For PGA Tour, a new look at Liberty

Adam Scott chips on the 14th green at Liberty National Golf Club Aug. 26.

Adam Scott chips on the 14th green at Liberty National Golf Club Aug. 26.

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

The property that once oozed with chemical sludge and toxic waste this week plays host to The Barclays, the first stop of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup.

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 Harbor, overlooking the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan Skyline, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

Liberty National has had more plastic surgery than Pamela Anderson. When co-designers Bob Cupp and Tom Kite visited the raw, 160-acre site in 1992 for the first time their jaws dropped from the iconic views in the distance. But behind them stood a string of grimy refineries belonging to oil companies interested in exiting their polluted grounds. One storage warehouse had been property of the Gambino crime family.

“The first time we showed up here it was a nightmare,” Cupp said. “We were pretty sure every travesty known to man was on this property.”

The clean-up work was lengthy and costly. Beneath the course, clay and a plastic lining cover the property to contain groundwater. After the land was decontaminated, between two and three million cubic yards of soil were trucked in to cap the site, followed by another plastic liner and four feet of sand.

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That’s one big sand castle.

Nearly 100 routings later, ground was broken in 2003. “A lot of water has gone under the bridge,” Kite said. “A lot of contamination has been buried.”

Brownfields became golf greens. The pricetag: $250 million.

Liberty National opened in 2006, 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 player Cristie Kerr, and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Yacht and helicopter service is available from several Manhattan locations. The golf cart paths are lined with imported Belgian curb stone. And the clubhouse, which cost another $60 million, is modeled after the Sydney (Australia) Opera House.

But it is Lady Liberty, a mere 1,000 yards away, which offers a stunning backdrop. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem raved of “the visuals” for television as if describing a Hollywood set.

“Location-wise from a television standpoint, it’s probably unique in the world,” Finchem said. “I think it’s going to be an absolute stunning presentation on HD television.”

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and the early reaction to the course from players is mixed. They will face a 7,400-yard test that is both long and tight with undulating greens. Expect to see plenty of bump and run shots.

“It’s kind of like a links golf course in the middle of, I don’t know, Manhattan,” Vijay Singh said.

“What a cool feel,” Mickelson added. “Unlike any course in the world.”

When asked to describe what he thought of the course, Woods termed it “interesting.”

Interesting in a good way?

“Interesting,” Woods reiterated.

Some players huddled on the practice range joked that Liberty National is the best course they will play this week.

Virtually any layout would have a tough time matching the universal praise players heaped on last year’s tournament site, Ridgewood CC. Kite, for one, said just because some players enjoyed Ridgewood’s classic design shouldn’t exclude them from appreciating Liberty National’s subtleties too.

“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.”

And Kite admitted he isn’t surprised some players have criticized the course.

“We are PGA pros. It’s part of the job description. You have to be able to (complain) a little bit,” he joked. “If you can’t do it, you can’t get your Tour card. That’s part of the prerequisite.”

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