Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in Ace In The Cup on Aug. 25, 2014.
The long, thin, winding road is tucked in between thousands of pines that hide the land’s natural beauty. ¶ Nearly all 755 acres are filled with singing birds, scurrying critters, and herds of deer grazing alongside the road. ¶ In the distance, the faintest echo of a backhoe’s engine rumbles to a start, offering the only sign of urban life on this rural land. ¶ As the road descends, a white cottage comes into view as the land opens to reveal all its natural beauty: the majestic pines, the mighty oaks, the beautiful rolling hills. ¶ Here, it feels as if Heaven dips to earth, as if time stops, and, for a moment, in all its tranquility, all is right in the world.
It’s troubling, then, why such a tranquil landscape has been unkempt for nearly two years. The land, the former home to Blaketree National Golf Club, the course envisioned by self-made millionaire Thomas W. Blake, allegedly, to mimic Augusta National, was all but abandoned overnight on Oct. 29, 2012—left for the weeds to roam, the feral hogs to destroy, to let a man’s dream … die.
As the rumor goes, millionaire playboy Thomas Blake wanted to bring Augusta National to Texas after he was denied membership at one of America’s most pristine and respected country clubs. Blake, who built his fortune as an attorney-turned-oil magnate, had a lifelong affinity for golf. A single-digit handicapper in his prime, Blake was a member at various golf courses worldwide—some speculate more than 100—including Houston’s most exclusive club, Houston Country Club. Blake had the power, the money, and the game to travel, play, and live the playboy lifestyle wherever he pleased. Everywhere but Augusta, that is. So, as the rumor goes, Blake did the next best thing: He brought Augusta National to his hometown Houston.Scott Cory remembers the phone call vividly, even four years later.
Scott, can you go to the airport and pick up two guys? the voice on the other line says.
Sure, no problem.
One of the guys is Byron Bell, the president of Tiger Woods Design, the voice says.Scott, it goes without saying, but we need to keep this quiet.
There was no need for alarm for Cory, the do-it-all head golf professional at Blaketree National. When he accepted the job in 2007, JP Realty Partners, the company that owned the property, was upfront that its sole intent was to flip the property within a year. The company hired Cory from the Hyatt Hill Country Golf Club, where he served as the head golf professional, to run the day-to-day operations at Blaketree and maintain the course while executives searched for a buyer. But the company’s plans foiled as it sat on the property for a third year, leaving Blaketree, a once prestigious golf course, stagnant in a dark period that spanned the better part of six years.
“They were stuck. The course wasn’t designed correctly, it needed close to $2 million in renovations, if not more, and we were out in the middle of nowhere getting about 13,000-14,000 rounds per year,” Cory says. “Are you going to spend that kind of money to renovate a golf course? When are you going to get your money back? And with their plan to sell the property, why invest that money when you’re likely going to sell it to a developer that’s going to blow the golf course up anyway?”
What the phone call failed to state was that Bell would be joined by Beau Welling, Tom Fazio’s former righthand man and now owner of Beau Welling Design, to help Bell scout the property. Their stay was brief. Cory drove them back to the airport the next morning, and that was the last he heard from the two. Eight months later, Cory resigned from his post at Blaketree and accepted a job as the general manager/director of golf at Cypresswood Golf Club in Humble, a position he holds today.
Thomas Blake made his fortune as a Houston attorney who specialized in oil and gas. In 1940, he won a landmark case, Downey vs. Humble Oil, and invested money earned from the case to buy an oil rig, which, among various other investments, he used to build his fortune to fund his love for golf and his lavish lifestyle. Blake became a celebrity through channels that didn’t involve Hollywood stardom—although his youngest daughter, Tessa, turned a $1 million check from her father into a film: Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, a documentary centered around her father’s playboy lifestyle. Blake mingled with Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Howard Hughes, and Gary Cooper. He wasn’t shy about hosting posh parties with Hollywood celebrities and beautiful women. By 1984, Blake, 84, was on his fifth marriage and had fathered four children. Even such a large family couldn’t slow down the oil baron. Blake continued to live his eccentric lifestyle and play golf with the game’s best players—including his childhood friend and three-time Masters winner Jimmy Demaret, Sam Sneed, and Ben Hogan.
There’s a story that tells of a time that Blake ran into Hogan on the putting green at Seminole Golf Club in Florida. Blake, a smart businessman who had poor judgment in terms of golf, challenged Hogan to a money game, and Hogan, three rounds later, scorched Blake for more than $2,000.
With such a love for the game, and such deep pockets, it’s no surprise that Blake set out to build an exclusively private course of his own, a mere 52 miles form his hometown Houston, for himself and his group of friends. To help with its design and construction, Blake enlisted the help of a young man named Bill Coore, but in order to attract his wealthy friends away from Houston Country Club, Royal Oaks, and other prestigious country clubs worldwide, he needed an equally impressive name to lead the project. Blake reached out to Ben Crenshaw, a native Texan himself who was coming off a victory at the 1984 Masters. Crenshaw and Coore began construction on the 7,196-yard course in 1985.As the gas-powered golf cart navigates the bumpy terrain, completely overgrown from tee box to green at this point, Casey Paulson hits the gas and a smile extends across his face as he speaks about the landscape. “The canvas we have to go create something here is very unique, very special. We have 755 acres of tall, wooden pines, 155 feet of elevation change, and, to think, we are less than an hour away from the fourth most populated city in the country is really exciting,” he says.
Paulson and business partner Michael Abbott formed Beacon Land Development in February, a Dallas-based company that specializes in developing luxury resorts and private golf clubs. Paulson and Abbott have a combined 50 years’ experience in the luxury resort and private golf club industry, and are leading the resurrection of the land—to take a piece of Blake’s vision in Blaketree National, and turn it into a vision of their own: Bluejack National.
Prior to founding Beacon Land Development, Paulson served nearly eight years as the general manager/chief operating officer at Vaquero Country Club, an exclusively private club in Westlake, Texas, near Dallas. Abbott’s résumé includes time spent as the vice president of operations of Discovery Land Company, where he oversaw all aspects of the development of courses such as Vaquero; El Dorado in Los Cabos, Mexico; and Mirabel in Scottsdale, Ariz. Prior to partnering with Paulson, Abbott owned Abbott Golf Management in Keller, Texas, in which he was involved with golf course and real estate management. For both men, golf has been intertwined in each of their lives, and much like Thomas Blake, it comes as little surprise that both Paulson and Abbott have ventured to build a course they can call their own.
“Our goal is to create a truly distinctive environment where families and friends can reconnect, enjoy their time together and create lasting memories and traditions they’ll cherish for years to come,” Abbott says. “Casey and I have years of experience developing and executing these types of experiences at some of the world’s most celebrated private clubs and resorts. At Bluejack National, we have the opportunity to build upon all of that know-how to deliver a lifestyle unlike any other to our members.”
“Bluejack National has one of the best natural settings for golf I have seen.” – Tiger Woods
Helping forge that environment is none other than Tiger Woods and his team at Tiger Woods Design. “Bluejack National has one of the best natural settings for golf I have seen. With its changes in elevation, the beautiful pines and hardwoods, Bluejack National is reminiscent of the pinelands of Georgia and the Carolinas,” Woods says. “The opportunity is here to create a golf course unlike any other in the Houston area, and our goal is for it to be among the best in the nation.”
Like Woods, that’s exactly what drew Paulson and Abbott to the property. Though the canvas has already been marked upon, there’s so much…emptiness…to be filled. As for golf, Bluejack National will incorporate parts of the original design of Blaketree, but will add traits of its own—holes will be switched: No. 6 on Blaketree will be converted to No. 9 of Bluejack; a new hole, No. 14, will be carved out in a grove of trees; No. 12 of Bluejack, the course’s unofficial signature hole, a 180-yard par 3, will feature a small lake in front of a green that sits nestled next to a backdrop of trees, reminiscent to No. 12 at Augusta. It’s that kind of focus put into every hole, the exact positioning of each tee box, the carefully thought out approach to a green, the scenery around each hole, that is going to help the property end its troubled times.
Blake, in his mid-70s at the time, was very hands-on with Crenshaw and Coore as they worked to design the course and route each hole, which often created tensions and disagreements between the two parties. Finally, tensions became too much, and the parties separated, leaving Blake to design the final six holes himself. Blake had many traits that made him a successful man, but golf course architecture was not one. A common complaint Blaketree received after its opening were the logistics of certain holes—the fourth hole, for example, featured a green that severely sloped from back to front, making it near impossible to find a fair pin placement on the surface. Other holes featured greens that drained into bunkers, and downhill tee shots with uphill approaches.
“If you’re not a golf course architect or an engineer, and you don’t know what you’re doing, you can really mess some stuff up, and that’s basically what happened,” Cory said, who served as the head pro at Blaketree from 2007-2010.
Blake’s struggles expanded beyond the course’s architecture. The bubble that was the oil market burst in the 1980s, which forced Blake to halt production of Blaketree until 2000. On Sept. 8, 2001, months before the course opened, Blake, 91, passed away. Though he never saw the course’s completion, Blaketree became one of Texas’ most heralded public courses from 2001-2004. In 2004, The Dallas Morning News named it Texas’ fourth-best course to play in the $45-$60 price range, and the Houston Chronicle named Blaketree’s signature 12th hole the sixth hardest par 4 in the Houston area.
But Blaketree was decaying from the inside. Blake left his precious course to his family: his fifth wife, Muffin; son, Tom; and Tessa, all of whom had no knowledge of golf course management, to carry out his vision. The course began to deteriorate: feral hogs destroyed the fairways, fungus grabbed hold of the greens, and a lack of water was killing the course. By 2005, the family put the course up for sale and quit funneling money to keep it maintained. Finally, it sold in 2007 to JP Realty Partners.
Three years after he started, in 2010, Cory received the phone call that he needed to go to the airport. Now, four years later, the property might finally be reaching what Blake had envisioned in 1985. These days, more backhoes and dump trucks frequent the property as construction of Bluejack National officially began July 22. The course is scheduled to open as early as fall 2015, though amenities such as Bluejack Coffee, the Playground, and the Porch could open as early as the spring. The team at Bluejack Realty will begin selling vacant lots as early as this fall.
“This is going to be a special place,” Paulson says, overlooking the property as the early afternoon sun begins to ascend to the top of the pines. “Hopefully, we’ll do Mr. Blake proud.”