SBJ/February 13-19, 2017/In Depth

A job in golf: ‘Why they came here’

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FERRIS STATE: GOLF


Aerial view of Ferris State’s Katke Clubhouse, putting green and 10th tee box.
Photos by: BILL BITZINGER / FERRIS STATE (4)
When Aaron Waltz was a boy, his parents bought a home on a golf course, even though neither of them played golf. He asked for clubs for his birthday and, before long, was knocking balls around the backyard on a small course his mother made from soup cans.

He couldn’t wait to turn 13 so he could caddie. Once he got a taste, he knew he wanted to work as a club pro.
“How do I become you,” he asked the club pro one day during a break while caddying.

“You go to Ferris State,” the pro said.

Nearly 25 years later, Waltz chuckles at the matter-of-factness of that answer. He indeed went to Ferris State, where he was accepted into the Michigan school’s PGA Golf Management program, one of only four such programs in the country at that time. Graduating in 2000 with both a B.S. in marketing and certification as a Class A PGA pro, Waltz was on his way to a career in golf.

Six years ago, after climbing the ladder as an assistant and then head pro, he returned to Ferris State, located about 80 miles northwest of Lansing, to run the university golf course while earning his MBA. When the director’s role opened in the golf management program in 2011, Waltz accepted it, welcoming the opportunity to build on a program that, since its start in 1975, has provided a pipeline to a career in the golf industry.

PGA-accredited golf management programs

Ferris State (1975)
Mississippi State (1985)
New Mexico State (1987)
Penn State (1990)
Campbell (1999)
Coastal Carolina (1999)
Methodist (1999)
Clemson (2001)
Idaho (2002)
Nevada-Las Vegas (2002)
Colorado-Colorado Springs (2003)
Nebraska (2004)
N.C. State (2005)
Florida Gulf Coast (2005)
Sam Houston State (2005)
Eastern Kentucky (2006)
Central Oklahoma (2008)
Maryland Eastern Shore (2008)

“When you have a 100 percent placement rate in the field of study, as we have every year going back to the inception of the program, that’s huge to parents, to students, to universities — to anyone involved,” said Waltz, who in the coming months will sort through queries from about 300 employers vying for access to a pool of about 75 interns. “When students finish their 4 1/2 years, they know they’ll have a job in golf. And that’s why they came here.”

Today, Ferris State is one of 18 U.S. colleges and universities accredited by the PGA of America, joined by Penn State, New Mexico State, Mississippi State, Clemson, Nebraska and a dozen others. Ferris State was the first when it launched in 1975.

In order to receive a PGA-accredited golf management degree, students must complete academic requirements that most frequently match those of a business administration major, and pass a playing ability test required for certification as a PGA instructor.

Because of the playing ability requirement, the PGA recommends programs not take applicants with a handicap higher than 12. With an annual backlog of applicants, Ferris requires an 8 handicap. Two weeks after they arrive on campus, Waltz takes freshmen onto the course to test their playing ability. He flags those who might be borderline to work with player development coaches. Those who continue to struggle are funneled toward other majors, with an opportunity to minor in club management if they want to pursue a golf job that doesn’t require PGA certification.

“At Ferris, we want to bet on success,” Waltz said. “I’m honest with them about what’s required, both in terms of playing ability and academic ability. If they can’t pass that playing test, we’re not going to kid them. We have a tremendous amount of success placing our students because employers know they are well-prepared.”

Program director Aaron Waltz teaches advanced teaching and player development.
The most common path for PGA golf management graduates is as a teaching pro, so along with business classes that focus on topics such as food and beverage and merchandise sales, Ferris is fully outfitted to help students develop as instructors and coaches. Along with the golf course’s outdoor range, students have access to an indoor teaching facility that includes four hitting bays, a putting green and advanced swing analysis technology. Fundraising is underway on a $4 million indoor training facility that will include 10 heated bays, putting greens and a TrackMan video instruction system, as well as housing the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.

More than 1,000 of the approximately 1,800 Ferris golf management alumni are active PGA members working in the industry, Waltz said. Among them are Bill Nault, vice president of Marriott Golf; Joe Goodrich, executive vice president of Billy Casper Golf; and Jeremy Beck, vice president of GolfTec, the nation’s largest employer of PGA professionals.

Students Joseph Bohen and Charlie Nye examine a turf grass sample with professor Anna Rizzo.
Golf management emerged as a course of study in 1975, spurred by a meeting between a business-minded club pro named Don Perne and a friend who had become president at the college then known as Ferris Institute. Perne believed that golf clubs needed not only teachers, but managers who understood the principles of retail and food and beverage. The school was attracted to the idea of a program that might help set it apart.

Working with the PGA’s education department, they built a course of study that would enable students to receive both a bachelor’s degree and certification as a PGA teaching pro, which would enable them to fill both the traditional coaching role of a golf pro while handling the then-emerging business responsibilities.

“All those years ago, they saw that the PGA professional was really missing that business side of the industry,” Waltz said. “They were great players. Great teachers. They could run tournaments. But as golf became a big dollar sport, they were missing some of the skills that they needed.”

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