Jack Matthews is sweating through his light blue dress shirt, and he is frowning at but not answering his buzzing BlackBerry. “Friends say, ‘Jack, are you the stupidest guy in the world?’ ” The man chosen to develop the Dallas Convention Center hotel is about to open a new golf course, of all things, in The Colony, of all places. In fact, he’s building the new course right next to one he already owns. And that seems a little crazy in the worst economy since the Depression.
Matthews talks while speeding a utility cart over the bumpy paths and maintenance roads crisscrossing his new playground, the Old American Golf Club. The property hugs the Lake Lewisville shoreline, with numerous water towers and high-tension electrical lines crowding the horizon.
“The idea is for our holes to recall the architecture of the ’20s and ’30s, when golf courses fit in better with the land,” Matthews says. “Tripp Davis [who designed the course] is part historian, part golfer, part architect. The less influence I had on him, the better job he did. And Justin [Leonard, the PGA Tour star who consulted] was an absolute delight to work with. The quiet guy—but you listen when he says something.”
Why The Colony, why golf, why now? The answers come slowly. Matthews is a humble man not given to oration about his vision. Golf is not even his game, he admits. “I’ve only broken 100 three times, and two of those times, I was drinking,” he says. “That could have affected the scorekeeping.” At age 51, he’s still the hockey player he’s been since his peewee team from London, Ontario, won the provincial championship. He plays defense on several rec league teams. His wife hates to watch. “I’ll go get the puck in the corner,” he says, code for “I’ll kick your ass to win.” His nickname is Jack in the Box, as in penalty box. Matthews embodies the Canadian dichotomy: the national game of these disarmingly pleasant people is fast and violent.
The father of four began investing in The Colony a decade ago. Like many residential developers in the last 40 years, Matthews based his gambit on golf. The usual m.o. has been to sketch streets and building lots on a map and shoehorn a golf course between them. Feeling the hot breath of investors on their necks, developers in the ’70s and ’80s often overdid it, placing houses or condominiums on both sides of a fairway. They called it “double loading,” and though it maximized lot premiums, it gave golfers the ominous feeling that they were playing on the city streets they’d come to escape. A subtle purist backlash occurred in the mid-’90s, when some new communities bragged about how few—not how many—of their building lots had golf course views. That was the path Matthews chose for his new housing development and golf course, both called The Tribute.
Location was first among the risks. Like a lot of Texas towns, The Colony wears a discouraged look in July, as if it has been baking in the sun for too many years. But The Colony is not old; despite its Early American-sounding name, the town began life as a disco-era housing development erected by low-cost homebuilder Fox & Jacobs. Eventually, as it became more self-contained and distinct from Frisco, one of the homeowners associations petitioned the city for independence. Go, said Frisco. Live long and prosper. Thus was The Colony born in January 1977.
But Matthews—who transformed Southside on Lamar into a hip (and safe) place to live—saw something in the unprepossessing confluence of State Highway 121 and FM 423. He was right. From a developer’s point of view, The Colony is clearly a winner. Thanks in part to its proximity to Frisco, its population has grown from 26,000 in 2000 to more than 40,000 today.
The Tribute opened in 2000. With only a handful of golf course lots to sell, would cash flow fast enough? And the Big Idea of creating an homage to Scottish golf on the shores of Lake Lewisville—would anyone get it? Could it be done without becoming a Disney theme park, causing golfers who had actually been to Scotland to roll their eyes and never return? Nine years and $12.7 million later, the answers are yes, maybe, and yes.
The Scottish motif in the housing development that began in 2007 expresses itself in faux-ancient stone walls and towers, echoes of the drystone dikes that flow endlessly across the Scottish countryside, and in street names like Lochside and Glenturret Circle. The developers needn’t have bothered; the houses are the same red brick you see all over North Texas. And though they’re a huge upgrade from the old Fox & Jacobs trackers, you never think your train just pulled in to St. Andrews Station.
But the golf course is a gem, and easier to like because it doesn’t go overboard with the fiction that it’s a little piece of seaside Scotland. The Tribute’s hallmarks are serpentine fairways bordered by mounds topped by swaying hay, and touches of the randomness of Scottish links—an ingenious bit of work by Davis.
The Tribute makes money, a notable success now that far more courses are closing than opening in the United States (106 vs. 72 in 2008, with closings accelerating in 2009, according to the National Golf Foundation). The numbers don’t scare Matthews. He has a plan for his corner of The Colony, just as he does for downtown Dallas. The course next door is the next big piece of the puzzle.
“This is a long-term business,” Matthews says. “It’s not that we don’t want to make money. We just don’t have to make it this year.” He has stopped the cart by the ninth tee, where we’ve exhausted the strategic implications of a huge, healthy oak tree and, 300 yards away, a thoroughly dead one. Behind us, a cove of the lake juts into the black dirt and Bermuda grass-sprigs of a new Old American fairway. “People won’t see how good Southside on Lamar is for 50 years. I want Southside and The Beat [another loft complex his Matthews Southwest developed] to be the start of a great walking city.
“Here, I see a beach, a marina, two great golf courses, a hotel, condos,” Matthews says. “We’ve got to give this some density to make the retail work. This will be one of the top destination resorts in Texas. Long term, we’d like to host big golf tournaments.”
What stands in his way? Besides the sputtering economy and the rough edges of The Colony, Matthews has a dispute with American Golf Corporation, which manages The Tribute under contract, a difference in philosophies so serious that he did not invite them to participate in his new project. He politely declines to talk about it.
But none of that seems likely to deter Jack Matthews. He is too self-effacing to be called visionary but clearly he sees things others don’t. Here in The Colony, on the hot shores of Lake Lewisville, he likes the view.
Curt Sampson’s most recent book is Golf Dads: Fathers, Sons, and the Greatest Game.