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February 2018

The Stunt Man

thestuntman.jpg‭By Trent Bouts

Revered board member Dick Stuntz set to take over as NGCOA President

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and no one need remind Dick Stuntz. He’s still working off a dinner the NGCOA picked up the tab for on a cold Kansas night a decade ago. Over that meal, Stuntz was asked if he ever considered serving on the board. To that point, he hadn’t. While he did own a nine-hole facility, half of another 18-hole course and a “very small” minority share in a 36-hole operation, Stuntz says, “These were not full-time professional endeavors.”

Instead, his “day job” at the time was as the golf course superintendent at Alvamar Golf Club in Lawrence, Kansas, the facility where he was one among 100 owners. Still, that background was part of what made Stuntz an intriguing candidate in the eyes of NGCOA’s director of membership at the time, Jay Karen.

“I considered myself a bit of a board whisperer,” says Karen, now NGCOA’s chief executive officer. “In my role, I traveled probably more than anyone on staff. I was so close to so many members I could get a feel for people who could be good candidates. We were always keen on having single-course operators as the heart and soul of our governance. I’d met Dick and talked with him at various events over the years and thought he would be a fantastic candidate.”

After some pleasantries and general chitchat, their dinner conversation soon turned to business. The back and forth solidified everything Karen suspected of Stuntz. “Everything about him quickly confirmed that he was a salt-of-the-earth guy, very level-headed with a real passion for the game and for the business. He demonstrated a deep sophistication on the issues in the industry. I left thinking, ‘This guy would be phenomenal.’”

It was a good call. This month, 11 years after that meal, Stuntz becomes president of NGCOA, an office he will occupy for two years. Karen may have been an early champion on his behalf, but Stuntz earned respect and passage through the board entirely on his own merit. Karen departed NGCOA just a few months after that night in Kansas. “Dick and I joke about it all the time, that I roped him into this then left,” he says.

It wasn’t until Karen returned as CEO in October 2015 that he first witnessed Stuntz in action in the boardroom. “I look around the table at these Peter Hills (Billy Casper Golf) and the Jim Hinckleys (Century Golf Partners), these large corporate executives, and Dick’s is arguably one of the smallest businesses in the room,” Karen says. “But he plays a real King Solomon role. We bat around and debate issues, and Dick has great talent for absorbing all sides and finding a real balance to our problem solving. He’s generally quiet, but when he has something to say it is always meaningful and everybody listens. That’s very valuable, especially in the chair position.”

For his part, Stuntz saw none of it coming. Not the invitation to dinner—“I was very surprised”—let alone the reason for it, nor even, if you go back far enough, the prospect of becoming a golf course owner in the first place.

By his own admission, Stuntz was very raw in his first year as a superintendent at Ames Country Club in Ames, Iowa, about 100 miles from the small family farm he grew up on. His father came to visit and see what the son’s new role was all about.

They were touring the course. “He asked me some questions about the industry and the business and he thought a bit and said, ‘Well, maybe someday you’d like to own a golf course yourself,’” Stuntz recalls. “It’s funny how clearly I remember that. It was kind of shocking. I shook my head and was kind of, ‘My gosh, what are you talking about?’”

Stuntz was only 24 at the time and still getting used to the idea that his future wasn’t on the farm after all. He’d gone to Iowa State to study animal science thinking that’s where he would end up, raising turkeys, corn and soy beans like his dad. In the back of his mind there was a vague notion of perhaps one day playing golf professionally. He did qualify for the NCAA Championships in his junior year but failed to make the cut.

“I had some success I suppose, but certainly not at the level where anybody would think I could make a living at it,” he says. He never even considered golf course maintenance until a chance conversation with a golfing friend who was studying agronomy with an emphasis on turfgrass management.

“He told me he was going to graduate and become an assistant golf course superintendent and gave me a run down on the profession, which, quite frankly, I was very unaware of,” Stuntz recalls. “But, my gosh, when he told me all about it, I went and changed my major the next day. That’s what really got me started on this track.”

While at Ames Country Club, Stuntz received overtures from a nearby club, looking to replace their pro-superintendent. Double duty was not that uncommon in rural areas in those days and Stuntz was no slouch with a club in his hand. In time, he would go on to qualify for five U.S. Mid-Amateur Championships, reaching the quarter finals in 1988. He gave the job offer “serious consideration” but eventually turned it down.

“I don’t look back at that with any regret at all,” he says. “I don’t think it was my calling to be a club professional at all, given my personality and what I really enjoy about the industry. Somehow and some way I made the right decision at that point in time.”

It may have helped his peace of mind that another friend from Iowa State who did dabble on the mini tours, but never achieved any real success. “I shared with him at one point my thoughts that perhaps I would want to go out and try to make a living playing golf,” Stuntz says. “He said, ‘Dick, if you have the urge to go and play tour golf, you should buy yourself a six pack of beer and drink it until that urge goes away!’ It was some of the most sage career advice I ever received.”

Stuntz may never have earned a dollar as a player, but playing regularly and competing at state and national levels has, nonetheless, served him well professionally. “I’m not one of those guys, who once they get into their career, they don’t play because they want to get away from the course,” he says. “I was the guy, when I was done working, who would grab my clubs and go play. I have a love for the game and I love to play the game. I feel like it’s been a tremendous asset to have had the opportunity to play against state and national caliber players. It’s helped me understand what they really like in a golf course and what they’re looking for.”

Combine that perspective and experience with his decades as a superintendent overlapped by course ownership, and a subsequent management and consulting sortie with Oak Golf, which he launched in 2012, and Stuntz’s resume is about as rounded as you will find. No doubt it’s close to the core of that Solomon-like balance he brings to the NGCOA boardroom. Although, Stuntz admits he didn’t feel quite so composed in the early days.

“Sitting in the room with giants of the industry, quite frankly, I didn’t do a lot of the talking,” he admits. “There’s no doubt I was intimidated by some of the people in the room, not only by their length of service on the board, but also by the magnitude and scale of their operations compared to mine. But while I did feel an intimidation factor, they were a very welcoming group. I never felt I was out of place to render an opinion or to add to the conversation if I felt the need to do so. I felt like my voice was heard just like anybody else’s.”

It helped that there was at least one familiar face on the board, Henry DeLozier, then with Pulte Homes and now a principal with Global Golf Advisors. DeLozier was in fact president. They first met as rivals in college golf while DeLozier was at Oklahoma State. They later served on an advisory committee for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t think highly of Henry and he’s a giant of the industry,” Stuntz says. “If you want to define the term leader you just have to look to Henry.”

Others Stuntz says brought real gravitas included the aforementioned Hinckley—“Who has done so much for our industry behind the scenes”—and Bill Stine, now CEO of Cypress Golf Management but whose reach in golf goes back to the 1970s and includes a critical term as NGCOA president at the time of the tech crash and uncertainty in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.

“Nobody has been more instrumental in advancing the success of this organization that Bill Stine,” Stuntz posits. “He is as in-tune and sharp as anybody I know. You talk about someone, who, from an owner’s perspective who really knows and understands the people in the industry, country wide, it’s Bill Stine.”

As Stuntz heads into his term as president, he marvels, gratefully, at the winding path that got him here. Who knew that the invitation to join 99 other owners at Alvamar in the late 1980s would lead so far?

“I’d been there four or five years and apparently they wanted to keep me, so they put together a package with some ownership stock. I was very, very much a minority owner. But, you know, I got a piece of the rock. And pride of ownership is a real thing. The fact that I only had a very small percentage of ownership didn’t diminish the source of pride. I’m so fortunate to have found a career that combines my vocation and avocation so closely.”

Trent Bouts is  South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer magazine.

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