Dedman Jr. Carries the Pinehurst Torch
This article is reprinted with permission from Golf Digest and Golf Digest/Index.
In a sunlit office overlooking the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2, Robert Dedman Jr. sits with the repose befitting a clear Carolina morning.
But while he speaks in a soft voice with just a tinge of Texas twang, his words come out so quickly that the occasional syllable gets swallowed.
Rather than the owner and impresario of the most venerated golf Mecca in America, Dedman sounds more like a mild-mannered brainiac -- perhaps a professor from Southern Methodist University (where he earned law and MBA degrees) or a scientist from the Research Triangle up the road. It's a voice accustomed to dispensing essential information in the boardroom, not delivering flourishes on the podium or sound bites to the camera. It's the voice of a private -- not a public -- man.
Dedman, 51, spent many years behind the scenes at ClubCorp, the vast network of private clubs and resorts founded by Robert Dedman Sr. in 1957, the same year his only son was born. When his father died in 2002 at 76, Bob -- as he is commonly known -- took on more responsibilities while becoming a quiet chairman of the board.
But then, last year, the Dedman family sold its 70 percent ownership of ClubCorp, keeping only Pinehurst among its more than 170 properties. At that point, the son became the man out front.
It's a position the elder Dedman always relished. An entrepreneur extraordinaire, the richest man in golf, he was also an extrovert who loved holding court. He could spout his version of Robert's Rules of Order (No. 6: "It's nice to be important, but even more important to be nice."), quote Longfellow and Emerson, or loosen up a crowd with close-to-the-line humor: "Do you know what happens to lawyers when they take Viagra? They grow taller."
"Mr. Dedman was a tough act to follow," says Don Padgett II, the president of Pinehurst, whose father had been the beloved director of golf at the resort before his death in 2003. "He was a business giant, charismatic and a person of the people. If you can imagine being Arnold Palmer's son, if he'd had one, that's kind of what it's been like for Bob."
It's not unheard of for sons of larger-than-life men to intentionally downsize their public personas. Indeed, despite his position and obvious abilities, Bob Dedman's most noticeable characteristic is that he blends.
His handsome face evokes a type of ubiquitous B-movie actor whose name never quite comes to mind, his bespoke suits are conservatively cut and devoid of bold patterns, and in conversation he never interrupts. When visiting Pinehurst, he is known for his unpretentious manner and subtle avoidance of employees.
As it is, Dedman gets to the resort once a month for a few days at a time. He makes his headquarters in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 6, and oversees the family company, DFI, which divides its efforts among investments, the operation of Pinehurst and philanthropy.
He plays golf only about 20 times a year (generally scoring in the low 80s), preferring to spend his free time with his girls, driving them to school every day he is home, or taking them on international family vacations, the most recent of which included stays in Paris, Prague and St. Petersburg.
On the surface, it's not the portrait of the kind of golf major-domo who revels in being identified with his property, or who hounds the course superintendent about the type of sand in the bunkers. Factoring in that the last few years have not been prime time for big golf properties, it's natural to ask, "Why exactly did the family keep Pinehurst?"
Without blinking, Dedman clicks off three reasons:
-- He appreciates its historical relevance. "It's fun to keep Pinehurst tied to its importance in the game of golf, especially by hosting the national championships," he says. (The 2014 U.S. Open will be its sixth national championship in 20 years).
-- Pinehurst is financially sound after the sale of ClubCorp, which netted about a billion dollars (the official figure has never been disclosed). "The main reason for the sale was to get the liquidity and still keep an operating business in Pinehurst," he says. "Certainly Pinehurst is not over-leveraged."
-- He derives great enjoyment from -- to quote his father -- selling fun. "The business becomes almost like it's a separate family member, a part of you," he says. "Keeping Pinehurst, I feel a bit like a fish swimming in water."
Invoking his father brings up the biggest fish, and the most important reason. The elder Dedman devoted much of the last years of his life to restoring Pinehurst to its place near the center of the golf universe.
When ClubCorp purchased the then-timeworn resort in 1984, it was being run by the banks. Dedman refurbished the grand Carolina Hotel and brought back the firm playing conditions and charming scruffiness that makes golf in the Sandhills so pure. He later added two new courses and two smaller inns. After barely 15 years of new ownership, Pinehurst in 1999 hosted its first U.S. Open, to resounding acclaim.
"Certainly there was an emotional component," Dedman says of the decision to keep Pinehurst. "I don't know if we were dealing with our heart or our head, or a combination of both."
'Preserve and Enhance'
Naturally, as when evaluating any iconic property, there are skeptics.
The negative view of the contemporary Pinehurst is that it's a high-dollar conveyor belt of overcharged and underserved golfers (green fees run as high as $350 for a round at No. 2) that is losing the personal touch that was part of its vital charm. They say the corporate mentality emanates from Dedman, to the point that its courses are beginning to creep toward the over-manicured, wall-to-wall green that blighted the resort in its darkest period in the 1970s.
Veterans who miss the folksiness of Robert Dedman and Don Padgett have been known to snipe out of the sides of their mouths, "The sons ain't the fathers." They worry that tough economic times or a profligate offer will get Dedman to sell.
Dedman is amused that the resort could be perceived as more corporate after ridding itself of the layers of bureaucracy required to run 170 shared properties. And he rebuts the idea of short-term ownership with the documented $100 million he and his father have invested in the resort since its acquisition, most recently updating all the rooms in all the hotels and renovating course No. 1.
"Both financially and in the conditions of the facilities, Pinehurst is in the best shape in its history," he contends.
Although the downturn in the economy has ravaged many resorts and threatens to get worse, Dedman believes Pinehurst is well-positioned.
"A lot of the resorts that will run into trouble if there is a prolonged downturn have operations predicated on real-estate sales and things of that nature," he says. "Pinehurst does not have as large a real-estate component. It's more of an operating business. And we have relationships with families and corporations that have been established over multiple generations. People don't tend to come back to Pinehurst once. They come back again and again."
As for the condition of Pinehurst's soul, Dedman believes he grasps the paradox essential to good stewardship.
"The goal is to preserve and enhance," he says. "We've tried to restore Pinehurst in a lot of different ways but at the same time make it better. Any changes we make would be to recapture the authenticity of Pinehurst. No one else has the history and tradition that we do. Frankly, that's our greatest competitive advantage."
Being the heir who carries on a father's dream is a tricky business, but Dedman negotiates this landscape skillfully. Providing the details of his biography, he begins several answers with the phrase, "Well, I've been fortunate." It's his way of making clear that he's not a man who was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple.
As a boy, Dedman worked in the tennis shop, bag room and golf shop at Brookhaven Country Club in North Dallas, the original ClubCorp property. After college, he worked on Wall Street at Salomon Brothers before coming back to ClubCorp, where he became president in 1989 and CEO in 1998.
Those who worked with father and son describe a complementary partnership.
"Robert wanted to know what he could go buy and how he could grow the business," Padgett says. "And after he did that, he would let somebody else worry about what the next day was going to be like. And Bob inherited the next day. He is extremely good at the next day."
For all their differences, there are some important similarities. Bob shares his father's affinity for poetry and aphorisms. Bob began saving his favorite passages and quotes at the University of Texas, where he majored in economics. In 2000, he decided to convert a desk drawer he'd filled with various scribbled scraps into a self-published collection called "Thoughts on a Purposeful Life," and in 2006, another he called "The Journey of Life."
Dedman gives his leather-bound volumes, which total more than 800 pages, as gifts. His reward from the process might be best described in a quote from Socrates: "Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for."
"I'm not sure how many original thoughts I've ever had," he says. "Whenever I think of something new, I find somebody else has said it better than I have. What attracts me about the quotations is the way the soft side -- intangibles and values -- can turn into the hard side of both business and life by their application."
'A Soul to the Place'
Despite his shyness and lack of a stage voice, Dedman's vocabulary and memory make him effective in a formal presentation.
Earlier this year, while addressing the 1,400 employees at Pinehurst in his annual state-of-the-resort address, Dedman borrowed one of his father's favorite openers to relax the crowd: "Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a Texas tale? A fairy tale begins, 'Once upon a time.' A Texas tale begins, 'Now you sumbitches ain't gonna believe this...'"
He then went on in plain terms about how he expects the Dedman family will continue to own and operate Pinehurst for generations. "Pinehurst has seen a lot of glory in its 113 years," he said, "but I firmly believe its best years are ahead."
So far, it would be hard to deny that by his words and actions, Dedman cares deeply about the property. That Dedman is clearing land to build a home at Pinehurst should be encouraging to those worried about the resort's long-term future. And so should his description of playing golf on the course that will be a large part of his legacy, for better or worse:
"There's a soul to the place," he says. "That's what you feel. When you think that every great golfer in the last century has stepped foot on that course to test themselves, you feel that. To play No. 2 especially, to me, it's an incredibly emotional experience. ... I know I couldn't replace that feeling anywhere else."
It was a moment in which Dedman didn't rely on a great quotation, or his father's words. It had the effect of making his sentiments seem more genuine. And that bodes well for Pinehurst's next day.
Jaime Diaz, a writer for Golf Digest, lives and works in Southern Pines.
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