Surely, you know Stephen Ames—the four-time PGA Tour winner and current PGA Tour Champions player was a fixture on tour since he joined the PGA Tour in 1998, making more than $22 million in career earnings. You might not be as familiar with his brother, Robbie Ames. But he has a story that most golfers would find intriguing.
Being alongside his brother as Stephen's caddie for many big moments in his career, such as Ames' 2006 Players Championship victory—plus the somewhat infamous WGC-Match Play match against Tiger Woods—Ames has forged his own career in golf. He is currently the General Manager and COO of Sea Pines Country Club in Hilton Head Island, S.C., where he is overseeing rapid expansion of facilities including an upcoming $1.5 million expansion of the club's health and fitness area. Previous to Sea Pines, Ames spent three and a half years at Desert Mountain Golf Club in Scottsdale and more than five years running Cinnamon Hills Golf Course in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Ames, with his atypical development on the management side, going from a PGA Tour caddie to an executive at a golf club, has interesting insights to how golf clubs can adapt during tough times. He answered five questions from Golf Digest's Stephen Hennessey.
Your route to your current position is quite unique, and I’m sure folks might be interested to discover how you learned all these various skills, and how those skills might’ve developed differently than the typical golf-course manager.
Robbie Ames: “I’ve been lucky to be in this game for 41 years, starting to play when I was 4 years old. I went to college and played golf here in the States. Typically, most GMs come through the food-and-beverage side, and then learned golf. But I did it the opposite way. I know golf, agronomy and tennis as well, and I’ve been able to come through and get on top with a very great understanding of all facets of the club, learning from a great mentor at Desert Mountain, where I ran 54 holes of golf before learning all the F&B, and then my time running golf operations in Jamaica. And now I'm at Sea Pines Country Club, running a great club with 851 members. It’s like a fairy tale.
"But being successful is being able to predict the next trends on the club side. Why have people usually joined a country club over the past 20 years? It's been golf for the most part. Now, we know how much the industry is changing and things are being geared toward the fitness and wellness aspects of a club more than ever. So I’ve understood that, and that’s really been a part of our success at Sea Pines. Providing your members with activities that they enjoy to keep them active, and keeping them limber and playing golf and tennis for longer. But that’s the one advantage really, to coming to the management position the way I did. I’ve had a good rapport with my members, and really understood the golf side of it, and a good knowledge of all other facets of the club. Whereas, I think many GMs come through the food and beverage side of it, and while they might have a great understanding of the operations of the clubhouse, they might not have a great idea of the swimming pool, tennis court and golf course operations, and how to optimize those activities along with newer fitness ideas. So that was my advantage, the knowledge of those areas.”
The business tends to be old-school a bit, I wonder, on that fitness and wellness side, are there particular programs that Sea Pines has done well that would translate to other clubs?
“If nobody is giving you feedback on your fitness classes, then they’re probably all wrong. There’s a reason people aren’t talking about those programs, and that’s because they don’t like it, and they don’t want to hurt your feelings. We offer, I think, 30 different classes a week. And they all see full attendance. One example, there were times where we wouldn’t see 14 people for an entire week at our fitness classes. Now we’re seeing 40 people per day at our fitness classes. They’re not there to do bench presses and go on the treadmill. These are group classes that are fun.
“We offer a plethora of classes. We sought feedback and provided a variety of options. But once you get some positive feedback, you need to take risks, and provide programs that you wouldn’t think anyone would like—some of the most unusual, different classes become the most popular, because people try them out of curiosity, then all of a sudden they’re telling their friends about it. So this area has been a real plus.
“The other thing great thing was making a list of America's Healthiest Clubs. And that's just part of the direction we're going with health and fitness. We started off developing an herb garden to allow our cook to grow some rosemary and other things, and that has expanded to over 1,000 square feet of fresh vegetables that he’s using on the plates. So how does the golf professional learn about that? You need to understand trends. And health and wellness is an area that can really help clubs. It’s about variety of classes, understanding your demographic, and offering people options they didn’t know they wanted."
That holistic approach is a popular mission statement being discussed among facilities around the country. What has been key to developing successful programs here?
“Sunset yoga has been hugely popular and something that’s fresh in my mind. After yoga, we have a celebration with a barrel full of white wine, rose and champagne, and strawberries and cheese, and then it’s fun. It’s all about fun. That’s how you keep an engaged membership with great experiences.
“That’s why our next capital project, which we’re waiting on plans to confirm, is a fitness center renovation and expansion. We know it’ll be over $1.5 million in improvements, and that’s to expand the offerings for our memberships. What will it have? We’re gonna put a sauna in a locker room—but not your typical sauna. This is an infrared sauna, which allows people to go in with your clothes on, because you can set it from 90 degrees to 160 degrees, and you can sit down and loosen up and stretch out before your game of golf or tennis. And you can sit down in a comfortable environment to do that, that’s what we’re trying to do—we want to be on the forefront of all these things."
These are very progressive offerings—things you don't often hear from traditional private clubs. What has been key to making this transformation?
“Frankly, you either adapt or you die. You don’t want to be one of those clubs that is at danger of dying because you’re afraid of evolving. Don’t get me wrong: There will always be the best private clubs in the world. Those true golf experiences, like Shinnecock Hills, for example, where the U.S. Open is being held this year. There will always be those clubs, and they'll always be successful. We're not talking about the health of these clubs.
“But women are making more and more of the decisions in the household, and with that is what club are you going to join. The women are asking: ‘Hey, you can play golf anywhere. Is the golf good? Great. You, as the golfer, are complete. Now, she’s going to ask, ‘What am I going to do with the kids?' 'Where are the programs for me and my kids?' 'Where’s the pool, can I go to that fitness center?' And by the way, if we join this club, maybe I can cancel my gym membership, or the yoga class, etc. So women have a huge influence to where you’re going to join. So if clubs don’t become aware of how they need to evolve, they’re not going to adapt with the times.”
OK, and I have to ask about the famous WGC match with Tiger Woods before we go. How often do you get asked about that, and what was it like being a part of it, being on your brother's bag?
"Oh man, we realized we were a part of watching TW at his best. It just became a clinic, and we had the best seat in the house. There was no stopping him. This could be its own interview in and of itself. What a day it was. I turned to Tiger on the 10th green, and I said to him, 'Man, great playing. Sorry your round is getting cut so short. I think you could've shot 59 today.' Because he was 7-under through 10, and he could've really went deep. Of course, he didn't say anything to that because he was so focused. We were a part of history in a negative way. But everyone forgets that five weeks later, Stephen went on to go win The Players by six shots and had the pinnacle of his career after that low point. So he really turned it around, and it was such a terrific memory.”