Set just a few miles from Capitol Hill’s culture of shifting leadership, you’d expect similar turnover at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland, but in 112 years of golf, it has known only three head professionals: 1908 U.S. Open champ Fred McLeod, former PGA pro of the year Bill Strausbaugh and Bob Dolan Jr., who in 2011 won the PGA of America’s Bill Strausbaugh Award for excellence in mentorship. (The accolade was indeed named after Dolan’s predecessor.) Theirs might not be household names to golfers, but in the world of golf professionals, these men’s careers are the stuff of legend.
Long-tenured head pros aren’t the only thing that make Columbia a different sort of place. When your membership consists of senators and generals and presidents (Barack Obama is one member of note), maintaining control over operations requires a confident and steady hand, especially when your course doesn’t use tee times. The tradition at Columbia calls for the Matchmaker (an official club title) to arrange all play: Show up and you’ll get a game, with the Matchmaker setting teams and allotting strokes according to his appraisal, not GHIN’s. (And don’t rush him—club lore is that then-Senator Richard Nixon tried it once and the Matchmaker promptly benched him.) It’s also a club renowned for the “warm Columbia welcome,” where the pro takes pride in knowing you and your guests’ names and makes you all feel like dignitaries, whether you actually are one or not.
As Dolan prepares to move on and make room for Steve Delmar, Columbia’s fourth head professional, he finds his vocation at a crossroads. With fewer young people flowing into the assistant-pro pipeline, and established pros tiring of what can be 100-hour workweeks and seeking opportunities elsewhere, the future of the head pro is a mounting concern. Dolan sat down with The Golfer’s Journal to look both forward and back, reflecting on 28 years at Columbia and sharing insights for golf’s future caretakers, professional and otherwise.
On remembering names — My predecessor, Bill Strausbaugh, was a great communicator to the membership. He was a legend at remembering names. I tried to study his techniques; once he was introduced to a member or a guest, he would use their name three times within the first minute of meeting them and try to find something out about them. He would maybe ask where they were from or what club they were at, and he would pull out the tournament pairing sheets the day before [an event] and study them, just trying to recall the people’s faces. It’s a discipline, right? I can’t say that I’m as good as he was—I have to work twice as hard to get half the results—but he taught me the importance of making good eye contact and engaging that person for those two or three minutes you have with them. It’s important. It makes a difference to people.
On teaching — I feel like the game is overtaught and under-coached. Not only am I responsible for teaching the fundamentals of the game, but I feel like I should be teaching them how to play the game and how to shoot a score, and to follow their progress and encourage them. It’s easy to jump on YouTube and gather as much information on technique as possible, so we have to take each student separately and figure out what they can do, what they’re physically capable of doing, and try to fit them into their own model. We should be looking at their results from the previous tournament and helping figure out what they did wrong and what the strategy would be the next time he or she faces those situations. As teachers, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. Again, it all stems from the idea that we can do less teaching and more coaching.
On preparation — Project, project, project. The projection of looking through the tee sheets the night before a tournament. The projection of doing all the winter work. Projecting what the season is going to look like. You have to know what’s going on tomorrow, what’s going on next week, next month, and prepare. There’s so much activity in the moment, especially at a place like this, that if you don’t prepare, you’re going to get run over.
On effort — The people who come here take the warm Columbia welcome very seriously. It’s part of our culture. Our expectations are that when a member has a guest or a member’s coming out to play, we’re here to greet them. What I’ve learned about people is they appreciate effort—any small effort. When they appreciate the effort, that appreciation perpetuates itself. You feel good about the effort that you put in, they feel good about the effort that you put in, and the next time, you want to make the effort again. I think we get so busy in this world that we tend to not take the moment or take the time to do the little things. When we’re on the run, those things slip through the cracks. That’s what I’ve learned: Take a moment to just grasp those opportunities. In the long run, it’s going to be beneficial.
On longevity — You need to have variety. I probably play more golf with the members than the average club professional. That’s important to me. It’s important to this role. My goal was always to play with as many members as I could every year, different ones, and move around and spend time with new members. Then there are days when I’m teaching and not playing, and other days when I’m administrating. I always say, “We teach, we play, we administrate.” I try to stay within those three categories and make sure I’m doing different things every day. That’s what keeps me energized. If I had to do the same thing all the time, every day, maybe I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I did.
On family — I have a great wife, first and foremost. She’s very understanding. She’s been with me every step of my career. We also had two very understanding children. We always tried to prioritize our time accordingly as best we could. You miss a lot of things in the summer, but we were used to it. That’s all our kids ever really knew, and we took full advantage of the wintertimes. I think that that’s a little bit of a problem when it comes to the job today, with the offseason shrinking. I think that once your season is over, you really need to downshift quickly and just kind of lick your wounds, so to speak.
On playing — I see a lot of young professionals pass their PAT [Player Ability Test] and they think that’s the end. But that’s just the beginning. You don’t have to be the best player in the country, but your members appreciate the fact that you are working on your game. That’s what you expect them to do, so you have to continue to work on your game, take lessons, learn, improve. You not only help yourself as a teacher, but you’ll help yourself as a player, and it’ll be more fun for you. That would be lesson No. 1 for a young pro: Don’t give up on your game.
On consistency — There’s black and white at clubs, but then there’s the gray. You have to learn to navigate the gray, because things aren’t always going to go according to plan. You have to learn to audible. We wake up every morning not knowing what kind of day we’re going to have, and if you don’t stay consistent in your approach every day, then you can get lost. Find what works for you and build on it. What worked for me was teach, play, administrate. Keep it tight and then get really, really good in those areas. I think in today’s business, the young kids get too one-dimensional too quickly. They all jump into just being a director of instruction because that’s where the money is, but it’s shortsighted. Learn all the facets of the business. You’ll give yourself more ways to succeed.
On presidents — Twenty-six carts: We know how many carts the Secret Service needs. [Obama’s] folks communicate to us and tell us when he is coming and what he’s doing; it makes a difference and I’m grateful for that ability to communicate. Just like any other member, if you keep the Matchmaker aware of what you’re planning to do, then it’s going to be much smoother. When he was coming in via the motorcade, they had to shut down a part of Connecticut Avenue, and that just creates havoc because those roads are busy to begin with, but it was fairly seamless for us because the guys on the Secret Service, once you allocate the carts, they’re really good at what they do. It was actually a nice experience for us because we got to watch the big machine run, and it’s such a well-choreographed operation that you learn little things just watching. Talk about projection. Talk about planning and execution.
On showing up — I think that in our profession you’ve got to show up, be visible. Keep showing up. You’ve got to be visible in this business, and you’ve got to be present—and that isn’t necessarily the same thing. You can show up and not be present and that’s not going to serve you very well. Show up, be present, then do it again.
On the future — Collectively, clubs are suffering because there’s probably not enough assistants to go around, and that forces clubs to compete for young pros, and not every club can. I think that the clubs, as well as the PGA, we all have to do a better job of recruiting kids to get into the industry. We have to promote all the good things about this business. Every time I’m in a meeting now, the only things discussed are the negatives. We have to promote the positives, and we have to be willing to change. We have to figure out how to schedule people so they can have some weekends off, and that may take more people to do that, but we have to continue to educate our boards and our golf committees on what a day in the life of a club professional looks like and how many hours he or she puts in. It’s going to be a challenge for the next generation of professionals, and hopefully they get the support from their association that’s required. I know the associations are working on it, and it’s up to us to help them.
On practice — I take students to the practice green. I pull out three balls and they bring a wedge and a putter. We pick a target, and their job is to hit three chips and then hit three putts. The goal is to get the three balls in the hole in six shots or less. If they don’t do that, we stay at the station until they do, and then we move to the next location. It just trains your mind on how to practice getting the ball up and down. Don’t just go out there and grab 50 balls and hit the same chip. When you have a little 2-footer to hole that sixth ball and that gives you permission to move to the next location, you’re feeling it.
On enthusiasm — I love the place, I love the people, I love the game. That’s what kept my enthusiasm up all these years.