September 30, 2013
If you watch golf on TV, it’s a near certainty that you’ve seen the work of a local company.
And although the company is regarded as one of the best in the business, it’s also almost a near certainty that you’ve never heard of it.
Waunakee-based Oliphant Golf Construction Inc. has been building and renovating golf courses for more than a decade, including shrines such as Pebble Beach, Oakland Hills and Inverness, meaning its work is on display every time a golf event is telecast from those famed layouts.
Oliphant Golf also has built several courses that have garnered prestigious honors, including three of Golf Digest’s top 10 new private courses in 2007 (see accompanying list).
However, the glory in the industry invariably goes to course designers such as Pete Dye and Tom Fazio, many of whom have become household names to golfers.
Those who take the designers’ vision and turn it into reality toil in obscurity — something designers agree is unfair.
“It should be more of an equal thing where it’s the client, the architect and the contractor (getting the plaudits), because they’re one big team,” said Dennis Wise, a project architect and senior design associate with Fazio Design, which has hired Oliphant Golf to build several of its courses, including two of those honored by Golf Digest for last year.
But it’s not that big a deal to Mike Oliphant, whose eponymous company also built Hawks Landing, which was designed by John Harbottle III, and renovated Maple Bluff and Nakoma locally.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “But when you’re out there doing all the work you kind of feel like you should get some of the credit.”
The validation a contractor gets “is a pat on the back for doing a good job,” Oliphant said.
In 2007, Oliphant Golf renovated the California Club of San Francisco, and Oliphant said he felt good when club member, 1964 U.S. Open champion and long-time CBS announcer Ken Venturi “shook my hand and said the course had exceeded their expectations.”
Wise estimates there are only “probably about a dozen reputable golf course construction companies that can handle” the kind of major projects a firm like Fazio Design does and Oliphant is one of them. Oliphant Golf, which has about 300 employees, mostly based in its Scottsdale, Ariz., office, did a record $50 million in sales last year.
Hawks Landing developer and owner Jeff Haen agrees that contractors don’t get enough credit.
“From what I’ve learned and seen,” Haen said, “it’s really an art to be a golf course contractor. When you build a condo or apartment building you have a set of plans that are pretty easy to do. A golf course contractor has to take a set of plans and really try to envision what the architect is trying to do. And that’s not that easy to do.”
Haen, who met Oliphant through their children, originally partnered with Oliphant on Hawks Landing, but later bought him out.
Haen knew Oliphant Golf’s resume and reputation and said “it’s just fortunate for us he chose to move back here.”
Oliphant’s wife Joni (Lazarz), a 1982 Madison La Follette graduate, can be thanked for that — when he chose to strike out on his own, they decided to make Madison their home.
“What you learn in this business is that you have to decide where you want to live because you’re not going to have projects in your backyard,” he said. “Travel is just part of the game.”
Oliphant and his wife met about 25 years ago when she was attending Arizona State University and he was working at a golf resort in Scottsdale, after quitting the University of Montana “to play golf.”
He later worked for a developer in the Phoenix area, “got a little taste of construction and really liked it.”
In the late 1980s, Oliphant became a project superintendent for Landscapes Unlimited, then an up and coming golf contractor based in Lincoln, Neb., and now the largest in the country.
Oliphant never planned to go on his own – the opportunity came to him in 1997 when a developer in San Jose, Calif., asked him to manage the construction of a 27-hole course there.
“I didn’t know him,” Oliphant said. “It was a referral from an architect. I met with him and it sounded good.”
So he took the plunge; tiptoeing might not have worked.
“I think with everybody that starts their own company, the more you think about it, you aren’t going to do it,” he said, noting that he had three children under age 10 at the time.
Oliphant did everything at first – and well enough that he got a renovation project in Los Angeles.
His reputation took a giant leap forward when he landed work at Pebble Beach. He heard in 1998 that Pebble was going to build a new fifth hole. The fifth at that time was a nondescript par 3 that played inland; the far better layout was along the ocean, but Pebble didn’t own the land. That changed when Charles Schwab made a deal to acquire the property and donate oceanside land for a new fifth hole.
“I drove down from San Jose one day and walked out to where I thought they were building it,” Oliphant recalled. “I saw some dozers out there and thought it was too late. But it was just an earth moving company to get Schwab’s property ready and set the thing up.”
Landscapes Unlimited had done some minor work at Pebble Beach so Oliphant knew some officials of the famed course.
“And I was just standing out there at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and one of the principals with the Pebble Beach Co. came out and said, ‘Hi Mike. How are you doing? I heard you started your own company. How would you like to be able to build this fifth hole?’ ” he said. “I can remember calling my wife about 7:30 that night. The phone was somewhat shaky in my hand and I said, ‘You won’t believe this opportunity I have.’ ”
Jack Nicklaus designed the new hole.
“He was there twice,” Oliphant said of Nicklaus. “He is just as you’d imagine: a very class individual, very detailed.”
Oliphant said Nicklaus brought the green in behind a bunker for a potential Sunday tournament pin placement and during Tiger Woods’ romp to the 2000 U.S. Open title the pin was where Nicklaus envisioned it.
In the decade since, Oliphant said his company has done about $15 million worth of renovations to Pebble and its neighbors on the Monterey Peninsula: Spyglass, Spanish Bay and Del Monte.
“We added some bunkers on No. 14 one year and I remember watching the (AT&T Pro-Am) and (NBC analyst) Johnny Miller made a comment that he really didn’t know if the bunkers would come into play,” Oliphant said. “And Phil Mickelson teed off and hit it right in the bunker and the other announcer said, ‘I think they’re right where they’re supposed to be.’ It’s fun when you do something and you watch TV and see the reaction.”
Toward the end of each year, Pebble Beach officials compile a list of projects — mostly aesthetic such as rebuilding greens and repositioning tees — for the next year and Oliphant prepares a budget and timeline. Everything is done on a handshake.
Oliphant said the work at Pebble Beach has given his company enormous credibility.
“They’re a demanding client because they charge a lot of money to play there,” he said. “If you say it’s going to take seven days it can’t take eight.”
While most work is done by bid, the industry is driven by reputation, Oliphant said.
“You get a reputation for good quality work,” he said. “You get in with an architect — I have a good relationship with Fazio and Nicklaus — and once you do good work with them there’s a comfort level and you get more work.”
Fazio Design knew of Oliphant from working with Landscapes Unlimited, Wise said.
“I think what makes anybody in business successful is really understanding that they’re providing a service for someone – that’s it’s not about them,” Wise said. “Mike really gets that.”
Obviously, that includes hiring and training quality people who can master the many necessary tasks of building a golf course, from moving dirt to understanding environmental issues.
“There’s a lot of intuitiveness that goes into it,” Wise said. “Our guys have to communicate with the shapers. And the (dirt) shapers have to be flexible. Mike hires people that understand that it’s not about them – you’ve gotta check your ego at the door.”
Oliphant said at a course project in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that will finish next year, more than 2 million yards of dirt was moved to turn a flat piece of land into a course.
Asked if he’d like to design a course himself, Oliphant said, “I think everybody would like to and quite frankly I’m not sure me and my team haven’t,” referring to how much intuitive work they do trying to fulfill a designer’s vision.
Being good also is about developing a relationship that can carry through the numerous issues that come up when building multi-million dollar projects, Wise said.
“There are going to be lots of change orders,” Wise said. “Mike’s not in the business of trying to always get more money and play the games. He’s about getting it done.”
Haen echoed Wise, saying Oliphant was not into “nickel-diming” the project. “He would get the job done — he wasn’t looking for the last penny to settle a contract. He probably went over and above what he had to do to make (Hawks Landing) a very good golf course.”
Haen also credited Oliphant with suggesting Neil Radatz for course superintendent, “and quite honestly Neil might be the best super in the state.”
Oliphant said the keys are the same as with any business: attention to detail, developing good relationships, and hiring skilled employees.
“Get good people and teach them the culture of your company,” he said. “It’s why I’m not real nervous about the future.”
Oliphant said he’s tried to remove himself from operations “but you always find yourself back in it.”
Eventually, when his kids are out of high school, he plans to live at least part of the year in Scottsdale, easing some of the hectic travel and juggling that comes with running a booming company and nurturing his family.
“Ten years ago if someone had told me I was going to have a $50 million company I would have said they were crazy,” he said. “I never thought it was possible when I was working out of my little furnace room in the basement off my card table. My wife was doing the payroll. And you can’t mortgage your house anymore because you’ve done it too many times. You’re just hoping it’s going to work.
“You don’t sit down and say you want to take it here. I think what you do is keep your nose down, work hard, keep your client happy and it’s going to go where it’s going to go. I don’t know where it’s going to be five years from now.”