Q&A With David Southworth
David Southworth may not be a recognized “celebrity” to many avid golfers—and that’s fine with David, an avid golfer himself, who prefers to have his life’s work get all the recognition—but his passion in developing luxury golf and hospitality communities throughout the world in general and in Massachusetts in particular deserves celebration.
As the President and CEO of Southworth Development LLC, which is based in Newton, Mass, David has served as owner, manager, consultant, or construction manager to dozens of properties throughout the United States, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Scotland. In a career that has spanned 26 years, David’s projects have topped $2 billion in investments, and he is a leader in the industry for the standards he sets for service, design, and amenities.
Southworth Development is a privately held firm owned by David and his good friend, Joe Deitch, who founded and is current Chairman of Commonwealth Financial Network, headquartered in Waltham, Mass, the nation’s largest independent broker/dealer. Southworth Development owns six premier properties at the moment: Willowbend on Cape Cod, Renaissance north of Boston in Haverhill, Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland, Creighton Farms in Virginia, The Abaco Club in The Bahamas, and Meredith Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire (the only one without golf).
David Southworth grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, where, during spring training for the Chicago Cubs, he was a bat boy for two years and a clubhouse boy for the next six.He left Scottsdale and the Cubbies for Ithaca, New York, where he earned first a degree from Cornell University’s prestigious School of Hotel Administration and then a job with Hyatt Hotels. One of his first golf/hospitality jobs after Hyatt was an eight-year stint at Pompano Beach Club in Bermuda.
In 1992, David began his residential/golf development calling when he joined forces with Paul Fireman, founder of shoe apparel giant Reebok International, as President, CEO, and half owner of Willowbend Development. Their first property together was Willowbend, which the two turned into one of the most luxurious private clubs and communities in New England.
David worked with Paul Fireman from 1991 to 2005 until he went off on his own with Southworth Development. In 2008, his company purchased the meticulously crafted Brian Silva designed Renaissance course and community, and in 2012, it bought Willowbend from Fireman. Fireman, by the way, is the builder and owner of Liberty National Golf Course, New Jersey, where the Presidents Cup has just been played.
David still owns both a house at Willowbend and a membership and has utilized the community as a second home for his “very significant other” Desirée Zabriski and his four sons, Ryan, Clayton, Thomas, and Michael.
NEGM: How often do you get to play? Current handicap? Name a pro that has helped your game. What are your four favorite New England courses? Four favorite international courses?
DS: I only play 15 or 20 times per year now. Mostly with my sons. My current handicap is 17. I used to be a nine in college. The best advice I have ever received from a pro was from Jack Nicklaus who told me to “play my handicap.” Meaning—if I have a stroke on a par 4, play it like a par 5. That’s helped me quite a bit, and sometimes I get lucky and stick an approach shot or make a putt to beat my handicap. My favorite New England courses, besides our two, would be The Country Club, The Boston Golf Club, The Golf Club of Cape Cod, and Kittansett. My favorite international courses, besides our Machrihanish Dunes, would be the Old Course at St. Andrews, Teeth of the Dog in the DR, Mid Ocean in Bermuda, and Machrihanish Golf Club [a Scottish classic established in 1876].
NEGM: How did you get into golf course/golf community business?
DS: I joined up with Paul Fireman in late 1991 to work with him on developing Willowbend. I soon realized that, in developing residential resort type communities, I was able to combine my love of the hospitality business along with my love of the real estate industry. All but one of our communities over the years has had a golf component, and that’s how I wandered into the golf world.
NEGM: Do you stay in contact with Paul Fireman?
DS: I do. We were great friends during our time together at Willowbend Development, and we have remained very good friends since. We see each other fairly often during the summer and always make it a point to make time to catch up.
NEGM: Who have been your golf course architects, and what goals do you set for them?
DS: We’ve worked with several great golf architects over the years including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer, David McLay Kidd, Rees Jones, Tom Kite, Bob Cupp, Brian Silva, Donald Steele, and Michael Hurzden, among others. Our goals really vary from project to project so I can’t say any one particular point is made. I do like working with smart, nice, personable people and the list above exemplifies those qualities.
NEGM: Why did you decide to develop golf communities outside the U.S.?
DS: Our second community ever was The Westin Rio Mar in Puerto Rico. Although Puerto Rico is a US territory, working there made us comfortable working outside of the continental 48. We probably built or managed nine or 10 courses between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic so going to developing a community in Scotland didn’t seem that scary. In 2014, we bought a beautiful community called The Abaco Club in The Bahamas. Internationally we currently work in Scotland, The Bahamas, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico.
NEGM: What do your communities offer that make them special? In particular, what has made Willowbend and Renaissance two of Massachusetts’ premier venues?
DS: It’s several things. I believe that all high-end golf communities must have beautiful and well-maintained facilities, wonderful food, modern day programming, fitness and health facilities, and cool family-friendly amenities. Beyond that, we want our staffs to care—verses serve—and my business partner and dear friend Joe Deitch and I want our communities to be progressive and inclusive and fun.
NEGM: What plans do you have for the future?
DS: Our plan has always been to do what makes sense. Sometimes it makes sense to buy or develop new communities while at other times our goals are better served just building and selling within our existing communities. Although I’ve been at this for 26 years—I’m only 59—I hope to continue on for another 20 to 25 more years. I love what I do, and have no desire to stop. I hope to see our company continue to grow and prosper and to “make a difference” in the world, and I feel so blessed not only to have a good partner in Joe but also to work with so many talented professionals who happen to be wonderful people.
NEGM: Who would be in your Dream Foursome of today? Of any time period?
DS: My dream foursome—I’d have to make it a sixsome, I guess!—is playing with my four sons, which I love to do, and would include Jack Nicklaus as well.
If I could organize a game with players of any time period, I’d have to say Old Tom Morris, Bobby Jones, and Byron Nelson.
(The feature photo is of Renaissance in Haverhill, Massachusetts. All photos courtesy of Southworth Development.)