Bright Lights, Big Humble: Bel-Air Country Club’s Dave Podas, PGA
The Director of Golf at historic Bel-Air CC since taking over for the legendary Eddie Merrins in 2003, Dave Podas has long filled the big spikes of “The Lil’ Pro” by bringing a humble, Midwestern work ethic to the lofty gig; in short, the guy has never brought nor sought any airs at Bel-Air.
A native of Minneapolis, Podas plied his early swings at Hiawatha GC, a fabled Twin Cities muni, where he’d get his first golf gig working the counter. The annual Minneapolis crush of ice and snow, however, did not a golf future make.
“Several of us, pretty good players, in trying to beat the horrible Minnesota winters, ended up in Phoenix,” Podas remembers. “Five guys in a one-bedroom apartment, taking odd jobs at golf courses. Shortly after arriving there, I ran out of money. But I’d been told they used caddies at Phoenix CC, so I went there, talked to the caddiemaster and kind of bluffed my way in; I’d never caddied before in my life.”
The loops quickly led to opportunity, as Podas fast graduated from caddie to the bag room to the golf shop; he’d then elevate to first assistant pro and soon acquire his PGA of America membership.
Still in his twenties, the rapid ladder climb continued when Podas was hired as head golf professional at Ancala CC in Scottsdale. The desert gig wasn’t one he’d hold for long, however, as his hometown soon came calling.
“There were a lot of Minnesota people at Ancala, including a past president of the Minneapolis GC,” Podas continues. “I’d just been at Ancala for a year but ended up getting the director of golf job at Minneapolis GC.”
Overseeing the Donald Ross/Willie Park, Jr.-designed Minneapolis GC — which hosted the U.S. Amateur in 1950 and PGA Championship in 1959 — was, for Podas, a seemingly dream gig. But he was soon to awake to even bigger dreams.
“I’d been working at Minneapolis GC for 10 years, where I was perfectly content. I had the winters off and would play a fair amount of competitive golf in those offseasons,” he says. “But I had a friend with some ties to Bel-Air, and he called me one day and said that Eddie Merrins was retiring, and that he was going to float my name in there. Shortly thereafter I got a call, and shortly after that, my wife and I were moving to Los Angeles.”
Podas likens the move to Major League Baseball.
“It might sound silly, but it was like if you were the manager of the Minnesota Twins, and it’s a job you love — but then the Yankees call,” he says. “It’s great to manage the Twins, but then suddenly there’s a chance to operate at the pinnacle of your profession. That’s what the Bel-Air opportunity felt like to me.”
Though he’d only been to Bel-Air once before getting the job, Podas was well aware of the club’s classic George C. Thomas design, along with its A-list membership.
“When I first got here, I spent my time listening, learning and watching,” he says. “They didn’t need me to come in and rewrite the playbook. The better part of valor was to come in here with soft shoes.”
While Podas keeps his brushes with fame close to the vest, he does admit being initially star struck by his clientele.
“I think I did a good job of not giving off the impression that I was in awe. But there were a few times when it was, ‘Oh, boy,’” Podas says, briefly granting the thrill of meeting NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Orr. “I kept that awe under wraps early in my career here, but when I’d get home for dinner I’d tell my wife, ‘You wouldn’t believe who I met today.’”
Not that Podas has ever gone La-La Land. Rather, a compass pointing true North has helped him navigate his SoCal life.
“The blocking and tackling, the Xs and Os of running Minneapolis GC or Bel-Air CC, they’re identical,” he says. “The difference is that the participants here are more recognizable. But the operations — taking care of people, helping them love the game, showing an interest in their golf — it’s the same. The playbook is the same; the players are different.”
Holding close to his roots has always kept Podas in the short grass.
“One of the Midwestern values is that we’ll outwork anybody; first one there, last one to leave,” he says. “That’s a characteristic of where I’m from, and when you bring that to the table, people recognize it.”
Game also recognizes game. A freshly minted 60, Podas — who appeared in the PGA Tour Champions 3M Championship in 2013 and qualified for the U.S. Senior Open in 2014 — still hits balls on a near daily basis and continues to compete in both Minnesota Section and Southern California PGA events.
And when not on-course, Podas is, well, still on-course.
For the past 15-plus years, he’s served on the PGA of America’s National Rules Committee and officiates at events ranging from the PGA Championship to the Ryder Cup to the Masters; he helped officiate this year’s U.S. Open at The Los Angeles CC.
As officiant of his own stellar career in golf, Podas has never lost sight of his personal rule: No matter the heights of the gig, nobody is bigger than the game.
“One of the things that is so important to remember,” concludes Podas, “is something that I remind myself about clubs as storied as Bel-Air: They were here well before me, and they’re gonna be here well after me.”