'The Aviator's' mark on his elusive love, the game of golf

October 09, 2007
PGA TOUR staff

As a young boy growing up in Texas, Howard Robard Hughes declared his three life goals as follows: To be the best golfer in the world; to be the best pilot in the world; and to be the most famous movie producer ever. While the notorious billionaire tycoon left enduring legacies in the aviation and motion picture industries during his storied lifetime, his most passionate pursuit remained elusive.

howard_hughes.jpg

There is no doubt, however, that the two handicapper would have considered the development of the Summerlin community in Las Vegas, and its two PGA TOUR jewels, TPC Summerlin and TPC Canyons -- site of the Frys.com Open, to be among his crowning achievements.

Hughes' love for golf began at age nine, when his father, millionaire oil wildcatter Howard Sr., gave him a golf club. Hughes Sr. had made his fortune by patenting an oil drill bit that pierced bedrock, revolutionizing the oil industry and providing the cornerstone for his son's empire.

To better entrench themselves in Houston's elite social circles, the family joined Houston Country Club, where golf would become an all-consuming passion for young Howard. He continued playing golf throughout his youth, often playing hooky from his private boarding school near Santa Barbara to sneak off and play a round.

At the age of 17, Howard Jr. was devastated when his mother, Dallas socialite Allene Ganno, died suddenly following minor surgery. Two years later, tragedy struck again when his father suffered a fatal heart attack during a business meeting -- making Howard one of the world's wealthiest young teenagers. Within six months, Howard used his determination and acumen to acquire complete ownership of his father's Hughes Tool Company, a name that would become synonymous with the Howard Hughes legend for six decades.

Young, wealthy, handsome, and uninterested in involving himself in the day-to-day activities of the company, Hughes took an extended sabbatical to play golf and consider his options, finally deciding upon a move to Hollywood with his new bride to pursue a career in film-making.

During a short but illustrious career, Hughes made several award-winning motion pictures, including "Two Arabian Knights" and "Hell's Angels," an epic adventure about the pilots of the Royal Air Force. While making the movie, Hughes' obsession for aviation -- which had started as a teen when he began flying biplanes -- was reignited as Hughes searched throughout Europe for World-War-I fighter planes. Hughes eventually bought or leased enough aircraft to assemble the largest private air force in the world.

hughes1.jpg

During the making of the film, Hughes was nearly killed when one of the vintage planes he was flying crashed to the ground. When the film was released in 1930, it was acclaimed as one of the best action films of all time. The movie's dramatic dogfights are still recognized today as some of the most realistic aerial warfare scenes ever captured on film. Hughes subsequently made "Scarface," directed by Howard Hawks, and "The Outlaw," starring Jane Russell.

Following his divorce in 1929, Hughes began courting some of Hollywood's most famous young starlets, including Academy Award winner Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn shared his passion for the game of golf, often shooting in the 70s, and the pair played together often at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles. Hepburn was fascinated by the daring but eccentric Hughes, who once interrupted a game of golf played by Hepburn and her pro at Wilshire Country Club by landing his single-engine Sikorsky amphibian plane on the eighth fairway and proceeding to play the back nine while course officials fumed.

Another close friend who shared Hughes' love for the game was golfer Gene Sarazen. It was during a trip in Hughes' Sikorsky above an abandoned beach in November 1929 that the two began discussing sand. When Sarazen complained about his sand play, Hughes launched into a discussion about aerodynamics, comparing bunker shots to a pilot's defeating drag as he lifted off the runway. The conversation would have a lasting effect on the game of golf; Sarazen, who would go on to win seven Majors, went back to his workshop and created the first prototype for the sand wedge.

While Hughes' love for golf continued to grow, so did his interest in aviation. In the early 1930s, Hughes purchased a small Army Air Corps racer, which he redesigned to attain greater speed. He then leased a small hangar and hired a crew of designers and mechanics to remodel the plane.

As operations grew, he formed Hughes Aircraft Company, destined to become one of the nation's largest defense contractors. Hughes subsequently built the H-1 Racer and set the land-speed record; set the coast-to-coast record in January of 1937; was named "Aviator of the Year in 1938," the first of many awards he was to receive during his lifetime. He then set the around-the-world flight record by circumnavigating the globe in little more than three days and 19 hours -- becoming the most famous aviator in America.

Hughes went on to build what would become the most controversial plane in history, the Hercules flying boat -- nicknamed the Spruce Goose, a huge wooden seaplane designed to transport combat troops across the ocean. He also diversified his business, acquiring controlling interest in TWA and numerous other business and real estate holdings that increased his considerable fortune...and his notoriety. At the same time, Hughes grew guarded and reclusive. In 1966, he moved to Las Vegas and established residence on the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel, ready to take the city by storm.

Hughes arrived in Las Vegas at a low point in the city's economy, with real estate values in a slump. He began absorbing much of the inventory of unimproved real estate depressing the city's glutted real estate market in the 1960s and is credited with helping to save Las Vegas from economic disaster. In addition to a 25,000-acre land holding he had originally acquired in the early 1950s, Hughes established himself not only as the Valley's largest landowner, but as a principal player in the region's economy -- as well as one of the city's most prominent philanthropists.

hughes2.jpg

Among his innumerable and lasting contributions to the city, Hughes was perhaps Las Vegas' first true casino mogul. He pioneered corporate and multiple ownership of gaming properties, adding six Las Vegas hotel/casinos to his vast operation: The Desert Inn, The Landmark, The Sands, The Silver Slipper, The Frontier and The Castaways. His actions triggered a major trend, still evident today, in which public companies bought, held interests in or granted loans to most of Nevada's largest casinos. That involvement vastly increased the investment capital available from Wall Street, and led to the multibillion-dollar expansion of the Las Vegas Strip that started in the late 1980s. Hughes is also credited with helping to legitimize the gaming industry as an acceptable form of commerce by eliminating its strong mob ties and influence.

Hughes' aviation-related acquisitions continued as he bought Air West Airlines in 1970, renaming it Hughes Air West. He also bought gold and silver mines, acquired what was to become the Hughes Sports Network (the first network to telecast PGA golf), rescued the Community College of Southern Nevada and purchased KLAS-TV. In 1973, the vast Hughes empire became known as Summa Corporation.

Howard Hughes died in 1976, but his lasting legacy lives on throughout the city of Las Vegas, through the Hughes Center, the city's premier business and financial distric, the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering at the University of Las Vegas Nevada, the Hughes Industrial Center and Hughes Cheyenne Center and Spring Mountain Ranch - a favorite recreational destination that Hughes had purchased as a retreat for his wife, Jean Peters.

In the late 1980s, Summa -- later named The Howard Hughes Corporation in 1994, an affiliate of General Growth Properties, Inc. -- began work on its most ambitious project ever, the 22,500-acre master-planned community of Summerlin, on the parcel of land Hughes had purchased three decades before. At the time, Hughes had envisioned a private airport with grounds for testing helicopters and planes; however, the extraordinary fully-integrated community being built in its stead would be an enormous source of pride for Hughes, who worked tirelessly during the last years of his life to improve the quality of life in Las Vegas through numerous philanthropic and economic development endeavors.

hughes3.jpg

Ranked America's best-selling master-planned community for a decade and named the New Community of the Year for 2002 by the development industry's leading organization, Urban Land Institute, Summerlin -- named after Hughes' paternal grandmother, Jean Amelia Summerlin -- is a stunning, dynamic mixed-use master-planned community combining residential, retail, office and community development uses in a unique, self-contained environment. Summerlin encompasses more than 100 floor plans in nearly two dozen actively-selling neighborhoods by 12 home builders.

Anchoring the community of Summerlin are the PGA TOUR's acclaimed TPC Summerlin and TPC Canyons, home to the Frys.com Open -- two of the state's premier courses and the state's only TPC golf facilities. TPC Canyons' beautiful, Bobby Weed-designed par-71, 7,063-yard layout features lush green parcels of manicured turf woven through a rugged tapestry of arroyos, barrancas and other natural features, with spectacular views of Red Rock Canyon. The course meanders over several hundred acres but has only 110 acres of irrigated land. The undisturbed desert washes and other raw landscape features that make it one of the most visually stunning courses in Nevada also make it a stern test of shot-making, strategy and game management.

Equally as picturesque and demanding is the PGA TOUR's par-72, 7,234-yard private TPC Summerlin, where Bobby Weed cut an exquisite swath of land through canyons and arroyos with help from Fuzzy Zoeller. While natural desert washes are still prominent, the course features an abundance of honey mesquite trees, flowing pines, striking flora and lush Bent grass and Bermuda grass, along with numerous water features and magnificent vistas.

True to its PGA TOUR pedigree, TPC Summerlin was designed as a stadium course expressly to provide fans with unrestricted views of tee shots, fairway approaches and putts, through strategically placed spectator mounding and natural amphitheaters -- all while maintaining the integrity of the course design. Both clubs feature an array of world-class amenities, outstanding catering and event facilities, and superlative personalized member and guest service.

True to Howard Hughes' philanthropic spirit, the Hughes Foundation charter preserves 20 to 25 percent of Summerlin's acreage as open space, aimed at protecting the ecological balance and preserving the rugged beauty and southwestern character of the land.

Innovative industrialist, award-winning film director, renowned aviator, highly skilled financial investor and fanatic golfer, Howard Hughes was a man who made things happen on a grand scale. His vision for the city of Las Vegas, and his love for the game of golf, live on during the PGA TOUR's Frys.com Open -- one of the grandest golf tournaments on the 2007 PGA TOUR. For more information on the Frys.com Open Oct. 11-14 at TPC Summerlin and TPC Canyons, please visit www.thefrysopen.com or call (702) 873-1010.