CALIFORNIA, Pa. — We’ve said it here before, but the tidal wave of technology has swept up the golf world, and it’s not letting go.
Launch monitors. Biomechanics trackers. Range finders and GPS-enabled apps. Even smartphone cameras have dramatically altered how players perceive and adjust their swings.
Yes, the face of the game looks like that of a cyborg these days, and it’s diversified the definition of ‘golf professional’ along the way.
Fortunately for folks who want to make a career in the sport, institutions like California University of Pennsylvania are adapting to the times.
Cal U’s Professional Golf Management program is nearly two decades old, but as I discovered during a recent visit to the campus on the banks of the Monongahela, it’s on the bleeding edge of where the industry is going — and we’re talking education as much as golf
“Technology has been incredible for how fast it’s advanced,” PGM assistant director and internship coordinator J.R. Pond told me. “Not only in how we instruct, using launch monitors and 3-D motion (detection), but also in the way we deliver content in the classroom.”
Pond was my tour guide at the program’s home base, Gallagher Hall, but longtime PGM program director Justin Barroner helped jumpstart the course of study in 2005, and now serves as chair of Cal U’s department of exercise science and sport studies.
That’s fitting, considering how holistic the PGM coursework is. In addition to the baseline golf management studies, students pursuing a bachelor’s degree get their fill of the performance optimization side of the sport, too.
While the aspiring professionals will select a concentration either in golf management studies or exercise science, they’ll have every opportunity to make a well-considered choice.
“It allows students to enter the classroom, see both sides of it with the concentration courses, and make an educated decision on where their passions lie,” Pond said.
“So they can say that, “Hey, human movement interests me. Coaching and teaching and how the body works to swing the club, interests me.’ It also allows students to realize, ‘It was really cool, but not for me. I’m going to stick with more of the traditional golf operations and executive management,’ which is where our sport management major really comes in.”
All in all, my day trip to Cal U illustrated the richness of the golf industry.
While all the traditional professional positions are still available, from club pro to superintendent to general manager, the advancing quest to enhance golf performance has opened up plenty of new career opportunities.
And even though the sport science side of things seems particularly geared for the future of the game, sport management continues to be relevant, what with all the golf-related businesses popping up to augment courses and driving ranges.
Much like the PGA of America has fleshed out its training protocols as the business adds more performance focus, so has Cal U tried to be nimble in its PGM offerings.
“The PGA’s education process started to take different paths,” Pond said. “And we realized we needed to adapt and grow and change as well. So, with us being in the same department as exercise science and that being my background, we (were thinking) that we could do this as a concentration with exercise science, as well as with sport management, as it’s been since we started.”
Recently, the PGM has also added a master’s degree track in Advanced Golf Performance, plus a 15-credit certificate option. All of those classes are completely online, allowing for those already engaged in careers to add to their repertoire as seamlessly as possible.
Actually, due to the pandemic, all PGM coursework features a remote option now.
“If there’s one silver lining of COVID,” Pond said, “it’s the ability to do multi-modal (learning), where the student can actually sign into a class via Zoom and interact with a professor just as if they were in the classroom.”
Pond, who I met at an AimPoint putting clinic last summer, gave me a de facto program introduction along with a look around the expansive ‘classroom.’ More like a playground for those of us with the golf bug.
There was plenty to explore in the space, from a handful of hitting bays to an expansive turf green and short-game practice area. There were also enough training aids to keep a tinkerer like me occupied for months.
To call it a laboratory — for both theory and practice — is right on the nose. Want to monitor how a golfer’s body moves in space? Track how well a player uses ‘ground forces’ to propel the club? Eager to practice the newest green-reading techniques? You’ll all set here.
But, to hear Pond tell it, the real special sauce for Cal U is what their students do when they get off campus. Near the entrance of the building, Pond has a list of students and their internship placements on a large display board above his desk.
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The message is clear: The PGM education is as much about practical experience as anything else. With a 100 percent job placement rate, that approach is clearly working, but it’s not just for résumé purposes. It’s about figuring out what works for an aspiring golf pro out there in the real world.
“It gets students out in the field working and really exploring where their passions lie,” Pond said. “So they’re not just making decisions based on where they think they want to go, because they read about it somewhere or they saw it on video.
“They’re going out and experiencing it in the real world and realizing, ‘You know what? I really do like this.’ Or, ‘I’m not sure this part of the industry is for me.’ That allows them to really pursue the things that they love.”
Who knows? Perhaps a student who thought she was more into management gets a taste of modern diagnostic tools like TrackMan, K-VEST and SAM PuttLab — the last of which I experienced during a recent fitting at Club Champion — and decides that the science of golf is too fascinating to ignore.
My own rejuvenated interest in golf over the past few years has been largely motivated by how precise swing evaluations have become. There’s a lot less guesswork than there used to be, which makes the process of improvement more efficient — and fun.
Throw in the growth of golf fitness regimens, like those developed by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and Technogym, and the science of golf is blossoming. Students at Cal U get introduced to both of those programs along the way to earning their degrees.
While the actual act of swinging a golf club remains an analog oasis in a digital world, all that surrounds the sport is changing by the day. Cal U’s goal is to reflect that reality in its PGM practical curriculum.
“They’re seeing it, they’re experiencing it,” Pond said. “And they’re saying, ‘Yes, this is what interests me more.’ ”
PGN’S ON COURSE
Thanks again to Pond for welcoming me into the PGM’s playground. Here’s more from him on the Gallagher Hall putting green: