An instructor, a business owner, a two-time Symetra tour player, and a mom of two: Sara Stephens has had an illustrious career in the golf industry since she was a child. Golf has been her "job" since she was young, and she has certainly made a career out of it with her husband, who is also quite competitive. She demonstrates how to manage your schedule along with your students' and family's needs to find the formula that works out for everyone, which is something that will make the industry more appealing to a lot of people.
Here is her story:
What is your current role in the industry?
It was March of 2019 when my husband and I took ownership of a public access driving range. We had started an academy at the range back in 2015 and then, in 2019, we had the opportunity to take full ownership of the entire facility. So basically, the last two years, we've not only been teaching full time, but have also taken over managing and operating the whole facility. It's definitely been a fun and challenging couple of years going from the teaching side to learning a lot more about running and operating your own business. So we certainly had to broaden the skill set a little bit.
How did you get into golf?
I grew up in Northern Virginia, a little west of DC, in a town called Potomac Falls. And when I was five years old, we moved into a golf community, and joined the local country club. So, my parents got me into the junior golf camp at the country club and that's really where I started with the game. I think I was seven when I did the camps.
They would do these fun little contests and the prizes that they would use would be slurpee coupons if you won the golf contests. So, I was coming home with like a huge stack of coupons and my parents were like, "Where are you getting these?" So, they actually made me go back to the shop to talk to the pros at the club, because they wanted to know if I was actually winning. And they were like, "Yeah, she's actually pretty good." So, they ended up buying me a regular junior set of clubs.
Back then, there weren't very many junior club options, but Titleist had this T Rex junior set with a big T Rex head cover on the driver. So, that was my first set. It just kind of took off from there. I was about 10 when I started tournament golf. And then just kind of gradually worked my way up and went on to start playing a lot of national junior tournaments with AJGA.
Ultimately, I got a scholarship to play at University of Central Florida. So, I started my college golf career there and then after two years, I transferred to the University of Kentucky and that's where I finished up. My college golf career was there and I was fortunate enough to meet my husband during my senior year of college. He actually played golf there as well, but he had graduated the year before I transferred in so we were never on the team at the same time, but we met through mutual friends from the golf team. If I hadn't transferred, I probably would have never met him.
When you were going through college, what were you majoring in? Did you know you wanted to go into golf?
Growing up, my parents were always just like, you know, golf is kind of your job, as long as you're working at it and you're enjoying it. And fortunately, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to get a scholarship to play. So, they looked at that as my work experience, so to say.
Growing up, I always felt like I was going to stay in golf no matter what just because it was kind of the only skill set I had. I was a liberal arts major when I was at Central Florida. And then when I transferred to UK, I switched my major to psychology. That's ultimately what I ended up majoring in. They didn't have a sports psychology major at UK, but I wish they did. That's why I ended up just doing a straight psychology degree. I thought maybe it would help with golf, to know how the brain's working.
So when did you decide to pursue golf?
I played Symetra tour and I gained status straight out of college, so I went and played a full season right after I graduated, which, looking back, was really difficult because I didn't really get a break. It was like, okay, I graduated college, and then all of a sudden, I'm just going straight to playing professional golf. So, I kind of got burned out after that first year. And that's when I started the PGA, which was the fall after I graduated college and after I had played Symetra all summer.
I started working at a country club up in Cincinnati, which was great. I had a lot of fun. I started doing some small ladies clinics up there, worked in the shop, worked outside, so I got a lot of just all around experience in the golf operation there. After doing that for a year, I decided to go back to school, and then ended up getting Symetra status again. So then, the next year, I went back and played on tour, but meanwhile, was still in the PGA program. I was doing all the book work and stuff while I was playing that second season. I told myself that the second time I qualified that, "Okay, I'm gonna give it my all this year and see if this is really something I want to do." When it came down to it, I loved playing, but I didn't love the travel and the grind as much as I thought I would. And needless to say, you have to be like, top 30 in the world to really make a living in women's professional golf.
So, it was after that second full season out there when I said, "You know, I really like being in the golf industry" and I just wanted to settle down at home. I ended up finding a job at another country club in Cincinnati and worked there that following year. My introduction into the golf industry was mainly in the golf operation side. I did get some teaching experience at both of those clubs that I worked at and meanwhile, my husband was teaching full time at the driving range in Kentucky. He was getting so busy with his lesson book and then I ended up getting pregnant with our first son. It was going to be closer to home for me to teach at the range and just from the flexibility standpoint, so it just made sense. That's when we expanded the academy out of the range and when I switched over to more of a teaching role was in 2015, after our first son was born.
And you just had another baby, right?
Yes, he'll be three weeks on Wednesday.
Tell me a little bit about that mom and work-life balance in the golf industry. How do you make it work?
There's what I call Mom guilt, where it's like, if I'm out working all day teaching lessons all day you feel guilty that you're not spending time with your kids. But then on the flip side, if you're spending more time with your kids, then you feel guilty that you're not working or providing enough for your family.
Back when we had our first son, it was really when I was just starting my teaching career and I was really fortunate that my in-laws live a mile from us and this was their first grandchild. So, having that support system was huge for me just to be able to work some of those later hours when I was trying to build my teaching business, because you have to stay there until eight or nine o'clock some nights. So, that was really hard just being a new mom but you know, I was really lucky that I had that support system so close and I still do.
I'm still trying to figure out now that we have this second one in the equation plus all the pandemic stuff that has happened in the last year. I'm just trying to figure out how that's going to work into the work schedule. Luckily we were able to plan this one a little bit more where I can take a few more months off and still be comfortable so my plan is to step away from the individual lessons this year and I'll still be teaching some but going toward more of a camp model and doing some day camps in the summertime this year so that way I can pre-plan childcare. That way, you know the dates that I'll need to have somebody because daycare gets very expensive when you've got two and they're full time.
And with lessons and golf, there's definitely more of a demand for those after work or after school lesson times so that's where the day camp model I started doing a nine to four or nine to five camp where the parents feel like, "Oh, I can drop my kid off for a whole day and they're getting some great instruction and they're meeting other kids their age." I did smaller group sizes last year with COVID so we had six kids in a camp where everybody's able to spread out a little bit more. But it was a lot of fun doing the day camps. We got to do some fun activities. It wasn't just hitting golf balls all day; we did games and had a pizza party during lunch so there was just a lot more interaction and you get to know the kids a lot more doing it that way. So that's kind of the plan this year is just doing mostly the camp structure a little bit more.
We have a pretty large PGA Junior League program as well and our older son will be seven in July so he started that last year. It's fun to see him get involved with the sport too so it's definitely taken things to a new level now that he's old enough to be involved with some of the golf stuff.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
For me, it's definitely with juniors and just getting them into the game and just giving them those initial experiences with the game of golf and helping them improve. With teaching, I kind of help guide them with taking ownership of their game, structuring the lessons or teaching around what their goals are and where they want to take their game to because, at the end of the day, you're probably not going to be a top 10 junior golfer in the world. But, just giving them the opportunity and developing that love for the game where it's going to be a part of them for the rest of their life, you want to give them those good experiences.
What other challenges have you faced in the industry?
It's good and bad, in some ways, having a spouse that plays too. We're both competitive. He's definitely a lot more competitive than I am when it comes to playing more. It's kind of that balance of being a mom but I still like to go out and play sometimes, too. We do a really good job letting each other go play golf when we want to, and things like that. But we're really excited this year, because my husband won Player of the Year in our PGA section last year, so he qualified for the Barbasol Championship, which is in Kentucky. So, whoever is Player of the Year in our section gets a sponsor's exemption into that, so we're super excited. He's going to be playing in July, so I'm definitely letting him have free rein of playing the next couple months. We live in a golf community too. So, we're really fortunate that we can drive the kids up to the course in the golf cart and go play a few holes. So, it's nice that golf is just kind of always around us.
What are your future aspirations in the industry?
We just want to continue to make the range successful. We certainly want to keep growing our academy. Right now, we have five instructors. So, we would like to keep it around that number and continue to grow our junior programs. So really it's about having that range as well as continuing to set goals for the business, which is a lot of fun. We're definitely both entrepreneurial-minded. So it's kind of fun to be able to set those goals together.
How do you think the golf industry benefits from having women in leadership positions?
I can definitely say, just in the last probably five years or so, the PGA really has done a great job working to grow diversity and inclusion within the Association. They started a program called PGA LEAD; I think they're on by the fourth or fifth year of it. I was in Cohort III and that was really cool. It opened my eyes a lot to how diverse it really is in the Association because you kind of just get the snapshot of, "Oh, only 3% of members are females." But you know, 3% of 29,000 people, there's still a good amount of diversity within the Association. So it was a cool way to meet people from different backgrounds.
We had the opportunity to attend the PGA annual meeting too and just over those couple years of being in that program I could definitely tell there was a shift in who was in the room. It's gone from just being older white males in the room to, you know, they would have PGA LEAD people in there and you'd get a lot more PGM students so it was cool to see that there's definitely a younger generation of people that are coming into the golf industry. The PGA is really working hard to start to change the mindset that you have to work 80 hours a week and you have to work every holiday in the summer. Being an assistant or head pro isn't the only opportunity that's out there within the Association. There are a lot of different avenues you can go within golf.
How do you think we can get more women working in the industry?
For me it's been when I have students and lessons that are girls in middle school or high school that are playing golf, I'll share with them what PGM is or being a PGA member and share some stories with them. I've actually had, I want to say three or four students, actually go on to get into the PGM program at Eastern Kentucky University so we've actually had quite a few students from our academy that have gone on to do that program where they realize college golf isn't the only option to keep playing or to stay involved with golf outside of high school. So that's been really rewarding as an instructor is being able to help them understand that there's opportunities out there and for them to pursue PGM.
What advice would you give to women just starting out their careers in the golf industry?
Don't be afraid to try some different things that you might think you don't enjoy. I remember being terrified to start giving clinics or trying to teach golf to people but the more I tried it, the less nervous I would get about doing it. It's okay to be scared or to not really feel comfortable about trying something but once you try it and you keep doing it you might find that you actually really enjoy it.
What advice would you give moms or moms-to-be in the golf industry?
Don't try to force yourself to do more than you think you need to do. It certainly takes time to find the balance that's going to work for you and everybody's in their own situation, whether it's having a family or having a spouse and just because one thing isn't working out, don't be afraid to keep looking at opportunities or keep looking at options that are going to fit for you and for your lifestyle.
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