Q&A: KemperSports President Josh Lesnik on Chambers Bay, Streamsong and more

KemperSports' Josh Lesnik on the state of the game and hosting the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay

Josh Lesnik's love for golf came early in life, but it wasn't typical of most juniors learning the game.

His first exposure to golf occurred when he started working at Kemper Lakes G.C. in the Chicago area at age 13. It was a facility his father, Steve Lesnik, founded with then Kemper Insurance president and chairman James Kemper Jr. more than 35 years ago.

It was also the prelude to the company over which Josh Lesnik now presides: KemperSports, which owns or manages more than 100 courses.

At Kemper Lakes, he'd pick the range, man the bag drop, bus tables in the restaurant and even caddie. Working at Kemper Lakes through college, he also started playing the game.

"I worked in the game first, but I always enjoyed it," said Lesnik, now 46. "My friends would go out and play the local muni or a par-3 course. It was always about the fun, the friends, joking around with people. Working at a golf course, we'd play a little after you get off -- it was always a bond with the people you work with."

In short, Lesnik is an avid golfer and understands what's important to golfers. He plays to an 8-handicap these days and has been able to test his skills at some of the world's best courses, including Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon, where he opened the resort as the general manager for developer Mike Keiser back in 1998.

KemperSports boasts 10 courses among the top 100 public courses in the United States, including Pacific Dunes, ranked no. 1 on Golf Magazine's list and Chambers Bay near Seattle, the site of the 2015 U.S. Open. This year marks the first time that a third-party management company will work directly with the USGA on the event.

Golf Advisor had an opportunity to talk to Lesnik about the game he loves, and the courses KemperSports manages, which also includes one of the hottest new destinations in the country -- Streamsong Resort in central Florida.

Golf Advisor: Do you have a favorite course?

Josh Lesnik: It's a tough one. Put on the spot, though, I'd say Bandon Dunes.

Golf Advisor: Bandon over Pacific Dunes?

Josh Lesnik: Sitting here in Chicago if I had to pick one overall, it'd be Bandon. It was a special experience to live out there and open that property, and obviously Bandon was the first one we opened. It was the first course I ever broke 80 on when I was playing with my dad. A lot of fond memories playing there with Mr. Keiser and (architect) David Kidd.

Golf Advisor: The national rankings have Pacific Dunes ranked over Bandon. Do you think Bandon doesn't get its just due?

Josh Lesnik: I always joke around that (the Coore-Crenshaw designed) Bandon Trails is the most underrated course in the world because it's next to Bandon and Pacific Dunes. If it were anywhere else, it would be more highly rated than it is.

But you know how golfers are; they're opinionated. Golf Magazine has Pacific Dunes ranked no. 1 ahead of Pebble Beach. Do you think people read that and now it becomes in fashionable to say it's their favorite? Maybe so. It's certainly very special in its own right. The great thing about Bandon Dunes Resort is all four of the courses could be somebody's favorite.

Golf Advisor: On another subject, address the state of the golf industry -- the challenges and positives?

Josh Lesnik: I find it interesting over the last handful of years that people have confused the game of golf with the business of golf. And because the business of golf has certainly faced this incredible oversupply situation, people blame the game of golf. But I don't see anything wrong with the game of golf. I'm not saying we don't address the things that the USGA is addressing -- the water usage, pace of play, etc. -- those are great things to concentrate on, but I don't believe the game of golf is broken at all. I just think the business of golf is facing an incredible oversupply situation.

Golf Advisor But running golf courses is certainly a tough business, right?

Josh Lesnik: Yes, the business of golf has gotten more challenging. And since we own some courses as well as run them, we see both sides. Because golf course owners are facing this oversupply, they're realizing they need professional management. So our management company has actually grown more over the last five years that any five years prior. I do believe there will continue to be course closures -- that's what happens in an oversupply situation -- and I believe the strong golf courses will survive and thrive.

Golf Advisor: What do you think is most important to public golfers?

Josh Lesnik: Location is the first one. At a typical public golf course, 80-90 percent of its golfers are within a 30-minute drive. Then you have the golf course. One, it's the architecture and two, it's the conditions. And the conditions of the greens seem to be the most important. Of course, you're not going to compare $150 course to a $50 course, but even at the $50 course, they want good greens.

Then you really have the service -- the guest experience, how the people at the golf course make you feel when you get there. Our service training is such a big part of what we do. It's really, frankly our culture. We are really in the hospitality business as much as we are in the golf course.

Then it comes to amenities. Does it have a driving range? A short-game area? Does it have a restaurant, bathrooms on the course? Those are the criteria we would rate when we do some sort of price-quality analysis.

Golf Advisor: Okay, while the golf business can be difficult, you think this is a great time for golfers, right?

Josh Lesnik: I do think it's such a great time to be a golfer. Oversupply drives the rates down so green fees have become more affordable. There's better equipment (both in maintenance and golf clubs) than there's ever been. I think the associations like the PGA of America with Get Golf Ready -- $99 for five lessons is great for getting beginners in the game. And we have our own player-development program where we're doing free clinics for beginners. We gave over 3,500 free golf lessons last year. And we're hoping to increase that this year.

Golf Advisor: Another high profile course you manage is Chambers Bay near Seattle, site of this year's U.S. Open just a few months away. How much pressure do you feel as a company?

Josh Lesnik: I think anytime you have a major championship, and you are in some way responsible, you worry about things. We worked incredibly close with the USGA really since Day 1 at Chambers Bay. Frankly, we've taken every measure (including limiting play and temporary greens) we can take to make sure those greens are perfect for June.

Golf Advisor: How do you think Chambers Bay will be received by the players?

Josh Lesnik: That's something we can't control. That golf course (designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.) is there. The USGA is going to set it up the way they want to set it up. I don't know what the players will say. We know it's going to look stunning on television.

How are they going to like the shot values? That's going to be based on how they play, the weather and other factors. I think it'll be very interesting to see what the players think about it.

Golf Advisor: Let's talk about Streamsong Resort in central Florida. With its two links-like courses and a third on the way, it's becoming the Bandon Dunes of the East. My understanding was that it was targeted for 12-handicap or better. Is that the case at Bandon as well?

Josh Lesnik: That's not true in either case. Those courses are more designed for amateur golfers and buddy trips. In neither case are they designed for a 12-handicap or better.

Golf Advisor: Well, what about avid golfers, then, who can appreciate those kinds of courses?

Josh Lesnik: Certainly when a golf course gets a reputation, the avid golfers want to play it. If avid doesn't mean single digit, then I'm okay with that. We sometimes get amateur golfers (at Bandon Dunes) who shoot the best rounds of their lives. At Old Macdonald, for example, you can't lose a ball the fairways are so wide. Firm and fast, it takes chipping out. You can putt from most anywhere. There's a different way to play the game on these links courses.

Golf Advisor: Do we need more links golf in the United States?

Josh Lesnik: I think for sure it is the most popular style of golf. Just looking at how successful Bandon Dunes has been, what a great start Streamsong is off to, and now we're involved with the Sand Valley project in Wisconsin, so yes, it's very popular.

The game was invented on links, then we borrowed the game from Scotland and Ireland and then we sort of changed the fields. Now we're sort of getting back to that golden age and those styles of designs.

Golf Advisor: Back to Streamsong, there's a third course, designed by architect Gil Hanse, joining Tom Doak (Blue Course) and Crenshaw-Coore (Red) in 2017. Where do you see Streamsong down the road?

Josh Lesnik: Obviously Streamsong Black, the third course, is underway. There are discussions about even a fourth course. Becoming a four-course property in that location -- and I know everybody says it's so remote, and it does feel like the middle of nowhere, but it's really pretty convenient to Tampa and Orlando -- I see that being a very, very popular place on the East Coast.

Golf Advisor: You have the inaugural women's U.S. Fourball Championship coming up at Bandon Dunes (it will be the fifth USGA championship for the resort). Tell us why that's important.

Josh Lesnik: At Bandon Dunes we've always added value to our relationship with the USGA. And Mr. Keiser is such a huge proponent of amateur golf and not only that, but match play. The fact that the USGA had the foresight to create these new championships says a lot because it's really the most popular format I see in golf. It's what I play with my friends. It's great for the pace of play because if you're out of a hole you can pick up and go to the next hole.

It's an honor to host this championship and I think the men's and women's fourballs are going to really prove to be great championships of the USGA.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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KemperSports' Josh Lesnik on the state of the game and hosting the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay