By Sean Fairholm, Global Golf Post/Biz
Shaun McElroy reached an impasse.
There wasn’t necessarily one moment that convinced him to take a lengthy look into his work-life balance and the role PGA professionals serve in an industry that has systemically treated its club pros without common decency. For the 38-year-old head professional at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Illinois, an accumulation of frustration occurred over a long period of time.
One of the first times it hit him was in 2013, when he couldn’t attend the wedding of his wife’s sister. McElroy, then the director of golf at a previous club, had to stay behind because six women were competing in the ladies’ club championship and his general manager would not let him travel to Seattle for the weekend. He was a first-year director of golf and felt the pressure of protecting an ascending career, but the price was sacrificed memories which he never can get back.
“I felt like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ ” McElroy said. “I didn’t know what I was doing there.”
Afterward, he called his mentor, an older club pro who had been in the business for decades. The mentor didn’t feel bad for him. He talked about how many weddings, funerals, birthdays and graduations he once missed in favor of marathon days in the pro shop. The mentor explained that his two kids were purposefully born on Mondays – hospital staff induced his wife to give birth because that was his one day off from work.
McElroy thought of his own two children, who were born when he was at his previous employer. Plans were made so they could be born in the winter because of the unlikelihood of getting time off during the summer season. McElroy also tells of a situation that occurred several years ago with a close friend of his that is in the business. His friend, a caddiemaster, took a few days off when his daughter was born right around one of the club’s biggest events of the year. The head professional to whom he reported wasn’t pleased: “Geez, who had the baby, him or his wife?” the pro said to another member of the staff. “Why isn’t he back at work?”
Similar sentiments have been uttered to club pros across the country. Sometimes it’s their boss at the club, and sometimes it’s from disapproving members.
“That’s the kind of crap that some of us have gone through,” McElroy said. “That would never fly if you were working at AT&T or a bank or something like that.”
McElroy eventually found a home at a supportive club that understands the difficult balance PGA pros have to manage – a place that bucks troublesome trends in the industry. But before McElroy could fully embrace a healthy work-life balance, he had to wrestle with his own preconceived notions of what being a golf professional means.
He had subscribed to a work-above-all-else mentality. He did it because others had done it before him, and it was a draining experience. And, as it turns out, McElroy is far from alone in this struggle.
In the past four years, the number of head pros and assistant pros has decreased by 10 percent as they flee the business for a more reasonable work-life balance. In many cases, the departed pros are younger assistant professionals who no longer could sustain a life of working every weekend, fighting through shoddy living conditions, managing a shoestring budget and being asked to handle clerical tasks that have little to do with the PGA certification they earned. Of those who were elected to membership from 2009 to 2018 – presumably a time period when mostly millennials were entering the industry – more than a quarter of them are no longer PGA members. Annual pay for assistants has risen to an average of roughly $53,000, but it’s nowhere near enough to justify what they are going through. Head professionals make an average of more than $100,000 per year, but there is no denying the sacrifice required to attain that salary.
It’s no surprise, then, that recruiting to become a golf professional has become exponentially more difficult. The total number of students in Professional Golf Management schools has nearly been cut in half during the past 20 years. The number of PGM schools has dwindled from 20 to 18 as major programs such as those at Arizona State and Florida State have closed shop. Clemson recently decided to do the same, so the number will fall to 17.
The problem of work-life balance sits at the core of everything, and it’s only become more exacerbated during COVID-19 as, according to the National Golf Foundation, overall rounds rose 14 percent in 2020 and grew an additional 5 percent in 2021. There are fewer professionals trying to take care of more golfers, and the pros are stressed to the max.
“I don’t know what the divorce rate is for head pros, but it has to be very high,” McElroy said.
The final straw for McElroy came last year. He moved on from an assistant pro who needed more structure and attention than McElroy could offer him, so McElroy went searching for a new assistant. The pay was a little on the lower side, and he couldn’t get any bites. As the months went on throughout the off-season, it became apparent that the problem would have to be fixed unconventionally. McElroy decided to have a couple of caddies, who are employees of the club, open the pro shop early in the morning and sometimes close the pro shop as well.
That decision worked out well and mitigated the loss of an assistant, but McElroy had another issue: His female assistant, McKenzee Pane, got married and was leaving with her husband, who had received a head pro job out of the area. Now two assistant positions were open.
But before Pane left, something else happened that opened McElroy’s eyes even further. As is common at many clubs with seasonal staff, his assistants were on a schedule during which they were considered employees for only 10 months of the year. In February and March, the assistants did not receive benefits and typically opted not to pay for their own COBRA insurance for those months because of the cost and their relatively low salaries. Pane got sick during that period and had to be hospitalized. Fortunately, she spent part of that time on her parents’ insurance because she hadn’t turned 26, and then she was able to go onto her husband’s insurance.
It was a wake-up call. One of McElroy’s best employees nearly faced a life-changing amount of bills to pay. If Pane had worked at the club as a bartender or janitor, for example, she would have been given benefits for all 12 months because those positions were not seasonal.
This wasn’t really the club’s fault, as it’s a common issue with seasonal assistants. But McElroy wanted change, and North Shore was willing to listen.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Here we have an employee who has been nothing but a rock star,’ ” McElroy said. “I mean, she came in as an intern and then she grew up, she matured, she was running events, she was running ladies’ clinics, she was teaching a ton … everybody loved her. And if she was 26 years old and unmarried, she could have had a monumental disaster with having to pay health-insurance bills. Or she wasn’t going to go into the hospital to get treated.”
McElroy went to the club board seeking help with multiple problems. They understood the challenge and promptly allowed the creation of 12-month positions with significant increases in pay. The salary for a senior assistant increased nearly 40 percent, and the board increased the salary for Pane’s old job by 25 percent.
What he then found was that only part of the issue had been addressed.
“When I’m interviewing people, I was kind of still finding out that it doesn’t really matter,” McElroy said. “It’s not all about the pay.”
It was about the opportunity for a balanced life, something young people generally value more than previous generations did.
McElroy recognized that the utilization of caddies and outside service members in the shop could open the door for assistants to take one weekend off per month during the busy season. Their workdays would be 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and sometimes those hours would be shortened.
That made a difference.
One of the assistants whom he eventually hired had been out of the business. Previously, he had worked 80 hours per week open-to-close at a course in New Jersey and then moved closer to home to work at a club in Illinois where the situation didn’t improve much.
“He’s missing Cubs games, missing birthdays, weddings, that kind of stuff,” McElroy said. “And he’s like, ‘I’m sick of it. I don’t want to do this.’ And he ended up quitting.”
The assistant went to work at a gym before happening across the North Shore job posting that promised a modernized work-life balance. He began at the club on May 3. Three weeks in, he was given the weekend off to go to Tulsa for the recent PGA Championship.
“I kind of had this little epiphany that we need to treat people like people,” McElroy said. “My mentality shifted a few years back where I was on the brunt end of having to work just for the sake of working … there were times when I was sitting around with assistants, having chipping contests with them because we felt like we had to be there at the club no matter what. I enjoyed being with my assistants, but those were times that I would have chosen to be with my wife and kids.”
That’s the lesson McElroy wants to impart now. Club pros should be allowed to have a life outside of the club. Recently, he went to his board and asked for a week off in August, a busy part of the schedule. The request was immediately granted. For the first time in a long time, he’s taking a summer vacation with his family.
Without a welcoming and understanding club such as North Shore, there’s no telling where McElroy would be. He’s happy there, and, to put it bluntly, he wouldn’t be happy at a lot of clubs across the country.
Last week on a slow morning at the club, McElroy was about to head to work when he asked his son whether he wanted a golf lesson. They got to the club at 8:30 a.m., and his wife picked up their son an hour later – in between, the two bonded on the back of the range.
“Working at North Shore has been eye-opening, the realization of knowing I can be a dad and a golf pro at the same time,” McElroy said. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”
It’s a small step toward club pros feeling like people.
If they do, one of the golf industry’s biggest hurdles could be cleared.