Joe Salemi wanted to build a golf course.
Well, lots of people want to build a golf course, but few of them are trained architects. Salemi was one of those folks, so he started by reading books — so many books — by the modern marvels and the classic leaders and the legends. Then he hunted for land, because while he owned and operated plenty of businesses, his plots were scattered. He handed over car keys to a realtor with instructions to call whenever interesting properties popped up. Then he talked with his old friends at the local bank, because, sure, he had lots of money, just not So, you want to build a golf course kind of money. Those friends had loaned him money before for car washes and storage facilities. Of course they would loan him money for a golf course. Right?
Day after week after month after year, Salemi continued to read and hunt and count his pennies. And he dreamed.
And after half a decade, Salemi opened Boulder Creek Golf Club in Streetsboro, Ohio, about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, to incredible reviews. Golf Digest ranked it eighth among all the courses that had opened that year. Think about that. A car wash and storage facility owner with no formal architecture training not only figures out how to design and build and open his own course, but does a good enough job that he beats out hundreds of other links near the height of the construction boom. Heck of a story.
It could have ended right then, too, back in 2003. Salemi could have appreciated all the trees he had cleared, all the earth he had moved, all the luck that had found him — from a shaper literally pulling off the road and asking for the job, to the shaper’s superintendent brother moving up from Florida to help and eventually take over the top maintenance job, to a crew of nearly three dozen Mexican immigrants asking for work after seeing a sign near a highway exit — and returned to his old days. Instead, he returned to the course, normally two or three times every day, figuring out what could be better — and then actually following through and fixing what he calls his “mistakes.”
“If it was just about making money,” Salemi says, “I could have probably built another six, eight, 10 self-storage facilities and would have been so far better off.
“But life is more.”
Let’s talk about Joe Salemi’s mistakes.
Pete Dye motivated Salemi more than any other architect, and Salemi likes to joke that while both he and Pete Dye entered the design world in their 30s, he had a considerable head start because Dye had no idea how to operate a tractor thanks to decades in the excavation business. He also likes to joke that Pete Dye was right when he wrote that no designer gets it right the first time. They both made plenty of mistakes.
Salemi’s most recent mistake — and the spark for this story — is the renovation that wrapped up earlier this season on the eighth green.
“We built the green fairly close to the Ohio Turnpike fence,” he says. “Consequently, if you just pull it a little bit, you’re out of bounds.” Salemi incorporated far too much slope into the green, too. “If it was at a private club, that slope would be OK, but for a public golf course, it was just too hard. If you don’t hit the right place on the green — just like if it was a tournament course, if you don’t hit the right section of the green, you don’t really have a chance at birdieing the hole, or even parring the hole — you’re going to three-putt, guaranteed, maybe worse. It was just too hard. That was a mistake, so we ended up building a new green to the right of that.”
Salemi committed an impressively low number of other mistakes on the course.
A longtime subdivision developer, he cobbled together 375 acres of land for the course and surrounding subdivisions of single- and multi-family homes after purchasing the first 100 from an old Christmas tree farmer on a handshake deal. He relied on his own abilities for as long as he could before bringing in outside help — and he realized exactly when he needed that added expertise. He lucked into a shaper joining the team early, a local named Matt Loose who was tired of traveling so much for work and who wound up bringing in his brother, Chris, who turned down a pay raise at Mayacoo Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach to dive into the project. The immigrants were nothing short of a blessing. “If I hadn’t had those guys, I never would have finished this course,” Salemi says. “I probably would have gone broke.”
There were some mistakes, of course, because Salemi is an unrelenting critic.
“I had a back tee on No. 9,” he says. “It’s a par 4 and it goes west, which is in the wind, and you have to hit the ball 300 yards, even the really good golfers. So we knocked that tee down — I had enough dirt — and we eliminated that really long back tee that we were maintaining for almost nobody. Now it’s a lot better hole because the second shot is over a pond to the green, and there’s less road noise. And I can open the hole up to carts, and that will speed up play.”
Drainage is important, too, and while he didn’t overlook it during construction, he also didn’t pay it the attention he realized rather quickly he should have. He spends more than three quarters of a million dollars every year into course maintenance — far more than the $552,202 average for non-private courses, according to our 2020 State of the Industry survey results — and plenty of it has been poured over the decades into drainage.
“Drainage is numero uno once you open the course,” he says. “Opening the course isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. Now you’re going to go back and do all sorts of things you didn’t do when you built it, and one of the main things is drainage. The course starts softening up, at least in our area because of our soil, and once you have thatch in the ground and that soil softens, you start having issues where you’re mowing and you’re finding your settlement areas, because the course is going to settle. Then you start to get lower spots and the mowers start tearing it up, so now you need drain tile.
“I’ve probably put 10 miles of drain tile in on the fairways since we opened, and we still have a little bit more to do.”
There was one other mistake that lingers in Salemi’s mind.
Not long after the course opened, he received an email from a man named Jim. “He told me that he had played the course and he was going to give me an A for effort,” Salemi says. “But he was going to give me a D for the whole course.” The email cut deep. It devastated him. “I don’t feel good about this,” Salemi remembers telling his wife, Randi.
A month later, Boulder Creek was ranked among the 10 best new courses in the country.
“If it was just about making money, I could have probably built another six, eight, 10 self-storage facilities and would have been so far better off. But life is more.” — Joe Salemi
“I wish I still had that email because I would love to frame it,” Salemi says.
He would hang it behind the counter in the pro shop.
Joe Salemi first picked up a club a little more than 40 years ago, around the same time his father, Peter, passed away and he took over the family excavation business. He had learned how to operate heavy machinery before he earned a driver’s license. He had worked on big jobs, like helping create the Richfield Coliseum, the former home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, when he was still in high school.
“I had been on a lot of big jobs,” Salemi says. “But nothing like trying to go out in the woods and build a golf course, especially when you had never done it before, and when you’re doing it with your own equipment and your own guys. It was a monumental task. There were many times I regretted doing it, absolutely.”
Salemi says he hopes there is somebody else out there who wants to do what he did. “I was lucky enough,” he says. “It was a lot harder how I did it. It was a huge, expensive undertaking. Maybe there is somebody who could go out there and do it too.
“It can be done.”