The role of the golf club professional has changed appreciably over the past decade or so and now involves a much broader remit than in times past.
Dwindling membership figures in clubs have impacted directly on club pros because it represents about 90 per cent of their customer base outside of the elite or high end resort courses. They have to be considerably more proactive in adopting a business model that works in the environment in which they operate.
There is little point in having €30,000 worth of golf clubs in a shop that sells three drivers, two putters and a wedge per annum. Golf apparel is a significant market but requires a good eye and a keen appreciation of fashion trends as the clothing is generally bought a year in advance.
Stocking up on shorts in the summer is a washout or investing in high end wetsuits in a mild winter can be expensive when it comes to balancing the books.
John Dwyer (Royal Dublin), Raymie Burns (Lisheen Springs) and John Byrne (Royal Tara) are highly regarded club professionals who have lived through the economic downturn and are perfectly placed to offer an overview of how the role has changed and where it might end up.
The average retainer that golf clubs pay to pros is about €36,000. There is unanimity amongst the three that that it barely covers the salary of an assistant professional or professionals, so to pay themselves a decent salary the shop has to be productive.
Dwyer, who was head professional in Ashbourne golf club before moving to Royal Dublin in 2016, explained: “From 2008 you could see it was getting harder and harder every year. Golf clubs were putting more pressure on their pros to deliver more.
“Ashbourne laid off the secretary-manager in ’08 and replaced him with a part-time girl who did admin. A lot of roles would have fallen onto my desk after that. I had to make a choice whether I was going to do my role as I had done previously or step up and see the bigger picture within the golf club and help it survive through this period.
“I became involved in the marketing of the golf club from both a membership perspective but also in terms of society and green fee revenue. You tried to come up with initiatives to try and fill the club on quiet days.
“A lot of pros had the opportunity became directors of golf as opposed to club pros, where they were made to do both roles. That is somewhere I would have seen myself going if I didn’t land the role at Royal Dublin.”
Burns, a former two-time winner on the Challenge Tour, is the director at golf at Lisheen Springs but he’s not interested in that title and prefers the moniker of golf pro. He stressed the importance of getting to know the members, being able to address them by their first names, and being receptive to their requirements, whether it’s a packet of tees or a set of clubs. A pro is a salesman and knowing the market is a pre-requisite.
There is one relationship though about which he feels strongly. “In some of the golf clubs the secretary/managers have to cop on a little bit because he has got his foot stuck on the neck of a golf pro.
“My shop is open 13 hours a day, seven days a week this time of year. Years ago you used to be able to make up the shortfall [in salary] to the same as [that of] a secretary manager. Some secretary manager’s come in at 8.59 and leave at 4.59. They may come in on a Saturday. I’m not against secretary managers but it is like a civil service type job.
“Where I am, I respect my secretary manager and he respects me. I do as much as I can for him and he will do as much as he can for me. I can do a secretary manager’s job but a secretary manager can’t do my job. You have to gel; the ones that understand that will have a flourishing golf club.”
The most cost effective revenue stream for club pros is lessons but there can be a massive financial outlay initially with a brand new Trackman monitor.
Dwyer said: “What has happened in terms of a trend over the last number of years is that fewer people have an interest in paying €40 for a half hour lesson and would rather pay €75 or €85 for a group lesson over the course of four or five weeks duration. The easiest way for a pro to boost his income is lessons. There’s no cost to giving lessons, just your time.
“You’ll buy a reconditioned Trackman for about €15,000. I bought Trackman in my first year and it cost me £13,000 for a reconditioned version of a current model; you are talking €25,000 for a new one.
“You can get cheaper [makes] out there and they don’t do as good a job but they do a good job. You can spend €2,500 on some kind of launch monitor and it is good enough for teaching and custom fitting but if you want the best, Trackman is the route to go.
“It should be close on 50 per cent of what you earn. There is little or no cost. Your pro shop, you are working off a tight margin, it’s extremely competitive. Okay you have no rent, most pros are rent free and paid a retainer to provide a service but the retainer will pay for staff; that’s realistically a retainer goes on.
“Really after that you are relying on profit from the shop to take your own salary out of it. That would be a standard template in terms of how most pros would run their business. Clubs have put the squeeze on a lot of pros over the last few years and if pros weren’t proactive in giving extra service there was an excuse there for their retainers to be cut, which has happened right across the board.
Burns rents his Trackman a couple of times a month and custom fits for Mizuno and Ping. And while he appreciates the need to be available for lessons, it must be balanced against running the time sheet, the first tee, dealing with societies and membership inquiries.
John Byrne has noticed a sharp decline in those looking for lessons, the older members not that interested and the younger ones from other sporting backgrounds who understand the value of tuition and practice have more demands on their time. “I have noticed a big downturn. The three of us here at Royal Tara, myself and two assistants used to give about 60-80 lessons a week; that’s down to about 15-20 now.
"Custom fitting would be my main source of income and retail through social media. I have a FlightScope launch and tracking monitor (€10,000-€12,000)." His presence on social media – he had 20,000 Twitter followers at one stage and that allowed him to expand to online markets; he has sold equipment to Spain, Italy and China.
“The key is not to leave €30,000 of stock lying around for long periods. You have to keep moving it and that can require innovation and looking for new as well as traditional avenues.”
All three agreed that the majority of club pros can compete with the golfing superstores and high street outlets with the exception of a couple of times a year when the magnitude of the discount would be too much to bear.
Dwyer said: “McGuirks go mad every now and again in relation to sales. By and large virtually every pro is matching McGuirks now. That’s a given. He’s not as cheap as people think he was; he just has a reputation now and that’s the mentality that’s out there. You go to any pro and say ‘I can get this driver for X amount, can you match it? Any businessman is going to try and match that sale.
“As long as you are turning a profit on it I would see it as worthwhile. Yes you have to be careful when they go mad with their sales, when they take 15 to 20 per cent off, that could be a little tricky all right. On any given day you should be trying to match (McGuirks); that would be my policy and something that I would try and get out to our members.
“I would have done that in Ashbourne but even now, everything we sell in the shop is custom fit but we still have a price promise that we will match the likes of McGuirks and high street retailers.
In terms of what they stock in the shop, there is a negligible margin in terms of golf balls and the proliferation of electric trolleys, particularly among the women golfers, means that there is less income from the pull carts.
Some golfers are more included to buy bars and water in multipacks in supermarkets and bring their own rather than pay an extra 50 cent or euro in the pro shop. Members will dictate to a large degree what appeals in terms of apparel, gloves and shoes that are stocked, based on price point and value, which will vary from shop to shop depending on the socio economic background of their members.
Byrne pointed out that most pros work 60-80 hours a week when all the ancillary duties, especially paperwork are taken into consideration. Pros like golf clubs are susceptible to the weather. Raymie Burns estimated that in 13 years he probably lost two in income terms because the course has been closed: no golf, no business.
Golf clubs and their pros are linked in many ways that are mutually beneficial but perhaps the key one that a growth in membership is the key to the future wellbeing of both parties.