His approach was swift. There were some divots along the way—many literal—but his follow-through got him back into a successful range. Now, member Scott Oki owns 11 golf courses.
Born in Seattle, Scott spent one year at the University of Washington, during the same time as the Vietnam War. But he didn't have enough credits to maintain a student deferment from the draft, and he was immediately reclassified as 1-A.
But going to war was the last thing Scott wanted to do, so he took the advice of a friend, who told him to audition for the Air Force Academy band. There, Scott played the saxophone; he took private lessons with the same instructor who taught Kenny G—"He's much better than I was," Scott jokes—and played Generals' retirement parties, and for the cadets when they marched in to every meal.
It was a way for Scott to pursue one of his interests—music—and to finish his schooling. He graduated from the University of Colorado with a bachelor's of science in accounting and computer science, and an MBA. He was the top graduate in his class, he only modestly admits.
But it was a job he took in the technology sector that would eventually pave the way to Scott's current passion. After a transfer to California, cofounding a software startup with three others and consulting at MicroPro, a bigger, badder company threw a wedge into the game.
Microsoft began to emerge, and its birthplace piqued Scott's interest. "I finally ended up writing a letter to Bill," Scott says. "It got passed on to Steve Ballmer, and talk about serendipity!" Steve had recognized Scott's name from that little startup venture in California, and Scott was "smart enough to accept" a job offer.
Well, the Microsoft guys liked to play a few rounds in the afternoon, and Scott, a novice, didn't like not being good at something. "I ran out of golf balls after nine holes, but I was hooked!" he says. "I couldn't figure out why it was so hard to hit a stationary object."
For weeks, he pounded thousands of golf balls, soon realizing that owning his own course, where he could play when and where he wanted, could be the best course of action.
After more than 20 years, he retired from Microsoft, which left more time for the game, which then became a business.
"The original idea really had nothing to do with the business of golf. I just loved the game," Scott says. "It's one of the few sports that you can be competitive with all kinds of varying capabilities and expertise."
Though he didn't know much about the business aspect of owning a course, in 1994, he bought one anyway—Echo Falls.
"There are a lot of gotchas when you actually look under the covers—drainage and irrigation, specifically. I knew nothing about the topography. I wasn't thinking about that."
Eventually, though, he had to. A large garbage site had become available, so Scott lined up the shot and took it.
The area was filled with construction debris—no garbage—but it still took years to develop, as teams moved millions of cubic yards of dirt. "We had to find a place to move it," Scott says knowingly. "At the Coal Creek course, between the ninth and 18th fairways, which was supposed to be a valley, is now a hill."
The Newcastle courses, Coal Creek and China Creek, became numbers two and three of the quickly developing Oki brand. The Golf Club at Newcastle has 36 holes and panoramic views of Lake Washington, Mount Rainier, the Olympic and Cascade Mountains and the Seattle skyline. "I would argue that you wouldn't find any better views, probably in the world, when it comes to an urban golf course," Scott says.
The course is Scott's personal favorite, and the only one he built from grounds to greens.
He began to acquire more along the I-5 corridor, because to him, location was critically important. Scott didn't want to play the same course day in and day out, so having a portfolio to choose from, especially for Oki Players Card holders, was a must. "I just want to give a good experience to as many people as possible when they come to one of our properties."
The Oki properties, though different, still have a style to maintain. "Branding is critical. For most golfers, the condition of the course is absolutely paramount—greens should run true, should be cut well and not bumpy—same with fairways. It's the nature of the business."
But for Scott, business has always been personal. He lives by his personal mission statement: "To marry my passion for things entrepreneurial with things philanthropic in ways that encourage others to do the same."
So he now devotes most of his time to nonprofit organizations, and he has founded or cofounded 20 in the last 20 years. He and his wife Laurie have three children, so Scott's main philanthropic focus is children's health and welfare, along with public education reform.
"When I was growing up, our family had nothing. As a child, I probably didn't notice that we didn't have a lot." But now, he's making sure others have more; and through his organization See Your Impact (seeyourimpact.org), he's showing others how giving only a little can make a big difference. "Anybody can be a philanthropist. Possibilities are endless."
Scott says he's still trying to work through his bucket list. Although he didn't mention whether owning and operating 11 golf courses or founding 20 nonprofits is on that list, one can assume that Scott isn't done, and doesn't want to be.
"I've always worked hard," he says. "Still do."