2005: PGA Championship - All work, No play
Monday, September 19, 2011
There’s an adage in golf nearly as old as the game itself – if you want to play less, get a job in the industry. The axiom long has been true for almost anyone making a living in the sport.
Until recently, PGA of America club professionals had been exceptions to the rule. Whether teeing it up with a member, competing in a section tournament or qualifying for a PGA Tour event, club pros frequently found their way onto golf courses.
Playing golf, of course, was an important facet of the job. It was expected of them, and it also was a large reason many took the position.
Twenty-five club pros will compete at next week’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club. But the duties of club professionals have changed in recent years, and they do not seem to be playing – whether competitively or for fun – nearly as much as they once did.
Part of the reason is that good, young golfers no longer have to take club jobs if they are interested in playing competitively. They can join one of the numerous mini-tours, leaving the assistant pro positions to applicants less concerned about teeing it up.
Club pros also are being asked to perform more off-the-course tasks to enhance their earning potential and job security, making it more difficult to practice or play in tournaments.
It’s little wonder that club pros shy away from tournament play when they haven’t hit a ball in weeks. Even playing with members is awkward if a club pro’s game is not up to snuff. They, after all, expect their pros to go low.
“Our roles have changed, and so have our jobs,” says Tim O’Neal, head professional at North Shore Country Club outside Chicago. “I love to play, but my work load has increased so much that when it is time for me to list my business priorities, playing is always among the lowest.”
Roger Warren, president of the PGA of America and general manager and director of golf at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, agrees: “All of us as club pros want to play as much as we can. But doing our jobs is getting more and more in the way.”
To properly understand the frustration of today’s club pro, it is important to understand the jobs as they used to be.
“There wasn’t much money to be made on Tour back in the 1940s and ’50s, and the best job you could have in golf was at a club,” O’Neal says.
Many of the game’s greats, such as Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, held those sorts of positions to supplement their PGA Tour earnings, and the expectation, of course, was that they would regularly tee it up.
“Our forefathers played a lot, and did so competitively,” says Bob Ford, head professional at Oakmont Country Club and Seminole Golf Club, “My predecessor at Oakmont, Lew Worsham, played eight or nine Tour events a summer. He won the U.S. Open in 1947, and the next day was behind the counter in the shop.”
The emergence of Arnold Palmer as a sports star in the late 1950s, and the television and sponsorship money that soon followed, made it financially feasible for touring professionals to devote more time to competition – and less to teaching Mrs. Jones how to hit a bunker shot.
“But the club job was still the way to go for young golfers looking to play but who were not yet able to get on Tour,” Ford says. “It gave you a chance to compete, mature and get better.”
That is no longer the case, as the proliferation of mini-tours provides golfers with more opportunities to play tournaments.
“I know that if I was coming out of college today, I would go on one of those tours long before I took a position with a club,” Ford says. “Guys who play are playing.”
Which means that many of the fellows filling assistant positions today have other aspirations.
“That’s partially because clubs are busier than they used to be,” says Michael Breed, the head professional at Sunningdale Country Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. “There are more tournaments, more outings and more lessons that take up your time. Clubs are also more expensive, which increases the demands of the membership. And if you put down $100,000 to join, you are probably very concerned about getting your money’s worth. The members today want more from their pros, which means the pros have to give them more because they rely on those individuals for their livelihoods.”
Doug Steffen, head professional at Baltusrol , sees much the same thing.
“Years ago, golfers would join a club and ask, ‘What can I do for the club?’ ” he says. “Now, they want to know what the club can do for them.”
Many members want their pros around all the time, a powerful sentiment that usually inhibits the pros’ abilities to compete.
“How can I leave the club if I know my members are always going to be looking for me?” asks one PGA pro, who requested that his name not be used. “I can’t play that way, and I certainly can’t have fun that way either.”
It also can get dicey for some pros playing on their own home courses.
“Believe it or not, I’ve heard rumblings about me or my assistants being out on our course,” says the pro who requested anonymity. “It doesn’t matter that we are playing with fellow members and trying to help them with their games. One of us is not in the shop when somebody wants us, and we get grief as a result.”
But not all of the new pressures on golf pros come from members. Many times, they flow from the PGA member himself.
“The demands of my job are expansive,” says Ted Kiegiel, head pro at the Carolina Country Club in Raleigh, N.C. “I need to be skilled in business in order to operate an efficient golf shop, manage various budgets and inventories, administer tournaments and outings, teach members, mentor juniors and hire employees.
“So, yes, my playing time has diminished, but much of that is through my own initiative, because I am trying to provide the finest services possible. Unfortunately, I cannot do that and play as much as I would like.”
Steve Friedlander not only is the general manager and director of golf for the Kohler properties at Whistling Straits and Black Wolf Run in Wisconsin, but also the group director of golf for Kohler Co., which recently bought the Old Course Hotel and Dukes golf course, in St. Andrews, Scotland.
“Yes, I play a lot less, and I rarely compete in tournaments,” he says. “But that was a choice I made when I decided to focus more on the business of the game. I still grab a sand wedge on occasion and go to the far end of the range to hit balls. But when you are responsible for all the things I am, for every aspect of golf at this company, it is pretty difficult to focus on playing even when you are playing.
“On those rare occasions I am out on one of our courses, I am always looking around. Are the range balls clean? Why didn’t the person driving the beverage cart stop for that group? Why are the greens running a bit slow?”
Time away from family is another reason many pros have trouble trying to keep their game sharp. “Society has changed so much, and there is much greater emphasis on pros being with their spouses and children when their work is done,” says Ford. “They have to really justify setting aside time to play or practice when they are already working 14-hour days.”
Some pros, of course, still find the time to keep their game at a top level. These are the pros who work for traditional clubs that encourage their head and assistant professionals to play, with the members and whatever tournaments they choose to enter. Others secure employment contracts with terms that guarantee their ability to tee it up regularily.
“But that doesn’t mean things haven’t changed,” says Warren. “There are still guys out there who play a lot. There just aren’t as many of them as they used to be.”