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Has Billionaire Bob Parsons Created Golf’s Wildest Member-Guest Tournament?

Scottsdale National

The Wild West Invitational at Scottsdale National is a member-guest tournament like no other.

Standing over a 5-foot putt to extend her team’s run in the member-guest tournament at Scottsdale National Golf Club, Jolene Gabbay can’t hear a pin drop. At least not when a car horn sounds as she prepares to pull the putter head back. That distraction is followed in quick succession by a loudly crowing rooster, the pounding of a jack hammer, a thumping helicopter and even Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from the movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’ yelling, “Get on your knees, scumbag!”

The sound effects come one after another from three massive speakers atop a beefed-up entertainment cart parked two paces off the green. Queuing up the auditory barbs are two deejays from Hawaii flown in just for the event, while the club’s director of golf carries a wireless microphone to chime in with running play-by-play and witty analysis.

Gabbay drains the putt and the throng of competitors surrounding the green lets loose in celebration. Others begin bobbing and dancing as Devo, one of the burly deejays clad in a black t-shirt, board shorts and flip flops, turns up the volume even further with Flo Rida’s song “My House.” Eventually, amid an almost unceasing barrage of sounds, several teams are eliminated and a sea of golf carts rolls on through the desert to the next hole. The music continues to thump and the drinks flow.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” a guest of one club member says. “This is crazy.”

Welcome to The Stampede, the final round of the Wild West Invitational at the posh and private, yet completely unpretentious, Scottsdale National. The club and the tournament are the vision of Bob Parsons – the billionaire founder of GoDaddy and high-end club-maker PXG – and his wife, Renee, a detail-oriented former event planner who spent 20 years in the hotel business.

Scottsdale National

Bob and Renee Parsons say the Wild West Invitational experience sums up what they want Scottsdale National to be.

Everything at the tournament is centered on creating an experience and bringing the national membership together, and the Parsons dig deeply into their own pocket to make it happen. The competition itself isn’t overly serious – it’s more about throwing a big party, from the expert food and drink pairings to the sumptuous décor. The fashion show and Jimmy Choo shoes gifted to the ladies just hammer home the unique quality of the event.

“I’ve had a couple people tell me they’ve played in maybe 100 of these and they’ve never had this much fun,” Parsons says in an interview at his club, which is about 25 miles northwest of downtown Scottsdale and boasts views of the Superstition Mountains and nearby Pinnacle Peak.

Scottsdale National

Devo with several of the competitors at the Wild West Invitational.

$250 MILLION INVESTMENT

Parsons bought Scottsdale National in 2013 for about $600,000 and famously informed existing members that some among them were playing too much and contributing little to the club. About 60 of the then-175 members accepted a buyout offer and Parsons paid them back, in full, immediately. The changes helped Parsons shape the club’s membership more to his liking and mindset.

In addition to renovations to the previous clubhouse, Parsons enlisted the talented team from Jackson Kahn Design to build a second 18-hole layout – the “Other Course” – to pair with the existing Mineshaft Course, and also added a spectacular 9-hole par-3 course that might be the most diabolical of its kind.

Scottsdale National

Scottsdale National now has two championship courses along with a par-3 course that’s among the most unique of its kind.

With the other projects underway – a second clubhouse and member villas – Parsons will have about $250 million invested in the property. It is money he knows he’ll probably never get back, but Parsons said he’s always had two ambitions: to either own a National Football League team or a world-class golf course. He says he looked into the NFL route, but went for the high-end golf course instead and later dove into the equipment business with Parsons Xtreme Golf, which is headquartered a half hour drive away from Scottsdale National. The initiation cost at the club is $150,000, with annual club dues of $36,000.

“When I acquired the club and conjured up our first invitational four years ago, I wanted it to be really different and fun,” says Parsons, who drew a bit of inspiration from an event at the members’ only Ke’olu course at the Hualalai Resort in Hawaii, where he owns a home. “They do it to a certain degree, but we take it six levels up. I wasn’t sure what the membership would think because some of these people are pretty accomplished, pretty serious. They absolutely loved it.”

DIFFERENT THEMES

The men’s and women’s tournaments are given equal attention, yet have a much different feel.

At the women’s event, there’s a Farmer’s Market theme party with a culinary focus: wine pairings, champagne tower, sushi bar and pastry chef. There’s a fashion show complete with a runway and models, while the participants are gifted designer shoes – Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin and Valentino instead of Footjoys. The idea for the shoes actually came from Bob.

“It was his out-of-the-box idea and I ran with it,” says Renee. “We wanted to be over the top, so we added the Dom Perignon, the ice sculptures, the wine pairings, caviar, a really sort of sophisticated and elegant feel than what’s different than what you normally see at a golf tournament.”

Scottsdale National

The attention to detail at Scottsdale National is second to none.

When the women’s tournament ends, the lighter, whiter décor (along with the crystal chandeliers and fragrant floral centerpieces) changes overnight to a more rustic feel with earthy tones. The men also get heavier food, with choices that include roasted lamb rack, duck bratwurst, slow roasted prime rib, seared scallops and a raw bar. And while there are still wine pairings, there’s also a tequila tasting, cigar rolling and cigar tasting that includes a 12-year-old Oro Blanco that costs $500 and is available in only 12 stores in the country.

As the members and guests mingle at the men’s stag night, there’s a decidedly low-key vibe. And a dress code – or lack thereof — that runs the gamut. In addition to the standard golf attire (shorts and a polo shirt), some are decked out more formally in dress shoes, slacks and a sport coat, while for others a t-shirt and jeans is the apparel of choice.

Scottsdale National

For Parsons, whether with his businesses or his club, the experience is king.

Overseeing the seamless operations is Charles Anderson, who runs a high-end private estate service consultancy and has coordinated staff training (and the development of service culture) at the Pentagon, Camp David and golf clubs including Cypress Point in California. He was part of the opening of the nearby Phoenician, taught at premier culinary schools and has the polished bearing befitting of a theater background that took him to New York and London.

“I’m customizing the style of service, if you will,” says Anderson, who’s been working with the staff at Scottsdale National for four years. “In this club, we refuse to have robotic, invisible wait staff. Everything we do and look at, we’re thinking at in terms of experience.”

That’s an extension of what Bob Parsons seeks to deliver in all his endeavors: an experience. And what you quickly notice is that the Parsons have surrounded themselves not only with talented people to deliver that experience, but they’ve established strong relationships and friendships with them over the years.

Scottsdale National

Ice sculptures and raw bar at the Wild West Invitational.

THE WILD WEST

Parsons is the only person on the tournament committee for the Wild West Invitational and thus implements the rules as he sees fit.

Dressed in black shorts, a black Marines Vietnam t-shirt and a gray Marines hat, Parsons’s welcome speech on the first day of the men’s competition includes a mention of all the participants who are ineligible to win — such as any member who brought a pro (ringer) from one of their other clubs or the course architect who shot 64 in the previous day’s practice round. Any potential griping is short-lived, as the music is cranked up and scantily-clad dancers trot on the practice putting green for pre-round entertainment.

Minutes earlier, former Major League Baseball player Jermaine Dye rolled in putts on the same green. Other participants got massages in chairs in the shade under nearby trees, while a nattily-attired member hit balls on the driving range next to another competitor wearing his hat backward and his shirt untucked. Yes, it’s a decidedly laid-back vibe at Scottsdale National, where George W. Bush and Dan Quayle are among those who have competed in the Wild West Invitational in recent years, and that’s just how Parsons likes it.

Scottsdale National

Parsons, the founder of GoDaddy and PXG, is pouring about $250 million into Scottsdale National.

“We have one rule: no member shall ever impede on another member’s good time,” says Parsons. “We have some members who are A-list celebrities or athletes, or well-known politicians. They come here for anonymity; just to be themselves and one of the people.”

The PXG brand is hard to miss at Scottsdale National. PXG’s clubs are in the golf bags of many members and the company’s teaching pros and club-fitting specialists ready to help on the driving range. On the golf course, there are high-end comfort stations and tee prizes that include a Harley Davidson (since Parsons owns the world’s largest Harley dealership). Cyclist Lance Armstrong competed as a guest in this year’s event and, on that particular hole, was seen sizing up a different kind of bike prior to hitting his tee shot.

FUTURE PLANS

While Parsons plans to cap Scottsdale National’s membership at 250 or 300, the club continues to grow. No facility in the U.S. opened more holes of golf (27) than Parsons did in 2016. The second clubhouse is on the way, Parsons is looking into building a 32- to 36-room lodge that would include a saloon and banquet hall, and the villas will be ready by the 2018 member-guest blowout. If one thing is certain, they’ll be in high demand.

“There’s going to be a wait-list for this tournament for sure,” Renee Parsons says. “It will change the dynamic because people will get to stay. It’ll take it to the next level of what we can do.”

For the Parsons, it’s all about the experience.

Scottsdale National

The Mineshaft bunker at Scottsdale National.

It’s why every team – even the last-place flight finishers – gets a chance in “The Stampede.” In fact, the last-place team from the first flight in the women’s member-guest made it all the way to the final stage before failing to get out of the club’s dreaded Mineshaft bunker, a ragged 15-foot deep pit hidden behind a par-4 green that’s lined with sheer walls and accessible by only steep, curving wooden steps.

When the winners sunk the final putt, the deejays start blasting the GoDaddy tune while Bob walks onto the green to spray the victors with champagne. As he moves about, shaking hands with competitors, one woman grabs him by the shoulders and says simply and earnestly, “Thank you so much.” Bob doesn’t stay too long, though. The rest of the day is for the ladies. As he slips out, at what might be the wildest member-guest in golf, the women are still dancing on the green.

“This is probably the single most indicative experience to sum up what we want Scottsdale National to be and what our vision is currently and where we want it to go,” says Renee, who wore PXG earrings to complement her team outfit. “I’m hoping that it gains a reputation and it’s known as sort of an iconic event. I think some people already think it is.”

Scottsdale National

Bob and Renee with this year’s winning men’s team at the Wild West Invitational.

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The article "Has Billionaire Bob Parsons Created Golf's Wildest Member-Guest Tournament?" was originally published on https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikmatuszewski/2017/09/19/has-billionaire-bob-parsons-created-golfs-wildest-member-guest-tournament/?src=rss