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June 2019

Role of a Lifetime

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A Three-Decade Career Prepared Her For The Job She Always Wanted

By Steve Eubanks

It started with a simple question, one she had never considered. Cathy Harbin had done almost everything you could do in the golf business – head professional with a large management company; director of golf at one of the world’s most recognizable resorts; executive director of Golf 2020 with the World Golf Foundation; vice president of golf at the world’s largest club management company – but the question from one of her old bosses stopped her in her tracks. 

Bob Barrett, who had hired Harbin as a director of golf and then general manager at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida, said, “Cathy, when were you happiest?” 

At first Harbin didn’t understand. So Barrett expounded. “At what point in your career, with all you’ve done, were you at a spot where you couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning?” 

Harbin thought about it and said, “When I was at the World Golf Village, getting out every day and being a part of the operation.” 

Barrett said, “Then that’s what you need to do.” 

The question hadn’t come out of the blue. At the time, Harbin was in the market to buy a golf course. That search had been prompted by another question, this one from an old friend. Harbin, who was vice president of golf at ClubCorp at the time, was driving through Florida on the way to a course the company had just acquired.

“Go back many years to 1988, I was this kid in the golf business, but I thought that one day I’d love to buy my own golf course,” Harbin said. “So, when I was an assistant golf pro I went to a ‘Buying and Selling a Golf Course’ seminar at the PGA Show. I can’t imagine now what all those guys thought about this young woman in the seminar.

“Fast forward a few decades, I was at ClubCorp and we had just bought a portfolio of six golf courses. I was on my way down to Bradenton, Florida, to check one of them out and was on the phone with a friend. I said, ‘Now this is the kind of golf course I want to buy. It’s got a little clubhouse, a big driving range,’ and I went through all the things on my list. My friend said, ‘Cathy, you have been talking about buying a golf course for the 20 years that I’ve known you. When are you finally going to do it?’

“I thought about it and she was right. I had been talking about it for that long. The next week, I called a broker.”  

By that time, Harbin had done almost everything you could do in the golf industry, a lifetime of experience that prepared her for the job she’d wanted since her assistant pro days in Indiana.

“I went to school on a golf scholarship at Indiana State University and got a business degree,” she said. “When I got out, my thought process was that while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life I’d go to work at a golf course since I thought I knew how to do that. That process led to the fact that I never left golf.

“I played mini-tours a few years and then spent eight years in the Fort Lauderdale (Florida) area, a little more than half of that working for American Golf. That is where I really got my education. I’ve said many times, most people have to pay for an upper-level education, but I got paid by American Golf to learn how to run golf courses. From operations, finance, marketing: across the board the training was exceptional.” 

In 1997, Harbin took the World Golf Village job where she learned about marketing under pressure. “With American Golf we had coupons and advertising and we did all kinds of marketing,” she said. “But there were a certain number of people who were going to show up no matter what. Then I got to the World Golf Village – and I was there before it opened and brought it online –  and because of where it was located and the fact that it was new, I realized that if I didn’t do something today, we might have zero golfers tomorrow. I had to get smart about marketing pretty quickly.”   

That trial by fire eventually led Harbin to run Golf 2020 before moving on to ClubCorp where she shifted much of the operational focus. “When I got (to ClubCorp) 20 percent of the golf professionals and regional directors spent their days thinking about how to increase and improve instruction,” Harbin said. “That completely flipped. When I left 80 percent were thinking about lesson business.”

All those experiences – managing 10 regional directors of golf and hundreds of professionals – landed Harbin at the place where she is happiest: running her own course, Pine Ridge Golf Club, in Paris, Texas. She also has a management contract with nearby Paris Country Club, which gives her multiple facilities. But it is a far cry from the 150 courses she was responsible for at ClubCorp. 

“The pace is still there,” she said. “I’m still at this 15 hours a day. But now that I have my head around Pine Ridge and Paris Country Club, I’m ready to expand out and get a few more management contracts.
“But now I’m all about operations. This is what I do. This is what I love.”    

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author. *Editor’s note: Cathy Harbin was recently named to the NGCOA Board of Directors.

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