There is an emerging set of relatively new courses that have made their way onto many golfers’ bucket list: Bandon Dunes, Streamsong, Chambers Bay and Cabot Links are among them. What do they have in common? They are all connected with KemperLesnik and KemperSports, two of the most influential organizations in golf. We spent some time with the President of KemperLesnik and KemperSports Josh Lesnik to get some insight into what has made the company successful so far and what their vision is for the future.
Michael Williams: Let’s talk a little bit about you before we get straight to the golf courses. Where did you grow up? I know you’re living in the Chicago area now. Did you grow up in the Chicago area?
Josh Lesnik: Yep. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, north of the city, and pretty much … I was actually born in Georgetown Hospital [in Washington, D.C.] but we didn’t live there very long. My folks moved here when I was under two years old.
MW: I was born in Georgetown Hospital!
JL: See, you know. I mean, we were separated at birth, as you remember.
MW: Now I remember. Okay. I thought I knew you from somewhere. So, you moved to the Chicago area with your folks…was golf a part of your life from the very beginning?
JL: KemperSports is a family business that my father and his partner, Jim Kemper Jr., started. My dad was about 40 years old when he started it, and I was about 13. He was a non-golfer when he started the company, but he realized, if he was going to get in the golf business, he better learn how to play. So, we both really learned at the same time, from a golf professional named Bob Spence who worked at Kemper Lakes at the time. We both learned on Vernon Hills Golf Course, which is a nine-hole golf course in Vernon Hills, Illinois that was our company’s first management contract, a nine-hole golf course, municipally built and owned by the village of Vernon Hills, and we actually still manage it today. It’s a neat place, and near and dear to our hearts.
MW: That’s kind of an amazing sort of arc there, that your father and his partner chose to start a golf management company, and he didn’t know how to play the game.
JL: Well, what happened was Kemper Insurance left from downtown Chicago, which many companies were doing at that time in the 70s. The campus was 350, 400 acres, and after they moved into the building, the real estate department came to Jim Kemper Jr. was the CEO and chairman of Kemper Insurance and said, “Hey, we got to do something with all this land, and there’s wetlands, and it’s kind of pretty.” So Mr. Kemper decided he wanted to build a golf course. My dad was a young vice president of public relations at the time, and Mr. Kemper selected him to oversee the project, even being a non-golfer. He said, “Hey, I want it done right, and I want you to make it famous.”
So, my dad kind of had to learn on the fly the golf business. They ended up building Kemper Lakes, and that opened in 1979. A few years after that, the board of directors said, “Hey, we really should be in the golf business,” so my dad and Mr. Kemper leased the golf course from the insurance company, and that’s how KemperSports started. And then Kemper Lakes hosted a PGA championship when it was only 10 years old. It was won by Payne Stewart.
After Kemper Lakes opened in ’79 and they started KemperSports, we got a call from the mayor of Vernon Hills. He said, “Hey, we’re thinking of building a golf course. Could you help us do that?” And that’s sort of how we got into building and opening and operating golf courses on other people’s behalf, and that’s really when the management company was born.
MW: It’s really just an amazing success story, to think that you started from one course that was built sort of out of a financial necessity and then turn that into arguably the most influential golf ownership and management company in this country, if not the world. Did you always know that you were going to be going in the business?
JL: Yeah, oh yeah. Once I could drive, I started working at Kemper Lakes. I think my first job was clubhouse maintenance, and then I got promoted to pick the driving range. But the most coveted jobs were the cart boy jobs, because my dad had sort of started that whole country club for a day thing, this high-end daily fee where you get treated really well and you don’t have to join a club or pay dues. So, the cart boys would run out and grab the golf clubs. Now it’s sort of commonplace, but in 1979 it wasn’t.
Eventually I got to do that, and it was a great way to sort of learn about customer service and hustle, and then I got to work in the pro shop for some great pros. Worked for Stan McKee a little bit, and of course, Emil Esposito, who was probably our most influential golf professional in our company. We have an award each year for the PGA pro of the year, and it’s named after Emil. He was a fun, fun guy to work for, and you certainly learned a lot working for him.
MW: Was he any relation to [Hall of Fame hockey players] Tony and Phil?
JL: Not that we know of, but he was a phenomenal athlete and phenomenal player, as were the hockey Espositos. But no, he was strictly a golf Esposito, and he played golf at Northern Illinois and won many Illinois State Opens, and was a fabulous player. He still teaches today at The Glen Club, which is a project that we opened here in Glenview, Illinois in 2001, and he still is out there on the range… I think he’s 83 years old and still out there on his feet all day, teaching the game and growing the game.
MW: Bless his heart, that’s what we need. What do you think is the mission and vision for Kemper properties? How do you want them to look and feel to your visitors?
JL: Well, obviously, we’re so fortunate to work with some of the best clients and real visionaries in golf. There’s Mike Keiser, who built Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links, and Sand Valley. And Rich Mack and the Mosaic company that built Streamsong. We work for Pierce County, Washington and Chambers Bay. So, we’re fortunate to have clients that are true visionaries, and for us, we really like to help them just carry out their vision. We’ve talked about KemperSports and KemperLesnik. KemperLesnik is the PR agency, and that was my dad’s first love. He started that public relations agency at the same time as the golf company.
So, we were born out of this public relations agency. To us, it’s a service business on two fronts. One, it’s service to our clients, and we really are a behind the scenes company. When you go to Whiskey Creek Golf Course [just outside Washington, D.C.], we want you to have a great experience and we want you to leave and say, “Whiskey Creek, man, what a great place.” But the people should be just as good as the place.” Whether that’s going to Bandon Dunes or Sand Valley or Streamsong, we want people to remember the name of the place, and we want them to say, “Man, the people and the service were amazing and memorable.”
And that’s really how we were born, treating the customers with customer service. Our proprietary customer service program is called True Service, and that’s really in our DNA. I mean, it’s an emergency to us, to try and take care of people. We’re a bigger company now, managing over 120 golf courses. But we really try and make that the part of our company that really sticks out the most, the fact that that in the end, we’re here as a hospitality company, and that’s what we want people to remember.
MW: I love the phrase, “taking care of our customers is an emergency.” You mentioned that the Keiser family and the courses they have with Sand Valley, which opened recently [June 1, 2017], Streamsong, Cabot Links, etc. They’re all among the most coveted destinations in golf now, but it all traces back to Bandon Dunes, You were the first general manager at Bandon Dunes, and that has become sort of a watershed property. It has defined a type of golf resort that is being imitated, if not duplicated. Did you know from the beginning what you had there, or did it sort of dawn on you over time, that you had done something kind of different and special?
JL: My answer would be, “No.” We didn’t know what it would become. I’m not sure I would have accepted the job if I knew how big it was going to become. I hadn’t been a general manager before. Obviously, growing up in the business I had a ton of support from the company. But if we knew how big it was going to get… we ended up bringing in a really big time general manager who I hired, and helped us continue to grow that place. Mike’s vision was to say, “Look at all these American golfers going to play golf over in Scotland and Ireland. What are the characteristics of that that make hundreds of thousands of people go over there every year? Can we do something like that in America?”
I mean, there were a lot of people calling themselves a links course at the time, which really weren’t links courses. Mike Keiser’s vision was to find links land in America and see if he could replicate that experience, the firm turf and balls that kind of can get away from you on the ground, playing the ground game, and putting from 40 yards out. All the little quirkiness of links golf along with playing on the ocean and the varied weather that that can bring. So, we knew his vision, we saw the site we said, “Wow. Maybe he has a chance to do that here.” He’s so brilliant in working with the architects; a good example is the job that David Kidd did on the first course. David Kidd was an unknown, 28-year-old, struggling architect from Scotland trying to get a start. But really, bringing that Scottish flavor to America on the south coast of Oregon, on the ocean, it just caught on. I know people would say I’m biased, but no matter how much you and I talk about it and say how great it is, if somebody new goes there, it’s going to live up to their expectations. That’s what’s amazing about that place.
MW: You talked about Kemper Lakes and Chambers Bay. Do you know off the top of your head how many of your courses have hosted major championships?
JL: Kemper Lakes hosted the PGA championship. Chambers Bay hosted the 2015 U.S. Open that Jordan Spieth just eked out over Dustin Johnson. Chambers Bay also hosted the U.S. Amateur, I know that’s not included as a major in any official counts, but certainly Amateur … The translation of amateur is love of the game, so those are our clients, and that’s … The U.S. Amateur’s a major to us, and Bandon Dunes is going to host the U.S. Amateur in 2020. We’ve been fortunate to host other events and championships at our courses all across the country, which is great.
MW: You get a chance to play all the golf you want to. Is there a favorite course, either yours or any other course that you really just love to play?
JL: Well, I mean, again, I hate to go back to it…I guess, I really don’t, but Bandon Dunes, the first course there, the David Kidd course is really near and dear to my heart. My family moved out there and we opened up Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes. That place is just special, and special to me personally, special to our company. It’s great to work with the Keiser family. It happens to be the first course I broke 80 on, and so yeah, I’d have to say Bandon Dunes is certainly a special place.
MW: Is that the one you would choose if you were going to play your final round and if that’s the one, who’d be in your dream foursome?
JL: I was fortunate to have some very good mentors in life, and Mike Keiser’s one who I would never turn down a round with. As fast as he plays, we could probably get two rounds in in the time most people play one! And then I’d have to say my father-in-law. Unfortunately, he passed away, but he was a very special guy, and I loved to play golf with him. We played in a lot of events together, and then my dad, who’s given me every opportunity in the world in my career and personally and professionally. That’s my dream foursome, and fortunately, I get to still play a little bit with Mike and my dad, but that would be my group.
MW: You have done a lot with this company to build a product that is very special within the game, exceptional, and excellent properties. What about affordability, diversity and inclusion? Where are those on the radar for a company like yours and your courses?
JL: Well, obviously, affordability is important, but golf is an expensive sport. I mean, you can’t get away from it. If you’re going to have 14 clubs and a bag and golf balls, and to play on a course that takes up some amount of acreage that needs to be taken care of, it is an expensive sport. So, fortunately, there’s a lot of programs. Obviously, The First Tee is the most well known, but there are so many grassroots programs all across the country in growing the game. I think right now, for example, the PGA Junior League is one of the best, if not the best grow-the-game initiative out there today that the PGA of America started. It’s where you actually play on a team, and you play a scramble. You can have jerseys with numbers on them, and the kids can share clubs if they need to.
So, whether you’re a public golf course or a private club, you have a certain number, these PGA Junior League teams, you play in different age groups, you play a scramble with three other kids. So, you’re going to hit these bad shots, you’re going to top them, you’re going to miss it, you’re going to hit one in the water, but you have four shots at it and you have a team. So, it’s a little bit more like Little League. You’re rooting for your teammates. You hit a bad shot, it’s not as bad, because you got three more chances at it, and I think that’s one of the best grow the game initiatives going.
Obviously, The First Tee does a wonderful job growing the games in areas where the game is difficult to grow, because it is an expensive sport. So, trying to bring basically free lessons, free equipment to places where it’s very difficult to grow the game, I think that’s all part of it. And June is basically our month where we highlight all player development programs across all 120 golf courses. We have our PGA pros give free lessons to beginners or golfers that once played and are now coming back into the game.
So, we promote it through all our social channels, and we get it out in each market that we’re in, that this is the month to come out, no questions asked, you don’t need equipment. Come to our courses, we’ll get you the equipment, we’ll give you free lessons, it’s a 15-minute quick lesson to get you either back into the game or get you into the game, and we give thousands of lessons across the country. We even do it in our office for our own staff. So, I think that’s what we try and do, is just try and grow the game at each location in each market we operate.
I also think the president of the USGA, Diana Murphy, started a wonderful program called Plus One. The idea is that if you’re into the game and you love the game, and you want to give back, try and get one other person into the game with you, and if everyone was able to do that, you could obviously double the number of golfers. It’s a wonderful notion, and we all know how hard a game it is, it’s so hard for beginners, but we all know that it’s worthwhile too, that if you stick with it, it can be really rewarding.
MW: I think you said a lot of good things there.
JL: Yeah, and you know, Michael, another thing we’re trying to do is something that is a little bit overlooked as a grow the game initiative. If you look back on how some of the older tour players started playing, many of these players got into the game of golf through caddying, and we try to have caddies at as many of our properties as makes sense. There’s a wonderful scholarship that was started here in Chicago called the Evans scholarship, started by Chick Evans, and it’s where a financially needy caddie who has the caddie experience and also has the grades and the discipline in school can earn a full ride, four-year scholarship. It’s now in about 20 universities across the country.
The Evans scholarship, it has about, right now, almost 900 kids in school. We’re striving to get to 1,000 kids on a full ride to college, and we’re talking Northwestern University, the Big Ten schools, Notre Dame has it now. It’s growing on the East Coast as well, and we are trying in Chicago at a couple places. We manage a place called Harborside International, a 36-hole venue on the south side of Chicago that Dick Nugent built. It’s on a landfill, it’s really a neat, neat property on a big lake, Lake Calumet.
We are trying to get The First Tee kids to start caddying there. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily teach them how to swing a golf club, but it teaches them a little bit of work ethic, they make money, they spend three-and-a-half, four hours with people playing golf that one day could hire them if they are fortunate enough to go through college, and it’s a way to get kids into the game while also teaching them all the values of earning money, meeting people, showing up on time, respect for elders, all of these things. So, a lot of the values that The First Tee has, you also learn in caddying, but you happen to make money at the same time.
We’re finding that it’s a great program. The Western Golf Association started a caddie academy here in Chicago land that’s now up to 90 girls, trying to get more girls into caddying. They all stay in a dorm up here, it’s just a wonderful program. So, I’d say caddying is a little bit overlooked as a grow the game initiative, but it’s really important, and it’s important if you can do it in challenging areas.
MW: What’s coming in your portfolio for 2017?
JL: Sand Valley opened May 2nd and the owner of Old Waverly in West Point, Mississippi built a public golf course called Mossy Oak. A Gil Hanse design, also in West Point, Mississippi, that we opened this spring. A really neat property, so now there’s two courses down there you can stay overnight and you can play both golf courses. Obviously, this fall, we are extremely excited to be opening the Black course at Streamsong.
Rich Mack hired Gil Hanse to design and build the Black course, the third course, and it is a showstopper. Haven’t played it yet, but I’ve walked it several times with Gil, and I cannot wait for people to see that, because it’s going to be … I mean, it’s just going to be a really highly talked about golf course. It’s a big, bold golf course. So, we’re very excited about that. We opened a Greg Norman design golf course in Mexico for Vidanta Resorts in Puerto Vallarta, one of our few international projects. We’re very excited they’re opening, I believe it’s their sixth course, and really, a neat place to stay. They have great timeshares there, and a hotel that’s just out of this world, and they’re continuing to build a lot of neat stuff in Puerto Vallarta with Vidanta Resorts.
So, lot of exciting stuff. We’re also opening a reversible golf course in eastern Oregon called Silvies Valley Ranch that’s going to open late summer this year, designed by Dan Hixson, who’s an architect that’s done some things out in the Northwest. I know there are not a lot of golf courses opening anymore, but we’re opening six golf courses this year, so it’s a pretty exciting year for us.
MW: For my last question, I got to ask you something just a little bit whimsical. If you were king of golf for a day, what would you change or what would you add? Would you do anything different, or is it good like it is?
JL: Well… If you could go back in time a little bit, you’d say, look, we learned the game from Scotland, and it would be great if we sorta more emulated the way they play the game. So, what I’m getting at is probably more match play. Let’s not make an eight, a nine, or a ten and try and keep score, and shoot 109, or 99, or even 89, or maybe even 79. We’re not PGA tour players; those are the top half of 1 percent of players. Let’s play more match play, let’s enjoy it more, play alternate formats of golf, alternate shots, scrambles. It would solve the speed of play thing in a heartbeat, match play, because you pick up your balls, you’re out of a hole, and you go to the next tee.
In Scotland, you see them play their four ball matches, and they play in two-and-a-half hours, and if the match ends on the 14th hole, they come in, and they’ve played in two hours. Some days I’m enjoying golf so much I really never want it to end, so I know people are saying “speed of play, speed of play…” and it is true. It’s hard when you get stuck on a busy course, but we’d all play a little faster if we kind of emulated the game in Scotland more and played more match play and were less concerned about score.
It’s easier said than done. I mean, I’m guilty of it too, because what we watch on TV every weekend is stroke play, and we all kind of want to have a number, but when you’re in the pub in Scotland, they don’t come in and say, “What did you shoot?” They say, “Who won the match?” You talk about, oh, we won 4 & 3. So, it’s a whole different mindset. I don’t know that we’ll ever get there, but the closer we can get in the alternate formats, and like I said, getting kids into the game by playing scrambles and being a part of a team, I think we’re heading the right direction, and the PGA of America and the USGA has great leadership right now, so I think they’re simplifying the rules of golf. I think we’re heading in the right direction.