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Moving Off Course

PGA professionals seeking higher pay and shorter hours while maintaining active status are pursuing jobs away from the fairways in retail, development and other professions

April 17, 2006|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Most people think of PGA professionals as the golfers with enviable swings, ready smiles and the good fortune to get paid for spending their day on a golf course. But a growing number of pros are leaving the green grass behind and pursuing nontraditional careers with equipment manufacturers, retail chains, finance companies, real estate developers and city governments.

Many pros who leave the golf course are seeking higher pay, shorter hours or a better crack at advancement. Some acknowledge they are not cut out for the teaching duties at the core of the PGA since its founding in 1916. For others, it's simply a matter of finding a job in an industry awash in golfers who are chasing their dream of getting paid to play golf.

John Green is one of them. He earned his PGA professional card in 1976, taught golf lessons at golf courses in the Midwest and co-wrote the Illinois PGA Teaching Manual. In 1990, he became the 71st golfer to earn the association's coveted Master Professional certificate.

But Green gradually grew frustrated by 80-hour workweeks and the realization that competition for top jobs at prestigious courses would only grow more intense. So he traded golf's pristine clubhouses and lush fairways for a sales and teaching position at a Golf Galaxy store in a suburban Chicago strip mall that shares a parking lot with a religious bookstore and a Babies "R" Us.

Green says he enjoys his teaching, club-fitting and sales duties with the Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Golf Galaxy retail chain, and revels in the fact that he now has time for a summer vacation with his family. But he also knows that abandoning the golf course for a job in a strip mall is heresy for some in the tradition-bound PGA of America.

"Some people are reluctant to see any kind of change," Green said. "So some old friends who used to call me to play golf just don't call anymore."

That attitude is changing, and professionals who opt for jobs far from the golf course generally can do so with the PGA's blessing.

Though best known for its skilled players and teachers, the PGA gradually has expanded the list of occupations members can perform and still keep their active status. Where pros will work is an increasingly vital issue for the 17,000 PGA members as well as 7,000 apprentices waiting in the wings. The approved list now includes such nontraditional jobs as manufacturer's representative, retail facility manager and college golf coach. There's even a catch-all category for golfers "employed within the golf industry and not eligible for another active classification."

The gradual reshaping of the PGA ranks worries some members. "My dad would probably be rolling over in his grave about some of this," acknowledged Bob Reith, a fifth-generation golfer and longtime PGA member from Minnesota who actively lobbied the PGA to let Green and other members work in retail stores. "He was a staunch PGA green grass kind of guy."

Jeff Johnson, a PGA member for more than 30 years and general manager of the Moreno Valley Ranch Golf Club, acknowledges that the organization must evolve but worries that the PGA risks "becoming so fragmented that it's hard to recognize anymore."

Business, of course, always has shaped the game. Pros used to augment their teaching income by renting golf carts and operating pro shops, which were the only places golfers could buy top-of-the line equipment. Those options faded, however, as course ownership transferred to bigger corporations that assumed those money-making operations and with the proliferation of large golf merchandising stores such as Golf Galaxy and Roger Dunn Golf Shops. And, at the same time, pros were being handed a growing laundry list of off-the-course duties.

"The popular misconception is that pros get to play a lot of golf," said Ward H. Sutton, the head professional at Seven Oaks Country Club in Bakersfield. "I spend most of my time trying to get things the way I want them to be, which means cutting back on my own golf. I'm lucky if I get to play every two weeks in my current position."

Employers also view the traditional professional who excels at playing and teaching as akin to golfers with just two clubs in their golf bags.

"While PGA professionals are greatly respected for their ability to play the game, we're especially interested in people who are going to pay us to play the game," said Henry DeLozier -- vice president of golf for Pulte Homes, which owns the golf-centric Del Webb retirement communities, and a member of an employers council created by the PGA several years ago.

"That's the real point -- customers playing the game as opposed to employees who can play golf. It's a significant change that has occurred in the golf industry."

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