Sebonack’s owner solicits feedback in continuing quest for improvement June 26, 2013 By Stuart Hall

Sebonack owner Michael Pascucci is proud to be displaying his Southampton, N.Y., golf club to a national and international audience at this week's U.S. Women's Open. (USGA/John Mummert) 

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — As Michael Pascucci roams his domain that is Sebonack Golf Club, he occasionally pulls a golf pencil and small piece of paper from his pocket to jot down a thought or observation.

On Wednesday morning, sitting in his designated golf cart outside the Sebonack clubhouse, Pascucci displayed one such piece of paper. The entire front and half of the back contained a list of cryptic words and notations.

Only Pascucci could decipher the wording, but Cristie Kerr, the 2007 U.S. Women's Open champion and a casual friend, has a strong intuition of the paper's contents. 

"He loves his golf course," Kerr said. "He wants to know everything about it; how it's going to play, where are they going to put the pins. To him, [Sebonack] is like a house. You're always changing things up, moving the furniture around. 'Oh, I don't like that plant right there, so let's move it over here.' It's that type of thing."

Pascucci laughs when hearing Kerr's comments and admits to endlessly searching for ways to improve this 7-year-old creation that is hosting this week's 68th U.S. Women's Open. And like an accommodating host, he is trying to let his guests – in this instance, the United States Golf Association – go about their business.

Early in the week, Pascucci sat in on the USGA's daily 2:30 p.m. meeting where officials go through details and scenarios that could affect this championship. "I kept my mouth shut almost 100 percent of the time," Pascucci cracked.

Pascucci, 76, is a lithe and unassuming presence with a full head of whitish-gray hair and a well-tanned complexion, the result of winters spent in south Florida and summer weekends on Sebonack's links-style course. He was born in Manhasset, in Nassau County, and today lives in Locust Valley, a hamlet on the north shore of Long Island.

Pascucci's backstory has a rags-to-riches quality. His father, Ralph, a native of Naples, Italy, left school following the third grade because his family needed him to work. Ralph Pascucci later became a landscape contractor and played golf as a recreational outlet. He was a scratch golfer and a former caddie at Engineers Country Club in Roslyn Harbor, which hosted the 1919 PGA Championship and the 1920 U.S. Amateur.

Though Ralph Pascucci tried to teach Michael the game, he rebelled.

"I had no interest," he said. "I thought it was for rich people and country club people and I said, that's not me."

Pascucci attended Bucknell University and later New York University’s Stern School of Business before embarking on a career fueled with entrepreneurial spirit at age 23. In the past 50 years, he built and later sold Oxford Resources Corp., a national car leasing company, and WLNY, a Long Island-based television station.    

In his mid-30s, Pascucci gravitated toward golf as a way of doing business. His auto leasing business, for example, required annual financing, so Pascucci spent much of his time in the company of bankers.

"And how do I get to the top guy at a bank? You think he wants to have a meeting with me? You think he'd ever want to have lunch with me? Absolutely not," Pascucci said. "You invite him to go play golf, then you get your CEO to come. We did business with 41 banks at the time, so I was playing golf all of the time."

In the late 1990s, Pascucci was a guest of Wayne Huizenga, a fellow entrepreneur who dabbled in owning sports franchises such as the Miami Dolphins and built The Floridian Golf & Yacht Club. For Pascucci, the seed was planted to build something similar.

For six years Pascucci searched for property that had particular caveats: it had to be on Long Island and on the water. In 2001, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers decided to sell property it had owned for 55 years. The particulars matched Pascucci's vision – 300 hundred acres in Southampton, high above a mile-long beach and Great Peconic Bay. 

Pascucci shakes his head in amazement that such a property could have been available in 2001.

Pascucci paid an estimated $45 million and then set about finding the right architect. Jack Nicklaus was his next-door neighbor in Florida, so who better? Nicklaus was a master tactician with more than 300 courses designed. 

About the same time, Pascucci visited Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the Oregon coastline and played its Pacific Dunes course, a Tom Doak design that opened to accolades in 2001. In Pacific Dunes, Pascucci found "fun golf," which fit into his philosophy of a course.

Nicklaus and Doak had little interest in co-authoring a design, but Pascucci managed to pull off the partnership. Pascucci viewed the pair as being similar to the Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore coupling "in that you have a golf professional with plenty of course architecture design working with a consummate dirt man and minimalist designer," Pascucci said.

Nicklaus and Doak deferred to Pascucci's request for "big fairways, good strategy, good greens, no forced carries and no scary shots," he said.

"I want the people to be able to run the ball up on the ground. If they skull it or miss it, I don't want them to lose the golf ball. I also said what I'd like to do – and it's very hard to do – is make the golf easier for the weak player and more challenging for the strong player or professional."

Nicklaus and Doak delivered a par-72 gem that can play as long as 7,534 yards; it measures 6,796 yards for the Women’s Open. It opened in 2006 as the new kid on a block that includes National Golf Links of America next door and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club across the way. Sebonack, like its neighbors, is an invitation-only club with an estimated membership of about 200.

Passionate about the amateur game, Pascucci desired to host the U.S. Amateur at Sebonack, before switching gears and landing this year’s U.S. Women's Open just two years after the club opened.

Now it's finally here.

Always seeking feedback, Pascucci spent five hours walking and talking with players during Tuesday's practice round.

Kerr describes the course as having a lot of character. Paula Creamer says it reminds her of Oakmont Country Club — site of her 2010 U.S. Women's Open title — in that there is a natural, rolling effect to the design and very few trees. Juli Inkster, playing in her record 34th U.S. Women's Open this week, could not compare it to any other Open course she has played.

"It's really different," she said. "The front side is really linksy, and the back side is a little more woodsy, kind of Monterey Peninsula-ish. So I think it's kind of two different golf courses meshed together. It's going to be interesting how it plays."

No doubt Pascucci will keep pencil and paper close at hand.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.