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April 2024

Madam President

Cathy Harbin brings a wealth of experience to NGCOA

By Steve Eubanks

After 3:00, you know where to find her. Cathy Harbin, the new president of the NGCOA and owner of Pine Ridge Golf Course in Paris, Texas, has spent decades in the industry at almost every level, from running more than 150 golf operations to being the lead executive at one of the game’s most visible foundations. But now, every afternoon, she does what excites her the most. 

“I teach (golf) every day,” Harbin said, her voice going up an octave as she speaks of her passion for making others better. “I absolutely love it. My job at three every day is to be done with operations and move into teacher mode. And I might teach until seven or eight at night. That’s really when I’m happiest. Right now, I’m already getting parents to commit to a time for their kids (to take lessons) months in advance so we can get them scheduled.” 

Harbin fits those lessons into a calendar that includes serving on numerous industry boards, giving speeches, attending seminars, acting as de facto commissioner of the LPGA Legends Tour, offering leadership lessons to the next generation in the business, and now, serving as president of the NGCOA.

“I just came off the PGA (of America) board, so the timing worked out,” Harbin said of her election as NGCOA president. “I’m excited about it. There’s a lot of opportunity to make an impact.”

Making an impact has been the defining feature of Harbin’s long career. A former college golfer at Indiana State, she went to work after college at a club in Fort Wayne where she played at least nine holes or taught every day. 

“Golf pros used to be the ones outside promoting the game,” Harbin said. “The pro I first worked for understood that, so when there was a threesome or a twosome, he would say, ‘There’s a short group, Cathy, go join them.’

“Somehow the mindset shifted into believing that the golf pro needed to be a better businessperson, to learn how to read a spreadsheet, build a budget, manage labor. Those things have value. I totally agree with that. But in shifting that mindset, we lost the promote-the-game part.

“The value of the PGA professional is the business value of golf instruction,” she said. “We have to get away from the mindset of looking out on the range at the golf pro leaning on a 7-iron and worrying about how much money they're making. You have to look at the pro and think about how much money they’re making you (the owner). Today we have numbers on that. It’s like 99% retention of your membership when you have competent golf instruction. It’s really more like 100% but nobody wants to say 100% because it doesn’t seem plausible. But if someone is taking lessons, or more importantly, if someone’s kids are taking lessons, they’re not leaving the club. Then you add in how much more they’re spending on food and beverage; how many more rounds of golf they play; how much they spend in the shop: it’s a business that has been overlooked in terms of value to the property.

“I’ve always said that there are three skill positions at a golf course and to be successful you need all of them. They are 1) the superintendent, you have to have someone out there who can grow grass, 2) your accountant, so that you can keep up with where the money is, where it isn’t, and where it should be, and 3) the person who can teach golf. That’s it. I can train my five-year-old nephew to run the counter (in the golf shop) and I can teach my 12-year-old niece how to flip burgers.

“Every other position, you can teach and train people to do. Those three are skill sets that can take a lifetime to master.”

Harbin should know. She’s spent a lifetime in the game.

After her stint as an assistant in Indiana, she tried her skills as a player. After scratching the tour itch, she landed a job as a professional with American Golf. 

“I learned so much from them, because the managers did everything,” Harbin said.

Between her fourth and fifth year with American Golf, she was recruited to be the assistant general manager at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida. That’s when another opportunity arose.

“When I look back, in 2000, almost 25 years ago, I was given the job as general manager of the World Golf Village where they had The King and Bear. I got that position when women weren’t being given head-pro jobs. But I got it because they were selling the golf course. I was the assistant general manager and the general manager left because of the pending sale. That happens a lot. So, the path of least resistance (for the owner) was to promote the assistant manager. Nobody was going to take the job during that time, and they thought, Cathy is doing fine, let’s give her a shot and ride out this sale.

“A month later the owner came to me and said, ‘We weren’t sure about giving you this role, but it took me about a week to realize you could do it, and another week to realize you were probably already doing it.’  

“That was the first opportunity where I was able to fully come into my own as a leader.”

A decade later, after growing the World Golf Village to unprecedented success, she was ready for a different challenge.

“I was recruited by Steve Mona to be the executive director of Golf 2020,” Harbin said. “I loved World Golf Village but going to work for the World Golf Foundation and having a seat at the table with the commissioner of the PGA TOUR and the CEO of the USGA, among others, changed things.

“From there I got recruited to be vice president of golf at ClubCorp, which is now Invited. They were creating this new position. That moved me from Florida to Texas in 2012.”

One of the first things she realized was that, despite golf generating the lion’s share of income, most of the company’s attention and emphasis was on food and beverage. That was a holdover from the Bob Dedman, Sr. days. Back when the company was called CCA (Club Corporation of America), Dedman created a private-club-management empire by standardizing member services and turning around money-losing F&B operations. 

“I got in and was managing 105 golf courses, which ballooned to 155 while I was there,” Harbin said. “I had 10 regional directors of golf that had about 10 courses each. They weren’t there when I got there, but we created those (positions).

“One of my major charges was revenue, so I looked around and realized that only 20% of our clubs had any focus on golf instruction - 80% had none. My goal was to flip that number, that at 80% of our clubs we would have someone waking up thinking about golf instruction. From (golf instruction) stems member retention, member enjoyment, member purchases, and overall engagement with the club.

“At that point the golf pros (at ClubCorp) had become report writers. My goal was to change that.”

The current Player Development Professional program at Invited owes its genesis to what Harbin created in her first two years at the company.

That led her to another season of life.

“It was hard, as a golf pro, to be in that role (at ClubCorp) because my office was on the 6th floor (of the headquarters building in Dallas) and I didn’t see a golf course all that often. One day I told (a friend) that I was losing my passion. He said, ‘When were you your happiest?’ I said, ‘When I woke up every day and went to the golf course. That’s when I was really happy.’ But that hadn’t been the case since I left World Golf Village.”

In that instant, Harbin realized she needed to explore golf course ownership. Early in her career, in 1988, she took a seminar on how to buy a golf course. It had always been a seed in the back of her mind. The conversation that afternoon caused it to germinate.

After months of shopping, she found Pine Ridge in Paris, Texas.  

“It was a simple golf course, and the parking lot wasn’t great, but I immediately felt a connection with it,” Harbin said. “I wanted a player-friendly course with a big driving range so I could run programming and a small clubhouse so I could manage expenses. Pine Ridge had all of that. Pine Ridge was also priced so I could buy it by myself.”

Today, Harbin spends her afternoons in her happy place, on the range where she was an early adopter of Toptracer Range. “Being able to bring in something that was entertainment-driven was a real game-changer for this little facility,” she said.

She hopes to bring that same sense of joy to other professionals, and to the owners who hire them. 

“In the age of work/life balance, being really good at teaching, or hiring a golf pro who is a good teacher, creates endless opportunities,” she said.


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