Paul Fireman came to golf through the caddy yard at Thorny Lea Golf Club in Brockton, Mass., as a 10-year-old carrying the bags of entrepreneurs and executives, storekeepers and dreamers.
Fireman learned quickly that the game was a bridge between two worlds - childhood and adulthood. His loops through the leafy club would not only inform his journey through golf, but also his rise in business.
“I think golf is a code of conduct, a way of life, and a tremendous character builder,” says Fireman, the chairman of Fireman Capital Partners in Boston, Mass, and co-founder of Liberty National Golf Club with his son, Dan.
“In my generation, children were seen and not heard, but when you went out as a caddie, you not only had the right to talk, but the adults asked you questions. It became a social way of connecting people together.”
From those early lessons of relationship-building, Fireman has developed a remarkable portfolio in the consumer, investment and real estate sectors, notably as the founder and former chairman and CEO of Reebok International Ltd. and co-founder of the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Family Foundation.
One of his boldest strokes was the purchase of nearly a mile of neglected and decaying New Jersey shoreline with stunning views of Manhattan. It was an eyesore. It was a gurgling mess.
“I loved the site and the historical value with the Statue of Liberty, and the city, and it was on the water,” Fireman says. “I just plunged into it because I thought it would be a phenomenal golf site and improve the world. And I was just crazy enough to do it.
“I had financial people telling me, ‘Do you really want to go forward?’”
In many ways, Dan served as the bulwark to those concerns.
The founding managing partner of Fireman Capital Partners and former CEO of Willowbend Development, LLC., Dan oversaw approximately $500 million in invested capital throughout the world, including much related to golf.
But Liberty would test everyone involved, including father and son.
“My role was to give him the confidence that we should keep going,” Dan says. “The amount of money to complete it was extraordinary, but I knew this was going to be a very important project for my family. It required a lot of vision, and there were reputations at risk.”
During the building of the club, Dan lived in Lower Manhattan as the site went through various tangles of excavating, permitting, digging and building.
Long before the club opened on July 4, 2006, a 40-foot scaffolding was placed over where the 18th green was imagined by course architects Tom Kite and Bob Cupp.
Dan would bring prospective members and golf dignitaries for a tour and always have them scale the wood and take in views of the Statue of Liberty, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and Manhattan.
“You’d stand up there and say, ‘This is what it’s going to feel like,’” Dan says.
The next day, more interested – and some skeptical - parties would come and Dan would repeat the process.
“Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Paul says. “He stayed there for six, seven years. He was the one in the foxhole. He brought in the first members and managed it. He knows everybody there. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
In the ensuing years, Liberty National has found its way, thriving with a robust membership, twice hosting the PGA Tour’s prestigious Barclays Tournament, in 2009 and 2013, and helping to reinvigorate a depressed part of New Jersey.
But to its founders, the club and the game of golf represent even more.
“I don’t think there are too many sports where it’s not about money, it’s about respect and the rules,” says Paul. “It’s something that should keep going. It’s the missing part of our culture that has eroded, but it has not eroded in golf. It is a different type of sportsmanship.”
Like his father, Dan has early memories of golf as well, memories formed by watching the Masters on Sunday as a family, memories of a game passed down through the generations.
“My kids are still very young now, but I see how golf can become a big component of our relationship. I believe that as my children grow and begin to learn the game, this very special legacy will continue to live on within our family for generations to come,” Dan says
In ways subtle and profound, Liberty will continue to impact the Firemans and so many others who find their way to its breathtaking surroundings.
It is the consummation of a family’s faith and an expression of their entrepreneurial spirit.
It is the continuation of a family’s journey in golf, one that began in a caddy yard long ago, in a leafy section off Torrey Street on the west side of Brockton.
~ Damon Hack