As a venture capitalist, Paul Schock has made his living searching out businesses in which his investors’ money could be entrusted. When he decided to build a major golf resort in an unlikely location – 17 miles south of Valentine in north-central Nebraska – it was Schock who needed to secure the trust of his investors.
Schock is the man behind The Prairie Club, which is likely to be the biggest domestic resort opening of 2010, with three golf courses, including one short course, and a lodge. Course construction is completed and grow-in is on schedule for the May 2010 opening.
The notion of attracting golfers to the remote Nebraska Sandhills, near a town of just 3,000 residents, initially led Schock’s investors to question whether his passion for golf was clouding his business judgment.
“The first question out of their mouths was, ‘Paul, are you suspending the good judgment that we’ve come to depend on and just following your heart here, and is this a foolish thing to do with our money,’ ” recalls Schock, formerly a partner in Bluestern Capital in Sioux Falls, S.D.
But Schock makes a convincing argument for The Prairie Club. Interviews with “dozens” of Bandon Dunes Resort customers helped assuage his concerns about attracting golfers to a remote location. Though there is regional jet service to a small airport near Bandon Dunes, Schock says most of the people with whom he spoke flew into Portland and drove 250 miles south to the resort. “And they didn’t complain about it,” he says. “It was part of the adventure.”
Similarly, there is a small airport near Valentine, but the mid-major airports closest to The Prairie Club are in Sioux Falls (278 miles) and Omaha (298 miles). Schock believes avid golfers happily will go that far for a unique experience.
“I think Bandon showed that if you build great golf, because of this demand, people will come,” he says.
When he says that, Schock sounds a little like the ghost in “Field of Dreams,” and apparently he’s just as persuasive. His investors bought into his vision and ponied up for the $30 million project; it’s launching with $23 million of equity and modest debt. He says he took two years studying various business models, deciding quickly that “our region did not need another high-priced, low-membership club.” He opted for public play combined with affordable memberships – $15,000 for individuals, with corporate memberships roughly three times that amount. Guests can stay at a 42-bed lodge, currently under construction, or two four-bedroom cabins.
“If you want to come and play The Prairie Club, you can,” Schock says. “If you want to come and play often, you need to join.”
Schock says the issue “that kept me up at night” was whether he could attract skilled employees to Valentine. But he already has lined up his management team, recruiting locally and down through the Southwest. They include former Intrawest Golf executive Tyler Swedberg, who was plucked from Arizona to be the general manager, and Mark Amundson, managing partner at Sutton Bay in Agar, S.D., who is serving as the director of operations.
Aside from his business background, Schock has a strong golf pedigree. He won the South Dakota men’s match play and stroke play championships in 2002 and has competed in 10 USGA national events. He also holds many of the memberships common among affluent, skilled amateurs: Sutton Bay, where he was a founding investor; Sand Hills in Mullen, Neb., where he was a founding member; Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Old Baldy in Saratoga, Wyo.
Architecturally, Schock describes himself as an Alistair MacKenzie buff who favors links golf and, specifically, courses that accommodate the ground game.
“I think people hate losing balls,” Schock says. “I think they hate hitting them in a water hazard. I think they hate hitting out of bunkers. I think they love to walk. I think they love natural settings. I think they love big greens. I think they love a course that says, ‘This is what the land gave us, and it’s obvious that it wasn’t contrived.’ ”
Schock says he talked to many of the name-brand architects before settling on Graham Marsh to design The Prairie Club’s Pines Course and Tom Lehman to do the Dunes Course. Schock was involved in selecting Marsh to build Sutton Bay, ranked No. 43 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list. And Lehman won over Schock with his enthusiasm for the project.
In addition, Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford teamed up to design the 10-hole Horse Course, a short course that has no tees, only fairways and greens. The player with honors chooses the shot on each hole, like a game of “horse” in basketball. Hanse has the inside track if, as Schock hopes, a third 18-hole course eventually is built.
With the opening six months away, Schock is busy raising awareness of The Prairie Club and selling memberships – not an easy task in the current economic climate. He says a developer told him that “even the people that have a lot of money are not spending it like they were. We’ve kind of turned away from the era of foolish spending. . . . Now people feel the need to be smart in their lives.
“Want people to feel really smart when they say yes.”