“Isn’t it beautiful?”
Davis Sezna is standing on a small elevation overlooking the carefully manicured swales and swells of the Crosswinds Golf Course. He points to a distant spot: “See those railroad ties? What does that say to you?” he asks, waiting patiently for the answer. “Pete Dye,” he prompts. “That’s his signature.”
Dye, Hall of Fame golf course architect of some of the best-known and most-challenging courses in the world (TPC Sawgrass, Harbour Town, and Blackwolf Run, to name a few), designed the ninth hole at this unassuming par-3 course, tucked away at 611 Villa Road, behind the Greenville Downtown Airport.
And that’s not the only surprise about Crosswinds, nor is it the only surprise in store for Greenville if Sezna, golf-hospitality impresario and the course’s new owner, executes his vision.
Crosswinds is one of a kind among U.S. courses, according to Golf Digest. Each hole was designed by a different architect, many among the most renowned in the world, including Tom Fazio, Rees Jones, Robert Cupp, and Jay Haas. The elevations are also surprising: A distinct improvement over the usual flat and — yes — boring layouts most golfers expect from par-3 courses.
But Sezna, who has designed by his count “more than 50 concepts” in his career, sees so much more. He’s working with Greenville architects DP3 to turn the concept to a reality.
When the club opens in spring 2019, the most obvious change will be the clubhouse. The old white-and-green clapboard building is set to be demolished (pending permitting approval), and replaced with a new stone-and-glass 4,500-square-foot facility that will include a 100-seat restaurant and bar, a 450-square-foot open patio, and a rooftop bar and seating area (observation deck), with a small hitting area where happy hour guests can vie for a closest-to-the-pin challenge for $5 for two attempts.
Where the current clubhouse has two vending machines, the new restaurant aspires to be “as good as anything in Greenville.” Sezna describes the concept as “sophisticated” and “comfortable favorites.” He is keeping the name of the chef for this new endeavor under wraps, but promises he’s “one of the top five in the South.” The restaurant, with a variety of seating areas inside and out, is intended to be a destination in its own right — not just an after-round grab-and-go. Three stone fireplaces will, he promises, create a welcoming setting all year round.
A ‘very unique’ experience
Crosswinds will have activities appealing to families, kids, couples, seniors, good golfers, and duffers. Sezna hopes to turn the full-spectrum golf experience into a template transportable to other cities.
Forget the traditional pro shop. You’ll check in at the bar where an assistant pro will get you started or get you breakfast. A putting course will be built as an homage to The Himalayas, the family-friendly feature of Scotland’s revered St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf.
“It’s the most entertaining course,” he says. “It’s moguls, humps, and bumps. And it’s so much fun. Kids and families, couples, students, all come out and play on it. It is less intimidating and people just love being a part of it.”
Don’t worry, purists, there will still be a traditional — but smaller — putting green.
Sezna is reaching out to the original hole architects, asking if they want to be part of the course update by making some design tweaks to their holes.
A scratch golfer, who picked up his first club at age 3 and went on to play college golf at Georgia and win state amateurs in Delaware, Sezna wants the experience to be, above all, fun.
And what’s more fun than winning money? Sezna is setting up cameras on each tee and green. Not so the bar patrons can make fun of you, but so every hole-in-one can be documented. Every tee-shot, he explains, is insured. Make an ace on the shortest hole, you’ll win $1,000; on the longest, $5,000.
The entire course will be Wi-Fi connected so your music can follow you throughout the round.
The democratization of golf
Sezna appears to be riding the wave of a new trend in golf, one that throws out old paradigms, stretches rules and norms, and embraces a more-relaxed experience. Faster, less stodgy, less intimidating and more fun.
It’s the same trend that has made Topgolf one of the premier golf-entertainment facilities in the country. Greenville golfers are currently awaiting the opening of the local Topgolf facility, which is under construction at the intersection of Interstate 85 and Pelham Road.
Embracing trends that fly in the face of a sport so steeped in ancient traditions may seem a contradiction. Sezna, after all, is a member of a dozen of the most prestigious golf clubs in the country as well as the Royal and Ancient, Europe’s equivalent to the USGA. But he sees a relaxation of those traditions as critical to the growth — maybe even the survival — of the game.
“Wherever we go, I love those environments but I’m also in the hospitality business,” Sezna explains. “The first thing you learn is, you have to take the intimidation aspect out of things. Valet parking is intimidating. Wine lists are intimidating, and taking a friend out to play golf is intimidating.”
Taking the intimidation out of golf is critical to growing the game. Sezna calls Topgolf “one of the best things that has happened to us in the game. It’s attracting nongolfers to have a good time. It’s totally good for the game.”
Crosswinds is “a transitional amenity”; the next step for those who found they had a blast at Topgolf and “are curious to take it to the next level.”
“This,” says Sezna, expansively opening his arms, “is the obvious level before you go to a conventional golf course.”
One trend dividing more-traditional golfers is players loudly broadcasting their own tunes from their carts on the course. Sezna is incorporating the music trend fully into his golf experience.
“I like it in this environment,” he says. “I wouldn’t go swimming in my tuxedo or to a black tie dinner in my swimsuit. Life is about variety. This is a variety of golf.”
Eventually, he hopes, Crosswinds players will find themselves ready for more-serious golf. But until you get there, he asks, “why not have a little fun?”
The start of something big
Sezna’s vision doesn’t come cheap. He’s anticipating investing more than $2 million in the renovation. He won’t say how it’s funded except that there are private partners involved.
The project will have an economic impact on the area as Sezna plans to hire 65 new employees in both the golf and hospitality areas.
He expects to have 25,000 rounds played in the first year — a number he considers “under projecting.” And he plans to work with both the Boys & Girls Clubs and The First Tee Upstate.
What he is really excited about is being part of “one of the most dynamic and progressive cities in the country.”
Others, he notes, are also interested in developing a similar concept in other cities. Not as a franchise, he says, but “more of a privately owned partnership group.”
Although it’s a gorgeous day, there’s just one player on the course. Playing alone, he pushes his golf cart across the green right in front of us. A big no-no. But a nonplussed Sezna says: “I am sort of charmed by that.” He turns and calls out to the player: “Nice shot!”
And it is, indeed, beautiful.
Davis Sezna is a contradiction. He’s a man who values joy, fun, and good times above all else, who has been deeply scarred by haunting loss.
He is a member of the inner circle of the rarified worlds of professional golf, national politics, and entertainment, yet the project he is really excited about is a little-known par-3 course in Greenville.
He has designed the concepts for high-end restaurants across the country, but agonizes over finding the right roll for a cheesesteak cook-off with friends.
Sezna grew up, a child of privilege, in a suburb of Wilmington, Delaware. His dad, Wally, was a successful commercial developer and scratch golfer. He put a club in Davis’s hands when he was 3. And, 62 years and two back surgeries later, he hasn’t put it down yet.
He graduated in 1975 from the University of Georgia, where he played varsity golf. His college golf experience and state amateur titles opened the mahogany doors of golf’s inner sanctums to him. They have never closed.
Although he loved the game, he was around PGA tour players “enough to recognize that I wasn’t going to be one of them.” Yet, he knew he wanted to be in the hospitality business and opened his first restaurant (Klondike Kate’s in Newark, Delaware) in 1980. “Despite all my mistakes,” he recalls, “it survived. It is still the place.”
Talking to Sezna is a blizzard of backroom stories and memories of some of the biggest names in golf and politics — from Joe Biden to Greg Norman, Bill Clinton to George Thorogood.
In the late ’90s, business was good. Sezna founded the 1492 Hospitality Group in 1990, and built his first golf course — Hartefeld National in Avondale, Pennsylvania, in 1995. Everything was working out.
Sezna and his first wife Gail had three sons: Davis Jr. (Deeg), Teddy and Will. Within two years, his two youngest sons would both be taken by tragedy: Teddy, 15, in a boating accident in 2000; and Deeg, on his sixth day at Sandler O’Neill & Partners located on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Sezna defines his personal and business history this way: “Before 9/11 and after 9/11.”
In 2004, he sold 1492, which was servicing more than 100 golf clubs, and Hartefeld. In 2009, he became president of the La Quinta Resorts. He and Gail divorced, he remarried. He and his second wife, Barb, share two passions: golf and cooking. “Give me golf and cooking and I’m a happy man,” he says.
The couple split their time between Palm Springs, Florida, and their home in Travelers Rest. He first laid eyes on Greenville — a much different Greenville — in 1972 when he played in the Furman Invitational. He recalls the city as reminiscent of “American Graffiti.”
He and Barb returned in 2012 when he joined The Cliffs Communities as president and CEO. Two years later, he left to become managing partner of The Heritage Golf Group, a golf course-management company. Today, he and his son Will are business partners in GTE Partners, a turf equipment company based near Tampa, Florida, and the largest independent seller and exporter of pre-owned golf course equipment internationally.
He is a member at some of the most-prestigious and exclusive golf clubs in the country, yet he describes himself as “humble and curious.”
“I have no interest in being right,” Sezna says, “I’d rather be educated.” On the other hand, he says “conceptualizing” is his “super power.”
“I can come up with 10 concepts in a hour,” he boasts, allowing that they might not all be “right.”
Asked how he would describe himself, Sezna remains a contradiction: designer or builder, creator or operator, idea generator or team builder? In the end, he chooses “creator of enjoyment.”