By Brandi Shaffer, Associate Editor
Blue Ridge Country Club’s announcement in April of this year that it had hired a new head golf pro wasn’t all that headline-worthy—until you took a closer look at the context. The Palmerton, Pa. property, which has had nine holes of golf since the club opened in 1915, and expanded to 18 holes in 1989, hasn’t had a full-time pro since the late 1940s.
To be fair, General Manager John Rehus says, the private, member-owned club did employ head golf pros for brief, twoyear stints in both the 1960s and 1970s. Still, most of the club’s first century has been marked by having high school and college kids staff the pro shop, and a lack of members clamoring for golf lessons.
But like many clubs, Blue Ridge had to take a fresh look at how to bolster membership after the financial challenges of the past few years. The club hired a membership consultant who conducted town-hall meetings with members, to determine what they valued at the club. To not only help sell memberships, but also boost revenues through clinics and lessons and get women and children more involved with club activities, the consultant recommended that Blue Ridge hire a golf pro.
How do you go about finding a golf pro, and establishing a golf department, for a club that’s offered the game for nearly 100 years, has 210 golfing members and sees 20,000 annual rounds? Rehus looked for two things in his search through the PGA CareerLink system: previous head golf pro experience, and ideas to increase membership and rounds.
Enter Rich Conwell, who had previously worked at the Uniontown (Pa.) Country Club, the Country Club of Culpeper (Va.) and Quicksilver Country Club in Midway, Pa.—and who Rehus says emerged as the “hands-down” best choice.
Now that Conwell is on board, Rehus says the enthusiasm among members—as well as the Blue Ridge staff—about his arrival is palpable. “I wouldn’t expect overnight success, but we have seen overnight positivity and a new attitude,” Rehus says. Inquiries about golf lesson, he notes, are already buzzing.
Conwell admits there can be both positive and negative aspects to wading through the uncharted territory.
“It’s almost like I’m Lewis and Clark,” Conwell says. “If I make a wrong turn, I’ll know before anyone else does. The
downside is there’s an amount of expectation when you’re setting the precedent. We have to be cognizant of what we do. “It seems to me that if you work pretty hard, they forgive you quickly,” Conwell adds.
Conwell’s plan is to be “Mr. Golf ” not only at Blue Ridge, but in Palmerton, which is in the east-central part of the state, with access to the greater Allentown area. By expanding the club’s golf program to include junior golf, golf lessons and update the current tournament program, Conwell hopes to grow membership and offer programs that are attractive, rather than where members are expected to participate.
“Twenty-five years ago, [golfers] had no choice. You could play here or in a private club or suffer through less-than-stellar conditions at a public facility,” Conwell says. “But those [public] facilities are so well-managed and well-groomed, we have to basically catch up—and our goal is to surpass them.”
Rehus credits Conwell with already reorganizing the club’s retail offerings by moving older inventory out and bringing new inventory in. Conwell has taken over golf tournaments and is even creating a deal to entice local businesses to join.
“You don’t want to change too much too fast, because people could become disenchanted, but I have a lot of leeway,” Conwell notes. “I can try programs here that I couldn’t do somewhere else, because they haven’t seen it before.”
Part of joining a well-established team in a new position is learning to be diplomatic and work within the structure that already exists. A month into the job, Conwell has tried to become as knowledgeable as he can about other departments, particularly food and beverage.
“Food is a huge part of golf outings,” he notes. “It’s hard for me to admit this professionally, but it may be even bigger than golf. So I’ve spent a lot of time with the food and beverage manager, because you have to maintain a status of equal departments. I wouldn’t exist as well without food and beverage or without the social committee. We have to make sure we’re on the same page.”
Despite his newfound local celebrity, Conwell acknowledges that where the club is concerned, he’s still the “new guy,” and approaches his role with humility. “I treat it like I’m the least intelligent person in every conversation about Blue Ridge,” he says.
Gone to The Dogs
By David Hutton, Contributing Editor
San Geronimo (Calif.) Golf Course and Indian Valley Golf Club in Novato, Calif., both located in picturesque Marin County in the north San Francisco Bay Area, are among the growing number of golf courses throughout the country that now “throw a bone” to their customers by allowing them to bring their dogs along for their rounds.
Steve Snyder, the head pro at Indian Valley for nearly a decade, said the club has been “dog friendly” for as long as he’s been there.
“I do think it leads to happier golfers,” he points out. “People who want to bring their dog along can still get out on the course and play.”
Other than requiring owners to clean up after the dogs, Indian Valley is “pretty rules-free,” Snyder says. “We don’t have a leash rule. They just need to keep them under control.”
At San Geronimo Golf Course, Executive Director Jennifer Kim says the course has had a dog-friendly position for eight years, and it became official three years ago under new ownership.
In April, both courses’ dog-friendly policies were featured in the Marin Independent Journal. In the wake of that story, Kim says she has seen some new faces around the course, with their canine companions in tow.
“I have seen one or two new people each week that came because they now know we are dog-friendly,” she says.
Most of the members of the staff at San Geronimo own dogs, Kim adds, and they even bring their pets to work. So it was only natural to welcome dogs to the course.
“We feel they are part of the family,” she says. “It’s better to let them go along with their owners than to be left at home or even left in the car.”
Liability isn’t a concern at either facility, as neither has had an issue with a dog at the course. The only complaints Kim has received have come when dogs were not leashed.
“If we get complaints, we would ask the owner to leash the dog. If we were to get multiple complaints, we might have to ask the dog be removed. That has never happened,” she says.
On the other side of the country, Belgrade Lakes Golf Club, a daily-fee property in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, that has received both regional and national accolades, has been allowing dogs on its course for years. Maggie Evans, the club’s Manager of Events and Services, says allowing dogs on the course is just one more way to ensure that customers enjoy their visit.
“Our guests are often traveling, on vacation, and their pets accompany them,” says Evans. “When we first found a dog in a car in the parking lot, we knew we had to adopt a different approach. This also was aligned with the owners’ philosophy to create and operate a first-rate golf course, but not necessarily follow modern constraints of thought.”
At Belgrade Lakes, dogs must be under control of their owner. That does not necessarily mean leashed.
“Each dog is different, and we find that dogs traveling with their families are by-and-large very well-behaved,” Evans explains. “We have had no problems with waste being left behind. Owners have showed great respect for our course and are conscientious of cleaning up.
All three courses make accommodations for their canine clientele, including access to shade and water.
“We have a restaurant and bar, and while California code prohibits dogs from coming inside, we do have tables outside where golfers can have their dogs,” Kim says.
Dog owners have appreciated being able to share this experience with their pets, Evans points out.
“It’s hard to know how many rounds we lost because golfers were not able or willing to leave their pets in a rented cabin, hotel room or camp site,” says Evans. “But anecdotally, we know we have guests who otherwise would have passed by the opportunity to golf.”
Neither Snyder nor Kim can be sure if their policies on dogs translate into increased play, but Kim says the dogs’ presence could very well lead to lower scores.
“A lot of people say it calms them when their dogs are there,” she explains. “Golf can be a stressful sport and when golfers are more relaxed, it can work to their benefit.”