Golfer sets own course

Grass to be greener for an executive who's building 18 holes for himself in Anne Arundel

October 27, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Albert Lord doesn't like to wait - not in business or on the golf course.

The colorful chairman of student loan behemoth Sallie Mae, who's embroiled in a nasty fight over the failed sale of the company, has spent 40 years in the accounting and banking industries. He said that experience should have instilled in him a measure of patience, but it hasn't.

Whether in traffic, at the office or on the links, Lord said, he just doesn't like to wait. He can't do much about the first two, but he's got a sure-fire solution for the last one: He's building his own, an 18-hole golf course on land he's acquired amid shuttered tobacco farms and grazing horses in southern Anne Arundel County.

Lord, 62, is steering $15 million toward Anne Arundell Mannor, a 7,100-yard, par-72 course for him and up to 100 members in Harwood. During the past three years, the Annapolis resident has assembled about 335 acres with the goal of playing golf his way.

"I hate rules," he said.

Gone will be the limits he finds onerous at private clubs, such as a ban on wearing golf shoes in the parking lot. "There won't be any rules. ... Well, there will have to be some rules. You can't take your car onto the fairway."

Wealthy enthusiasts across the country are putting up millions to build private sanctuaries. Few, though, are spending more than Lord, golf architects said.

"This is happening more and more," said golf architect Greg Martin. "It's a personal thing. It's a personal game. If they have a passion about the game, the financial resources and vision, they are going to take on an experience like that."

Money and vision are things Lord appears to have. The Pennsylvania State University graduate joined what became SLM Corp., known as Sallie Mae, as comptroller in 1981 and rose to chief executive officer. The company started out as a government-charter operation but was spun off in 2004 and is the nation's largest student loan provider, with 12,000 employees and a loan portfolio of $153 billion.

According to securities filings, Lord, now chairman, owned about 8 million shares and vested options for the company's stock earlier this year, currently worth about $385 million.

Lord, once a partner in a failed bid to own a baseball franchise in Washington, has been immersed in a controversial stock sale in February that netted him $18.3 million. It occurred days before the White House announced cuts in subsidies to companies that offered student loans.

This month, Lord launched a $900 million lawsuit to force investors to live up to an agreement to buy Sallie Mae and take it private - a deal they no longer want to pursue. The deal would have paid Lord nearly $225 million in stock options and awards.

Lord's vision for his golf course includes a clubhouse, practice area and several cottages for house guests. Already, Lord and his wife, Suzanne, have overseen the renovation and expansion of an 1831 red-brick plantation house on a ridge near the center of the course. They've also drilled a 385-foot well and built a 2.8-acre pond for irrigation.

The course is about 245 acres. In July, Lord bought an adjoining tract, a former sand-and-gravel mine of 90 acres, which he's also rehabbing.

Two holes just downhill from the plantation home - Nos. 11 and 12 - were completed two weeks ago. Lord has already begun to size up the downward-sloping par-4, 382-yard 11th, whose green is protected by a line of trees to the left. Lord said he wants the course to follow the sloping contours of the land.

"If you level the terrain, the golf course could be anywhere," Lord said. "This is a Southern Maryland course. You go to Florida, you go to the Eastern Shore - you can't get this."

When all is said and done, Lord could spend $30 million for the land and all improvements.

Some residents were unnerved when they learned of Lord's plans in 2005, fearing a golf course would compromise the rural character of southern Anne Arundel. There, most property is measured in acres and many homeowners travel on two-lane roads built for wagons, not dump trucks.

"I like woods, I like land, I like the water. ... I like space," he said.

What he has not liked is the hassle of waiting for several county and state approvals, although he understands the intentions of the inspectors. As in business, he said, instead of becoming frustrated. "I learned that I just have other people who interact with them."

Lord's point man on his project is Thomas F. Walker, the former course superintendent for Inverness Club in Ohio, the home to several of professional golf"s most prestigious championships over the decades. Walker said he came to Harwood in February 2006 after recommending former colleagues to work for Lord.

Walker took the job himself within days of arriving.

"The setting is so beautiful. The area is so beautiful," Walker said.

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