From D CEO May 2023Subscribe
This month, the 660-acre, $550 million PGA of America complex will open on what used to be barren farmland in far north Frisco. It features two championship courses, which will host dozens of professional golf events, a 500-room Omni Resort, myriad restaurants, and an entertainment district and outdoor areas, all of which will be open to the public.
But without the involvement of three key figures—who would not take no for an answer and overcame every obstacle they encountered along the way—the deal would never have materialized in the form it is today.
They include Blake Rowling president of TRT Holdings—the group that owns and operates Omni Hotels & Resorts and other companies—which provided the advance $525 million guarantee for the resort and golf courses. Another key player was Frisco attorney David Ovard, who pushed the original concept in his hometown and navigated the deal through city hall corridors leading to a $35 million dollar contribution from Frisco. And rounding it out was Mark Harrison, executive director and CEO of the Northern Texas PGA, who worked with Ovard and the PGA of America to bring its headquarters to Frisco after nearly 60 years in South Florida.
Although the three men had put plenty of deals together in their various careers, they had never done one this large, this complex, with so many partners, and chances to fail. “The deal died 15 deaths from Jan. 18 until Dec. 4  when we signed the documents with the city of Frisco,” says Rowling.
“Mate, Omni wasn’t involved nearly as long as I was,” Harrison chimes in. “This thing died hundreds of times over the last decade. There were so many egos and people butting heads; there were a lot of times I thought this would never happen.”
And just when it seemed that the deal had died a final death, an under-the-radar golf advocate, Dallas’ Pat Taylor, a five-time local ladies club champion, came to the rescue. She convinced her non-golfing husband, Dr. William Taylor, to sell his majority share of land in a key sector of the golf course, after he turned down other offers to sell for years.
“This thing died hundreds of times over the last decade. There were so many egos and people butting heads; there were a lot of times I thought this would never happen.”Mark Harrison | Northern Texas PGA
“It’s mind-blowing,” says Robert Elliott, founding partner of Stillwater Capital who initially approached Rowling and Omni about the potential development in early 2018. “We first talked five or six years ago,” Elliott says. “At the time, it involved one course, then two, then a resort. David [Ovard] kept planning and finally he said, ‘We need somebody to raise capital.’”
A decade earlier, with his sons showing promise as junior golfers, all Ovard wanted was a good place in Frisco for his boys to play and practice without having to join a pricey country club.
“In Frisco, there was something for every sport except golf,” he says. “We didn’t have a place to play. I thought the city could have a facility where kids could go practice and seniors could play, grab a burger, hang out, and relax.”
With the Dallas Cowboys headquarters and adjacent sports and entertainment district, The Star, the city pulled off a wildly successful public-private partnership. Ovard wondered if the same approach could be used for golf. After about a year of talking to neighbors and friends, he became convinced that such a plan could work. And he was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen.
A Frisco resident since 2004, Ovard had built plenty of relationships with city officials. He served on several committees and boards, and his wife, Wren, was on the board of the Community Development Corp. from 2014 to 2021, serving as president for the last couple of years.
“I thought we could at least have a driving range and that the city would put some money into it,” Ovard says. At the time, his sons were taking lessons from noted golf instructor Cameron McCormick. Knowing of Ovard’s interest, McCormick connected him with Harrison, who was independently peddling the concept of an urban golf park for junior golfers. At the time, the Northern Texas PGA was looking for a new home base.
“We got together to sketch out a plan,” Ovard says. “Mark brought the panache of the NTPGA and its new headquarters. Then Cameron mentioned the PGA of America—that’s the business of golf—and it really made sense. But the things that had to be negotiated were tough.”
Big Hopes and Dreams
Harrison and McCormick went to work on the PGA of America about moving to DFW, an idea that gained credence when the Florida-based organization put out a Request for Proposals in 2017 to potentially relocate. Frisco emerged as a strong candidate.
The first of many roadblocks proved to be one of the easiest to surmount; the relocation of Legacy Drive, which would have to go around a planned golf course instead of through it. Ovard sketched out a revised pathway and met with former Frisco City Manager George Purefoy. “I told him what we needed,” Ovard says. “He suggested some different land, but the architect told him we needed this land, and we got it done.”
A linchpin deal for land for one of the courses proved to be more of a challenge. Although the 600 acres once owned by banker Bert Fields had been largely purchased by Hunt Realty and Stillwater Capital in 2017, there was a 13-acre tract on what would become the East Course holes 13-14. It was known as the Will-Pat Property, named for Dr. William and Pat Taylor of Dallas. They controlled 60 percent of the land, with 11 friends holding the remaining interests.
Course architect Gil Hanse told planners the property was essential. “We could have a golf course without it, but not the championship one we wanted to build,” Ovard says. That conjured up not-so-good memories for Elliott, who worked on the private Trinity Forest Golf Club in southern Dallas, only to see promised championship events never occur and the PGA Tour’s AT&T Byron Nelson tournament leave after two years.
“We tried building championship courses at Trinity Forest and other places,” Elliott says. “You talk to golf leaders about championship courses, and if they never come, and if you don’t have a championship commitment, then you just have a defunct golf course in the center of Frisco.”
To make matters worse, Taylor had already turned down multiple offers to buy the land for other uses, and had what Purefoy describes as a very tough relationship with the city manager and the city government. “When I told George who we were meeting with, he said, ‘I think your dream just died,’” Ovard recalls. “Talk about a heart attack moment for me.”
Nevertheless, Ovard got a meeting with Taylor and his wife at their North Dallas home to give his pitch on why they should sell the land to Frisco to allow championship golf to return to the region.
“I don’t believe you,” was Dr. Taylor’s quick response.
“That’s just the way he was,” says Pat Taylor of her husband, who passed away two years ago. “He didn’t believe a lot of people when they told him something.”
During the meeting, Taylor picked up his cell phone and called Purefoy while Ovard listened in. “I got this guy in my living room saying if I sell my land, championship golf is coming to Frisco,” Taylor told the city manager. After a few minutes, Taylor hung up the phone and turned to Ovard and remarked, “George says you’re telling me the truth.”
It was then that Pat Taylor made a plea that allowed the deal to proceed. “I’ve always loved golf—really loved it,” she told her husband. “I think we should do this.”
Once Taylor was on board, the couple was able to get the 11 minority owners agree to the sale.
“I know I had some rough times with Dr. Taylor; I know he was a hard negotiator,” Purefoy says. “The ace in the hole was that his wife loved golf. I didn’t know that, and I don’t think anybody did.”
Another big Frisco roadblock was funding for the fire, police, and emergency services that the dozens of PGA tournaments would need. The PGA had never paid for such services in the past and had always had them included as part of championship agreements. The city insisted that every sports team had always covered these costs.
“If we set a precedent with the PGA, if we blinked dealing with them, we would have faced something else the next time,” Purefoy says. “Mr. Jerry Jones thought he had a pretty strong argument against paying, but he ended up doing so.”
In the end, so did PGA of America.
Funding the Deal
With pivotal land agreements reached and the PGA interested in bringing its headquarters and dozens of championships to Frisco, all that was needed was somebody to fund the multimillion-dollar deal. Elliott knew just who to call and dialed Blake Rowling.
“Robert, who’s a friend, and he said they were talking to the city of Frisco, and the PGA was very interested in this, and that they guaranteed championships,” recalls Rowling. “When he said guaranteed championships, I don’t know if he meant PGA Championship or what—it might have been the U.S. Open. We take a lot of meetings, but 90 percent don’t work out.”
Still, a few weeks later, Elliott found himself at Old Parkland in Rowling’s office with Mike Smith, another TRT/Omni exec, laying out the PGA Frisco details. It was followed by an evening meeting at Dallas Country Club with Robert Rowling, Blake’s father and TRT’s CEO.
“I thought it was going to be a 15-minute meeting and it turned out to be two hours,” Elliott says. “Truth be told, there was really only one partner to raise this much capital and get it done, and that’s Bob and Blake Rowling.”
The father-son duo had done plenty of deals over the years with Omni and operated some of the largest and most notable resorts in America. They already had a successful hotel at The Star in Frisco. But something on this scale for the Dallas-Fort Worth region would be a first.
“I thought it was an incredibly unique idea,” Blake Rowling says. “There hadn’t been a major championship in Texas since 1960s. That was incredible as a golf fan.”
“There are a ton of resorts in South and Central Texas, but not here. So, the lack of resorts here, in the dead center of the country, with DFW and Love Field airports—it all made sense.”
The price tag for a huge 500-room resort, two golf courses, 13 restaurants, four pools, and everything else which went with the project is approximately $525 million, all personally guaranteed by the Rowlings and TRT.
“In order for the PGA of America to commit to moving here and Frisco City Council [to support it], someone had to guarantee the whole project would happen,” Rowling says. “We never had any idea that a global pandemic would hit in the middle of this project when we granted the funding, but that’s the only way PGA and the Frisco City Council would go forward. That’s the risk you take.”
While the Rowlings had done plenty of projects, including the Omni Frisco Hotel at The Star and the Omni Fort Worth Hotel near the Fort Worth Convention Center, they had never done one with this many partners and this many chances for everything to go wrong.
“Partners make things complicated, but can also help things come together,” Rowling says. “There were a couple of times I didn’t think we could get there. We had three parties with different interests involved, they all had needs to be met; if one party walks away, the deal is not going to happen.”
A Fortuitious Rejection
Northern Texas PGA executive director and CEO Harrison initially wanted an urban golf park to further his junior program, which produced major champions like Justin Leonard, Scottie Scheffler, and Jordan Spieth. Starting in 2013, he took his idea to any city or organization that would listen and says he got his biggest break when he was turned down by one of his first choices.
“I talked to Irving, Richardson, and Addison,” Harrison says. “Addison saying no was one of the best things that happened. We wouldn’t be here now if they had said yes. I promise, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Irving was great,” he continues. “They said they were in but didn’t want us to talk with any other cities. I said, ‘Thanks but, we’re going to chat with a few others.’”
That led Harrison to Frisco, where he teamed up with Ovard and turned his sights on the PGA of America leaving its longtime home in South Florida.
“We had a firm study it, but like many large organizations, the PGA was dominated by East Coast courses that were very comfortable with being in Florida,” says Paul Levy, former PGA of America president. “It was painful at first for them to consider leaving, and we had some board members who didn’t like Texas, but we slowly won them over. When business people in Texas get behind a project, things seem to happen. You can’t say that about everywhere.”
The final PGA board vote to move was 21-0, and when the 2023 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship tees off in Frisco on May 25, Harrison will be caddying for NTPGA Pro Cameron Doan in the first group.
In the end, PGA of America contractually committed to bring nearly two dozen championships to its new North Texas home, including two PGA Championships and the 2041 Ryder Cup matches between the U.S. and Europe, provided certain financial metrics are met.
“It just continued to evolve, like a snowball rolling down the hill, and it got bigger and bigger,” Harrison says. “I wasn’t on the PGA payroll, but I was sure working for them—working on their behalf.”
The formal agreement was structured between the PGA of America, Omni Stillwater Woods (a joint venture led by Omni Hotels & Resorts and including Stillwater Capital and Woods Capital, a Dallas-based real estate development and investment company led by Jonas Woods).
The PGA of America and the NTPGA have already moved into their new, high-tech headquarters, and the Omni PGA complex will open for food, fun, golf, and luxury lodging on May 2. It’s all thanks to three Dallas-area leaders who never gave up, each in their own way—and one passionate female golf fan who rescued it at its darkest hour.
“I don’t know about our legacy,” Rowling says. “We’re capitalists, and we do deals when we think we can make money. But this is a great service to the city of Frisco, and it will be a real game-changer for North Texas.”
Seth Waugh was a PGA of America director in 2017 when he got his first look at the Frisco site. He became the organization’s CEO in September 2018.
“It was a cold November morning in 2017, and the land was wet and muddy. We took ATVs to look at the property, and there was nothing there but fences and cattle and brush.
Lining it up
“You could see the elevation changes and the water features, though, which make for great golf courses. Then, we had to make a deal that made sense for us. Dealing with three different parties (PGA, Frisco, and Omni Hotels & Resorts) was complicated, but we got it done.”
“For the first time, I feel like the PGA has a home—not a headquarters building, but a home. We will have something almost every year in Frisco—from annual meetings to the Junior PGA Championships to the summer buying show, plus the championships, starting with the KitchenAid Championship in May, then the women’s PGA and the men’s PGA.”
Building a legacy
“We are making our mark here and making a difference for all of golf with our championships. I really feel this will be a laboratory to make this the Silicon Valley for golf’s future innovation. It will benefit the game we love and allow us to to see it grow.”