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Build It and They Will Come

photo by Steve Bracci

An ancient Chinese fable tells of a tree-sitting monk named Birdsnest who was so wise that a powerful governor once traveled far to ask him for a bit of wisdom. “Don’t do bad things,” the monk exhorted. “Always do good things.”

The governor was outraged that he’d come so far to hear such self-evident advice. “I knew that when I was 3 years old!” he protested. “So?” the monk replied. “Have you done it?”

Weldon Wyatt has no doubt done a better job of doing it than most of us.

Raised in the Baptist church by a country preacher, and schooled by a work life that only officially began at 14, the Spartanburg County, S.C., native has followed his parents’ life ethic, and that of the Marine Reserves he joined, all his life: Hard work. Discipline. Punctuality. Faith. Honesty. Respect for others. And, above all, humility.

Of course, even as he holds sway over the extraordinarily beautiful and internationally known Sage Valley Golf Club he founded in 2001, it’s easy for Wyatt to keep in mind where he came from. Sage Valley’s grand grounds are little more than a mile from the grocery store he began his working life in—a building he owns today.

But asked what single thing might surprise people the most to know about him, he answers, “I would say where I came from—my background. I always say, only in America. “The Lord’s been good to me,” he’s quick to add.

There’s a very good reason Weldon Wyatt’s humble beginnings might startle: The social circles the soft-spoken diminutive down-home man runs in these days are among the most elite in the world. His Sage Valley hosts the planet’s most recognized celebrities, athletes and world leaders. He’s played the course with former President George W. Bush, and rubbed elbows with such icons as baseball Hall of Famer George Brett and Korean super-pastor Billy Kim. Weldon’s son Tom, president of Sage Valley, recalls sidling up to actor Mark Wahlberg at the club’s bar.

“That’s what amazes you about this place,” the elder Wyatt smiles. “The tentacles. People ask me what the biggest surprise is that I’ve ever had since I built this place. What I never imagined is the tentacles.”

He just built it and they came. Near Graniteville, S.C., just off I-20, Wyatt assembled a golf club so prestigious that it rivals the Augusta National in many ways—and no doubt exceeds it, and perhaps every other club of its kind, for the sheer variety of golfers around the world who’ve played it.

Wyatt makes no bones about having borrowed from the Augusta National’s recipe for elegance and grace—as well as other top-notch clubs around the country, such as Double Eagle in Ohio. Longtime Augusta National wine connoisseur Frank Carpenter even offered to create a world-class cellar at Sage Valley—one that the best wineries in the world now clamor to have their wares in, so as to cater to the crème de la crème who come here.

Wyatt was glad to have the help on the wine. “I know nothing about wines. I don’t drink it, so I don’t know anything about it. Except one thing: I know you put a lot of money in it.”

While working his way up from grocery delivery boy to Aiken gas station owner at age 19 to selling cars and motor homes and real estate and, finally, making several fortunes as the nation’s leading developer of Walmart stores, Wyatt quickly surmised how instrumental golf could be in building the relationships that make the business world go ’round. For years, he staged golf outings and wild game feasts that cost tens of thousands of dollars and became the hottest invitation around—and all along, he dreamed of having his own course.

He caught wind of 11,000 acres of available timberland and bought 500 in 1999, adding the rest in stages. He made it a national membership club in order to attract the high octane necessary to make it first-rate.

“We have a philosophy here,” he says, explaining the international allure of Sage Valley. “And I think it’s what’s created the success we’ve had here. We want you to say ‘Wow!’ when you come in the gate—but it’s more important to say ‘Wow!’ when you go out the gate.

“The thing that makes Sage different, I believe, is the way Sage treats people when they’re here. And we hear that consistently. It’s making them feel at home. The caddies here are different. The caddy program here, I’d put up against anyplace in the world.”

Club employees caucus twice a week to discuss ways to improve. They want to know members’ favorite foods and wines, even what kind of pillows they like in the cottages. Two things the club doesn’t like to see: a drinking glass below half full and a golfer’s hands on his own bag of clubs.

When told that high-quality food seems to be a priority at Sage Valley, Wyatt says simply, “Everything is a priority. There’s nothing here that isn’t a priority.

“Two words fascinate me: first class.”

Today folks from prestigious clubs elsewhere are taking ideas home from Sage Valley.

Perhaps because Weldon Wyatt is so unassuming, myths rise up to fill the void of knowledge about him. He loves two in particular.

The first is that he got in a car and drove to Bentonville, Ark., without an appointment and just waited in Sam Walton’s outer office—various versions of the tale have him sitting there for seven hours to two weeks. The truth is less romantic, but no less inspiring: In about 1980, “I read about a company called Walmart.” Already a real estate whiz after turning his first $1,000 option into a $40,000 sale in one day, he drove up to Walmart’s corporate offices alright—but not without an appointment to see the real estate director there.

An agreement to build a store in Aiken started a two-decade relationship in which Wyatt developed Walmarts from Delaware to Alabama, more than 200 in all. A Walmart chairman once told a real estate committee that Wyatt was the only honest developer he knew.

“People are always interested in how I got started with Walmart,” he says. “I say, ‘I just picked up the telephone.’ You got to go out of the gate. You can’t get to the finish line if you don’t start.”

The second myth is that Wyatt created Sage Valley because Augusta National wouldn’t have him. The story is so ubiquitous that a Sage Valley chauffeur was once asked about it at the airport.

“I’ve heard it all over. A lot of the other members have too,” he chuckles. “I never have asked to be a member at Augusta. I think everybody would enjoy being invited to Augusta. But obviously everybody can’t be that way. But it’s nothing I’ve spent a lot of time on.”

Nor does Wyatt express anything but admiration toward Augusta National, particularly co-founder Clifford Roberts. “I always said Mr. Roberts never got the credit he deserved because I think Mr. Roberts set the standard for all of golf. Everywhere.”

Wyatt learned early on that golf sets standards for the rest of your life—integrity, etiquette, self-reliance and more. “You can tell a lot about a person by playing a round of golf with him,” he says.

You can also tell a lot about someone by building a golf course with him.

Wyatt asked a friend and Augusta National stalwart, the late Jack Stephens, whom Stephens would recommend to design Sage Valley. Tom Fazio was on the short list. “After I talked to Fazio, I knew he was the one I wanted,” Wyatt recalls. “He likes to leave everything as natural as he can. Fazio has the ability to move things around and still make it look natural.”
Fazio asked but three questions of Wyatt before agreeing to do it. How many members do you need to get before starting the course? None, Wyatt assured him. How many houses will you build along the course? None, Wyatt assured him.

“When do we start?” was Fazio’s last question.

Wyatt stepped back and let the master designer work—requesting a change on only one hole, the picturesque signature Par 3 second. Wyatt envisioned the green further to the right, where water would come more into play. Fazio later acknowledged it was the right move. And he told Wyatt that Sage Valley was one of the best design experiences he’d ever had.
The result speaks for itself: Sage Valley is simply one of the best plays in golf. But it wouldn’t be the same without the club’s attention to professionalism, detail and service. Even the maintenance people stop and wave.

“People want to have a first-class experience,” Wyatt sums up. “Some people can’t afford it and some don’t want to pay for it. But overall most do. It’s the same thing when you go out to dinner. You want somebody to be nice to you. You want to be paid attention to. That’s what you’re there for. You’re expecting service and you want service.”

If playing Sage Valley is unforgettable, so, too, was Wyatt’s first shot off the tee. It happened the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

The course had been ready for play that July, but Wyatt planned the September 11 ceremonial opening so his son, Tom—a golfer at Furman University—could tee off with him simultaneously. They went ahead and did it as planned, despite the pall of the terror attacks and the fact that other invited guests were unable to attend because of the national emergency.

“My thought process,” Wyatt says, “was I’m not going to let these scoundrels—I wasn’t going to let them spoil my day. The world needed to go on. It was on everybody’s mind. It wasn’t a joyous occasion. It’d taken away a lot from us.”

In the long run, he won. The terrorists lost. There’s no more beautiful, placid place than an exquisite golf course and Wyatt gets to come to work there each day. Overseeing such an oasis impacts him deeply. “It does have an emotional impact on me every day. And I’m here every day. It’s just peace, I guess. The surroundings.”

Tom Wyatt was introduced to two of the best influences in his life very early on: his father and the game of golf, which Tom took up pretty much out of kindergarten. There were plenty of father-son golf trips, Mom Brenda would drop Tom off at a course day after day and one or both parents attended many a tournament the young Wyatt played in.

Growing up Wyatt is a good thing.

“That was my summer camp, basically,” Tom says. “All day long. I didn’t play the tournament schedule that these kids play today, that’s for sure. I was never at that level.”

Now Tom and his father work closely to run one of the premier golf clubs in the world.

“He definitely has taught me to be a better man,” Tom says of his dad. “Who I am today is a direct result of being around him.” Turning to the elder Wyatt, Tom tells him, “As a father, you’ve done a great job.”

Not bad for a self-made man.

One of Weldon Wyatt’s great regrets is having never finished high school. He was too excited about working and helping his struggling family. His father, H.E. Wyatt, knew his son would be an entrepreneur when he was about 12: To help the family, Weldon wanted his dad to take him to buy a lawnmower so he could cut grass after school. Young Weldon paid off the mower by the end of summer.

But despite a lack of formal education, Wyatt has accumulated plenty of smarts to go with his business accomplishments. One bit of homespun wisdom he heard his father repeat: You never see trailers behind hearses.

“How you live your life is what you’re going to take with you,” he says. “I always tell people if you wanted to read a book to tell you how to be successful in life, read the book of Proverbs.”

Asked his own secret to success, Wyatt says simply, “Doing what you say you’ll do.”

That credo made it wholly unpalatable for Wyatt to declare bankruptcy when times got hard and his back was up against the wall more than once.

We were a little surprised that he didn’t,” says his longtime controller Jean Gallman. “We even had attorneys who came down to tell us how to prepare the documents and forms and things like that. He just decided no, I’m not going to do that. He didn’t want to walk away from a debt. And he didn’t.”

Wyatt had to settle some large debts and sell some things and downsize, but mostly worked his way through tough times.

“He just kept working away,” Gallman recalls. “He just didn’t want to walk away from that debt and feel like he had a debt that he had not attended to, he had not repaid or bargained for. We went through a lot of work getting that taken care of.”

Wyatt learned in the savings and loan crisis that “I wasn’t bullet-proof.” It took more than three years before getting back to positive financial statements—but he is proud of making it back, and he earned more than money on his way; he earned the respect of those around him, particularly at financial institutions.

“He has a lot of self-confidence,” Gallman says. “He’s been a motivated, working person since he was 9 or 10 years old. He used to tell me he took care of some of his younger siblings while his mother worked and his dad worked and he had jobs at a very young age and saved his money to buy something bigger and better.”

Having raised three of his own children—besides son Tom, there’s daughter Ashley and their step-sister Ramona from a previous marriage—Wyatt’s advice for the young golfers he loves to help nurture is this: “I would say never give up on your dreams. But you have to work at them.“To me, dreams are about talents.

I think a lot of times people don’t recognize their talents—and some people pursue dreams that don’t match their talents. I think God gave us
all talents. Don’t think too much of yourself,  but the talents that you have—utilize them. A lot of times, the people that struggle don’t ever recognize their talents.”

Another thing a lot of folks can’t recognize is opportunity. Weldon Wyatt has never had that problem. He learned as a teenager how to detect an opportunity with all five senses. Such as that first bit of real estate he put a $1,000 option on. The doctor who owned the 30 acres near Aiken had no idea of its worth or marketability. Young Wyatt had sold 10 of the acres in a day, the rest within the 90-day option period, pocketing a cool $80,000.

“That’s the way it works with anything, just about,” he says. “Some people are afraid to take the risk; some people don’t see the opportunity. The secret of selling is buying. If you buy it right, then there’s somebody out there gonna need it.”

Weldon Wyatt doesn’t just have a life story. He has several. But probably the most amazing part of all his life stories is having had the vision and conviction to build a world-class golf course without knowing whether anyone would join.

I was impressed by his making that investment and then sitting there waiting for the members to come,” says Paul Simon, a Sage Valley member. “I’d see him sitting there at his desk and he didn’t seem to be too worried about it too much. That’s not my nature.

“I was impressed with what he had done over there. I was surprised that somebody would take that risk.”

Simon eventually approached Wyatt to see if he’d be willing to host a fund-raising tournament for the First Tee of Augusta, a nonprofit Simon helped found that teaches golf and its life lessons to youths. It was a marriage made in heaven: Simon, successful in his own right, and Wyatt—whose passion is kids and education. Wyatt and his son sponsored junior tournaments in Aiken for 13 years and to this day Sage Valley has  a  “Dollars for Scholars” outing, open to the public, to raise money for college-bound seniors.

Wyatt and Simon hatched the Junior Invitational tournament two years ago—which, from its inception, has been regarded as the best in the world. Not one of the best. The best.

Or “first class,” as Wyatt would put it.

If Wyatt’s road map has been as simple as the one that the monk Birdsnest laid out, his journey has not. It takes drive and discipline to make it and Weldon Wyatt has made it more than once. So one other thing he’d tell youths: Make yourself get up, even when you don’t want to.

“A lot of times I wanted to be somewhere else, but I couldn’t,” he smiles.

And the payoff?

Well, there’s no place he’d rather be than where he is today.

Junior Invitational

Marking it’s third year this month, this Masters for teenagers raises money for First Tee of Augusta and spotlights some of the best junior golfers in the world.

 

Comedian Steve Martin once told his audience that he could show them how to be a millionaire and pay no taxes. “First, get a million dollars,” he deadpanned.

Similarly, if you want to stage a top golf tournament, it helps if you can start with a world-class golf course. Area businessman Paul Simon was just looking for a fundraiser for the First Tee of Augusta. But when he approached Sage Valley Golf Club owner Weldon Wyatt about it, Wyatt had more in mind.

“We’d been thinking about doing something for a good while,” Wyatt recalls. With Simon’s push, that idea grew into the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club in Graniteville, S.C.

This year’s tournament, April 26-28, will be the third. But the tournament was already declared the best junior tournament in the world after the inaugural event. “It’s junior golf’s only major, pretty much,” says Weldon’s son Tom Wyatt, president of Sage Valley and chairman of the Junior Invitational after Simon’s stewardship of two years.

Even the invitation to the 54 golfers is first class, an assortment of materials so extensive it comes in a box. But it gets better than that: Each of the golfers and their parents are flown to Augusta for the event—no matter where they live in the world—and they come from about 14 countries.

The teen golfers are housed together and fed at the club. The parents, who stay elsewhere, are fed as well. “We pay all their expenses to get here,” Wyatt says. “All they have to do is accept it,” his son adds.

And since the invitation list is basically taken from world rankings—except that the top junior amateurs from Georgia and South Carolina are also invited—they are the finest golfers in the world, a kind of Masters Tournament for teenagers.

As if the star treatment and the world-class course aren’t enough, the entertainment isn’t so bad either. The banquet speaker this past year? Former President George W. Bush.

How do you do all this—from scratch—in just two years? Well, first, get a first-class golf course. Like the one Wyatt built in 2001. Then add an army of savvy volunteers from a greater Augusta area that’s used to putting on the best pro golf tournament in the world. You’ve just been upgraded to first class.

“That’s what Sage is all about, to tell you the truth,” Wyatt says. “It’s all about first class, attention to detail. We have a lot of volunteers. If you’re going to do a tournament, where else in the world could you do it better than they do it here in Augusta? You’ve got volunteers who’ve been working at Augusta National for years, working the Masters Tournament. A lot of those same people are involved in this tournament.”

 “Our tournament committee does a phenomenal job,” Tom Wyatt adds, “and a lot of that has to do with previous experience in other events.”

That, along with benefactors such as presenting sponsor Electrolux, has helped the Junior Invitational raise $200,000 for the First Tee in each of the first two years.

The national broadcast media has been slow to discern what has happened here, despite Golfweek’s high praise. So far, CBS filmed an hour of highlights for later broadcast the first year; the Golf Channel upped it to four hours over two days last year.

Where’s ESPN, which has run the national spelling bee and slow-pitch softball? Why isn’t the top junior tournament in the world broadcast live?
“I’m wondering why, when I see some of the stuff that’s shown on TV,” Wyatt jokes.

Then again, who outside of Sage Valley saw this coming  this fast?

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