Editor’s note: This is the final story of a 10-part series celebrating the Golf Association of Michigan’s 100th year of service to the game. #GAM100
FARMINGTON HILLS – The Golf Association of Michigan was in crisis.
It was 1999, the GAM had unsuccessfully pursued a plan to build Golf House Michigan and adopt a new golf handicap computation platform. Several clubs and courses reacted by dropping from the membership rolls and the association was on the brink of bankruptcy.
“We needed a change in a hurry,” said Fritz Balmer of Linden and Spring Meadows Country Club, a GAM executive board member who served as an interim executive director in 2000 and then served as president of the association in 2001-2002.
“We found David Graham. He had never worked in golf, but he had turned some businesses around, and at that point we needed to change the way we were doing things.”
Graham, who is retiring in June after 18 years as executive director of the GAM, took on bankruptcy first. He pursued a loan from the United States Golf Association (USGA), used the GAM’s line of banking credit and asked for timely dues payments from member clubs to help make payroll.
“He was the perfect guy, just in the nick of time,” Balmer said.
Among Graham’s early business moves was the creation of more member benefits. Over 200 golf facilities participate in the “Swing and Save” program adopted in 2001. GAM members show their membership card and receive a discount during specific off-peak periods for play. Golfers liked the savings, and the facilities received more exposure and filled tee times that were previously unsold.
Graham said the early direction from the board was change.
“They ran it like a traditional association that was really good at running tournaments, which it was, but they wanted to find someone with a background in marketing who understood customer service and could develop alternative revenue streams,” Graham said. “It hadn’t been run like a business, and they needed to treat GAM members like they were customers and serve them and provide them with great value.”
Sara Wold, the GAM president in 2018 and a leader in Michigan women’s golf, said the most impressive thing to her in Graham’s tenure is the development of sponsorships.
“David’s ability to market the GAM made all the difference in the world,” she said. “We never had that before. We have great sponsor relationships now, and we have money in the bank to do more for our Michigan golfers.”
Graham forged relationships with multiple companies covering a wide range of services, many involved with golf but others like Pepsi to provide bottled water at tournaments, Sullivan Golf Travel to expand travel and golf experiences overseas, and Hour Media, which prints the annual GAM Links magazine and member/course directory and works with the GAM staff on multiple communications tools. Hour Media is also the presenting sponsor of next Monday’s GAM Foundation fundraiser for Youth on Course that celebrates the association’s centennial and features Jack Nicklaus as the keynote guest at Oakland Hills Country Club.
“What now is over 60,000 member golfers gives our sponsors a wonderful opportunity to promote product and services to a great demographic, and it helps them deliver their products and achieve business goals,” Graham said. “The goal was we could be more successful if we helped the sponsor be more successful.”
Graham decided early in his tenure that a big part of the GAM’s role in Michigan was to get more Michigan golfers to play more golf.
GAM Golf Days were adopted when he saw similar programs around the country working. Any GAM member can enter a GAM Golf Day, in which they play one of the state’s many elite courses, including notable private clubs, for as little as $60.
“In 2008 and 2009 private golf clubs were struggling with membership, and it seemed we could give golfers access to the many great golf courses in the state and provide exposure for those clubs,” Graham said. “We would bring golfers. The clubs would not make much money, but they would get exposure to people who love to play golf and maybe build membership. At the core it was a great way to get people playing more golf in Michigan.”
In the tournament structure Graham found a way to add member benefits with the development of the Net tournaments. The first Michigan Net Amateur was played in 2002, and there are six Net championships on the GAM schedule in 2019.
“Everybody recognized that the GAM ran the best championships for the best players in Michigan, but I felt we had to offer something to the rest of the golfers, so I got on my soap box,” Graham said. “I played in the first one. It was a modest sized field, but it has grown dramatically. There are a lot of golfer with handicaps in double digits out there who still love to compete.”
Graham also started the GAM Scramble with includes several events around the state leading to a championship event late in the summer.
“We have served elite golfers for 100 years, but a lot of our member golfers are not elite players,” Graham said. “They don’t have time to work on a single-digit handicap index. They play golf for fun, and to properly serve golf, as is our mission at the GAM, I felt we needed to include them. The Net tournaments do that. The Scramble does that. Our rules guys are not in love with it, but it broadened our audience, enhanced our membership and we added it without taking anything away from our traditional tournament structure. We continue to run the best championships and determine the best amateur golfers in Michigan – men, women, seniors, juniors, super seniors, too.”
In recent years Graham has helped the GAM look to the future. In 2013, he worked with the association’s Long-Range Planning Committee. A key outcome was the creation of the GAM Foundation charged with the mission to develop and implement approaches to make the game accessible to a broader audience, particularly junior golfers. In 2015, Graham learned about Youth on Course, a national program in which participating youth play golf for $5 at participating courses, and then Youth on Course would subsidize The program, which the GAM started through the GAM Foundation in 2017, had almost 5,000 youth play almost 6,000 rounds at almost 100 Michigan golf facilities in 2018, and has expanded for 2019.
“This program works,” said Steve Braun of Charlevoix, president emeritus of the GAM, a rules official and in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame because of his work with junior golf. “David calls it a bridge from getting kids interested in the game to getting them on the course by knocking down that cost barrier. It’s so true.”
Other missions Graham took part in or developed during his tenure include protecting tax benefits to golf facility operators for land contributions, expanding fundraising for the Evans Scholar Foundation and the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation, leading multiple efforts in fundraising and finding a home as a committee member for the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, and taking part with the Michigan Golf Alliance, which brings together six major golf associations in the state to improve communication and support for the industry, most notably via the annual Michigan Legislative Day at the Capitol.
He insists credit should not be directed to him alone, but to his staff, GAM volunteers, board members, presidents and all others who contribute to the GAM.
“I owe so many people for helping me with what was truly my dream job,” he said. “Fritz Balmer was a mentor for me. (The late) Paul Beaupre (president 2003-2004) helped me see the public facility operation side of things, and he was such a great businessman and friend. David Devendorf (president 2006) brought to the party logic and institutional knowledge and the philosophy to do the right things right. And John O’Donovan (president 2008) was invaluable in keeping me sensitive to the needs of the golfers in West Michigan and showed me other regions of the states had different needs.”
Graham said two key staff members proved invaluable through his tenure.
“Tonia Branch (now Laird, and the former assistant executive director in charge of communications and handicap) was the GAM’s most important person from a marketing and media management perspective,” he said. “She took care of the media and pursued the best marketing and communications efforts and she was a zealot in making sure our handicap services were second to none.
“And Ken Hartmann (senior director of rules and competitions) is one of the best tournament directors in the country, bar none,” he said. “I could concentrate on other things because he and his staff run the tournaments and determine our champions. He connects with the players, the rules officials and does the right things the right way.”
Graham said he owes a debt of gratitude to the 250 volunteers, club representatives, governors, board members, executive board members and the players who play in the state championships, the Net tournaments and the GAM Scramble.
“I so appreciate them, and through this last year so many have said nice things to me and complimented the GAM and helped us by making suggestions to help us get better,” he said. “I appreciate them and I’m humbled by their support.”
Graham, 62, was the sixth executive director in history, and Chris Whitten, the former University of Michigan men’s golf coach, started in May as the seventh. Graham will remain connected as executive director emeritus and serve in an advisory role. He has also accepted the volunteer position as vice-president of the GAM Foundation and will aid with Youth on Course and other initiatives.
He and his wife Terry have sold their home in Lake Orion and are building a new home in Pinehurst, N.C. They will be spending part of the year in Ireland and Scotland entertaining traveling golfers for Sullivan Golf Travel, and part of the year in Pinehurst while making trips often to Michigan to spend time with their family.
“My view right now regarding the GAM is that I hope we are leaving it better than we found it,” he said. “I believe we are. There is a strong team in place, a great new executive director with a great background in the game who will figure out the job and do it very well, a strong staff that he can lean on and all the great GAM people and members who will help him like they helped me.
“When I look back over the last 18 going on 19 years, after I get away a bit, I hope I still feel that overall, through our efforts, golf in Michigan is better than it was when I first arrived and is continuing to get better.”