Being a golf professional comes with its fair share of trials and tribulations, but also some exceptional benefits that make for a fruitful career.
By Robert Rodriguez :: Photography by Kelsey Grudle
There are certain nicknames in golf that have a certain prestige associated with it. These monikers are hard-earned and demonstrate that golfers often dubbed them command respect every time they tee it up.
Stick. Money. Player.
There are countless others that highlight how good of a golfer one is. Yet, when someone is called a “pro” there’s some extra clout attached to it — like a badge of honor or achieving Tier One status among the playing membership at the club.
For those on the Cordillera Ranch golf staff who are called pros, the name is more than just an official title. Being called a professional is symbolic of the passion they have for their profession and helping make the game more enjoyable for the members.
“Golf is such an interesting sport because it connects people from different backgrounds, tax brackets and cultures,” says Director of Golf Corey Roberson. “My job is simple, to make sure that everyone who wants to play golf has a good time.”
For Roberson, his passion stems from being around the game throughout his childhood. His father operated Van Zandt Country Club, so Roberson saw firsthand what life is like as a golf professional. The early morning alarms, the long hours, spending holidays and weekends at work versus home.
“Growing up, we ate our Thanksgiving meal in my dad’s golf shop and celebrated birthdays on the nearest Monday,” he said. “It just seemed normal to me.”
One aspect of the job that resonated with Roberson was how his father built relationships and positively enhanced the culture at the club. Striking up a conversation in passing, playing with members on the course, making sure everyone has a pleasing experience either in the golf shop or on the course — those friendly attributes are just as effective today for Corey.
“When I told him I wanted to get into the golf business he said, ‘make sure you maintain your connection to the game,’” Corey remembers. “That’s how you get to know people. The golf business is really a people business around the game of golf.”
Director of Instruction Bryan Gathright has made a nice career out of helping people through golf. Gathright started in the golf shop as an assistant at such noted clubs as PGA West and Oak Tree, where he was averaging 48 hours per week in the shop. He also was teaching a lot even though “teaching was not allowed during work time.” Yet, being on the range talking swing planes and impact zones became his passion.
He came to Texas to work alongside his mentor, the legendary Harvey Penick, before member Buddy Cook brought him to San Antonio to start up the La Cantera Golf Academy. Gathright came to Cordillera Ranch in 2016, and can be often seen on the practice tee or inside The Golf Performance Center. He’s still hustling — 12-hour days are typical — but professionally he’s never been happier.
“I’m the most excited I’ve ever been as an instructor,” says Gathright, who currently teaches 2020 Southern Amateur champion Mac Meissner, two-time Texas Junior Amateur champion Zach Heffernan and 2020 Texas State Open champ Mitchell Meissner. “The long hours don’t bother me — I view that as what you have to do to be successful. People pay good money for my time, so they deserve 100% of my time.”
Both Roberson and Gathright played college golf, and like many wannabe Tour players, found out quick that play-for-pay might not put food on the table. Head golf professional Jacques LeBlanc never sought out a career in playing, but aspired to be a golf professional. He befriended several golf pros growing up and admired what they did for the game.
However, LeBlanc chose a different path in becoming a golf professional than Roberson and Gathright.
There are two primary pathways that lead one to becoming a PGA member — the PGA Professional Golf Management (PGM) Associate Program and PGA Golf Management University Program. The PGM Associate Program begins with a background check, and then coursework that is broken down into levels and commonly referred to as the apprenticeship. Hopefuls must also pass an online qualifying test that consists of three courses: introduction to PGM and the golf profession, PGA history and constitution, and the Rules of Golf.
Then there’s the 36-hole Player Ability Test (PAT). To pass the PAT, one must achieve a 36-hole score within 15 shots of the course rating. According to the PGA of America, fewer than 20% of those taking the PAT achieve a passing score.
Currently, Player Development Coach Katie Dillard is a Level 3 apprentice, while both assistants Logan Davis and Michael Hunt are Level 1 apprentices. All three will be PGA members within a few years.
The PGA Golf Management University Program is a college degree program designed to attract and educate those who aspire to service all aspects of the industry. Offered at 18 universities worldwide, the University Program allows students to earn a degree in such areas as Marketing, Business Administration, Hospitality Administration, Recreation and Park Management, providing them with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the golf industry.
The only college in Texas to offer this program is Sam Houston State University, where LeBlanc attended. The program, administer by PGA Master Professional Dr. Rich Ballinger, laid the foundation for LeBlanc’s career as a golf professional, and helped him build a strong network of mentors and other golf professionals through required internships.
“Through the program I majored in General Business Administration and specialized in the PGA/PGM curriculum,” he says. “This not only consisted of the PGA Education program that all aspiring professionals go through, but included in-class instruction through Sam Houston State to expand upon the PGA’s curriculum. Classes like Turf Grass Management, Entrepreneurship and Retail Management were among the few that helped me enter the golf industry prepared.
“The most important part of the program were the required internship experiences,” LeBlanc adds. “I knew early on that private clubs were an avenue I wanted to pursue, but that was solidified during my internship experiences. I would highly recommend this program for anyone looking to pursue a career in any facet of the industry; it is not only for those who are wanting to become club professionals.”
Cordillera Ranch is chockfull of PGA golf professionals besides Roberson, Gathright and LeBlanc. Marc DeWall was the head golf professional and director of golf at Cordillera Ranch before he became the general manager in 2018. Throughout his illustrious career in the golf industry, DeWall has served on numerous committees for the Southern Texas PGA and has been a two-time president. Cordillera Ranch Realty Director of Sales Barry Denton also is a PGA member and was a teaching professional at Oak Hills CC and the head golf coach at the University of Texas-San Antonio before his career in real estate. In addition, Cordillera Ranch Realty’s John Kuhry is a PGA member.
All had to endure the long hours and low pay that comes with being a green professional, and all can look at those early experiences as catalysts for their many successes and promotions. The perks of the job also can be sweet for a golf professional — working outdoors, playing golf under the guise of work, no TPS reports or cubicles, and very few cookie-cutter days.
“I love the curve balls, even though at times they can catch you off-guard,” LeBlanc says. “The challenge and variety created through the diversity of tasks are extremely entertaining and make the job fun.”
As Roberson experienced growing up and LeBlanc is now dealing with as a new dad, the home life is very different for a golf professional. They’re not sliding down the dinosaur at 5 p.m., or spending all weekends and holidays with the family. That can take a toll on the family unless there’s an understanding of what the job entails.
“I’m super lucky that my wife, Colleen, understands what it means to work in the service business,” Roberson says. “We had that conversation early in our relationship and she’s always been supportive of me chasing my career because she respects how much it means to me. The spouse must be fully on board and supportive.”
Roberson adds that when he’s interviewing assistants, he always makes it a point to meet the spouse and make sure they understand what it means to work in the golf business. Unfortunately, the hours and effect it has on the family are among several deterrents that push people out of the golf business and into other professions. Gathright has seen it on the teaching side, and makes sure he devotes time in his schedule for himself and his family.
He also believes having a mentor helps a budding professional grow and prosper on the job. Gathright had Penick and Roberson had Cameron Doan, the longtime head golf professional at Preston Trail Golf Club in Dallas. For LeBlanc, he considers his mentors to be DeWall, Roberson and David Von Hoffmann, the director of golf at Spanish Oaks Golf Club in Bee Cave. These mentors showcase what to hone and master to excel personally, and how make a club or staff thrive once in a leadership role.
“I am a strong believer that for an assistant to grind and grow in the business they must maintain their love for playing and play as much as they can,” LeBlanc says. “This combined with having a strong mentor is the key to growing in the golf industry. If those two things are prevalent, I believe aspiring assistants can succeed in this industry.”
“Doan would always say, ‘you have to fully understand what you have and constantly try to make it better,’” Roberson adds. “I think that’s a great mindset for any leader. To be a great coach or leader, you must be an efficient communicator — regardless of industry, but especially in the golf business. You must clearly communicate to your team, boss, membership, and owners or board. Also, the ability to relate to each member in a unique way is a key skill for the person running a golf operation. The most successful leaders can get that skill to trickle down through their team.”
For Roberson, Gathright and LeBlanc, being called a pro pays homage to the physical and mental grinds they endured to get where they’re at today, and the passion that still burns in them to make golf a pleasurable experience for everyone they meet.
“It’s really no different than any other industry — you have to put in your time and work your way up,” Roberson says. “If you focus on the short-term, this business isn’t for you, but if you love the game — it can be very rewarding. You must be motivated by play and potential. Play refers to loving what you do. I love playing the game and being around the people who play it. The potential part is knowing that you are working towards something.
“If you lose that passion, the business just becomes a job.”