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 R. Bruce Helbig


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Q&A with Bruce


As a tournament player


As a golf course manager


As an instructor/coach


As an events producer & charity fundraiser



The Player


> Have you ever shot a hole-in-one?


In my career, I have scored five holes-in-one.  So far.  One of those was on a par 4 hole.  I scored my first hole-in-one at the age of 15.


> What do you like most about golf?


I love being outdoors. Most golf courses are beautiful, and you’re outside with nature.  And since golfers often play by themselves, or with just two to three other people, you almost feel as if all that green space was prepared just for you.


> Why do you prefer golf over team sports?


I like the fact that I am playing against no one but myself.  The only factors involved - other than weather and course conditions - are my own skill and my own decisions on every swing.  My score is not impacted by other players.  I am out there completely on my own.  I am solely responsible for my success or failure.


Sports like baseball, basketball and football feel confining to me.  You move around a diamond, or back and forth across the same floor, or up and down the same field. In golf, you travel.  You journey across an expanse of land.  You walk up and down hills, you cross bridges over water.


Golf is, to me, more challenging than other sports.  For example, a lot of non-golfers aren’t aware that the “goal” moves from day to day.  The first task of each day on a golf course, before the course opens for the day, is for the staff to change every hole position.  The clubs I use, the yardage readings I take, and the greens reads I do one day will change the next day, since the hole will be in a different location on the green every single day.


Of course, there is the social aspect to golf as well.  You can carry on conversations during a casual round of golf.  That’s difficult to do in faster-moving sports.  Golf is often referred to as a gentleman’s game.  It has a cordiality to it from its inception.  While in other sports players are often coached to skirt the rules, golfers are self-policing.  We call penalty strokes on ourselves.


> Who is your favorite golfer?


I like Jack Nicklaus a lot.  His swing is radically different from mine, however.  I also like Johnny Miller.  He was, for a time in the early 70’s, the best ball striker I have ever seen.


> Those players you mentioned are “old school” golfers. Do you see differences between the styles of older players versus that of the younger players of today (2012)?


Two of the differences - and I consider them detriments - that I see in most younger golfers today are pace of play and lack of strategy.  I believe golf instructors are to blame for some of this. 


Regarding pace of play, I’ve seen instructors tell kids to “take your time.”  They tell the students if they don’t feel confident before the shot, to step back, take more practice swings and then set up again.  The student often adopts this approach for the actual game, not just in practice, and this slows down play considerably - for everyone.  All this does is create more doubt for the player and break their rhythm. 


Golf is a long game compared to other sports, and it is difficult enough to hold your concentration and focus.  It is even more difficult when you overthink every shot and question every address.


Regarding strategy, the strategy of many younger players seems to be simply to hit the ball as hard as possible from the tee.  This often means they will hit it into the rough and then have to battle their way back to the fairway or green, which can ultimately mean a lot of lost strokes. 


The great players will strategize every shot ahead of time.  They will map out the angles, and plan to maneuver from here to there.  You don’t want to just whack the ball with maximum force in the general direction of the green and then have to pay for it later.  Players can lose many strokes when they have to recover from a powerful but poorly placed tee shot.


This often results in players having to hit more tactical, “recovery” shots to get out of a jam, rather than advancing more easily from well-placed strategic shots.  Younger players are often so caught up in hitting the ball far that they forget the object of the game, which is to shoot the lowest score.


> What is the thing that irks you the most about the game?


Without question, it is pace of play.  I often feel hampered by players who move at a funereal pace.  By myself, with no one in front of me, I can play 18 holes in less than three hours.  Playing slower has nothing to do with how well you play, and can actually break your rhythm.


Another thing that slows down pace of play is when the other players in a group are not out of the cart, standing to the side, and ready to step up to the tee immediately after their partner has hit their tee shot.  The extra seconds or minutes it takes each player to walk up to the tee, take practice swings and position themselves for the shot compounds geometrically with each hole.  This is why it takes some groups five hours or more to play 18 holes.


When I play with older professionals, and if no one ahead of us is slowing us down, we can finish in under four hours.  And that’s with a foursome.  Everyone in the group has to be ready to go as soon as the previous golfer has teed off.


While your partners are walking up for each shot, you should be doing your prep – warming up, taking some practice swings, and figuring out your yardage by using your rangefinder or eyeballing it from yardage markers.


Obviously, once your partner moves into his address position, you must freeze.  Nothing is more maddening to a golfer than seeing or hearing someone talking or moving around while you are at address and trying to focus on the shot.


> You have played in Europe as well as in the U.S. and Canada. What are some of the differences you see from country to country?


Most public facilities in the U.S. are so afraid of losing revenue that they allow players with no skill to play.  As long as you pay your money, you can play.  By contrast, in Europe, before you are ever allowed on a golf course, you must pass a proficiency test.  They don’t just let anyone walk onto the first tee.


Some clubs in the U.S. follow the European example.  To quote Jackie Burke at the Champions Club in Texas:

"To get into Champions, your handicap has to be 15 or less.  I don't care how much money someone has, what race, sex or religion they are, none of that stuff.  All I want are people who have invested a lot of hours in the game.  A respectable handicap usually reflects that.  I have nothing against high-handicappers, but I don't want them in the majority.  It doesn't make a lot of sense filling a yacht club with people who can't sail a boat.”


Read More http://www.golfdigest.com/magazine/myshot_gd0405#ixzz1qMwO5Nfm

> But how would beginners ever learn?


If feasible, course managers might consider setting aside certain days or hours just for beginners, or certain days or hours for advanced players.  Courses with more than 18 holes could possibly even set aside an entire course for the less advanced player.


Ski resorts do this by providing beginner slopes and black diamond slopes.


Another example is a foot race.  You wouldn’t force advanced runners to stay behind beginner joggers and run at the beginner’s pace.  It would ruin the enjoyment of the sport for the more advanced participant.


Allowing all skill levels to play the same course all at the same time also puts undue pressure on the beginner golfer, who sees more advanced players constantly encroaching from behind, and can't help but feel their silent pleas to let them "play through."


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The Course Manager


> What do you see as common problems in golf course management?


There's the physical management of the course itself - the greens and fairways - and there is the management of the course as any other for-profit business.


Regarding the former, good grass management is first and foremost.  Many course superintendents use too much water and too much fertilizer.  That said, players’ expectations are often too high.  Everyone expects their local golf course to look like Augusta National.  You have to manage club members’ expectations just as skillfully as managing the operations of the club itself.


Regarding the latter, managing a profitable golf course is not hugely different from managing any other business into profitability.  You have to have the right person at the helm - someone with experience, a proven track record, great people skills (because so much of what you do is deal-making), and a really good nose for business in general.


> What is your approach to golf course management?


I tackle golf course management in a similar fashion to my playing technique - with strength but with strategy.  Just as the primary goal in playing is to shoot the lowest score (and if you can do it with style and grace, so much the better), so the primary goal in golf course management - or any business - is to drive down costs and drive up revenue.


In both playing and course management, there is a balance to be struck between the overarching vision and the day-to-day details.  You have to pursue both at the same time.  Your goals are always to decrease costs through deal-making or restructuring, and increase membership and revenue through price points, aggressive marketing and investment.  And you have to manage expectations all along the way as you grow.


> Why do some courses flounder or fail?


Poor money management.  Not knowing the local market, the target audience.  Having unrealistic expectations.  Lack of vision.  Lack of good marketing and advertising.  The list goes on.


> When it comes to caring for the course itself, where do you put your focus?


Good greens and good tees are paramount.  Greens especially, because that’s where the real scoring takes place.  Players will often forgive spotty fairways.  But if the putting surface is in poor condition, people simply won’t play.  They will get too frustrated.  Even a high-handicap player will tire of playing a course where he or she shoots much higher than their usual scoring on better-maintained courses.


The condition of the greens matters above all else.  That said, if your course is a wreck everywhere but the greens, you’re still not going to reel in many players.  So you can’t ignore the rest of the course either.  Golf is played everywhere along the journey to the hole.  The entire experience must be pleasant or your players won’t come back.


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The Instructor


> Where do some instructors make common teaching mistakes?


Many instructors have a one-size-fits-all approach to coaching. Every player is different. Your height, weight, body structure and personal style all factor into your swing. I prefer to teach one-on-one, or with a group of no more than three students at a time. In a group, I will often tell the other members of the student group to stay by the cart until it is their turn to swing. I don't want one player trying to incorporate into their own game comments that I am specifically tailoring to another player's physique and style, because what works for one player may not be the best approach for another player.


And the psychology of every player is different. You have to factor that into your teaching as well. The shy player can and does react differently to criticism than the cocky, overly confident player.


The Events Producer


> What makes for a successful events producer (and/or charity fundraiser)?


Networking is essential.  Sometimes, you must seek resources from every conceivable corner to pull off a successful event.


There is salesmanship as well, of course.  One must be a type of ambassador for the company, the club or the cause.  And that means the ability to sell yourself, as well as the event.


A dash of the entertainer helps.  You must have the ability to engage people, to garner their interest, to entertain them, but also to educate them.


Most of all, you have to love what you are doing.  And that is true, no matter what.  I love playing, teaching, managing courses, and producing all kinds of events, particularly golf tournaments.  Nothing brings me more satisfaction than bringing the joy of golf to others.  Naturally, doing these things for a living and for profit is terrific.  But if I can also help charitable causes with my skills, so much the better.



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