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Don't ask Chris Sullivan to explain his fascination with all things Australian. When the Florida entrepreneur was looking to start a chain of casual steak restaurants in the late 1980s, he decided to play on the popularity of the Crocodile Dundee films. The result was Outback Steakhouse Inc., which has been every bit as successful as those 1980s movies. And when Sullivan, a certified golf nut, set out to build a course in his hometown of Tampa, he hired the architect he thought could best replicate the great sand-belt courses of Australia, which Sullivan had fallen in love with during his global golf travels. Even Sullivan is struck by the anomaly. "Hey, I'm Irish, so it happens to be more of a coincidence than anything else," he says.
Since its debut in 1997, Sullivan's Old Memorial Golf Club has won accolades. With a membership roster that includes U.S. Golf Assn. President Fred S. Ridley, University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, and former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, the course has played host to U.S. Open qualifying tournaments as well as leading collegiate events. In an era when many new courses are built with such manmade artifices as waterfalls, and stadium-like moundings surrounding tricked-up greens, Old Memorial stands as a throwback to an earlier era. "A lot of the modern Florida courses can look contrived, but not Old Memorial," says Ridley. "It's a pretty special place."
Sullivan's passion for the game doesn't end with Old Memorial. While best known within golf circles for sponsoring the blimp that flies over many PGA Tour events, Sullivan's Outback chain also picked up title sponsorship from GTE/Verizon of a Champions Tour event this past February. (The tournament is played at the Tournament Players Club of Tampa Bay, not at Old Memorial, which is off a narrow lane in an isolated, rural section of Tampa and doesn't have the infrastructure to handle throngs of spectators.) Not content to back a run-of-the-mill tournament, Sullivan got the Champions Tour to use the same format as the AT&T (T
) Pebble Beach National Pro-Am -- pairing tour pros with executives and other amateurs like himself in tournament play. "I've been fortunate to play inside the ropes at the AT&T when the scores really counted, and I wanted others to share the same experience," he says.
Not surprisingly, golf has been in Sullivan's blood since he was old enough to grip a putter. As a kid, he and his three brothers set up their own makeshift course in their Silver Spring (Md.) neighborhood, whacking whiffle balls with cut-down clubs. By age 7, Sullivan was tagging along with his father, an FBI agent, to the local municipal course; by 12, he was caddieing at a nearby country club for $4 a bag. After college, Sullivan entered the restaurant business as a management trainee for the Steak & Ale chain, and as a young manager in Columbus, Ohio, he readily volunteered to handle late closings so he would be free to spend his mornings on the course. Even now, the running joke at Outback headquarters is that the restaurants are open only for dinner to let employees get in a round during the day.
Sullivan long ago recognized the networking potential of golf, and he has frequently taken advantage of it over the years. He has played with people who later became Outback franchisees and suppliers, as well as tour pros ranging from Annika Sorenstam to Arnold Palmer. A pairing years ago with former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth led to a friendship and eventual participation in the Ueberroth-led group that purchased the famed Pebble Beach course back in the mid-1990s.
But owning a piece of Pebble was not enough. Eager to bring a course to Tampa that evoked the classic golf experience of Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia or closer to home, New Jersey's Pine Valley Golf Club (where he's also a member), Sullivan considered big-name architects such as Tom Fazio before hiring the less well-known Steve Smyers for the job. "We wanted someone who would do something a little different," Sullivan explains. Smyers succeeded, creating a course with dramatic contours and bunkering, all trimmed by native Florida grasses. The course meanders in and around 140 boldly sculpted bunkers, including one on the 558-yard 12th hole that is practically the size of a small desert. The fairways weave through large unspoiled areas that serve as the habitat for such wildlife as the gopher tortoise, which happens to be the inspiration for Old Memorial's logo.
Like those other classic golf courses, Old Memorial features firm fairways that allow the ball to roll. And many of the holes offer classic risk/reward options that often give golfers the choice of an aggressive angle to the green that can yield a birdie -- or bogey -- or a safer approach that usually guarantees no better than par. To add to the experience, Sullivan instituted a caddies program for Old Memorial, with riding carts made available only to players who can produce a note from their doctor. (The members honor the caddies on a special day each year by reversing roles and carrying the caddies' bags.)A Golf Junkie
Given his decision this past March to step down as CEO of Outback Steakhouse, while remaining co-chairman, the 57-year-old Sullivan has more time for golf -- even if Outback co-founder Bob Basham likes to joke that "it's just not possible for Chris to play any more golf than before." Sullivan estimates that he averages 150 rounds a year, including frequent trips to Pebble Beach, where he bought a house a couple years ago, as well as periodic golf trips with buddies to Scotland, Ireland, and the leading U.S. resort courses.
Last year, Sullivan, Ridley, and seven other friends all packed into a private jet and succeeded in playing three U.S. Open courses all in a single day -- starting with Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, then on to Chicago Golf Club, before outracing the sun west to finish with 18 holes at Pebble in Northern California. "We're trying to work in four courses in a day this year," he says. The trick is to start in the westernmost part of the Eastern time zone and to play during the week in June when the days are the longest.
As Sullivan tees off on a Tuesday afternoon at Old Memorial, it's clear he's got game. Sullivan generates a lot of distance off the tee -- most of his drives carry a good 250 yards -- thanks to a pronounced shoulder turn that allows him to get extra oomph. "When you're a little guy like me, you've got to try to generate a lot of power," he jokes.
Sullivan admits, however, that his push for power has come at a cost in accuracy, and in turn, scoring: His Handicap Index, once as low as 3.2, has crept up to 7.7. "I went through a phase over a couple of months of trying to hit the ball too hard," he says. "But [the scores and the Handicap Index are] coming back down."
His opening tee shot on the first hole -- a straight-ahead par 4 -- carries about 240 yards down the fairway, and when his approach shot fails to hold the green, Sullivan makes a nice up-and-down to save par. After another par on No. 2, Sullivan drains a seven-foot putt on No. 3 to keep his string of pars alive. Sullivan bogeys the fourth hole.
Trouble arrives on the fifth hole -- a long dogleg par 4, and the toughest hole on the course -- when Sullivan muffs his greenside chip into a swale containing a sprinkler head. "In the hole in 3!" he laughs, with his arms raised. His fourth shot skates past the hole, but Sullivan, whose strong suit is clearly his putting, drains the comebacker to salvage another bogey.
The thing you quickly realize about Sullivan is how fast he plays. He moves briskly down the fairways and isn't shy about putting out of turn when his playing partners aren't ready. On the fourth hole, as Basham is still retrieving his ball from the hole, Sullivan has already sprinted up the short steps to the next tee box and smashed his drive. Indeed, even without the benefit of a cart, the three of us make the turn after nine holes in just an hour and 40 minutes.
But Sullivan's score starts to slip. He sends his tee shot into the trees on the par-5 ninth hole, which results in a rare double bogey. He also bogeys the 10th and 11th, before recovering with pars on No. 12 and No. 13. It's around here that Sullivan takes a cell-phone call that prompts him to beg off after 15 holes -- where he's seven over par -- for an unexpected meeting. Not to worry. Liberated from the day-to-day grind, Sullivan is free to play whenever he pleases. By Dean Foust