Full Circle: Mike Kelly Takes The Reins
Mike Kelly, PGA, first visited California 30 years ago this summer, on a road trip across America with his parents, two sisters and the family dog. The six-week adventure from their Toronto, Ontario home included a stop in Los Angeles, where he vividly recalls visiting Universal Studios. Three decades later, Kelly begins his role as the new executive director of the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA), located just two blocks away from the theme park.
It’s a full-circle moment for the 43-year-old, who had served as the CEO of Golf Ontario, the largest provincial golf association in Canada, since 2015. There he led the introduction of numerous events and programs, including the Ontario Disabilities and Indigenous Championships, as well as the World Junior Girls Championship. He also worked on a Golf in Schools effort that’s now spread to more than 1,200 schools and implemented a Regional Support Strategy that has led to 100 new member clubs joining the organization. So why leave his home country now and move three time zones away?
“I’m not sure I would have been interested if the SCGA wasn’t doing amazing things already,” Kelly said. “It’s one of the most progressive and innovative golf organizations in North America. I gravitate toward those principles and that kind of culture. Certainly, palm trees and warm weather helped. But it’s the people I’ve met through the process — whether that’s been board members, staff or volunteers — who make the difference. They are truly fantastic human beings and their passion for the game is something I share with them.”
Kelly also found the SCGA’s Public Affairs efforts especially appealing. “The Public Affairs work here is leading edge,” he noted. “I don’t know of a golf association in North America that has its Public Affairs and government advocacy work in-house. They do unbelievable work with different partners and around water, specifically, which I’m learning a lot about. I’ve seen what it means to play offense versus defense when it comes to advocating for golf and the issues that can impact the sport. That hit me right away in terms of how impressive that work has been.”
The son of a school educator and a nurse, Kelly played competitive baseball before falling in love with golf as a young teenager, learning the game at what is now The Club at North Halton in the Toronto suburb of Georgetown. He attended Union College in Kentucky on a golf scholarship before graduating from the Professional Golf Management program at Georgian College in Ontario.
“I’ve only ever worked in golf,” said Kelly, a Class A member of the PGA of Canada. “I’ve been in the back of the golf shop and an assistant professional. Earning my PGA membership helps me appreciate what golf looks like at the grassroots level. I say this all the time: Golf is not played in our office, it’s played at golf courses. We need to work with the PGA, the golf course superintendents, the course owners. It helps us understand their perspective.”
Learning the Southern California golf landscape will take some time, but it’s a process Kelly is looking forward to.
“I want to hit the ground running,” he said. “Hey, I’m the new guy from Canada, so I want to make the staff as comfortable with me as possible. Kevin Heaney is a friend and leader who I looked up to, who we all looked up to really, and I know that walking into the SCGA office I will be the least knowledgeable person in the room on some issues for a little while.”
Kelly’s immediate plans include building a robust Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy and advancing the game. “There’s no bigger partner to do that with than the USGA. And with the U.S. Open in our backyard this year (June 15-18 at The Los Angeles Country Club), it’s meaningful to me to hit the ground running in building relationships with the USGA. That’s very important for us to continue.”
While he will miss watching his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs in person as frequently as he used to (their lone visit to Crypto.com Arena this season was a 4-2 loss to the Kings), Kelly, a single-digit handicap, is looking forward to playing golf year-round once he settles in with his wife, two children and their family dog.
But as he steps into what is sure to be a hectic schedule, Kelly will be driven by the same goals shared by all at the SCGA.
“To grow the game, make it better for my kids and for their kids someday, and to evolve the sport,” he said. “I get really excited about evolving and making something better for the long term. Just being able to move the game forward and trying to innovate for the good of both the people who play golf and the communities where they live.”