A Day In The Life: Behind the Scenes of a Well-Oiled Golf Machine
According to a 2011 report from Golf 20/20, the last major study on American golf and the economy, the sport generated a total economic impact of over $176 billion while supporting nearly 1.98 million jobs.
What’s not included in the report is that a vast number of these golf jobs employ folks who have never swung a club. While golf is indeed a game of numbers, the sport, like the business, comes down to its people.
At Woodhaven Country Club in Palm Desert, you’ll find some very good people. A member-owned course open for public play in the heart of the Coachella Valley — where one will find nearly 14 percent of California’s courses — Woodhaven is modest in size but ample in spirit.
Though the desert’s bigger resort properties sport larger staffs — La Quinta Resort & Club and PGA WEST employ 1,500 team members; the JW Marriott Desert Springs has 1,004 associates — the 60 people employed at Woodhaven recognize their part in a larger cast.
According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Hi-Lo Desert Chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents of America, the valley’s local economy relies heavily on an annual golf impact of $1.1 billion.
To understand the machine is to experience its cogs. And on a weekend in late May, the folks at Woodhaven allowed me the opportunity to either participate in, or shadow across, nearly every role in their golf operation.
I’ve known Derrick Strub two-plus years, having been first introduced when he was the head golf professional at Marriott’s Shadow Ridge GC in Palm Desert.
“We’re running, in a sense, five different businesses within one business, and each is equally important to the overall well-being of the club,” he says.
We sit on opposite ends of his desk eyeing the schedule for the weekend-to-be, an especially active stretch which includes: a golf tournament and buffet breakfast; men’s club play; a luncheon; a wedding; a Quinceañera; and an awards ceremony.
Beyond the schedule in which I’ll participate, Strub’s desk is an organized brim of calls and offers, golf mags and breakdowns; I look over his shoulder as he surveys a mathematic mesh of hundreds of club plus-and-minus cash numbers in blurry, 8-point font size.
From the office window, a morning glint reveals some newfound salt amid his pepper.
Such is the badge of running a golf club.
“Yeah, there’s a ton that goes into making a golf business run appropriately,” says Strub. But you’re happy when a customer doesn’t realize all that goes into a golf operation. You just want the customer to come out and have a good time.”
A good time for the club’s public golf clientele (which accounts for about 80 percent of rounds) and members is contingent upon both such blissful ignorance, along with a team philosophy that starts at the top.
“You’ve got to be willing to jump in there and do the jobs alongside your staff,” Strub adds as we map out my duties for the weekend. “Whether it’s clearing dishes, looking at accounts payable or whatever. All these things, five years ago, I probably would’ve never known. But I’ve really gained an appreciation for all it takes to make the machine go.”
GROUNDS TO GUESTS
It’s a shade after 6 am the next morning when I arrive to work with Chip Owens, head superintendent at Woodhaven.
His crew already well into their duties, Owens scoops me up at the golf shop and takes me to Woodhaven’s par-5 seventh. Giving his crewman a break, Owens sets me up on the Toro TriFlex mower, shows me the array of gears and levers and pedals and puts me to work mowing the green, set at .110th of an inch.
As the super directs the proper pattern — and I scalp the hell out of the collar on my first pass — Owens keeps it light.
“It’s alright,” he says. “It’s grass. It grows back.”
A desert grounds veteran of 15 years, Owens estimates that just two percent of the crewman with whom he’s worked or overseen actually play golf. Whether at Woodhaven or beyond, it’s backbreaking stuff, the pay is low and many of these guys have two jobs, the latter of which they’ll endeavor after their golf course gigs conclude for the day.
For Owens, the work is more than just grass and greens. It’s an understanding of clientele and being mindful of the bottom line. To cut greens lower means more three-putts, which means longer rounds, which translates into fewer tee times, which equals less cash for the course.
Same goes for cup-cutting.
“Don’t cut cups with emotion,” he says as I survey for a good spot. “It’s an understanding of knowing that you’re in charge of where golf is played that day. So, if you want to be a jerk and tuck cups behind every bunker on every green, you’re making a four hour round into five.”
Ultimately, I opt for a benign placement, center green, with just a hint of bunker carry to keep the sticks honest.
A fairway mow job and bunker tending follow before I take my services back inside to meet with engineer Richard Jensen, whose purview is a constant maintaining of Woodhaven’s clubhouse, which he estimates to be 25,000 square feet.
We go up on the roof to look at the dozen, massive HVAC units. While the Santa Rosas overlook the scene and the practice range is a glance in the periphery, this work seems far, far away from golf.
Along with regularly tending the units (“They’ll purr in the summer,” Jensen says) the engineers’ duties are organic and ubiquitous, and Jensen does everything at the club from electrical, plumbing, painting and changing lightbulbs to continually reading up on California codes.
“You come as a guest, but you return as a friend,” says Jensen.
Yeah, even up here, thumbing the minerals away from HVAC grates, there’s an understanding that this is indeed the golf business and customer retention is paramount.
“In my opinion, I just want the customer to come back here,” Jensen says. “There are so many opportunities for golf all over the valley, that I want them to say, ‘Everything looks great, everything functions properly. Let’s come back here and play again.’”
Beneath the purr of the AC units, another hum is at play. Inside the administrative offices, golf is seen outside the windows, but reference to a wedge is more often related to the cost or billing of lettuce.
Her dog Karmara at her feet on a casual Friday, Woodhaven accounting head Kaye Apolskis crunches numbers on a QuickBooks accounting program and an EZLinks club software system popular in the world of golf business.
While she’s a jock, the numbers before her divert from a scorecard of birdies and bogeys. Overseeing 800 membership accounts, along with payroll and more than 100 vendors, this would all seem more math than golf.
“But it is interesting to see the water bill, how much the electric bill is, how much grass is and just how much it actually costs to operate a golf course,” she says. “I had no idea until I started paying the bills.”
Akin to Jensen, Apolskis recognizes the value of golf appreciation. With keyboard instead of club, she’s still swinging to make Woodhaven a success. Her window overlooking the 18th fairway, Apolskis admits that her predecessors may not have been well-served by lacking knowledge of the game.
“I don’t think that worked out very well for the people who were in this chair before me,” she says.
A UNIFORM EXPERIENCE
Organized and armed with tourney scorecards and rules, Bryant Lee mans the outside services alongside Woodhaven’s head pro, Thomas Fowler. Bags are dropped off near the golf shop as the players head inside for a buffet breakfast, the settings for which have been laid out the evening prior by the food and beverage staff and the platings prepared by the kitchen in the day’s dawn.
I take the scorecards from Fowler and place them on the applicable carts, then assist Lee in readying the bags; it’s rudimentary stuff to be sure, but there’s an imperative seamlessness to the work.
“We have a veteran staff, so we’ve developed that routine, that well-oiled machine,” Lee says. “We all work together in concert.”
One wrong bag, one sloppy scorecard, one mixed-up cart and this group has dozens of other options for their Coachella Valley golf outing.
“We want to make sure things are as uniform as possible,” Lee continues. “Customer satisfaction is the No. 1 thing.”
With Lee’s direction, we lead the groups out to their holes and then Fowler and I head back inside the shop. Holding both PGA accreditation and a BA degree in business, Fowler, 25, is in the midst of graduating from the grind portion of his golf career.
“It’s more than just golf, but rather a job where you need to wear lots of hats,” he says.
Along with the pro’s trade of giving golf lessons, there’s no shortage of duties away from the turf. Running a golf shop, coordinating outside services and golf staff, making tee times, organizing tournaments, and keeping inventory are all part of the gig.
And for millennials like Fowler, it can prove a trade with an opaque outlook amid the game’s stagnated growth.
“It’s kind of a scary,” he says. “I’m now past just getting started with my career in golf and want it to be my career, but it’s on me and my generation of peers as PGA professionals to grow the game and portray golf’s message to the younger crowd. This conversation goes for every facility that I’ve worked at, whether it full-time, internships or even back at school.”
The tourney now well in swing, outside, things looks sunnier. As Lee tends to the cart barn, Fowler hooks me up on the ball picker. The range is mercifully slow, making the job easy, if not fun. With a full army of swingers banging 1.6 ounce, 150 mph bullets at you, however, the picking is a less than leisurely trade.
“You’re conscious of balls hitting you, but at the same time, when they do hit you, it’s always a surprise,” says Lee of working the range. “The impact is so loud that it rings in your ears for at least a few hours. It’s like a concussion bomb.”
ALL ABOUT THE GUEST
The range at-the-ready, I go back inside to help prep for the events of the afternoon and evening. At most courses across the country, golf remains the spine, but many clubs are actively pursuing enhanced use of their spaces.
“It all comes back to golf,” Nelson says. “The desert is built around golf. All the food, events and everything else, it’s an appendage. It’s something you want folks to do when they are not spending time on the course.”
Like getting players ready for their morning tournament, this particular work isn’t rocket science. But it does require being cognizant, organized and having a hell of a lot of energy for long hours.
“It takes a village to get things done; and we’ve got a good village,” adds Nelson. “It all needs to work together or it doesn’t work at all.”
Prepping ensues with toweling and glassware, and Woodhaven factotum Danny De La Garza — he of banquets, bartending and D.J. at events — has bought into the tee-to-green service.
“You go to most golf courses, and there’s an expectation that a club can facilitate events,” says De La Garza as we ready the glasses. “And with all the respect and rules in golf, it’s a professional sport, and you want to bring that attitude back inside the clubhouse and make the guest feel the same way.”
Weddings, of course, are all about the bride, and as we make the tables uniform, De La Garza’s own bride, Bianca, events and sales manager at Woodhaven, juggles a cache of Saturday duties.
With the nuptials four hours away, the wedding party has arrived for coifing. While tending to their needs, Bianca is concurrently welcoming prospective new clients with introductory weekend appointments.
One minute she’s discussing the finer points of blush-colored linens; the next, she’s providing a vendor list of photographers. Somewhere, in Woodhaven’s lower level, Bianca’s bride is readying for the biggest day of her young life.
“I just never know what’s going to come through these doors,” she smiles.
All the glasses and forks and plates and tinsel are superfluous without someone and something to fill them.
In the kitchen, a delicate dance ensues, with executive chef Richard Perez manning the fumes of an 80-hour work week.
“As you can see from our sheets, we started today at 5:00 am, then we’ve got a lunch and then we’ve got the big wedding tonight,” Perez says. “And then I’m starting to prepare for tomorrow’s stuff. So, there’s never time to rest.”
From the baking sheet to the tee sheet, the business of golf rarely strays from the axiom of knowing one’s audience.
“Yeah, we’re in the golf business,” concludes Perez. “No doubt. We cater to golfers. The men’s club, the women’s club. Without golf, where would we be?”