Golf’s up & coming superstars: 40-somethings

A new generation of leaders is moving up the ranks and bringing with it signs of a more diverse future.

By JJ Keegan

JJ Keegan is a business golf consultant, author of “The Winning Playbook for Golf Courses” and an occasional contributor to Golf Inc. 

 

It happened overnight, but it took more than a decade for anyone to notice. The 2008 recession squeezed many people who didn’t have deep Rolodexes out of the golf industry. The economic collapse took a big toll on golf and its up-and-comers.

Chad Ritterbusch, executive director of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, witnessed it. 

“(I) saw tremendous talent among the evolving associates within leading golf course designers leave the industry,” he said. 

Steve Eubanks, a writer for Global Golf Post, said: “In retrospect, the exodus out of the golf business from 2008 through 2011 was substantial.” 

However, the expression “One person’s loss is another one’s gain” is true in this situation. The void was filled quickly by a younger generation skilled in the emerging digital economy. Their adoption of and expertise in social media and messaging platforms served as a foundation for their career success.  

  • Facebook (2004)
  • Twitter (2006)
  • WhatsApp (2009) 
  • Pinterest (2009)
  • Instagram (2010)
  • TikTok (2017)

While golf’s leading management companies, equipment manufacturers and associations are led primarily by people in their 50s and 60s, change is coming. Today’s budding superstars are going to enhance, expand and redefine the golf industry.

They all have a number of things in common: a thirst for knowledge; an early mentor; and a vision that expands beyond themselves to guide both the golf industry and the game that millions enjoy.

Here are just some of the emerging superstars. 

 

The 40-somethings

Sellers Shy  lead golf producer, CBS Sports

The formula for success can be found in the traits demonstrated by Sellers Shy: hard work, persistence, passion and a love of one’s job.

As a 15-year-old growing up in Memphis, Tenn., he wanted to be part of the PGA Tour’s Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. He volunteered to be a runner for CBS — ordering donuts, prepping announce towers, anything. Once he got his driver’s license, he would deliver tournament programs to all the area pro shops.

As a two-time Player of the Year in high school, he considered playing golf for The University of Mississippi but decided to throw himself into broadcast journalism instead.

And indeed, he did.

He joined CBS Sports full-time in 1997 and in December, 2019 was named the Network’s lead full-time golf producer beginning in 2021.

He has covered the NFL, the Olympics, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the SEC, and the entire era of Tiger Woods for the network. A multiple Sports Emmy Award winner, Sellers was mentored by three-time major champion Dr. Cary Middlecoff and the legendary sports broadcasting figures of Frank Chirkinian and Lance Barrow.

 

 

Sandy Cross

chief people officer, PGA of America

Can a humble and caring person be a significant agent of change? If one is referring to Sandy Cross, the answer is absolutely. Cross leads the human resources department and the diversity and inclusion department of the PGA of America. 

Her title? That’s for real. She’s the first to serve in that role. 

Cross is charged with creating a purpose-driven and values-based culture for a multi-generational team. She also focuses on being sure the PGA has a positive impact on the communities in which PGA team members live and work. 

Cross has secured and cultivated some of the PGA’s most coveted and longstanding partnerships. She led the golf industry’s initiative called Connecting With Her. 

She holds a master’s degree in sports administration from Kent State University and a bachelor's degree in legal studies from University of Buffalo. Cross began her career with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Joe AssellCEO & co-founder, GolfTec 

As a 12-year-old in Oswego, Ill., Joe Assell was mentored by Leon McNair, the PGA professional at the Fox Bend Golf Course. McNair inspired Assell to enter the PGA Golf Management program at Mississippi State University. Assell was recently named one of the top 100 graduates of MSU’s business school in the past 100 years.

He co-founded GolfTec in the basement of Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills Village, Colo. GolfTec now employs more than 900 people, including more than 500 PGA members and apprentices at 215 locations in six countries. It provides more than 10 million golf lessons, with annual sales exceeding $130 million.  

Assell serves on the PGA’s national employment committee and on the finance committee of the Colorado PGA.  He was named 2018 Colorado PGA Golf Professional of the Year.  

Agustin Pizagolf course architect director, Piza Golf 

Agustin Piza sees the Earth the way Monet and Van Gogh saw a canvas. His brush strokes are inspired by a vision that embraces the spirit of the land, emphasizing aesthetics, character and strategy. He views a golf course, he says, “as a living being that requires good planning from conception to adulthood, symbolizing the need for perpetual maintenance. Just as we can only see the skin on a human being, we cannot distinguish the proper functioning of the other organs." 

An award-winning architect, Piza is the first Latin American to earn a master’s degree in golf course architecture from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He is a senior member of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects and an associate member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. 

Piza began his career on three of Mexico’s most recognizable golf course projects – Palmilla, El Dorado and Querencia. He was runner-up for Golf Inc.’s Renovation of the Year award in 2014 for a full revamp at Las Parotas,

Piza’s mentors include Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Fazio. 

Passion Grahamclubhouse manager, No. 7 at Desert Mountain 

As the clubhouse manager for No. 7 at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., Passion Graham is the first Black woman to manage such a facility at a platinum club. And she is not one to rest on her success. 

With a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fayetteville State University in North Carolina and an associate’s degree in hospitality management, she believes we can learn far more from our failures than from our successes. This idea is a consistent theme throughout her favorite book on leadership, “Permission to Screw Up,” by Kristen Hadeed. It was a gift from her mentor, Damon DiOrio, CEO of Desert Mountain Club. 

One of her proudest moments was accompanying her mother on her first airplane flight, a trip from North Carolina to Arizona. 

“My career has afforded me the opportunity to not only expand my sphere of influence but the exposure of my family, and for that I will forever be grateful,” Graham said. 

Brandon Johnsonvice president and senior architect, Arnold Palmer Design Co. 

It was an internship with PGA Tour Design Services that proved pivotal for Brandon Johnson.Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from North Carolina State University and a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

His first landscape architecture professor at North Carolina State, Fernando Magallanes, challenged him to explore, learn, discover, be curious and take chances. As a college student, Johnson was also mentored by golf architect Rick Robbins, whose influence included an impromptu trip to Augusta National.

 

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three part series. The 30-something leaders and 20-something leaders will be posted seperately.

 

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