Xtreme Bob | Bob Parsons | 65April 26, 2016

My Shot: Bob Parsons

Tales of the Wild West, pricey clubs and crazy golf games: Parsons takes gambles that will make you sweat.
Photographed on Feb. 9, 2016, at Scottsdale National Golf Club.
Photographed on Feb. 9, 2016, at Scottsdale National Golf Club.

WE PLAY A GAME CALLED SWEAT. It's the perfect golf gambling game. It's played one on one or can be played two against two. Here's how it works: Each hole is worth one point. In our case the point is worth $100, but it can be any amount. At any time during the play of a hole, a side can offer to double the bet. If the other side declines, they lose the hole and the point total. But here's the kicker: If an opponent accepts the double, they also receive half a stroke. The half-stroke changes everything. If we're playing a par 3 and I'm on the green, 40 feet from the hole, and you're plugged in the bunker, I'll double you and give you half a stroke. But if, somehow, you hit the sand shot two feet from the hole, and I hit my first putt five feet past the hole, you might want to double me back, which also cancels the half-stroke. So now we're playing for four points—$400—you putting from two feet and me putting from five feet, the half-strokes back to dead even. Other conditions of Sweat: A birdie instantly doubles the bet, an eagle quads it and a hole-in-one pays 10 times. Another rule: If you're up by five points or more, you can't decline the double. Whatever your basic DNA is as a competitor, Sweat will expose it.

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I'M A "NEW" GUY. I'm not drawn to classic cars, old motorcycles or antiques of any kind. That Harley I rode in on today, it's new. My cars—all Chevys, by the way—are new. My PXG [Parsons Xtreme Golf] clubs are the latest and greatest, all 14 of them. If you have a trusty old club you still carry around, I'm happy for you. But I prefer new stuff.

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GOLF BY ITS NATURE is massively complicated. It requires moving every muscle in your body, mostly in a counterintuitive way. In no other sport does equipment play such a huge role. It's not half the game, but it's close. I started PXG in September of 2014 because I have faith in people's willingness to buy expensive clubs if the clubs make them even a little better. There's no point in being modest: They're making people better.

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WHEN MY ENGINEERS asked what I wanted our clubs to look like, I began with "sexy." Sexy is subjective, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I wanted the clubs to beckon to you when you looked at them. I wanted you to fall in love. I wanted the irons to look like a blade but be a little oversized with a sweet spot the size of Texas. I wanted them to go higher and farther without goosing the lofts. They sighed. "Is that all? This might take awhile." After many false starts, they nailed it.

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WHEN I BOUGHT SCOTTSDALE NATIONAL GOLF CLUB in 2013, I wanted an exclusive, truly national club that offered as incredible a golf experience as you could find. I wanted hand-picked members, most of whom don't live in Arizona. I wanted each visit to the club to be special. At first inspection, I discovered that the members who used the club the most supported it the least. They spent little in the golf shop, restaurant and on other amenities. My letter to the membership contained my oft-quoted words, "This will not continue." It was a different model, controversial to some, not that I minded—I own it. I restructured how the club would work, fee structures and club policies. I offered a 100-percent refund of initiation fees to existing members who chose not to stay, which was far more generous than required. There was one catch for members who took that offer—keep in mind, some were refunded as much as $110,00—they couldn't come back. There were lots of takers, but I got the exclusive membership, club and course that I wanted. We redesigned two of the last four holes and are adding 27 holes, including a nine-hole par-3 course. We're expanding the clubhouse, adding casitas and other facilities. It's going to be everything I wanted it to be.

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OUR MEMBER-GUEST, I will venture to say, is the most fun in the United States. It's called the Wild West Invitational, we spend half a million bucks to put it on, and if someone knows of a better three days, I'd like to hear about it. On every par 3, we have beautiful women there to serve cocktails to the men, and hunky guys serving cocktails to the women. The women, as a tee prize, even get a pair of expensive designer shoes. It's all about having a good time. Every putt inside three feet is good—we station a person at each hole with a "gimme stick" to measure. I got that from Clint Eastwood. If you hit it in the desert, you get a drop onto grass with a one-stroke penalty. The object of the tournament is to win your flight and get into The Stampede, an elimination shootout where music is blaring over loudspeakers, margarita carts are rolling, and a guy with a bullhorn taunts the players. Sometimes the guy with the bullhorn is me. If you're taking too much time over a putt you might hear, "Hit the putt, Faldo." There's a buy-in, and if the team in your flight wins The Stampede, everyone in that flight wins the prize. Oh, it's a blast.

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AUGUSTA NATIONAL is the best model for running a golf club. Call it a benevolent dictatorship if you like, but the times I've been privileged to play there, it strikes me as nothing short of phenomenal. The chances of a guy like me ever becoming a member might be small, but I have nothing but absolute admiration for the place.

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COMMITTEES MAKE THE BEST DECISIONS when three people are on the committee and two are out of town. At golf clubs or in business, that's the rule. Committees rarely take risks. People thinking in groups can't think eclectically. One clear vision beats a diluted vision, every time.

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EVERY GREAT GOLF CLUB has its secret sauce, a way or two of doing things that make it distinct. Not to give away everything about Scottsdale National, but I'm a firm believer in serving food that isn't too heavy. When members are headed out to play or have just come in, they don't want to eat something that makes them feel like they just swallowed a bowling ball.

‘Committees make the best decisions when three people are on the committee and two are out of town.’

THERE ARE THOSE WHO BELIEVE that innovation in golf has maxed out, that pretty much everything has been tried. My answer is, to improve on something you first have to try. If, after applying all your imagination and effort you say, "This thing can't be done any better," you're right. It's over—for you. But it's not over for our guys, especially our engineers, Mike Nicolette and Brad Schweigert. The first thing they wanted to know when they signed on was, how long did they have? My answer: "Fifty years, and if you don't have something spectacular by then, I'm drawing a hard line at 75 years." In other words, no rush. They then wanted to know what their budgets were. To that I said, "Unlimited."

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AFTER HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION, in 1968 I joined the Marines and after boot camp was immediately sent to Vietnam. I got there in 1969. The war was raging then, casualties on both sides averaging 30,000 a week. I honestly didn't think I was going to survive. We were living day to day, and my only goal was to be alive for mail call the next day. After my Vietnam experience, nothing really worries me. In business or any endeavor, you definitely want a longer view than I had in Vietnam. But if you keep making it to mail call the next morning, you can get through anything.

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ONE OF THE MANY THINGS I got from being a Marine was respect for authority. I completely support the USGA and the way they've laid down rules for equipment. I believe in the way they set standards and uphold them. I like their integrity.

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AS A YOUNG MAN I was so shy, when I got in front of people I couldn't finish a thought. One day I read how Charles Lindbergh grew up on a farm, had few people to talk to and, like me, was paralyzed when he spoke in front of people. The solution: imitating people who were good at it. I immediately began copying the best speakers I knew. Eventually my shyness went away and my voice started coming out.

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WHAT I'VE FOUND IN GOLF GAMBLING is, over the long haul the money seems to even out. Ask any lifelong golfer if they're ahead or behind, lifetime. Usually they'll pause and then answer, "A little ahead." If someone answers, "Oh, I'm way ahead" or "I'm way behind," I don't want that person as my partner.

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THERE CAME A TIME in the late 1980s when I was working about as hard as a man can work. I was experiencing my first taste of financial success with Parsons Technology. I bought a house up at Eagle Ridge, near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and we'd head up there to play golf on Wednesday afternoon, spend the night, then be the first group off on Thursday morning. We'd be back in the office, with 36 holes and a rip-roaring night under our belts, with hardly anyone knowing we'd been gone. That's the trick, isn't it? Playing a fair amount of golf at no expense to your work or home life.

IN CEDAR RAPIDS, I'd play occasionally at Elmcrest Country Club where the same ambitious, ordinary-looking kid would put our bags on the carts and clean them when we finished. When Zach Johnson was trying our PXG clubs, he said, "Do you remember me? I used to clean your clubs at Elmcrest." Zach then described the type of irons I played.

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ZACH REMEMBERS my clubs better than I do, because I was always changing. For years I spent $250,000 a year on golf clubs and one year spent $350,000. I had to be one of the most fervent golf gearheads in America. My buddies and I would go down to every PGA Merchandise Show and use passes our pro buddy back in Cedar Rapids got for us. Sometimes the pro would overnight a new set to me, and I'd show up the next morning on the first tee with a bag full of brand-new clubs. We'd play, then go to the convention center and stalk the floor. For me, the dream set of clubs was always right around the corner.

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WHEN I FIRST CONSIDERED selling Parsons Technology, my first wife and I agreed we'd sell it for $40 million. Intuit offered $60 million, and I was smart enough to tell them I was insulted. Eventually we got $64 million. That was in 1994. The moral to that story—and it applies to golf bets and everything else—is to never accept the first offer. Remember, the first offer isn't what the seller has in mind, either.

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ONE OF THE CONDITIONS of the sale was that I had to go a year without working. I moved to Arizona, got a place at The Boulders and played golf every day. Everybody thinks that if they had unlimited time and money to play, take lessons and buy all the clubs they wanted, they'd get better. But I didn't get better. The lessons didn't resonate, the clubs didn't help enough, and playing became a ritual. I still think being self-taught is the way to go. But it can take a lot longer.

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I'VE NEVER HAD A BUSINESS PARTNER. I always go it alone. Why? I started GoDaddy with $35 million. It was a good product, but in the white noise of the dot-com boom, we struggled to be heard and quickly started bleeding money. My bank account shrunk to $32 million.

I thought, I'm not going to worry about this until it goes to $28 million. It goes to $28 million. Now I'm worried, but I decided to go until it goes to $25 million. It goes to $25 million. Then $20 million ... $18 million ... $12 million ... and down to $6 million. At that point, I went to Hawaii to figure out my next move. I was staying at the Four Seasons, and a guy about my age parks my car. This man just oozed contentment. I thought, What's wrong with this picture? This guy is probably broke, but he's happy; I've got $6 million, and I'm miserable. I decided to go back to Arizona and keep working on GoDaddy. If the company went broke, I'd go broke with it. But GoDaddy didn't go broke. If I'd had partners, there's no way they would have tolerated it going down to $6 million and possibly going broke. They would have been gone, maybe for good reason. When you're in it alone, only you draw the line. So, no partners.

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I THOUGHT there was a good chance that GoDaddy was going to fail. If it did, my plan, after watching the guy park cars in Hawaii, was to move to Las Vegas and be a stick man at the craps table. I knew I could find happiness and peace of mind even if I was broke. I realized there is far more to happiness than simply having money. All money does, by itself, is give you a different set of problems. Accepting the worst possible outcome gave me the guts to hang in there. And it's a damn good thing I did.

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MY FIRST BIG BREAK CAME when the dot-com bubble burst. This was the best thing that could have happened—for me. See, almost all Internet companies stopped paying their bills, except for me. Competitors went away. Outlets that wouldn't give me a break on advertising were suddenly lining up to give it to me. I came back from Hawaii in March, and by October we were cash-flow positive. Two lessons here. One, always pay your bills. Never stick anybody. Put your creditors first, and a lot of opportunity will come your way. Two, when there's a disaster—the dot-com collapse hurt a lot of people—it also creates opportunity. That's when your eyes should be open widest.

‘Everybody has a boss. The people at PXG report to me. I have two bosses. I report to the IRS and my wife, Renee.’

SO GODADDY TURNED A CORNER, and in 2005 we had built up a war chest of $10 million. It was time to advertise on a big venue. I chose the 2005 Super Bowl. Not cheap, and I was worried our ad would get lost while viewers were drinking and talking. We needed something a little risqué that would catch people's attention. So we created an ad in which the GoDaddy Girl, Candice Michelle, did a parody of Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. The ad was to show twice, once early in the game and again at the two-minute warning. After the first showing, our servers shook from traffic. The second one, Fox Sports decided not to show. They said it was "out of tenor" with the other ads. But it didn't matter. The ad was out there, and our market share went from 16 percent to 25 percent that week. We didn't pay for the second ad, of course, and got a full credit for the first one. To this day, that ad is taught in every important class on advertising as an example of what an advertisement can do.

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THE ONE THING I insisted on for that ad—the secret sauce—was for the woman to be a brunette. At the time, blondes were the no-brainer choice for TV and advertising. But something told me that a striking, dark-haired woman would make a bigger statement. Nothing against blondes—my wife is a gorgeous blonde—but when you want edgy with maximum impact, go with the brunette.

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A FEW YEARS AGO I went to a gas station—the best place to conduct research—and asked people what came to mind when I said the word "GoDaddy." The answer was always, "Danica Patrick." What made Danica unique as our spokeswoman? I played golf with her recently, and it occurred to me that it's not her beauty, though she is beautiful. It's not her ability as a NASCAR driver, though she's terrific at it. She's unique because she's a woman with stones. She has the guts and moxie to compete in a male-dominated sport and hold her own.

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DURING MY EARLY DAYS at GoDaddy, I had a dental hygienist named Nancy Jo. I went in to get my teeth cleaned, and she gave me nitrous oxide. First time I'd had it, and man, did I feel good. When I went back to the office, our call center seemed bleak. The people seemed grim, unenthused, just going through the motions. So I decided to spend $1,000 and hold a series of contests, with significant prizes, cash and merchandise. That day, the board cleared—twice. (It had never cleared before.) And we did $18,000 more in business. I learned an important business lesson. When there's a fun work environment, productivity goes way up. All this happened because of a tank of nitrous oxide and a woman named Nancy Jo.

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SOMEWHERE NORTH OF AGE 70, during the transition from senior to super-senior, men start dressing like flags from other countries. It's like the signal that goes off when butterflies are in mating season. Men start wearing exploding colors that don't match. Patterns clash. Things don't fit right. The awareness about their appearance goes out the window. Whisper they have soup on their shirt, and they say, "Thank you," and then ignore it. When I get there, please be good enough to let me know.

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RENEE AND I LIKE TO GIVE BACK. Forbes Magazine says I'm worth more than $2 billion. Most of it's on paper. Renee and I signed The Giving Pledge, started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, in which we promised to give half of our net worth away by the time we move on to the next life. So far we've given away more than $104 million through the Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, and obviously we're far from finished.

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EVERYBODY RAILS about slow play. But have you ever noticed that when you're with really great people, it's not that big a deal? If a 4½-hour round seems like a death march, maybe you need better companions. Or at the very least, some sympathy for the poor guy shooting 120 in front of you.

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GOLF BECAME A LOT MORE FUN when I learned to embrace a bad day. My Index is 9.1, but I'm the kind of 9.1 who occasionally shoots 96. It used to drive me nuts. Now, when they shove the scorecard at me with the 96, I'll hold it up, smile, and ask my partner, "So what did you think of my game today?"

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ONE THING I'D LOVE TO DO with a reliable dirt bike is to get a couple of buddies, go to Vietnam and ride it down the Ho Chi Minh Trail just to get some idea what it was like for the guys coming the other way.

‘If a 4½-hour round seems like a death march, maybe you need better companions.’

LONG BEFORE YAMAHA made motorcycles, they made pianos. They switched to motorcycles because after World War II there was high demand for cheap transportation and no demand for pianos. I believe in going where opportunity takes you. I started out as an accountant and moved into software coding and writing. I later founded GoDaddy, and today I'm making golf clubs. I'm always prepared to change. When I was a young guy my father told me I should do what I love. He said, "When you love something, it tells you all its secrets."

–With Guy Yocom