Sunday, April 14, 2024

The tale of Michael Jordan’s super-secret, super-fancy private golf course that not many people know about

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There’s a special place in the world that Michael Jordan really loves — his own super cool sports retreat.

But guess what? It’s not in Chicago, and you won’t find any basketball courts or hoops there.

Back in the 1990s, when MJ was ruling the NBA as the best player ever, he wasn’t just doing his thing on the basketball court. Nope, he was also a regular at the golf course. Fast forward to today, and now he’s the host.

Meet The Grove XXIII — named after his famous No. 23 jersey. It’s MJ’s very own golf paradise, a super private club hidden away in Hobe Sound, Florida. It’s so exclusive that not many people have seen it, and only a handful have had the chance to play there.

First meeting
When Bobby Weed got a request, it was the easiest and toughest task ever: “Make the best golf course. Create the best driving range.”

Bobby Weed had done many tasks before. He learned from the famous course designer Pete Dye, and after working with him, Bobby started his own course design company in 1994.

Now, after nearly 30 years, Bobby Weed Golf Design has built over 20 courses worldwide – from Stillwater, Minnesota, to Mito, Japan. They’ve also fixed up many others, like the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound in 2015.

The Medalist is a fancy club, and with Tiger Woods on the member list, it’s like a gathering of the best players in golf. Jordan, one of these top players, really liked the changes to the club and, in late 2017, was looking for someone to design a new golf course.

Later in a meeting, Weed’s team got the job to build a top-notch golf place for “His Airness.” Michael Jordan, one of the most famous athletes in history with a fortune close to $2 billion, was a special client.

“I knew it would get a lot of attention because of MJ,” Weed, who is 68, told CNN. “I knew there was some excitement about it, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

They quickly secured a piece of land, over 200 acres that used to be a citrus grove, near Atlantic Ridge State Park. Weed, as usual for his projects, stayed on-site, moving 265 miles from Ponte Vedra Beach across the state.

Weed was fully committed and encouraged Jordan to be as involved as he wanted. He invited Jordan to check the progress once a week, and Jordan often came multiple times a week.

Weed compares his job as a course designer to that of a quarterback, making decisions for a team of experts. When he saw Jordan talking to the team in a meeting, Weed felt like he was watching a coach talking to his players.

“I think one of the things about him is that he was really good at listening. He paid attention to everything we talked about,” Weed explained.

“He didn’t just tell us what to do. Instead, he watched and listened well, letting me do my job.”

“Golf Haven”
Weed had two key ingredients for an awesome golf course – an interested owner and a great piece of land. However, the land needed a bit of sprucing up.

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Transforming a plain, dull area – surrounded by two long drainage channels – into a mix of the well-kept, park-like style of Augusta National and the natural design of Pine Valley was a big challenge for Weed and his team.

They dug up dirt from ponds to construct the course and its features, solving the flatness problem and creating six large lakes – the same number of NBA Championships won by Jordan. It was a coincidence, but it ended up matching the theme of a course perfectly tailored to its owner’s preferences.

Jordan wanted a firm and fast course, one that could both thrill and challenge its members, many of whom are current stars on the PGA Tour. The layout, resembling a double-helix with a “crossover” at the 5th and 14th holes, provides the option to play continuous internal circuits in three, six, or nine-hole loops – perfect for Jordan’s busy schedule.

The golf course wasn’t just made to match its owner’s way of playing; it had to make it even better.

“I’m not spending all this money without getting a little advantage, right?” Jordan told Weed.

Add MJ’s love for bets, which you might know from watching “The Last Dance,” and now the course has a new nickname: “Slaughterhouse 23.”

“It’s designed perfectly for him, being his golf course and all,” said Rickie Fowler, a former world No. 1, on the Subpar podcast in 2020.

Weed also joined in on the bets, even while they were building the course.

“We’d be out there, hitting shots, and having some bets while playing in the dirt. It was just good fun and bonding,” he said.

“It’s tough not to have a friendly bet when you’re playing a round with MJ.”

To fulfill Jordan’s second request, Weed’s team reserved 20 acres for creating an advanced practice area that the designer thinks is unmatched.

They made two 400-yard driving lanes on both sides for specific conditions like US Open or PGA Tour style fairways, including “target greens” every 25 yards. Each green has special pods that can collect a lot of information about shots, using data from the PGA Tour’s ShotLink.

The putting green is divided into four parts, with slopes ranging from 0-1% to 3-4%. Even the grass on the tees can be changed to imitate different seasons.

Weed says, “It’s like a dream place for Tour players to improve their game.”

Taking a shot

Unlike Bobby Weed Golf Design, Nichols Architects didn’t have as much experience in making golf courses. However, they had one big advantage when it came to trying to win the bid to build The Grove XXIII’s clubhouse.

Nichols Architects specializes in designing hotels, homes, and businesses. They previously worked on the W South Beach hotel in Miami, which happens to be the favorite hotel of Jordan’s wife, Yvette Prieto.

When they pitched their idea to Jordan, they didn’t hold back. Planning and design partner Igor Reyes explained the approach to CNN, comparing it to the plot of the “Air” movie where Nike convinces a young Jordan to choose their brand over Adidas.

Reyes said, “We want this clubhouse to stand out and be different from any other clubhouse around here. That’s what we’re offering you.” He emphasized the need for the design to be instantly recognizable, comparing it to the shape of a golf swing.

In a pitch video shown to Jordan, they revealed the deal-sealer – the unique shape of the clubhouse, inspired by the smooth and almost machine-like perfection of a golf swing.

Reyes mentioned that his team learned about Jordan’s initial difficulties with his golf swing. In the video, they used a grid to match the structure of a building to Tiger Woods’ golf club movements. Jordan found it fascinating and immediately awarded them the contract.

“At first, being around him felt a bit strange, like you shouldn’t get too close. But after a couple of meetings, it became normal. We treated him like any other important client, with a lot of respect.

“We could sense that he wasn’t just a wealthy person with a random idea. He knew what he was doing, had clear preferences, and knew how to achieve them.”

Big elephant on the rooftop
Inside, there’s a huge 15,000-square-foot space with lots of room for men’s and women’s lockers, cozy indoor and outdoor areas to relax, a kitchen, a dining spot, and even a little store. They really cared about making people feel welcome, and there’s a lower level where all the important stuff, like taking care of guests and storing golf carts, happens out of sight.

Just like the golf course itself, you can see a lot of things that remind you of Jordan. They placed columns a bit farther inside under a hanging roof to make it look like the “Air Jordan” logo’s hang-time. And there’s a cool elephant print on some of his shoes that they used on the glass roof, so when the sun comes through, it makes a cool pattern on the floor.

They even went all out with the little details, like putting Air Jordan logos on the ice cubes, as PGA Tour pro Jimmy Walker showed on Instagram after playing a round there in March 2021.

Similar to weed, Reyes thinks his job was made easier by a client who was really involved.

“He was part of a lot of decisions… we didn’t change a color without him knowing,” Reyes explained.

“We’ve worked with other famous people, and they won’t talk to you. It’s more like ‘I just want this’ and ‘get out of the way.’ But he realized there was a lot of creativity happening, and he wanted to be part of it.”

“Nowhere else I’d rather be”
Since Jordan often visited the site, there was no big surprise for the owner when Grove XXIII officially opened in the fall of 2019. However, there was a special moment when Weed joined him for his first round.

After finishing the game, the architect found himself in a big bear hug.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I’m lucky I can be anywhere in the world, but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than right here,'” Weed recalled.

“That’s like the ultimate compliment… to have his own golf course and to shape and mold it for him and his friends. It’s just where he wants to be. It’s a great spot that evolved into something fantastic.

“He’s going to enjoy it as long as he’s playing, and then it’s going to get passed along to the next generation — it’s just one of the great things about golf and why it has sustained itself over centuries.”

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