With his broad grin and penchant for wearing bright Hawaiian shirts, Akbar Chisti has become one of golf’s more colorful figures in recent years. The owner of Seamus Golf – the Portland, Ore.-based maker of headcovers, golf bags and other gear – always has been something of a showman, with a knack for publicity stunts ranging from designing leather quivers for the goat “caddies” at Oregon’s Silvies Valley Ranch to more recently hauling an anvil out to the 16th tee at the Waste Management Phoenix Open to hand-stamp ball markers for pro-am celebs and Tour players (pictured above).
Chisti is a fun-loving guy, but with his latest project he has jumped into the deep end of serious money and complicated logistics by teaming up with architect Jim Urbina to transform the nine-hole, par-3 Children’s Course on the banks of the Willamette River 25 minutes south of downtown Portland into the Seamus Golf Park.
The existing 19-acre property is home to The First Tee of Greater Portland and operates as a 501(c)3 non-profit and is in what might best be described as survival mode. According to Seamus’ prospectus, green fees and merchandise sales cover about 20 percent of the facility’s budget; the rest comes through fundraising. The course is built on heavy clay soil and, given Portland’s notoriously rainy climate, often becomes an unplayable mud pit. For reasons unknown, it also is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, creating a less-than-inviting vibe for parents and young golfers.
With the backing of The First Tee and the Children’s Course board, Chisti and Urbina intend to introduce plenty of upgrades. The pair’s friendship dates back 15 years: The former worked in the pro shop at Pacific Dunes at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes Golf Resort while the latter was building the resort’s Old Macdonald course.
For the Seamus Golf Park, Urbina plans to sandcap the site and design an 11-hole par-3 course anchored by an oversized, wildly contoured putting course inspired by the popular Punchbowl at Bandon Dunes (which Urbina also built).
“Something that can be played with one club and one ball is a great way to introduce people to golf,” Urbina said. “I’ve always loved the way families and townsfolk in St. Andrews (Scotland) gather at the Ladies’ Putting Club (with a green named Himalayas) to play in a cozy place.”
Seamus Golf Park’s mission to serve youth golf will be further augmented by a new learning center and a kid-friendly clubhouse. Chisti does not need a focus group to tell him whether the Golf Park’s proposed amenities will satisfy their target audience.
“I just have to turn to my 6-year-old daughter and say, ‘What do you want to do?’” he said with a laugh. “She’ll say, ‘Dad, put some Bob Marley on.’ Or, ‘Let’s have frozen yogurt.’ A purist might say, ‘Old Tom Morris was not a big fro-yo guy.’ Well, Old Tom didn’t have frozen yogurt.”
Then he comes to the payoff pitch: “The No. 1 thing is how to give kids the best first impression of the game. The way to do that is to make a fun environment to play golf.”
Chisti is about to launch an aggressive fundraising campaign with the goal of raising $1.6 million by the end of April. If successful, construction of Seamus Golf Park could begin as early as May with a course reopening scheduled for the spring of 2020.
“There are only so many backflips and quirky marketing things I can do,” he says. “I have to ask people for money, and I’m not going to let them off the hook. I’ll also bring in a crowdfunding approach, [while] brands that we do business with can contribute in various ways.”
Choosing Winter Park Country Club near Orlando during January’s PGA Merchandise Show as a launch pad was no coincidence. As a community course that has seen a smart investment in renovation turn a $200,000 annual loss into a net gain of the same amount, it – along with similar projects such as CommonGround Golf Club near Denver and John Ashworth’s Goat Hill Park in Oceanside, Calif. – is a fine example of what is possible. Chisti is convinced his blitzkrieg approach is the way to go.
“Right now is the opportunity,” he said. “People are looking for things to invest in, and the social climate is one where people want to help golf. My goal isn’t just to improve this property, it’s to be a part of a movement to make golf more appealing to more people.” Gwk