Monday, August 15, 2011

Teachable Moments

The marshal was just trying to do his job. It was how he did it that bothered me.

In the end, there were teachable moments for all of us.

Last weekend was my annual golf trip to the Rocky Mountains with my high school and college buddies. For the past four years, we’ve met in Denver and drove up to Summit County to play golf by day and poker by night. Beers and scotch are imbibed. Cigars are smoked. It’s guys being guys, a much-needed respite from our work lives.

The first hole at the Keystone River Course
drops 300 feet from tee box to fairway.
Our favorite track up there is the Keystone River Course, a quintessential mountain course with dramatic elevation changes and stunning views.

From the first tee shot (which drops three stories to the fairway) to the downhill-then-uphill 18th hole, the River Course offers more than enough “oohs and ahhs” to overcome any loose swings or balky putter action that may occur.

It’s a resort course, but it ain’t easy. Like all the tracks around Summit County, the River Course provides a stern test. It’s not terribly long, but the tree-lined fairways demand accuracy, and the myriad cross hazards, elevation changes and doglegs make club selection and sound judgment requisite for anyone hoping to stick close to par.

Designed by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry – the same guys who conjured Erin Hills in Wisconsin, site of this month’s U.S. Amateur and the 2017 U.S. Open – the Keystone River Course also features firm, deceivingly fast greens. They’re bentgrass, but there’s poana in them, too, so reading grain is critical, especially around the holes. Our group struggled with lag putts that rolled out well past the hole, which led to plenty of attempts that came up woefully short.

In past years, we played one round at the River Course and another somewhere else, like the club’s second 18-hole course, the Ranch or the nearby Raven Course. This year we played both rounds at the River Course.

We like it that much.

Which made the incidents with a particular course marshal all the more frustrating at the time. He was a genuinely nice guy; he took our photo the first day. He was knowledgeable about the course and seemed happy to help us.

On the second day, however, the same marshal twice overstepped his boundaries – at least in my opinion. In my group, we had two single-digit handicappers and two others who don’t play as much as they used to but can break 90 most days.

Andy thunders another huge
 drive into a postcard backdrop.
We all play fast, and the pace of play was pretty good for a Saturday. The group in front of us struggled a bit to keep their balls in play, but it wasn’t excessive. It’s surely a common issue at the tricky course; missing a fairway there can lead to a couple minutes of tracking down the ball (if you find it at all).

Don’t misunderstand. We weren’t agitated by the pace. We never complained about waiting. It was noon on a Saturday at a public course in a Colorado resort town.

Everyone there was on vacation, happy to be outside in the crisp, cool air. We were playing our favorite game on a course we love.

So it was a bit odd when the marshal showed up out of the blue and pushed my buddy Brett to take a drop on the sixth hole instead of letting him take a quick look in the heather grass where he hit his tee ball.

He was pushy about it. There’s just no other way to describe it.

A typical stunning view at
the Keystone River Course.
The same thing happened on the 14th hole. We waited on the tee box five or so minutes for the fairway to clear while the group in front stocked up on drinks from the cart girl. They were almost certainly out of range for our drives, but as resort guests, we were happy to error on the side of caution. We waited for them to clear out before we smacked our drives.

I happened to be playing well – just 4-over through 13 holes – but I yanked my drive way left. I reloaded a provisional and pulled that one, too.

A minute later, we’re driving up the fairway. I jumped out of the cart and started walking up the hill, into the trees, hopefully to find my ball, punch out and save par.

That’s when the marshal drove over and said, “I think it’s time you declare that ball lost and take a drop.”

I thought he was kidding. I literally had been looking for about 45 seconds. I told him as much.

A heated exchange followed. He said we waited way too long to tee off and were slowing down play. I asked if he wanted us to hit into the cart girl and group in the fairway. He said they were out of range. How could we know that for sure? The ball carries 10-15 yards farther at 9,000 feet above sea level. Andy and Lance both hit drives well over 300 yards during the round. He wanted us to take that chance and possibly injure someone?

Blood boiling, I went on to make double bogey. Still fuming, I doubled the next hole, too. Thankfully, I righted the ship with a couple pars coming in.

The two incidents got me thinking. Golf is losing more players than its gaining. Participation on the national level has been flat at best over the past 10 years. In a down economy, we’re all trying to spend less money. Golf is expensive. Fifteen years ago, the game was healthy. Thanks to Tiger Woods, more people than ever were playing and new golf courses popped up everywhere.

Now it seems like for every new course that opens, two or three others shut down.

Jason stares down an iron shot.
Pace of play is important, but when customers feel forcibly pushed around (especially when waiting on the group ahead of them all day), it sends the wrong message. We felt like the marshal wanted us to hurry up and get off the course, rather than enjoy the glorious day and amazing, scenic golf course.

It must be mentioned here, however, that the staff at the River Course has been attentive, friendly and welcoming ever since we started playing there four years ago. They always take great care of us – from loading up our clubs upon arrival to asking how we played and cleaning them at the end of the day.

It compelled me to call Steve Corneiller, the course’s general manager, when I got back to Texas. Told he had the day off, I left a voice message. Within two hours, Steve called back. I detailed the situation from my perspective, and Steve couldn’t have been friendlier in response.

He explained the club had some new employees and that he would seek out the marshal in question to review proper procedures.

“We want to be diplomatic more than anything,” Steve said. “It’s about being sincere and helpful.”

Those are the two best words to describe Steve’s attitude. Sincere. Helpful. He heard me out in full and thanked me for the perspective.

“It’s always helpful for me and my staff to learn from these incidences so we can improve upon our services, and coach our employees,” Steve wrote in a follow-up email.

I wasn’t without blame, either. My teachable moment consisted of realizing – in the heat of the moment – that the marshal just wanted us to keep moving. He wasn’t picking on us. There was no need to get so defensive. I could have just taken the drop like he suggested. No big deal.

Talking with Steve left me optimistic about the people who work tirelessly to ensure quality golf experiences. Course operators like Steve (he called me back on his day off, remember) and countless others here in Texas understand that they are in the customer service business. Golfers need to feel welcomed and taken care of while spending their hard-earned money.

Those of us in the industry need more people playing golf. Our jobs depend on it. Most of all, we need the ones who are playing now to keep playing. We need them to return to the places they love most and support their favorite facilities. For my high school group, that’s the Keystone River Course.

We’ll be back there this time next year.

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