Climbing new summits

Climbing new summits

22/09/2022

We talk to three PGA Members currently working in golf facilities in Austria about how they came to be employed in the landlocked Alpine country and how their careers have developed during their time there.

PGA Professional Rodney Richards reveals the journey that took him from his native Wales to the slopes of the Austrian Alps, and his role as Head PGA Professional at Open Golf St Johann Alpendorf.

What has been your career path to date?

I was born and grew up in Wales, not far from Newport, and played for Wales at school and boys’ level. I turned professional in 1982, just after I turned 18, and my first club job was at Royal Guernsey in the Channel Islands. I started there in 1983 and stayed there for three years, before returning to Wales in 1986 to take up an assistant’s job at St Pierre in Chepstow.

I moved out to Austria in 1988 and held a series of Head Professional jobs there over the last 25 years, the longest of which was an 11-year spell at Wilder Kaiser Golf Club in the Tirol. I started my current job, as Head Professional at Open Golf St Johann Alpendorf in 2018 after a friends recommended me for it, and I’ve been there ever since.

What attracted you to working in Austria in the first place?
Back at the end of 1987, having failed to get my European Tour card at qualifying school, I had heard that many new clubs in Austria and Germany were looking for qualified PGA Professionals to teach their new members and were accepting applications for UK pros. The thought of a new country, a new way of living and the chance to earn some decent money, which we didn’t earn as assistants, was very appealing, and the reason for my move to Continental Europe.

What facilities does the club offer?
We have two different 9-hole courses, the 2,400m Orange course and the 4,670m Blue course. The former is a short, par-54 layout and is designed for new golfers and those learning the game, while the latter is a full-size, par-68 course for more experienced players. There is also a driving range with covered teeing grounds, a putting green and a pitching green, all of which are ideal for coaching all levels of golfer.

What does a typical working day involve?
I run the golf school and pro shop and spend my time between the two, teaching members and guests, running the pro shop and generally helping the club with green fee sales, organising tournaments and keeping the golf operations running smoothly.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
The most rewarding part is seeing people new to the game start learning with me and developing into good club golfers. I also really enjoy taking my clients on accompanied golf holidays all over the world and I’ve been fortunate enough to have played some great courses with them, as well as stayed at some amazing hotels and eaten in some superb restaurants.

How do you see your role developing in the future?
More of the same really, while continuing to promote what the club has to offer to golfers within our region of Austria.

How would you rate the current strength of the golf industry in Austria?
Golf is very popular in the western part of the country, with guests not only travelling from within Austria, but also from Germany, Switzerland and Italy to play the wonderful variety of courses that we have to offer. As well as superbly maintained courses, the clubhouses and the facilities are all of a very high standard. Austrians demand good service and they expect to find it at golf clubs too.  

How easy has it been to settle into the local community?
I personally had no problems getting accepted by the locals. My advice is to be friendly, learn the language, and get used to the lifestyle and way of life in the country of your choice, rather than expecting people to bend to your way of thinking.

What advice would you pass on to other PGA Members who may be interested in working abroad and in Austria specifically?
Austrian golf clubs don’t advertise for new overseas professionals as much as they used to, as there is a decent selection of local pros to choose from now. With Britain out of the European Union, many Austrian businesses are obliged to consider employing Austrian and European citizens first before they look further afield, so it’s not as easy as it once was to get work out here as a PGA Professional if you’re from the UK.

PGA Professional Gary Foster reveals what it’s like to be head coach, shop manager, custom fitter, head greenkeeper and general dogsbody at his own golf academy in Warmbad in Villach in Austria

What has been your career path to date?

I started my career as an apprentice at Scarborough South Cliff in Yorkshire in 1984, then moved to Ganton in 1986. Soon after I qualified in 1989, Gordon Manson, a friend who worked as head pro at Bad Kleinkirchheim GC in Austria, asked me if I wanted to come and work for him. I started off as assistant and then took over Gordon’s role when he left to play on the European Tour a few years later. In 2005 I moved clubs and took on the position of Head Pro at Finkenstein Golf Club, near Villach.
Since 2015 I have been at my current location in Warmbad Villach, where I run my own facility consisting of a driving range, six-hole par 3 course and an indoor studio. When I took in over it was a rundown old range which was not much more than a in a field with a wooden shack. I approached the owners and told them of my vision and they agreed that if I invested I could go ahead with the project. It was risky, but they gave me a long lease and I’ve never looked back.

What professional qualifications do you hold?
I am a fully qualified PGA Professional with 35 years of experience teaching a wide variety of pupils. Maintaining the golf course, running the driving range and a custom fitting centre and giving lessons leaves me with no free time for the PGA’s professional development courses, but I am pretty proud of what I have achieved so far! Years and years of teaching experience and hard work has made me the professional I am today.

What does a typical working day involve?

Running my own facility means I’m not only the golf pro, but I’m also the greenkeeper, the shop manager, the custom fitter and chief entertainer for my clients. I am a one-man band, so there is never a dull moment!

What are the most rewarding and the most challenging parts of your job?
It is most rewarding to have a loyal customer base and to see their swings improving lesson by lesson. Many of my customers have followed me as I have changed clubs. I have also seen a lot of the world, as I have been fortunate enough to take my customers on golf holidays to places such as Thailand, Dubai, America and South Africa.

The short golf season was a big challenge when I first arrived in Austria, the winters were long and they still are. However, I now have a solution to the problem as I have an indoor studio where my customers can take lessons and play on the simulator even when there is six feet of snow outside.

How do you see your academy developing in the years ahead?
Constantly adapting to the changing market is vital. I always make sure I am up to date with the latest teaching equipment and coaching methods. There is so much information available, you just need to know where to look for it.

How would you rate the current strength of the golf industry in Austria?
When I arrived here 30-odd years ago there were just 25 golf courses in Austria and now there are 160. The golf market is strong and definitely received a boost during the pandemic. As soon as the lockdown was over, people were desperate to get back to golfing. Many stayed at home in Austria due to travel restrictions and thus had more disposable income to spend on lessons and new golf clubs.

What do you like most about living and working in Austria?
Austria is a beautiful place. Mountains, lakes, fresh air and a decent standard of living. Also, its location in central Europe offers easy access to wide variety of other countries, cultures and holiday destinations. I often pop across the border into Italy with my family for a pizza, as it’s just 20 minutes from where we live. Similarly, Slovenia is only 15 minutes away in the other direction.

How easy was it to settle into the local community when you first arrived?
When I first got here I couldn’t speak a word of German, so that was hard in the early days, but I soon got to grips with it, as it was the only way I was going to be able to work and communicate with my customers and other members of the local population properly.

What advice would you pass on to other PGA Members who may be interested in working abroad and in Austria specifically?
Golf facilities in Austria are not run like the non-profit organisations they often are in other parts of the world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – they are interested in making money and over the years it has been more and more difficult for the pros to secure adequately paid jobs. Having said that, Austria is a fantastic place to live and work, and for a young pro wanting to gain some experience, I would highly recommend spreading your wings and taking the plunge.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started out?
It is risky setting up your own business, but I wish I had had the knowledge to have taken the decision to set up my own facility earlier.

Have you had any mentors during your career or people you have been able to lean on for advice? If so, who and what have you learnt from them?
Throughout my career I have been fortunate enough to meet many people from various walks of life and many of them have inspired me in various ways. I have known Wayne Johnson, the PGA’s new International Manager, for many years and have been inspired by his constant quest to adapt and seeks new goals. Wayne is not one to sit back on his laurels and I admire him for that.

Matthew Webb, Head PGA Professional at Maria Theresia Golf Club in Haag am Hausruck, explains how moving to Austria 25 years ago opened up career opportunities that he might never had experienced had he stayed in the UK.

What has been your career path to date?
I started my career in golf in 1991, at the age of 18. Of course, I wanted to become a tour player, but the professionals at my golf club, Ormskirk, explained the benefits of becoming a PGA Professional and the need to have something to fall back on if you didn't make it as a player. It was great advice and started me on my journey in this great game, so I have a lot to thank Jack Hammond and David Shacklady for!
My first job was working as a trainee assistant at Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club in Lancashire, where the Head Professional, Mike Houghton, helped me tremendously in developing my teaching and communication skills. He also helped me understand the shop management side of the business, but I always had time to play and practise. I will be forever thankful to Mike for his time and patience and sometimes discipline in developing me and my understanding of the job as a PGA Professional.

What attracted you to working in Austria?
After four years at S&A, a colleague and good friend of Mike Houghton’s recommended me for a position in Golf Club Zell am See in Austrua. If I’m honest, I wanted to see the world and experience life, and I also saw a great challenge in the learning of new languages and cultures, which excited me. I think I picked up the language pretty quickly, although 20-odd years later some of my close friends here in Austria would dispute that!

After several years at Zell am See, I left to work with a large hotel company where, over the next 16 years, I ran a golf school and developed my coaching and management skills. Communicating with different departments within the hotel was challenging and at the same time great experience and very rewarding. Now, at the age of 58, I’m back working at a private golf club, Maria Theresia, which is about 100km north-east of Salzburg, where I’m using all my experience to help and support the club and its members.

What does a typical working day involve?
Most of my days are spent teaching players of all ages and handicaps. I’m also helping to build our junior section, improving our scratch teams, and helping to integrate new members into the club. I work very closely with the club secretary and the greenkeepers, and, of course, the committee – which I spent three years on – and the club president.

What advice would you pass on to other PGA Members who may be interested in working abroad and in Austria specifically?
My advice is to get stuck in. Work hard on your language skills, work hard on your teaching, and work hard within the golf club. You’’ also need to make sure your own game is sharp, so you need to get out on the range and practise, get out on the course with the scratch players and let people see that you can play. Your game will help to sell you and get you involved in the club life. As the saying goes ‘walk the walk, talk the talk’ Be passionate about the game, love working on your game. I joined the PGA of Austria, I play in a few tournaments every year, I got to know some of my colleges, who over time have become good friends. We enjoy meeting up, and chatting about golf, exchanging ideas and experiences from teaching and teaching methods. All good stuff if I’m honest.
Today, at the age of 58, I love the game just as much as I did when I was 15, and all thanks to a few kindly PGA Professionals who went out of their way to help and develop me as a golfer and as a person.

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