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Editor's Letter

Music mogul Irving Azoff and Apple exec Eddy Cue build their ultimate golf course

January 10, 2024
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THEIR HAPPY PLACE Azoff and Cue at Ladera Golf Club in Thermal, Calif. Photographs by Channing Benjamin

CHANNING BENJAMIN

The only thing better than building your own golf course is building one with your best friend. Better still is when money isn’t really a concern because you’ve both won low-net and gross in the game of life. Irving Azoff dropped out of the University of Illinois in 1970 because it would’ve been financially reckless not to transfer his robust booking business of fraternity bands (among them REO Speedwagon) to Los Angeles. He would run Ticketmaster and later be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Eddy Cue, a first-generation Cuban-American from Miami whose father was a stagehand and mother a butcher, studied computer science at Duke and has worked at Apple since 1989. Today, they count nearly two dozen memberships between them, mostly the same clubs, and play about 70 rounds a year together. Now that they’ve opened Ladera Golf Club in Thermal, Calif., Golf Digest’s Best New Private Course of 2023, the worlds of music and tech have merged like never before. How did this power twosome get paired?

Two decades ago Cue was busy launching a new service called iTunes, but the library didn’t include one of his boss’ favorite bands, the Eagles. To placate Steve Jobs, Cue tracked down their manager to clear the impasse with the record label. Azoff proved a useful contact because in addition to the Eagles, he has represented or promoted U2, Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Buffett, Bon Jovi, Journey, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, yada yada. Together, they would revolutionize the digital sales and distribution of the music industry.

“Irving is the super-agent because of three things,” begins Cue, swirling a glass of cabernet over a thick New York strip. (Cue, 59, was a standout high school basketball player and still has the appetite of an athlete, as well as a powerful voice that would command a locker room. Azoff, a smaller engine thrumming nicely at 75, is having iced tea with fish and greens, and will softly note that his rock ’n’ rollers were always comforted knowing somebody sober was at the helm.) “One, Irving will kill for his clients. Two, he answers his phone 24-7. Three, he’s never slipped into the trap of thinking he’s the talent.”

Then Azoff says, “Eddy makes decisions with financial implications that are 100 times what I deal with.”

We’re sitting at a table in the temporary Ladera clubhouse where sleek steel beams and plush interior defy the word, and similarly unbelievable is how often Azoff’s iPhone rings and the names that pop up. In 10 minutes, a threatening letter with powder from a deranged fan has arrived for a legendary diva, a radio personality in New Zealand urgently needs a doctor for his kid, and the clubhouse manager wants to know if it’ll be lunch or dinner at next month’s inaugural member-guest tournament. Azoff treats each matter with equal and calm attention. That is, until Azoff and Cue start goofing by answering each other’s phones. The scene suggests the original name intended for the place, which the duo ultimately decided to call the par-3 course: Q&A.

Ladera translates to “Spanish foothills” and is the street name at one of Azoff’s homes, which is only sort of funny if you consider the club doesn’t have a paved entrance yet. For now, just park in any dirt space between the lemon trees bordering the driving range. The property is a construction site with fully finished golf facilities and is basically a second office for Azoff, who has been walking nine holes daily. It’s a getaway for Cue, who rarely plays golf in San Francisco where his real life is.

In the beginning, neither knew the other was a golfer. That happened in a surprise encounter at El Dorado Golf and Beach Club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Then the bromance really heated up at another Discovery Land property, Gozzer Ranch Golf and Lake Club in Idaho. A half-serious comment about wanting a house nearer the water got serious when a certain property became available, so they bought it together. Thus began many trips and holidays with their families to Gozzer and beyond.

All three Cue children love to play golf. Jeffrey Azoff qualified for the 2023 U.S. Mid-Amateur, and his younger brother, Cameron, is also a tournament player. Together, they were responsible for many of the details at Ladera, including the scorecards, tee markers (the tips at 7,705 yards are pink, a whimsical twist on machismo), practice areas, golf-shop merchandise and more. Someday the children will inherit the club. To date, Cue and Azoff have sold nearly 40 non-equity memberships to their jet-setting friends, but ownership of Ladera will stay within the two families.

“Their friendship is aspirational,” Jeffrey says. “For two guys who deserve to make everything in the world about them, that they’d involve us in all the meetings about creating [Ladera] is humbling.”

“They all get along so great, and it’s cool to think about them one day sitting in these chairs with their grandkids, applying their own perspective and taking this place to a whole new level,” Cue says. As for his generation, Cue recently sent a recap email of a banner day made possible, in part, by the private air strip that’s a five-minute drive from the course—18 holes of golf, courtside at a Lakers game, backstage with U2 in Las Vegas—with the subject heading: Membership Has Its Privileges. Some of the early members include powerhitters like Fred Harman (co-owner of the Golden State Warriors), Rob Light (managing partner and director at Creative Artists Agency), Patrick Healy (CEO of Hellman & Friedman investments in London) and Harry Styles (you know what he does).

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CREATIVE JUICE The genius of Cue, Azoff and Hanse combined to transform a lemon grove into holes like the par-4 13th.

Like many great notions, Ladera traces to the pandemic. Q&A have the self-awareness to know how absurdly privileged this sounds, but in their view the opulent private desert club where they rode out COVID became overrun. That is, by the hordes of adult children and their children who fled cities during lockdown to the sweet, gated embrace of their forebears’ retirement communities, ballooning the number of humans with golf privileges. Newcomers to the game are wonderful and need to be encouraged, of course, but there are only so many unreplaced divots men of certain taste will stomach. “There were golf carts being driven in bunkers!” Azoff says, cringing at the memory.

As with the Gozzer house, when the ideal property came up for sale, neither guy blinked: in this case, 300 acres of lemon grove in the Coachella Valley (with existing water rights) nestled against the Santa Rosa Mountains. The most in-demand golf architect, Gil Hanse, flew in to assess the site and seriousness of its new owners and was pleased on both counts. The next day, back at work at Los Angeles Country Club in preparation for its upcoming U.S. Open, Hanse received a surprise delivery of eight pies from Azoff’s L.A. restaurant, Apple Pan, with a challenge to decide his favorite.

“The staff makes room in the kitchen refrigerator, and less than 24 hours after meeting these guys I’m alone in my room doing a pie-tasting,” says Hanse, who chose the chocolate banana cream.

Not long after, Hanse was flying to Ja-pan with a seven-hour layover in L.A. He texted Azoff. “A car picks me up and takes me to the Harry Styles concert,” Hanse says. “Before the show, we’re underneath the stage hitting balls on a simulator with Harry, then it’s dinner with several stars and all these amazing wines. At the concert I’m standing next to The Edge. That was my layover. Another time I went over to Irving’s house to watch a movie, and David Geffen, Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann were there. Irving lives in this different world and moves effortlessly through it, loving nothing more than making people happy. Then there’s Eddy. Every time a new Apple product is released, I’m on this special list. But more important than any of these things has been the experience of just hanging with these guys and creating the happiest place on the planet for them.”

Ladera Golf Club
Private
Ladera Golf Club
Thermal, CA
Ladera breaks the mold of desert golf in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. The design does not incorporate unnatural water features, it’s not lined by palm trees, and it’s not constrained by housing considerations. Instead, it is a beautiful and varied expression of what desert golf can be in its most natural form, though nothing about it is natural. The 300-acre site slopes 140 feet from the high point near the Santa Rosa Mountains across once-level land that was formerly lemon groves and mango farms. Hanse and Wagner propped up the low side of the property to reorient sightlines over the valley floor toward the eastern Mecca Hills and moved millions of cubic yards of earth to create each particle of golf.Ladera’s fairways are generous, 60 to 100 yards with no formal rough, but strategy abounds with options to play to wide parts of the fairway though the best approach angles and lines-of-sight are reserved for those who skirt the boundaries of the hazards. Even completely straight holes, such as the par-5 seventh, are full of options with staggered bunkers and a treacherous side slope short of the green. The greens reveal a tremendous variety of sizes and forms, some modestly contoured like the enormous saucer third and others a pattern of ridges and falling tiers (the 14th). But the most distinctive features at Ladera are the attractive dry gullies and arroyos that Hanse, Wagner and their team cut through the site emulating sandy, eroded vegetative lows that water would rush through during rare periods of heavy rain. The excavated sand was used to create sweeping elevation changes and to prop up greens like the par-3 fourth, the altar-like 15th, the par-3 16th and the par-5 17th that hangs over the edge of a deep arroyo.
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Though the project hasn’t been all sunshine and grab-ass with the stars. There was a lot of row to hoe before, say, Hanse and Azoff were riding together in sunglasses in a dozer pushing dirt, Dead & Co. blasting from a huge speaker strapped to the back, each pinching himself that he’s learning from the preeminent authority on C.B. Macdonald/John Mayer. Having opened The Sphere in Las Vegas plus five other massive modern arenas during COVID, Azoff can navigate the matrices of development better than most. Having overseen crucial aspects of Apple News, Apple Pay, Apple Books and more, Cue is also no stranger to tense deadlines. (With Hanse’s contractual commitments to other courses, if Ladera wasn’t finished in 10 months, it would’ve taken at least another full year.)

Azoff is unequivocal. “I had to put more time and energy into building this golf course than The Sphere. I don’t think anybody else will be able to pull off what we’ve done in this area.” He’s referring to irrigation, electricity, flood walls, roads, Internet, $40 million for the golf holes, which doesn’t include the planned clubhouse and seven villas, and a hundred other challenges that come with moving two million cubic yards of dirt to create a sloping masterpiece from poor flat nothing.

“It’s obnoxious to talk about cost, but I compare it to the Apple Park campus. Short-term it sounds insane, but 100 years from now the figure will seem cheap,” Cue says. “One difference is there were no computer renderings. Gil shows you his black-and-white pencil sketches, and you just have to trust him.”

Playing with Q&A, both giddy as schoolboys, they don’t hide that Hanse and his partner, Jim Wagner, and by extension their construction partner LaBar Golf, exceeded their expectations. Cue points out ideal strategic lines and is quick to offer fist-bumps, even chestbumps, if you pull it off. “We’ve got fucking 360-degree views of the mountains,” says Azoff, spinning slowly to behold, and who, by the way, is rocking high-top G/Fores and an untucked polo. A minute later his head’s down, getting nerdy about the turf maintenance program. The best part about having a personal playground? Ask that and Azoff’s gaze goes mid-range, squarely on you. “Sharing it with other people.”

Dotting the course are a handful of converted Airstream trailers replete with air conditioning, bathrooms, refrigeration, and every snack conceivable. Such “comfort stations” are not novel, yet Q&A want Ladera’s vibe to be a departure from other high-end new courses that have celebrated golf as part of a relaxed recreational smorgasbord without stuffy rules. Q&A are still figuring out what this means exactly but know they want golfers who walk instead of ride and who “respect the virtues of the game.” The historic international destinations that draw the most ardent golf lovers exist under the weight of their own traditions, your Augustas and Pine Valleys, but Ladera is a blank slate.

Azoff’s phone rings. The greatest basketball player of all time wants to play tomorrow. “OK, but can he keep it to one group?”

No more than four foursomes per day is one idea at Ladera. Another is that it’s not a local course for retirees to bang balls for 10 minutes, play 18 holes in two and half hours, head home, then rinse and repeat. The complete lack of housing suggests this, as does the absence of a swimming pool, gym, tennis and pickleball courts. But the most unique attribute is the insistence on walking, with a caddie or a pushcart or carrying your bag. In deference to heat, hills, and even age, desert golf has always been played in carts. I’m aware of no other course in this part of the country that’s as committed to the ideal of golf as a soulful trek together as Ladera.

“Golf’s about friendship, but it’s also an incredible business tool,” Azoff says. “So much business, especially in my business, is done on the golf course.” From what I can’t help but eavesdrop, at least a portion of this marketing genius’ daily work involves giving away concert tickets to important people. It’s good to hang around Irving.

To the question, “Why don’t more folks in tech play golf?” Cue says, “Programmers are solitary individuals, and even though golf is an individual sport, it’s very social at its essence.” Whether that is construed as positive or negative is unclear when Cue says to me: “I now know you better than if we had six dinners together.”

What will become of Ladera Golf Club? As tech and music have shown in California, it’s all possible.

Below: The stunning par-5 first sets the stage for what's to come at Ladera: enormous landing areas, slick playing surfaces, arroyos that criss-cross the property and meditative views of the Santa Rosa Mountains and Coachella Valley.