Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Golf 2017: No surrender

By Spencer Campbell

At the 64th PGA Merchandise Show in January, more than 1,000 golf companies showed off the latest gear — everything from Titleist’s newest balls to a skee ball–inspired practice green. The trade show in Orlando, Fla., brought out celebrities popular with golfers — including the fellas from The Golf Channel’s Morning Drive, who broadcasted live — as well as celebs recognizable to all sports enthusiasts, such as baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. According to PGA estimates, more than 40,000 golf-industry insiders flooded the convention center in search of the best new clubs, innovative technology and helpful services.

Among them was Jerry Hogge, 70, director of the PGA Golf Management program at Methodist University in Fayetteville. Hogge heads to the show every year to hobnob with PGA professionals and golf bigwigs who might have an internship or permanent job for one of his students. That devotion to networking is one of the reasons why every single graduate from Methodist’s program since 1989 has landed a job. Part of the business school, the program prepares students for a career in the golf industry, whether as a pro at a golf course or working for one of the sport’s big manufacturers. “It’s one of the top programs out there,” says Jeff Abbot, executive director of the Carolinas section of the PGA. “I’ve worked with a number of Methodist graduates, and they’re always the best in the business.”

In 2017, Hogge again pressed the flesh. But he seemed much more excited about a different aspect of the show, when about 120 Monarch alumni ascended to the fourth floor of the convention center for a festive mixer. They had a lot to celebrate: For the first time, a Methodist grad, Michael Jacobs, was recognized as a PGA Top 100 golf instructor. Ten more were named to the Top 40 Under 40 list. “We recognized them all,” Hogge says. “We gave them all Christmas ornaments with the PGA logo on them. It was really attractive.”

What isn’t pretty is the current state of the golf industry. Notably absent from the merchandise show this year were any new irons, drivers, putters or balls from Nike Inc. After incurring an 8.2% drop in its golf sales for the year ending May 2016, the Beaverton, Ore., athletic-goods behemoth announced it would stop manufacturing clubs and golf balls. What’s worse: Nike’s main competitor, Germany-based Adidas AG, doesn’t plan to take advantage of the vacuum. It’s looking to sell its TaylorMade and Adams brands.

Club-makers aren’t the only ones struggling. From 2011 to 2016, the combined revenue of golf courses, both private and public, increased a paltry 1% to $23 billion, according to a report by IBISWorld, a market-research firm. “Overambitious development resulted in some course closures and waning revenue over the five years to 2016,” the report notes, “but the industry’s long-term challenges concern how it will broaden the sport’s appeal to new players.” The hardships of the golf industry were apparent in Orlando. “I personally felt there were not as many vendors,” Hogge says. “I didn’t think the crowd was as large.”

Entering his fourth decade at the helm at Methodist, which enrolls about 2,400, perhaps no one in North Carolina has filled more vacancies in golf than Hogge. Proximity to Pinehurst, about an hour’s drive from Fayetteville, helps attract prospective students, Hogge says. (It also attracts hotshot golfers: Methodist has won 25 NCAA Division III women’s golf championships and 11 men’s.) But nowadays, with the sport on the slide, is he just shepherding grads into an industry that isn’t growing? Hogge doesn’t think so. “The game of golf is healthy. The business of golf might be a little sick. But it’s going to come back, and it’s going to be extremely successful.”

• • •

Hogge didn’t come by his love of golf through birth. His grandfather was a farmer in the southeastern Virginia town of Poquoson, where he raised vegetables and tended an apple orchard. In the wintertime, the family mined the York River for oysters. “Golf was a game that in my mind was only played by those of wealth.” In 1964, Hogge enrolled at Elon College (now Elon University) to play football for the Fighting Christians (now Phoenix). While in school, a suitemate challenged him to a round of golf. “I told him I could beat him at anything he did,” Hogge says. The showdown occurred at Shamrock Golf Club in nearby Burlington. His competitor shot something close to 72. Hogge finished with a 126.

Hogge went on to graduate school to study exercise physiology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, then took a teaching position at what is now Kennesaw State University. But he grew disillusioned with higher education when administrators asked him to raise a student’s grade, he says. He’d become friends with an assistant pro at the local country club named Larry Nelson, who would go on to win three major events on the PGA Tour.

“I couldn’t play a lick,” Hogge says. “I knew that I loved teaching, and I figured I could learn to teach this game.” So Hogge left his teaching post and became an assistant pro at country clubs in Maryland. Eventually, he and some partners ran the golf and ski operations at Canaan Valley Resorts in Davis, W.Va. They sold their business in the early 1980s, just before Methodist launched its golf management program.

Founded in 1986, Methodist’s program was the first such course of study in the state. N.C. State University and Campbell University now offer similar programs accredited by the PGA. Methodist, which opened in 1960 as a venture of Cumberland County residents and the United Methodist Church, contacted Hogge about becoming the founding director. “I came down here and interviewed. Didn’t get the job. They contacted me the next year and asked me to come back. I came back and didn’t get the job.” Evidently, Hogge kept asking how much the gig paid, and the school’s president didn’t appreciate the query.

Finally, Hogge was hired in 1987. He had five explicit goals: Every student would rewrite his or her résumé at the end of each semester, Hogge would guarantee a job for every student who came to Methodist, he would build a golf course, the program would be accredited by the PGA, and administrators would visit each student twice during internships to bolster Methodist’s networking arm. Thirty years later, Hogge has accomplished each goal.

Perhaps most important to Methodist’s success, however, is how hard Hogge advocates for students who have long left the program. A member of the school’s golf team, Marianne Zabbo graduated from Methodist in 2001 and landed an assistant pro position at a club in Bethesda, Md. After jobs in Connecticut and New York, she decided she wanted to pursue merchandising for a large resort or country club. When she learned that California-based Pebble Beach Co. was looking for a buyer for women’s apparel, “[Hogge] was probably one of the first people I called,” Zabbo says. Hogge contacted his network to put in a good word for his former student. Without Methodist’s sterling reputation, Zabbo adds, Pebble Beach, which eventually hired her, probably wouldn’t have noticed her application.

All told, about 1,100 students have graduated from the Methodist program. Some now lead the most prestigious courses in the world, from Baltusrol Golf Club near New York City, site of the 2016 PGA Championship, to Pittsburgh’s Oakmont Country Club, host of the 2016 U.S. Open. “If I had the money to visit every graduate, maybe see their golf course, play nine holes, have lunch,” Hogge says, “it would be the experience of experiences.”

• • •

Despite its successes, Methodist can’t escape the current doldrums of the golf industry. In 2007, the university bought a controlling stake in King’s Grant Golf and Country Club, which is about a mile northwest of the campus. Methodist already boasted an on-campus course, but it sought more golf holes in order to grow its program. After years of losses, though, Methodist closed the course in September and sold it. Enrollment in the program has slid from a peak of 345 in the mid-2000s to 180 now as the PGA has added more accredited programs, according to Hogge.

Abbot, of the Carolinas PGA, believes golf’s declining participation represents a cultural shift. “Gone are the days when the head of the household leaves for a few hours to go play golf. We’re turning toward engaging the whole family.” One way to do that is through the PGA Junior League, which is modeled after Little League baseball. Kids age 13 and under get a uniform with their number on the back and play in teams. Last year, 2,000 young golfers participated in the Carolinas PGA section; Abbot hopes to get 6,000 this year.

But even if the game never touches its previous heights, Hogge knows golf will endure. Methodist recently launched a fundraising campaign to put the program on sounder footing. Phase one will spend $1.2 million on increasing the size of the department’s building, phase two will invest $1 million in the on-campus course, and the final phase will fill an endowment.

“It might be a new normal,” he says of the golf industry, “but the Titleists and the Callaways and the Pings of the world, they’re going to survive. The Oakmonts and the Augustas and those exclusive private clubs, they’re going to survive.” He doesn’t say it, but if Hogge has his way, Methodist will make that list, too.

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