In Your Own Backyard

  • Steven Castle

Tim Blixseth stares down from a rocky ledge to a picture-perfect fairway as he describes how he built this course in the hills near Palm Springs, Calif. The 51-year-old timber baron and real estate developer picks up a stick and draws a line in the earth, adding a few curves as he speaks. “A new city planner came here and asked to see my plans. I said, ‘I need a plan?’ He said yes, so I picked up a stick and drew him my plans for one of the holes right in the dirt.” Blixseth straightens and points to the lines at our feet. “I said, ‘There’s my plan.’ ”

That’s the kind of response you would expect from someone who is bold enough to turn 240 acres of desert into the ultimate backyard: a 19-hole championship golf course. (The 19th hole, built at the suggestion of golf pros Dave Stockton and Tom Weiskopf, is used to settle ties.)

Blixseth, who didn’t take up golf until he was in his mid-20s, has created a course that is as diverse in its landscaping as it is stunning in its scenery. You can go from the lush 9th hole lined with palms and 40,000 other tropical plants to the stark desert 10th hole, adorned with all of eight plants, to woodland holes bordered by pines and others punctuated with lakes and waterfalls. The only times you can see another fairway are when you are playing holes 17 and 18.

The 6,800-yard, par-72 course is forgiving, with high containment banks on fairways and wide landing areas to help high-handicappers. However, its long par-3s and its deep, blind bunkers will challenge the more accomplished golfers. “You can shoot well on the course, but 15, 16, and 17 are three of the toughest holes you’ll play in a row,” says Stockton, who also designs courses and helped Blixseth with the layout of a couple of holes. Number 15, the canyon hole, has a tricky 204-yard tee shot; 16 is a long 474-yard par-4; and 17 is an even longer 489-yard par-4.


Leading a tour of the course, Blixseth arrives at the 10th hole, above which the Santa Rosa Mountains loom. He plucks from his bag the Callaway driver that the USGA deemed “illegal” and threads one 220 yards down the middle of the fairway. “That’s the best thing about having your own course,” he says with a smile. “You can play any hole you want, any time.”

Half a continent away, 63-year-old Jerry Rich, former owner of an electronics integration company, enjoys the benefits of his private course, Rich Harvest Links, in Sugar Grove, Ill. On this particular fall day, though, he’s enjoying it with a couple of dozen teenagers who are competing in the Illinois Junior Golf Association tournament.

At 6 feet 5, Rich towers over the group of anxious young golfers as one of them prepares for his drive off the first tee. A moment later, the ping of the driver striking the ball pierces the morning quiet. Rich’s gaze never breaks from the flight of the ball. When it lands on the fairway, he claps and grins along with the rest of the observers.

He’s obviously satisfied, but one suspects that Rich is smiling about more than just a well placed shot. After all, that same day, his estate, Rich Harvest Farms, also played host to a group of inner-city kids as part of the Illinois Hook A Kid On Golf program, which introduces underprivileged children to the game of golf, outfits them with clubs and T-shirts, and provides scholarships if they stay in school, maintain good grades, and stay off drugs. Rich is the founder of the Illinois chapter, and he spends much of his time running the organization and planning its events. “It’s more than teaching kids golf,” says Rich. “It’s teaching them values in life.”


If nothing else, the links show them just how good life can be. The par-72, 6,300-yard-plus course is divided into two nines, called Gold and Silver, and is a challenge for the duffer and scratch golfer alike. There’s the long and hilly 624-yard 2 Gold, with a patch of prairie grass at its narrow elbow that gobbles up golf balls. Perhaps the only thing more intimidating than the name of the 4 Silver hole, Devil’s Elbow, is the view from its tee boxes over a boulder-lined creek to a landing area partially obscured by trees. The par-3 5 Silver requires a shot over a lake to a sloped green with a cornfield beyond it. That’s not bad, but the logical landing area on the green is dominated by a patch of 6-inch-high Kentucky bluegrass. There are touches of whimsy as well. Golfers looking for a yard marker on a sprinkler head on 7 Silver, a long 601-yard par-5, may find one that simply reads “No Way.”

Although Rich’s course is not modeled after Augusta National, the home of the Masters tournament served as his inspiration. He couldn’t join that club, so he created his own. In 1985, the year he sold his company, Rich Inc., Rich bought farmland near his home in Naperville, Ill. He purchased eight farms in all, one with the barn that now serves as the Riches’ home and an old hog shed that has been converted into the clubhouse. Then in 1988, a friend invited him to play at Augusta National—a thrill for a lifetime golfer such as Rich.

“I fell in love with it right away. Everything was groomed to the hilt,” Rich recalls. “I remember asking my friend if there was an application to become a member there. He explained that they didn’t have applications and didn’t know who would be invited to become a member. I came home and said to my wife, ‘Honey, I’d really like to join Augusta, but I don’t think I’ll ever be invited, so let’s build our own Augusta.’ ”


Rich created some holes combining trees and wetlands, then added Scottish links-style holes with pot bunkers and heather fringing its fairways. But most of all, he modeled his course after Stow Acres, then a nine-hole public course in Stow, Mass., that he had played years earlier. “I fell in love with the way it was carved out of the hillside with brooks and streams,” he says. “I thought if I ever built a course, I would want to do one like that.” The main intent, Rich adds, was to give his friends something different and challenging.

He interviewed three golf course design firms to help him with the plans, including Jack Nicklaus’ Nicklaus Design. “They were going to charge me a big fee and have all the fun,” Rich says. “I said I’m going to do it myself and have the fun.”

 

Rich opened his course for limited club membership in 1998 and now has 41 members from various parts of the country. He also built a Georgian-style plantation house with a dining room, bar, and five suites for guests. A larger Harvest Lodge with more spacious locker rooms and more rooms for guests may be next. He may need the additional accommodations if his long-term plans pan out. Rich Harvest Links will host the Western Junior championship, for golfers 15 to 19 years old, in August 2003, and Rich hopes to host the U.S. Amateur, the Senior Amateur, and Senior Open tournaments in the future.

Initially, Rich was going to build only six holes, each with three different tee box locations and some with multiple fairways so they could be replayed as separate holes. “As we got more into it, I got more and more excited by it,” he explains. “Taking something that had been there thousands of years and formed by glaciers and molding it into what it is today was a great feeling.”


Those first six holes were completed in 1989, and Rich and his friends played them for a couple of years—then he wanted more. He expanded the course to nine holes by 1991. Over the course of the next six years, he built two more and finally started construction on the final seven in 1997. “I realized if I ever wanted to hold any type of event in the future,” says Rich, “I would need 18 holes.”

 

Blixseth also talks about small tournaments and charity events he plans to host with some of his friends, who happen to include Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Gerald Ford, and a few Hollywood celebrities. Like Rich, Blixseth owned the land before he had any plans for a golf course, but obtaining that land was a challenge.

His golf course odyssey began seven years ago in Montana, on a 7,000-acre tract of land called Porcupine Creek, which he owned and the U.S. Forest Service coveted. The government offered $2 million for the land, and Blixseth wanted $4 million. An appraisal ultimately set the price at several times that amount.

As part of the sale, Blixseth arranged a land swap for about 120 acres in Rancho Mirage, Calif., adjacent to Palm Springs and stretching up the hillsides of the Santa Rosa Mountains. “When we found this piece of land,” he says, “we figured we could either grow crops on it, develop it, or landscape it into a nice golf course.”

He chose the latter option and named the land that would become his course Porcupine Creek, after the Montana real estate.


Blixseth hired a golf course design company to lay out the routing and sketch an artist’s rendition of the course to present to the city council for its approval. Then the California Department of Fish and Game called. The agency was concerned that the mountain land on which he planned to build five holes was critical habitat for wild sheep. As a solution, Blixseth traded a portion of that land for some other Fish and Game land and purchased another tract from the local water district to enlarge his property to 240 acres. “When we traded the five holes, we had to reroute the entire golf course,” says Blixseth.

The original plans for many of the holes were discarded, and Blixseth began redesigning them in his head and mapping them out with sticks in the sand. Despite his encounter with the new city planner, the city agreed to an as-built permit for the design of his course, which meant he would not have to submit detailed plans.

The next step was to rev up the heavy equipment. “I probably made every mistake you could make,” says Blixseth. “We would grade the holes and build them, then tear them out because it just wouldn’t feel right. It was a great learning process.”

Blixseth received some help from Stockton and Weiskopf. On the first hole Blixseth built, the 474-yard, par-4 16th, Stockton suggested moving the lakes planned for the left side of the fairway to the right, behind the green. “What’s nice about working with Tim is that if you offer him suggestions, he will often take your input and use it,” says Stockton. “I came back a couple of days later and the locations for the lakes I had suggested were already dug. You have to give him credit. He was out there in his shorts on the bulldozer. He was always out there fiddling with it.”


Weiskopf, who is also designing a course for the Yellowstone Club, Blixseth’s private ski resort in Montana, gave him some advice on a few holes, including the 204-yard par-3 15th that starts from elevated tees and shoots down to a canyon green. Weiskopf explains that it’s often difficult to locate multiple tee boxes that look down to a green without one box blocking another’s vantage point. The solution was to build up the green. “We stood on all three tees, and had a guy stand on the green site, and he kept walking up the hill until we could see his feet. I said, ‘There’s your green site.’ ”

Other problems were encountered as well. The local water district had to discard about 300,000 cubic yards of topsoil excavated from a site in the city, so Blixseth purchased it, thinking he had made a great deal. But after spreading the topsoil, he found it contained nut grass seed, making it unsuitable for use on a golf course. Blixseth needed more topsoil, and in a moment of extreme serendipity, he found just about all that he would need while grading the 13th hole. He and his crew excavated enough topsoil to make number 13 an arduous, 543-yard uphill trough that plays closer to 590 yards.

Blixseth bought three nurseries to provide the plants and trees required for the undertaking. He also purchased his own screening machines that sifted the excavated earth and a concrete mixer to help construct walkways and retaining walls. Through it all, he oversaw virtually every detail of the project.

“Tim wants everything perfect. He pays for it to be perfect, and he expects it to be perfect,” says Dave Evans, the director of golf at Porcupine Creek.


 “Tim has the most wonderful imagination. I was with him on the course a couple of months ago, and we were at the guest houses. He said the exteriors were nice, but not quite the way he would like them. He decided on the spot to add a stream in front of the guest houses and around them and down hole number 1 and into a lake. He did in 10 minutes what it would have taken architects and planners weeks to envision.”

It has taken Blixseth a while longer to grow accustomed to being the builder and owner of his own course. “It was hard to play the course at first. I was asking myself, why didn’t I do this? Why did I do that? And you don’t want to make divots,” he says. “When I first started playing it, it killed me to make divots. But I got over that and realized that the grass will grow back.”

Of course, when he does make divots, he makes them on any hole he wants, any time he wants.

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