic lining cover the property to contain groundwater. Beginning in 2003, with the oil companies still on the hook for environmental rehab, more than 3 million cubic yards of soil were trucked in to cap the site, followed by another plastic liner and four feet of sand.

That’s one big sand castle. Nearly 100 routings later, ground was broken.

“A lot of water has gone under the bridge,” said Kite. “A lot of contamination has been buried.” Brownfields became golf greens. The price tag: “North of $300m, how about that?” said Dan Fireman, managing partner of Fireman Capital Partners.

Liberty National opened on July 4, 2006, appropriately enough, 14 years after Kite and Cupp’s original trip there. The club is a remnant of the age of excess. Memberships started at $500,000, drawing the likes of Phil Mickelson, LPGA Tour player Cristie Kerr, and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Ferry and helicopter service is available from several Manhattan locations. The golf cart paths are lined with imported Belgian curbstone and the 65,000-square-foot clubhouse is modelled after the Sydney Opera House.

The elder Fireman’s favourite spot on the property? Outside the library overhanging the 18th green, which will play as the 14th this week, for the most stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. Cupp, who died last year at age 76, considered Liberty National his crowning achievement and marvelled at how Lady Liberty was just a mere 2,000 yards (1,829m) from the 14th green, (No 10 this week).

Rickie Fowler of the US plays his shot to cheers from the

crowd. Picture: Sam Greenwood

Cupp once said: “If you aren’t amazed, you need to go to the clubhouse bar and spend the rest of the day drinking.”

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and many of the players were ready to belly up to the bar when it hosted The Barclays, a FedEx Cup playoff event on the PGA Tour, in 2009. For lack of a better word, the pros trashed the layout.

The best barb was courtesy of Tiger Woods. Publicly, he termed Liberty National “interesting”.

“Interesting in a good way?” a reporter asked.

“Interesting,” he replied.

Later, he joked with his pro-am group that Kite, who wore thick glasses the size of TV screens during his prime, must have designed the course before he had undergone Lasik eye surgery. Adding insult to injury, in 2012, Golf World magazine conducted an anonymous survey of pros to assess their views of 52 courses that hosted Tour events or had been recent venues and Liberty National finished dead last. “They should have left it as a dump,” said one professional.

Kite shrugged it off as Tour pros always finding something to complain about, and he compared Liberty National to a beautiful woman.

“You know, you can like blondes and redheads,” Kite mused. “You don’t have to be so exclusive that you only like blondes. Brunettes are pretty good, too.”

Everyone from Tour officials, including former Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, to television executives raved about the setting, as if describing a Hollywood set. In 2011, the re-design, which consisted of 74 changes, including three greens rebuilt to lessen the severity of the slope, was completed.

The reviews improved for the 2013 Barclays, and the course should prove to be a fitting setting for a match-play competition, such as the Presidents Cup.

“I mean, is there a better venue for a tournament like this?” International team assistant captain Geoff Ogilvy asked.

“It would be hard to imagine one, wouldn’t it?”

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