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PAR-SIGHTED VISION: PGA Golf Management Program at UNLV aims at all of the sport’s hospitality potential

A sage knows that age isn’t just a state of mind. It’s a state of play.

Assuming the sage swings a mean five-iron — whatever their age.

“Now you’re going to throw a little ball into that trashcan over there,” says the college student pretending to be a teacher, trying to teach other college students pretending to be 7-year-olds.

“Next, you’re going to grab the ball and walk over to Coach and he will put the ball down and you will kick it a certain way over to that big hole over there. … Ooooh! Proud of you! Good job!”

Exaggerated C-L-A-P-P-I-N-G ensues. Young adults, mimicking their younger, sillier selves, erupt in a din of childlike cheers. Cue “teacher,” i.e., student:

 “Yay! High five!”

This isn’t a warmup exercise in the theater department. Or reverse-child psychology class. Or daycare. This is a how-to-teach-kids-to-love-golf-early-in-life lesson at UNLV’s PGA Golf Management Program. However, lest you think there is age discrimination in golf-pro-grooming …

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“We came up with player development plans for the elderly,” says another student, making a multimedia presentation (stats, graphs, pics and color-coded arrows!)  at a later class in the program’s headquarters — the swanky Dwaine Knight Center for Golf Management in the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality.

Topic: How to re-invigorate golf passion for seniors. And make money doing it, deploying hospitality ingenuity.

“As you get older, the body deteriorates, and you can’t swing the same so a lot of people don’t know how to hit the golf ball anymore because of their body. If we give lessons to teach them how to swing with their restrictions now, and get them to play better, it will increase player development revenues and they will want to play more.”

Makes sense — medically, physically, financially. What about socially? Or should we say, ahem … romantically? “We came up with Swinging Sundays, a single mingle for seniors on the golf course!” declares the student, triggering class giggles from peers who think he’s proposing a grand-pappy hookup service.

“Twelve percent of the elderly use dating sites, so what if we have a golf outing around that? Say you have six elderly gentlemen and six elderly gentlewomen. For three holes you’re paired one and one, then the next three, you’re paired with a different one. They might meet the love of their life playing golf. It’s a goldmine, guys!”

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G-O-L-F.

Ignore the clichés. It’s not just for men in white shoes, yellow pants and lime-green shirts with little alligators stitched on the breast pockets. And it’s come a long way from that 1950s Honeymooners episode where Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden instructs Art Carney’s Ed Norton to “address the ball,” after which Norton, with a comedic flourish, bellows: “Hellooooo, ball!”

There’s actually a bit more to it. Enough, in fact, to sustain UNLV’s entire PGA Golf Management Program.

“There is a lot going on and it’s all about a stick and a ball and I can’t believe it. It’s crazy good,” says program director Chris Cain, the New Jersey native and golf pro who swung onto UNLV’s faculty in 2004, two years after the program’s birth.

Balls are left unaddressed (at least in Honeymooners fashion) within this waaaay-state-of-the-art venue, named for UNLV’s iconic men’s golf coach. Yet every other aspect of the sport — and the hospitality industry that has skyrocketed around it — is addressed with the centrifugal force of a Tiger Woods swing.

Just take a gander at this joint that opened nearly a year ago:

There’s the cozy outdoor putting green (where student passersby can catch their club-wielding peers in action); the airy, green-carpeted classroom (site of the teacher/kids playacting exercise and senior golfer-enticing presentation) that is also a usable putting green; a 3-D swing lab with wearable biomechanical technology to improve performance (clients include not only UNLV golf team members, but those from Stanford University and Texas Christian University); a golf simulator stocked with 70 world-class course layouts (including Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black and Pinehurst); a student-operated golf pro shop; and a club design/repair section to learn regripping, equipment measuring and other technical skills).

Bottom line: G-O-L-F — it’s not just for those who breathe that rarefied, country-club air anymore.    

 “Thirty years ago, if you didn’t have a lot of money, you just couldn’t get access to the game,” Cain says. “That’s changing. It’s going to take time but it’s moving in the right direction.”

That movement includes UNLV’s golf major — one of only 18 golf management programs in America accredited by the PGA (Professional Golfers Association). And the only one — befitting a city such as Las Vegas — with such a central emphasis on hospitality management, “so we feel like we are positioning our students really well for the future of the industry,” Cain says.

In fact, Cain adds, the PGA recruited UNLV to help develop a management certificate program that would encompass food and beverage training, merchandising and revenue management, and core hospitality areas to bolster the customer experience. “We feel honored they reached out to us to help them with that curriculum,” Cain says.

Around 100 students are enrolled in UNLV’s golf program this fall. Based on casual observation, none are clad in white loafers, yellow slacks and mint-green, gator-emblazoned shirts. Or likely even own them.

“From a diversity standpoint, we’ll be at about 6 or 7 percent female, which is low, and about a quarter with a diverse background, non-Caucasian, which we are very proud of, but we can do better,” Cain says.

Evidence is immediately apparent in the enrollment of Yeji Ahn, a female sophomore and transfer student from East Tennessee State University. “I play golf, but I don’t see myself playing professional golf after finishing college,” says Ahn, originally from the South Korean city of Changwon.

“I play decent, but I want to learn about management and the golf industry, so I can stay in this industry lifelong. Professional golfer? Everyone wants to do it but not everyone gets to do it. I see a higher percentage (of career success) when I see myself running the tournament and teaching the juniors. That’s what I wanted to do, so I came here.”

Exhibiting decent golf skills is a requirement for admission to the program — but it’s kept in perspective relative to the program’s wider mission. “We’re looking at 8-handicappers,” Cain says. “But let’s move backwards. How many students from diverse backgrounds had the opportunity, compared to non-diverse backgrounds, to play the game young and at a sustained level and be a good player? As diversity increases and awareness of the game increases among diverse populations, I think we’ll have more access to diverse student backgrounds. Give it 10 or 15 years.”

That timeline should nicely parallel the enhancement of golf — already an $84 billion industry in the U.S. that supports around 2 million jobs — from an 18-hole, green-course-centered sport to a full-blown resort-style experience. The latter category includes inventive hybrids such as Las Vegas’ own golf/nightclub/attractions conglomerate, Topgolf.

“There are so many avenues you can go with golf because courses are only part of the puzzle,” Cain says. “There are only 15,000 facilities in America, which is 45 percent of the global supply.  But there are 29,000 members of the PGA of America. We see golf course operations as being a primary area where alumni go. Teaching and coaching is another primary area, and we’re starting to see the off-course experience and the manufacturing and retail and sales side, that’s been a big push. We’re starting to see the nontraditional sides of the game become more attractive to our alumni. Those are the greatest access points.”

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Access has been good for UNLV’s golf majors thus far, as 100 percent of graduates — as in everyone — have landed industry gigs.

“We have a number of our alumni who are in unbelievable teaching positions, directors of instruction at top clubs in America. We’ve had a number of students go on to be golf coaches at universities. And then we’ve had people who are GMs at clubs – it’s all over the place,” Cain says.

All the clubs in town support us very well, it’s been a wonderful marriage in this community. Half of our students work part time while they’re at school, and we’ve worked at every club in town. We have 20 alumni who are managing properties here in town so we’re starting to see the full circle and now the alumni are supporting the program even more.”

That support includes internships around the nation and with local establishments such as Southern Highlands Golf Club, whose general manager, Jason Cheney, has sat on the UNLV program’s advisory board for several years. Student interns have manned his golf-shop counter, done retail programming and helped manage tournaments and events. Other internships have schooled students on skills ranging from keeping greens their very greenest using fertilizer and fungicides, to non-playing aspects including accounting, resort management and even gaming.

“The members of our club love seeing the support we are lending to Chris and his program and seeing these young pros who are trying to make a career in the golf business,” Cheney says.

“The (UNLV) program is about managing a business, just as if you were managing a department store or a retail store or a State Farm office. You need to understand the concept of it and have stronger financial acumen. It’s a difficult business that not a lot of places find successful. The kids from this program have a stronger understanding of it than someone coming in who just played golf and came up through that route.”

At TPC Summerlin, another club partnering with UNLV, interns have helped out at the pro shop to gain retail experience, assisted with player relations and worked with the driving range team. “They really assist us a lot so it’s a win-win,” says TPC General Manager Glenn Lee. “Obviously playing and teaching the game are very important parts of it, but also knowing how to run a golf tournament, how to do the retail piece, how to run a locker room — all of those fall under the purview of a head golf professional. That’s what they all aspire to be.”

Disabusing people of their simplistic notions of a golf career is something that program co-assistant director/internship coordinator Brian Jones knows about firsthand — he graduated from the UNLV program in 2011.  “People thought you were just going to school to play golf, like, ‘What are you really learning?’” he says. “There was some explaining, like, ‘No, I’m not going to be on tour, I’m not going to be on TV, you won’t see me on the weekends playing in tournaments.’”

Specializing in facility management, Jones adds: “It’s the difference between a professional golfer and a golf professional — the business of growing the sport.”

That philosophy resonated for sophomore Myles Veal, who had once dreamed of pro-golf glory but eventually adjusted his ambitions and found UNLV a perfect place to launch a new dream. “Golf has been around my life as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t playing as much as I need to get that player feel,” Veal says. “I did research and found out about the UNLV program. I visited a couple of months before my high school graduation and just fell in love with it from day one, that family feel.” 

Another testament to that family feel — program graduates returning as staff to pass along their knowledge to the next up-and-comers — is co-assistant director and 2008 grad Kendall Murphy. “I can not only run your business, but I can teach you to play golf, and that’s what makes me different from a graduate of a business school,” Murphy says of the program’s mission.

“I have this unique ability to play the sport I’m running. It adds a lot of credibility. If you are running a property and you can go out with a member and play well, they will have more respect for you. But we go: Student, first. Player, second.”

Don’t forget the teacher part — Murphy supervised the instructor/kiddie roleplay exercise that will help shape those who wish to impart the joys of the game to children (beyond shooting through windmills at miniature golf). And that’s the sweet spot for sophomore (and class role-player) CJ Schmid. “I worked for a bit and came back to school because I knew what a golden opportunity this was,” says Schmid, who is also quite adept at analyzing player movements in the biomechanics lab.

“You get to learn hands-on how to teach properly, which is something you don’t get out of a textbook. To have something interactive in such a big setting as this is really cool, to see how we can manipulate different ideas and tools that will grow the game of golf.”

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Golf as more than just … golf? How did it happen? Why did it happen? Glance back a decade ago to the recession of 2008.

“There were a lot of golf courses that needed to do a gut check and figure out how they were going to survive — and some didn’t,” Cain says. “And some are in decline, but it’s controlled reduction, which is healthy because now golf courses are more amenable to those that aren’t core to the game.”

Resort industry signature touches to help monetize golfing — “hot wing nights,” football watch parties, event and banquet bookings, even daycare facilities to draw families, rather than one adult player leaving his family for hours — encroached on what had once been considered a somewhat snobby and exclusionary pursuit. Revenue streams beyond tee times ratcheted upward. With that came an evolving awareness of golf management education to feed the need.

Change, however, rarely eludes resistance. “That’s a little disruptive because there are still a lot of core golfers out there and maybe they’re not so happy about going to a golf course, and in front of the green there’s this big hole because it’s there for FootGolf,” Cain says.

“Or maybe they’re not so pleased with some people on the course who don’t have the skill yet to be there but we’re trying to introduce them to the game. But we’re trying to maybe make the experience less rigid, maybe a few less of the rules that scare people away.”

And the trend tilting toward recreational golfers continues to ramp up. Cain points out local partnerships forged between clubs such as Bali Hai and Las Vegas Country Club and TPC Las Vegas with hotels such as JW Marriott and Wynn Las Vegas.

“It’s so interesting because in Las Vegas we see The Summit being built, which is an exclusive core-golf experience,” he says of the golf-centered private residential development in Summerlin. Then Cain draws a comparison with Topgolf, the unique Vegas attraction where several of his students volunteer.

“Half the people they attract (to Topgolf) have never picked up a golf club. Then all of a sudden they are like, wow, this is kind of cool. They have concerts and comedy shows and events you don’t have to be a golfer to participate in. That’s a model a lot of golf courses are adopting. You actually don’t have to pick up a golf club – but you might because it looks fun. “

The next-level challenge that unleashes? “What will be interesting for us is to see whether that recreational golfer can transfer to the golf course. We need a little more time to figure that out.”

Odds for that are pretty encouraging here, where training for a game that prizes players that shoot under par is expanding the vision, potential and economics of the sport far above the norm.


To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.

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by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire

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