Els Club GM Karl Whitehead talks about his devotion to the sport, and to travel
Week in the life: How Dubai golf pro gets into the swing of things
Karl Whitehead began playing golf at the age of 13 after seeing Tiger Woods win The Masters.
Now aged 33 and living in Dubai Marina with his wife Sara, the PGA professional is the general manager of a UAE golf club – The Els Club (Tec), Dubai Sports City. Mr Whitehead, who is from north-west England, worked at prestigious UK resorts including The Belfry and Celtic Manor before a “dream move” to Saadiyat Beach Golf Club brought him to the UAE in 2012. He was the director of golf at The Address Montgomerie Dubai before joining Tec 18 months ago. Here he talks about his average week.
I like an early start, usually 5.30am. If not in the gym, I go to work and do my best work before meetings, emails and footfall kicks in. It’s always a busy morning following the weekend. We catch up with our respective corporate offices: Dubai Sports City (owners) and Troon (management company). Guest surveys generally come through. We take these seriously to ensure we benchmark every aspect of guest experience, in addition to gaining valuable data that provides opportunity to improve. Every day we have a team briefing with a representative from every department: golf operations; membership; agronomy; academy; culinary; F&B, building maintenance; finance; HR and retail. Communication is key to success. I take the first of many drives with our golf course superintendent. The course is the most important asset. It’s living and breathing and we have 41 associates dedicated to all things agronomy. Creating and maintaining a course in the desert is a huge challenge.
We open the course slightly later today; provide the agronomy team extra time. Each day I take breakfast in our 261 casual spike bar, and set up office. I meet new people, engage with regular members and guests. We encourage our team to get front-of-house as much as possible. Knowing the team and having that open door policy is essential for a successful golf club. We meet marketing to run through the latest campaign results and plan ahead. In the other fixed Monday meeting, the whole team discusses coming events; a huge part of our business. We specialise in corporate golf days, have three board meeting rooms, a unique event space overlooking the course; and group clinics with the Butch Harmon School of Golf.
During the week I get breakfast once or twice with our director of instruction; Justin Parsons is the leading coach in the UAE and has a number of high-profile golfers in his stable. We discuss all things business, global golf industry happenings and trends. Tuesday’s usually loaded with meetings with partners, prospects, sponsors, clients, business leads, vendors or suppliers. Business development is a huge part of the job. I work late to see the evening shift in operation – especially our award-winning bar and grill, The Big Easy. Outside of meetings and emails, I take walks around the facility and audit our asset.
I meet the Troon president and/or Troon vice president. Agendas can be hugely wide-ranging: business performance; current membership feedback; grow the game initiatives; industry trends, best practice from Troon’s portfolio of 270 courses worldwide, benchmarking and expert support and advice on special projects. I meet our sales manager to run through strategies and updates. Sponsorship is huge as it enhances member events and the club experience. International business is huge for the club, and our sales guy is constantly in relations with 30-plus hotels and international tour operators. We cater for golfers of all levels – from the elite, to the beginner. We have just over 300 playing members. A lot of business is done on the course. There’s a big oil and gas contingent here.
All departments are flat out. Thursday is traditionally a corporate day across clubs in the UAE, a vital part of any golf club. We have our weekly F&B get-together, review all things related to F&B business performance and member/guest feedback, and adjust where we need to get better. The role of GM is heavily financial and Thursday I meet finance to run through this in great detail.
I take one day off per week, usually Friday or Saturday. If working, it’s hugely busy and I meet as many members and guests as possible. If lucky, once or twice or month, I squeeze a round of golf in with a member or client. You’ve got to test the product – when you play, you see things differently. With few meetings and emails, it’s a chance to catch up on projects; right now, the 2018 budget and business plan; capital expenditure; four new business projects; review the recent audit report; submission of monthly Troon reports, and regular owner reports. If off; I relax with my wife..gym, pool, lunch, cinema, dinner, meet friends. Our real passion is travel; I’m happy to work seven days if it means I can take a week off every quarter and visit a new country.
Another busy day with members and guests. F&B is nearly 50 per cent of the business. We have a great membership at Tec, a great social bunch. One of the best parts of the job is the people; all nationalities, all walks of life – it’s a real privilege. Saturday evening…watch Everton no doubt lose without scoring a goal.