"Intentionality" - The Sea Island Training Experience

February 5, 2015
by Brian Dobak

What sets apart the best from the rest? From March 2007 to October 2010, I had the privilege to work at Sea Island Golf Club as an assistant golf professional. There are many great golf facilities to learn about the club professional business, but I can't imagine there being a better place to learn than Sea Island Golf Club, and I'm going to tell you why. But I am also going to use the experience to show you, in my opinion, what sets apart the best from the rest in not just the golf business, but any business or organization involving people. With the experience 4 years behind me, I feel like am able to confidently and objectively harken back to those good ol' days and clearly give an honest assessment of the experience.

Located on Saint Simons Island, Georgia, Sea Island Golf Club is a 54-hole private resort golf club that is a part of the Sea Island Resort on Sea Island, Georgia, about an hour south of Savannah. When I interviewed with the Director of Golf, Brannen Veal, I distinctly remember him advising me not to get to attached. It wasn't long before I learned why he said that. My travels have took me to many places and the unique beauty and southern charm of Saint Simons Island and Sea Island Golf Club are unparalleled in the country. I quickly found myself getting attached and not wanting to leave. It seemed to me that for assistant professionals, Sea Island Golf Club was not a destination, rather it was a stop along the way to something else. But if you're not careful, you can easily get complacent and want to stay in this amazing place for the rest of your life. Rightfully so, the leadership there had ways to know if you're getting too comfortable, and if they think you are, they'll let you know for your own good.

Why is the Sea Island experience set apart from others? It doesn't hurt to play on some amazing golf courses like the Seaside, Plantation, and Retreat courses or practice at the Sea Island Golf Performance Center which sits literally right beside the Atlantic Ocean. It also doesn't hurt to at least have the possibility to play Ocean Forest Golf Club or Frederica Golf Club. But the playing and practice privileges were only icing on the cake.

Here is why the Sea Island experience sets itself apart from others. When I was there, they expected to have you there for no more than 3 years. Within those three years, they heavily invest in you. It's not a passive investment where they just rely on the day-to-day nuances and activities and call it an "investment". They invest in you with intentionality, honestly assessing you and learning what your strengths and weaknesses are. They take the next step by putting your strengths into play but also giving you the experience needed to improve your weaknesses. They also look at every component of the golf operation and assess how they can intentionally use it to help develop an assistant professional. Intentionality is key. What does this intentionality look like practically?

The merchandising operation is a multi-pro shop operation with outlets at The Lodge and at the Retreat clubhouse. It is a multi-million dollar operation and because it consists of more than one outlet, that dynamic provides for unique challenges to learn from. The Lodge Pro Shop was designed by Ralph Lauren himself so you're stepping into a place where the bar is high. Across the board, the merchandising is meticulous with a high level of attention to detail. Shirts have to be folded a very certain way, mannequins have to be presented in a very particular way. If you're not used to that, then you won't understand it in the beginning, but it won't take long before you begin to understand. The merchandising operation operated on a rotating basis meaning one year you would be assigned to a particular area of the pro shop and a particular set of vendors, the next year you would have a different area and different vendors. Because of these rotations, you never get too comfortable.

The tournament operations component of the club is fast-paced. The members of the club have a comprehensive schedule of events. Depending on when you arrive on the scene, and what your previous experiences are, you would at some point be assigned to a weekly member group like the Sea Island Seniors, the Mens Golf Association (MGA), or the Sea Island Ladies Golf Association (SILGA), or the infamous Seigler Group. You would also be assigned to a major member event like a member-guest, member-member, Fall Classic, etc. Tournament operations also operated on a rotating basis, meaning one year you would be responsible for the MGA, the next year SILGA, and the next year the Seniors. Likewise, one year you would operate a member-guest, another year a different event, and so on. In addition to the member event schedule, multiple small and large golf group outings are almost a daily occurrence, each with their own particular needs. These small and large golf groups (16-96+ players) are expected to be given first-class, personal, hands-on attention by the assistant professional assigned to them. This put a high premium on multi-tasking and organization.

From an instructional standpoint, The Sea Island Golf Performance Center gives assistant professionals an opportunity to teach various clinics, and give as many private lessons as you can manage without compromising your primary duties. One year, we even experimented with allowing assistants to do nothing but teach for a full week once per month to learn what it's like to teach on such a regular basis. In whatever instruction you partook in, you were expected to utilize the latest video analysis technology in your instruction. An assistant professional also had the opportunity to observe from four of the top-50 instructors in the world in Jack Lumpkin, Todd Anderson, Mike Shannon, and Gale Peterson, as well as a slew of other top rated golf instructors in their own right. Not only that, but it was a welcome and embraced practice by the instructors. It wasn't just a "watch them and then get out of their way and leave" type activity, rather you would actually be encouraged to dialogue with them, relate with them, ask questions and bounce ideas around with them.

If an assistant needs more experience and the right opportunity presents itself, the leadership at Sea Island Golf Club allows one of their assistant professionals to do a 6 to 7 month internship at a facility elsewhere in the country to continue to develop as a professional. The leadership at Sea Island Golf Club are highly connected and they parlay their network into a great avenue to develop their assistants. There is a sacrifice involved when letting one of your staff members leave, however the benefit to the assistant professional outweighs the cost to the club. I did not have the opportunity to do this but I was fortunate to cheer on a few of my colleagues that did. One of them went to Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey. Another colleague went to Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. 

Additionally, the leadership at Sea Island Golf Club puts in place the Sea Island Apprentice Training Program, a formalized and structured 3-level or 3-year training program which walks it's assistants through all facets of a golf operation. In addition to completing tasks and hitting checkpoints, management staff and the world-renowned instructional staff lead seminars for the assistants professionals, giving them an opportunity to dialogue over various topics relevant to their respective position in the golf industry.

The Sea Island experience also intentionally teaches leadership. The golf operation was a well-oiled machine. Being a part of a well-oiled machine oils you up as well. The leadership there led by example and they set the tone very well. Everything trickled down from the top. Everyone knew the expectations and were expected to perform them. And this was all under a mutual respect for one another from top to bottom. We all worked toward common goals in a very cohesive manner. This was all something I hadn't experienced much of until I got to Sea Island.

The leadership at Sea Island Golf Club allowed you to lead people yourself, literally. It's not the kind of passive empowerment where you can only lead with a supervisor by your side and they call it "leadership". They hire the right people, trust them, cut the leash, and let you loose to lead, make mistakes, and learn. At some point, you can expect to be assigned to a particular staff within the operation, including the outside operations staff, the starter/ranger staff, or the pro shop staff. Leading a department of staff will include scheduling, policies and procedures, accountability, running meetings, etc. By nature of your relationship with the particular staff, you will have opportunities to motivate and discipline when necessary. This is invaluable experience for an assistant professional striving to become a Head Professional. 

Another aspect they really tried to drive home is that your experience and what you learn while there really depends on how far you're willing to go. All of the components are there at Sea Island, the question you have to ask yourself is, "How far am I willing to go to accomplish what I want to accomplish?" They gave us a lot of space as I rarely worked a 50 hour week or a 12-hour day, however with that space, they trust you and expect you to take initiative and utilize that time to hang around the Performance Center and observe instructors, build a client-base of private instruction, play golf with members and guests, and just immersing yourself in the experience and being around as an ambassador of the club.

The biggest thing I learned though was SERVICE. Coming from the northeast, and at the maturity level I was at, I personally had no clue what true "service" and the words "southern hospitality" meant. Serving the members and guests is the number one priority at Sea Island Golf Club and you are expected to serve them in a genuine and absolutely first-class fashion. I believe the term "service" gets thrown around a lot. Many clubs say it, but it's another thing to actually put your money where your mouth is and do it. Sea Island does just that. I have come across very few facilities in my experiences where they put their money where their mouth is. At Sea Island, it is true, genuine, "southern hospitality" in every sense of the phrase. I believe they achieve it because they intentionally create a working environment not where you feel like you "have to" serve, rather they build a working environment where everyone "wants to" serve. Like "I get to do this", not "I've got to do this".

Do you see the intentionality in all of this? Intentionality is key. I know this kind of experience isn't exclusive to Sea Island Golf Club. I'm know there are facilities in the country that offer an educational environment in their own unique right. Every facility has a unique set of components that can be parlayed into an educational experience for it's assistant professionals. It is my personal belief that in any organization involving people, the level of intentionality in the leaderships approach to developing it's staff as people and professionals is what sets apart the best from the rest. If you're a Head Professional reading this and you aren't intentional in the investment you give to assistant professionals, then I would recommend that you get out from behind your desk and begin the process. You may not have the top teachers, the high capacity pro shops and the resources like Sea Island, but you've got all the general components sitting right there in front of you. Use them. Start looking at every nook and cranny of your operation and ask yourself, "How can I use this component to help my staff become better people and better professionals?" If you're an assistant professional reading this and you aren't fortunate enough to obtain a job at a facility like Sea Island, I don't think it's a stretch at all to ask your Head Professional if you can spearhead the process in bringing a system of intentionality into your current operation.

Intentionality. It's not rocket science, but it is rare.