New degree program graduates golf course business managers

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MENOMONIE, Wis. - The first class of students in a new Bachelor of Science in Golf Enterprise Management program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout will graduate this spring - just a year and a half after the program started.

How did the students complete a four-year program in a year and a half?

They were senior transfer students, said program director Thomas Franklin.

''As soon as they heard about this program, they dropped what they were doing and transferred here. They came in the door and told me things like, 'I'm graduating with a business degree and I'm looking at a career of selling pants at Macy's and I can't stand it!''' Franklin said with a laugh. Around 23 students will comprise the Class of 2007.

The new GEM program has grown quickly during its short life. One hundred and thirty students are currently enrolled, with 50 freshmen coming in September.

The program was developed in response to the National Golf Course Owners Association's request for a program that would turn out highly qualified managers with cutting-edge skills in the business world.

The four-year program includes the general requirements of a Bachelor of Science degree, with comprehensive courses in business, customer service, food and beverage and retail management, plus a heavy dose of golf-specific content in golf course marketing, customer development and retention, golf course design, turf management, and turf and the environment.

''The National Golf Course Owner's Association asked us to consider developing the program because we already had a good reputation in hospitality, tourism and business, so they knew we could put up a program without too much additional course work; and additionally, they were interested in trying to create a new type of manager within the golf industry,'' Franklin said.

The Professional Golf Association of America, perhaps better known as the PGA, has prescribed curriculum in around 17 American colleges that are called professional golf management colleges, Franklin said. But their primary orientation is on teaching and playing golf.

''Those students are going to college to become golf professionals. Our program is to become a general manager or a business manager somewhere within the golf industry, so our emphasis is not on teaching golf or playing golf, but it's the business side of golf, and we're really very unique in the world with our program,'' Franklin said.

Franklin, who is the head of the university's Psychology department, said he wrote the curriculum after a local golf pro who was hired for the job could not do it.

''I did some research studies on the golf industry business in the Midwest. Psychologists will often do research studies, so I got involved in that; and I'm an avid golfer, so when my dean came to me and said, 'We need somebody who can get the job done in a hurry,' I was interested in doing it. I'm not actually teaching in the program, but I'm administering it. It's very exciting and it's a lot of fun,'' Franklin said.

The program is not intended to turn out golf course superintendents, but people who are able to manage and understand their needs, to know about safety, and to make the best use of the terrain.

''In my opinion, people who run golf courses need to be ecologically aware to begin with,'' Franklin said.

The professors and lecturers are all highly qualified in their fields, with years of experience in the golf industry.

The program also offers an online option for students who cannot attend campus classes.

Students spend two summers as interns working at golf courses so that when they graduate they have both a good academic background and some practical experience, Franklin said.

So far, students have completed internships at golf courses in Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.

''We're slowly reaching out, but summer internships are typically low-wage jobs so the students can't afford to pay too much in rent, so most of them look for summer employment at a place where they have a friend or relative to live with. Some courses supply housing for interns. They tend to be the more upscale and affluent courses,'' Franklin said.

Franklin is also reaching out to American Indian students.

GEM and Native students make an ''ideal match''

There are no American Indian students currently enrolled in the GEM program, but Franklin said he wants to encourage them to attend.

''It seems to me our GEM degree and Native American students are an ideal match. With so many tribally owned golf courses, it just seems to me there's a natural fit; but from the best I can discover in Wisconsin and Minnesota, all the tribally owned courses are being run by white men,'' Franklin said. One tribe actually went overseas and hired a man from Scotland to run its golf course, he added.

Franklin said he visited six tribally owned golf courses in Wisconsin and one in Minnesota, trying to recruit Native students.

''Some of the tribal leadership seems to be content to outsource management, and so far I haven't had much luck convincing them to send me students who could then go home and do the management on their own lands,'' he said.

It could be simply that tribal leaders and students outside of the Wisconsin area don't yet know about the GEM degree. The university is a member of the Native American Tourism Association of Wisconsin, a coalition of tribes that promotes tourism to the area, but unless students and tribes are tuned in to what NATOW is doing in Wisconsin ''they probably don't know about us,'' Franklin said.

The GEM degree currently offers four scholarships: one from the National Golf Course Owner's Association and three from the Toro Company, which donated $100,000 in seed money for the degree program.

''But what I'd like to see is to have tribes create their own scholarships and send students here on a regular basis,'' Franklin said.

For more information about the GEM degree program, go to www.uwstout.edu/programs/bsgem/ps.html.