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SHSU Seeks Golf Management Program

By Brian Lacy/Managing Editor
The Huntsville Item

Cole Smith graduated from Huntsville High School in 1996, and just seven years later he's working at The Woodlands Country Club's Palmer Course as an assistant golf professional. His quick rise up the career ladder is due in part to the knowledge he gained at New Mexico State University, where Smith participated in the school's Professional Golf Management degree program.

Currently, only 14 schools in the United States have a PGM program licensed by the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA). Sam Houston State University is hoping to become No. 15.

"It's an academic program designed to help prepare students who want a professional career in golf management," said Mitchell Muehsam, associate dean of the College of Business Administration at SHSU. "They might be working at a private or public club and be in charge of overseeing the golf course, the food and beverage service, the pro shop, managing the personnel; it runs a wide array of scales."

Smith said SHSU and Huntsville would be an attractive candidate for the program.

"The amount of golf courses in Texas and around Huntsville is a plus," he said. "The new golf course that was built is really good, and SHSU having a very good business program is appealing as well."

But concerns have been raised about the program. One of the entrance requirements is for students to have an 8 handicap or better -- meaning they shoot a score near 80 at a par-72 course on a regular basis. Detractors have said the students, paying a discounted annual rate, would need to play all the time to maintain their skills, thus taking too much time away from the paying public. That would prevent Raven Nest from making enough money to start paying off its $7 million start-up debt.

SHSU has submitted its initial proposal to the PGA, which in turn has requested more information from the university. As part of its effort, SHSU is asking golf courses that are interested in participating -- including the city's new 18-hole course and practice facility -- to submit a letter of support to the school.

In a special session tonight, Huntsville City Council will discuss the PGM program and what role the city and its new golf course will play.

"I want to know what the PGA wants us to commit to," Huntsville mayor Karl Davidson said in a recent interview. "If someone would hand me a letter that says these are the things we need you to commit to, I would work toward that."

The Item sent a questionnaire to the 14 universities with a PGM program to discover what a school -- and the town it's in -- need in order to have a successful program.

Of the 10 schools that replied, nine own golf facilities that are located on campus or within a few minutes of the school. Most of the schools have agreements that allow PGM students to practice and/or play at area public and private courses for little or no cost. Each course has its own restrictions.

SHSU would be one of the few schools not to own a golf course. But, with the opening of Raven Nest, and the massive golf market in the greater Houston area -- more than 150 public and private courses combined-- facilities should not be a problem.

Raven Nest would serve as the home site for SHSU's PGM program. It's location, just minutes away from campus, would make it a popular spot for both practice and play.

Raven Nest golf pro Kit Thomson said under his rules PGM students would be allowed to play after 2 p.m. during prime months, and when space was available throughout the day during winter months. There are also plans to expand the back end of the driving range, where the SHSU golf teams practice and lessons are taught, before the first students arrived on campus in fall 2004. Thomson said he sees the PGM program as a marketing gold mine.

"I'm looking for a marketing edge, and the marketing edge I would have if we brought the PGM school in here is we are the home course for the only PGM school in the state," he said. "That would draw the interest of every junior golfer in the state.

"We can train the students, and we have a very good, inexpensive work force. These are quality kids, and they will breed paying rounds of golf just by bringing friends. Their families will bring other people to participate in activities at the club. Golf begets golf."

Muehsam did not want to name specific courses, but said SHSU has contacted a large number of the public and private golf facilities within an hour of Huntsville about working with PGM students.

"When we mention the program, people are very, very responsive," he said.

A spokesperson for Waterwood National could not be reached, but the public course on Lake Livingston is rumored to be interested.

Representatives from both private clubs in the area -- Elkins Lake Country Club and Whispering Pines Golf Club in Trinity -- said they would be interested in helping the university, even if only on a small scale.

"We do a lot with Sam Houston with helping the golf team, so we would be more than willing to entertain some sort of agreement," said Derek Severns, general manager at Whispering Pines. "We'd love to talk with them about it."

Enrollment in the PGM program averages close to 200 students, with Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C., topping at the maximum of 300 and Florida State University having the fewest students with 65. The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs will start its program this fall, and 22 students have been accepted so far.

SHSU is hoping to have 50 students enrolled for the 2004-05 academic year, should the PGA give its approval. As the only school in Texas with a PGM program -- the two closest being at Mississippi State and New Mexico State -- both Smith and Muehsam said the program should be popular.

"One of the advantages to the university is we will be attracting students who are not already coming to this school. It's a new program that will attract a new body of students," Muehsam said. "We would attract students from Texas who would not have to leave the state to fulfill their dreams, plus we would attract students from around the entire country."

The cost of playing and practicing varies widely, but most students are charged close to $200 per semester for access to their home course and practice range.

Under the proposed three-year agreement, PGM students at SHSU would pay $150 the first year, with a $50 increase each of the next two years to use Raven Nest. At other schools, additional courses allow PGM students to play at no cost or a reduced rate per round.

Smith said New Mexico State's PGM students could play at six public courses, and had limited access at two private country clubs.

"(At New Mexico State) we had privileges to play just about any course we wanted to, being affiliated with the PGA," he said. "With the privileges the PGA of America allows golf pros, most clubs will extend the courtesy of having that student as a guest of their golf course."

Students at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., have a unique luxury, living near the resort town of Myrtle Beach.

"Our PGM program does not fit the normal mold," said Charles Thrash, director of CCU's program. "We are fortunate to have 125 golf courses in our local area. Our program is supported by the Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course Owners Association. Many of the course owners allow our students access to their courses on a non-interference basis at no charge."

Thomson said SHSU students would find a similar benefit in the Houston-area golf market, especially when looking for a place to do their PGM-required internship for 18 months.

"SHSU could not produce enough interns quick enough," he said.

Smith said one of the biggest misconceptions about the PGM program is how often students play golf. Although he practiced on a daily basis while in school, Smith said in between classes, homework and a college social life, he played a round of golf once or twice a week.

"The first thing you have to realize is these PGM students are not pro golfers," he said. "They're going to school like any other college student to get a degree in the business field. It's not like they wake up in the morning and play golf from sun up 'til sun down." After playing recently in a tournament at Raven Nest with SHSU president James Gaertner, Smith left no doubt as to his opinion about the PGM program.

"I told (Gaertner) in my personal opinion, it would be a mistake if SHSU didn't go through with it and the city didn't approve it."

- END -

SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
May 15, 2003
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