Outside of their Seattle-area home, Lyle Anderson and his father sat in a rowboat trying to salvage belongings following a flood that washed over the nine-hole golf course they leased to earn a living.
The disaster would wipe out the family, but it became Anderson’s first lesson in business. He was 6.
"He was telling me to stay in the boat because the water was over my head," Anderson said. "I remember that horrible smell of the flood. There’s a terrible smell to it. At that young age, to have that thing happen to you, probably eliminates a lot of fear going forward. You can take risks and chances in business because it teaches you can always survive. A lot of people in business really don’t have the courage to take the risks you need to take to be successful. They all want the success, but they don’t really assess the risk properly."
His father and a pseudoseparation from his family for three years following the flood gave the now-63-yearold an entrepreneurial spirit that would lead the Scottsdale businessman to build some of the most luxurious golf course communities in the world.
Anderson has been called a visionary for turning raw desert into neighborhoods for the wealthy. Years before most saw the potential in north Scottsdale, he did in Desert Highlands. He saw it again even farther away from developed Scottsdale in Desert Mountain, and he saw it most recently at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club at the base of the Superstition Mountains near Gold Canyon.
Anderson is credited with being the first developer to push the idea that golf and good living could go hand-andhand on cactus-studded ground dotted with the coolness of fairways and greens.
For good measure, he added the allure and status of professional golf tournaments such as the Skins Game, the Tradition and the LPGA Safeway International, coming up this weekend.
"Lyle revolutionized desert golf with Desert Highlands," said Mark Kizziar, past president of the PGA of America who now works for Anderson running Superstition Mountain. "When I moved here in 1986, other than Desert Highlands, there was not near the quality of golf in the Valley there is now. There were no high-end daily fee golf courses. Papago Park was as welldesigned as anything, but it’s not nearly the quality of golf that we see now. McCormick Ranch was as good as it got."
OPPOSITION IN ISLANDS
Anderson hasn’t drawn praise from everyone, including some Hawaiians who accuse his companies of harming a historic bay and destroying ancient burial grounds. The $1 billion community called Hokulia was planned for a decade, but is now the subject of a lawsuit. The project was effectively put on hold in 2003 when a judge ruled the agricultural zoning of the 1,500-acre property did not allow for Anderson’s vision of paradise on the Kona Coast.
"They spent at least $8 million in fighting us and they had numerous law firms, but primarily we disagree with their business practices," said Robert D.S. Kim, an attorney representing four people opposed to the development. "Hawaii is kind of a unique place. Unlike other areas where there’s vast tracts of land, Hawaii has limited land resources. The area in which they’re building the project is located in an agricultural district where not only is the area agriculture, but the surrounding area is agricultural."
For his part Anderson has no intention of giving up and says he expects the courts will see things his way. So far, the development consists of 200 homes and a golf course. Original plans called for 750 home lots priced from $1 million to $8 million, according to the Honolulu Star Bulletin.
"There’s a high degree of optimism that it will be overturned at the state Supreme Court," Anderson said. "Unfortunately, it’s a long process. Most people that we talk to, and we’ve talked to people in all walks of Hawaiian culture and life that are lawyers and previous Supreme Court justices, law professors . . . almost unanimously feel the state Supreme Court is going to overturn this, but you can’t tell."
Anderson learned to take things in stride.
When the banks of the river that ran through his father’s golf course spilled over, the family was helped by the Red Cross. His father, mother and little sister moved into a one-bedroom flat with his uncle.
"There was no room for me and there was a Chinese family across the street that took me in for about three years," he said. "They were a totally Chinese-speaking family."
He learned enough of the language to complement the hand gestures he used to communicate. There were grandparents and eight other kids in the house. The family made bean sprouts in their basement to deliver to nearby Chinatown.
"They produced them in the basement in the dark because bean sprouts don’t like a lot of light," Anderson said. "They would produce the bean sprouts, put them in trucks and take them down and deliver them to the Chinese restaurants. It was a very good upbringing. When you’re at that age, you don’t consider yourself being hardshipped. I enjoyed it. I saw my parents all the time."
He earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Washington and went to work as a management trainee for a telephone company. Later, he became part-time sales manager and broker for a golf residential community. By the late 1960s he was acquiring vacant land in Washington state and forming limited partnerships. Anderson moved to the Valley in 1975.
FRIENDS LEFT WAITING
He was a member of Paradise Valley Club in the early ’80s when he decided to build the 670-acre Desert Highlands. He had friends who had applied to be members of the Paradise Valley Club, but were told there was a six-year waiting list.
"Right then and there, I decided I was going to build a club which allowed people entry by virtue of buying property," he said.
When Anderson decided he needed a well-designed golf course, he called the office of Jack Nicklaus, got his assistant and asked if he could leave a message.
"It was before faxes and all this stuff and I read her the speech that had my dialogue," he said. "She took it down and said ‘Thank you I’ll pass this along to Jack.’ Well, five minutes later, I get a call from his president."
Just four days passed before Nicklaus’ right-hand man came to Scottsdale and said the company wanted to do business. Anderson said he wouldn’t do anything until he talked to the Golden Bear himself. He flew to Texas to meet with Nicklaus following a tournament and two spent three hours going over the plans for what would become the firstever desert championship golf course designed by Nicklaus.
"He came to Desert Highlands the next week," Anderson said. "He stood on the first tee with me and after all the other guys had walked away, he put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘Lyle if you’ll let me do this golf course, it will be the No. 1 golf course in the Southwest.’ I said Jack, ‘You’ve got the job.’ "
The duo, now close friends, have created a dozen courses together with two more in the works.
THE QUIET MAN
Those who know Anderson say his quiet, measured demeanor can give be seen as shy, aloof or standoffish.
"I can understand how someone, if you first see him or meet him for the first time, might get that impression," said Richard Lehmann, a founding shareholder and board member of the Biltmore Bank. "He’s a very focused individual. When he starts thinking about something . . . he has the skill to kind of block everything out and focus on it. If you know him well, he is very engaging. He’s a fun guy to be around."
Unlike some developers of his stature, Anderson likes to fly under the radar, Kizziar said.
"If you took Donald Trump, he’s about 180 degrees from him," Kizziar said.
Three-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin said Anderson almost has a sixth sense about him.
"People react to what happens right away but he reacts to things 20 or 30 years from now," he said. "He’s sort of in tune to almost like a spiritual world, like there’s something else out there he sees that the rest of us don’t."
Irwin, who lives in Paradise Valley and does golf course design, has office space in Anderson’s headquarters, and owns property in the Hokulia project. He said he hopes work with Anderson on more development "if he ever gets tired of Jack Nicklaus."
ON THE GO
While he’s a good golfer, Anderson prefers hitting balls on the driving range, partly because playing 18 holes takes so much time, he says.
He walks a lot, sometimes at 11 p.m. on a treadmill, a habit that drives his wife, Missy, nuts. Anderson’s hobbies include his four grandchildren and traveling with friends.
In Superstition Mountain, he sees what he calls "a theater enclave" at the base of the mountains, a destination for people from around the United States and well-off empty-nesters in the East Valley who want to remain close to their children.
"Superstition got off to a fast start, but it slowed down during 9/11 and a drop in the stock market," Anderson said. "In the last couple years, it’s just taken off. I can’t even believe what’s going on out there. Nothing stays on the shelf and we can’t build it fast enough because it’s been discovered. It’s a place that has an excellent, excellent lifestyle at a reasonable price."