My Experience with the PGA of America Apprenticeship Program

TO THE READER: This article most likely includes a certain amount of negativity, which is not my personality trait. In fact, I am a very positive, likeable individual (at least, according to my mother…just kidding!). I thought, however, that my true personal experience with regard to the title of this article was worth sharing with others.

I started playing golf my freshman year of college, and after four years of playing and practicing, I reduced my handicap to three. The following summer after I graduated with a degree in business, I found employment at a local driving range as an assistant manager, working behind the counter, retrieving range balls, etc. We did not have a teaching professional at the time, and I soon realized that this was a major missed opportunity for generating revenue. One night, while watching Golf Channel, I saw an ad for the United States Golf Teachers Federation. I called the next day to request more information about becoming a certified golf teaching professional.

I spoke with the owner of our facility about the possibility of giving lessons at the range. He told me that if I could pass the certification process, he would allow me that opportunity. A month later, I was in Arizona taking the USGTF certification course, which I passed with flying colors. The course was very informative, fun, and I met some great people there from all over the world.

The next few years provided me with some amazing experiences. I developed my talents both as a golf teaching professional and a small business owner, marketing my skills and growing my business. By year three, I was making a good living, and this, of course, had a positive impact at the driving range. Business was better than ever, and the owner was very happy with both my teaching and the new-found business that I brought to the range. In other words, life was good.

And then it happened. Some of the people I had met through the golf business mentioned to me that I should go into the PGA program to further advance my career. I felt that my career was pretty good already, but not having been in the golf business for an extended amount of time, I decided to take their advice. A few months later, the most exclusive country club in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area was looking for an assistant golf professional. I interviewed and got the job.

The next month I went to the PGA Playing Ability Test (PAT) at a local club outside of Dallas, along with 62 other qualifiers. We had to play two rounds in one day and average 76 for both rounds to pass. I was paired with two other young assistant golf professionals. It was very disturbing when I found out that both players had taken the PAT over 15 times. It got quite expensive, both monetarily and emotionally. The fee was $150 every time to attempt the test, and the pressure put on them was immense. One of the participants told me that he was going to lose his job if did not pass the PAT this time around. You could tell both players loved the game of golf and had a passion to want to contribute to the game. I felt bad for these two fervent advocates of golf, because neither one was able to pass this test. Out of the field of 62, only two of us were successful on that day.

I was officially in the PGA apprentice program. I had passed my PAT, and then sent in the amount of $2,000 to receive my Level 1 books in order to start studying. Now, this amount may not sound like much to some people, but if you are only being paid $19,000 annually as an assistant golf professional, this was a big investment. At the country club, we already had a full-time teaching professional, providing little opportunity for me to give extra lessons to offset my low salary. Furthermore, my biggest hurdle was the amount of work required in order to simply stay within the program. As an apprentice, I was working over 70 hours per week. An entire six weeks could go by without a day off.

Having initially made good money in the golf business simply through teaching, it was diffi cult learning to live this new life. In fact, I felt like a slave working for much less than minimum wage, just to turn around and give anything I could save back to the PGA in further dues and fees. There was virtually no time to teach or play the game that I loved. More time was devoted to bending over backward to people who truly did not treat me very well. After a year of working and completing Level 1, I had to send in even more money for Level 2, as well as dues for the PGA (both at the local section and chapter). Again, quite a fi nancial strain for an individual making less than $20,000 per year. With the hours I was already working, I tried to supplement my income by bartending at night.

And interestingly, as hard as it is to believe, I had not yet been taught anything about teaching golf. They simply gave me a book to read that had been printed nearly 30 years ago. And, once you are an assistant pro (in other words, once you have passed the playing ability test), a PGA apprentice can start giving lessons. You actually practice your teaching on real-life clients without having been taught to teach! It became very clear to me why the USGTF had become so successful. They did a great job in teaching how to teach, treated people fairly, and simply provided opportunity without taking advantage of anyone. In fact, I learned more about teaching golf with the USGTF than I did in my entire time in the PGA of America apprenticeship program.

Two years went by, and believe it or not, I started dreading my life. I felt I was being taken advantage of, and I actually did not enjoy going to work. Even though I was close to becoming a full member in the PGA, I realized working in this capacity at a club was not for me. As an example, on Thanksgiving day, the facility director of golf wanted the pro shop to be open. I volunteered to work all day so other assistants could be with their families. While the members of the club ate a wonderful buffet in the formal dining room, the general manager asked me to stay out of the dining room because he didn’t want me to mingle with the members. I would have to wait for all the members to leave in order to get something to eat! I turned in my two-week notice the next day and in three short years, I had gone from a man who had an immense amount of passion for helping people enjoy the game of golf to someone who never wanted to pick up a golf club again.

The entire PGA experience so discouraged me at the time that I got out of the golf business and stayed away for the next seven years. In the meantime, I had heard many stories of individuals who had completed the entire four-year PGA apprenticeship process, and for one reason or another, whether it was sickness or for personal reasons, had left the program and then been denied re-entry unless they completely went back and redid the entire apprenticeship program again. Frankly, I didn’t believe this, so I contacted the head offi ce recently just to check, and sure enough, this was the case. Not that I had ever wanted to go back, but as far as I was concerned, my instincts were correct in that this entity was always only about money. They had no humility, and cared nothing about the individual member.

In any case, being away from the game that, initially, I loved for so long, I started to remember the good times, and not the bad. I started playing again, and recaptured the joy of teaching. Today, I have a great job with a medical company and earn a substantial living. I am teaching part-time at a local golf club and relish every lesson I give. Trying to chase something that I did not even need in the fi rst place almost killed my love for the game.

So, for those reading this, carefully weigh the pros and cons before making the decision that I did. Speak not just to advocates for these types of programs, but also to those who are no longer involved. What sacrifi ces do you want to make and are those sacrifi ces really worth it? For some individuals, this might be a chance they are willing to take.

In retrospect, if for example, you want to become a golf club manager, which nowadays is the highest paid position at any golf club, the USGTF has a division that trains and certifi es these individuals. When I started my PGA journey, the USGTF’s management division didn’t exist at that time, so it’s great that there is another way to learn that aspect of the business.

Fortunately, times have changed, and there are now much better opportunities for education in the golf industry. But, for those who were burned because of experiences like mine, don’t completely throw in the towel. Remove the dust from your clubs, hit the course on a quiet, still morning, and embrace the game again. Take another approach. You’ll be thankful you did.


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