Building a brand by cultivating relationships
By Tony L. Starks
Five-time PGA Tour winner Nick Watney warms up on the range at San Luis Obispo (California) Country Club, and a few feet away hitting balls is Kevin Cashman – the PGA head professional at Bearpath Golf & Country Club in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
“That’s what makes the Straight Down Fall Classic such an awesome event to be a part of,” said Cashman, who has played in the event for the last six years. “To tee it up alongside PGA Tour professionals and put your game to the challenge is a unique experience.”
It has been that way for the last last 20 years, as the Straight Down Fall Classic has become a golf tournament like no other. It’s rare that PGA Professionals are given the opportunity to share the course with PGA Tour golfers, celebrities and elite amateurs from around the country. The environment is competitive, but also very relaxed. Members of the club are welcomed to attend, as well as the public. Attendees walk inside the ropes and fall in behind the leaders as they approach the 18th green. Although the crowds are smaller, it’s reminiscent of golf’s golden era when galleries would surround players as they traversed the closing stretch of a round.
Things are done professionally and every detail manicured. There are Rules official trolling the course, walking scorers with each group and caddies wearing bids with their players’ names on the back. But still, there is an air of relaxed casualness that allows participants, volunteers and attendees to easily open up, communicate and form real relationships.
The atmosphere of this tournament is no mistake. Since the family-owned brand of lifestyle apparel transitioned into golf in 1993, Straight Down’s culture has been one of building true and lasting relationships with their PGA Professional partners.
“We have built our company on supporting green grass and will continue to do so through the Fall Classic and other unique ways to build genuine relationship with PGA Professionals and buyers alike,” said Mike Rowley, owner of Straight Down. “For us, it’s the best way of doing business.”
That approach has not gone unnoticed by PGA members. That’s why professionals like Darrell Kestner make the cross-country trip from Deepdale Golf Club in Manhasset, New York every year. And why newcomers like Brandon Dixon, the PGA director of golf at Escondido Golf & Lake Club in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, leave with a newfound appreciation for the brand.
“Getting to know the folks behind the scenes at the company and seeing what they value was one of the best parts. Straight Down values relationships, it’s nice to see that company philosophy on display,” said Dixon. “Having now played in the Fall Classic, the Straight Down brand will certainly be elevatedback home in my golf shop and influence the way I discuss the brand with my members. Their company culture, their brand and products all have synergy, they’re true to who they are from top to bottom.”
“Straight Down is an active lifestyle brand, in both the golf and tennis categories,” added John Ronca, president of the Northern California Golf Association and tournament chairman of the Fall Classic. “Many of the people who wear the apparel enjoy living that active lifestyle, and part of that is having real relationships with people.”
Beyond connecting with PGA Professional partners, the Fall Classic also gives Straight Down the chance to further connect with the San Luis Obispo community – where the company is headquartered. Student athletes from nearby California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) are invited to caddy during the tournament, a valuable opportunity especially for the men’s and women’s golf teams – of which all 24 members caddied during the 2016 tournament.
“It’s a priceless experience for the students,” said Jonathan Fleming, Cal Poly’s men’s and women’s assistant golf coach. “Many of our golfers have dreams of becoming a professional, whether at the tour or club level. To have the opportunity to be up close with professionals, to interact with them and see first hand how the conduct themselves on the golf course is invaluable.”
But it’s not just the golf team. All and all, nearly 150 tournament volunteers came over from Cal Poly, including other sports programs and various groups of the student body.
“You never know who you’re going to meet on the golf course,” added Fleming. “This event gives our kids the opportunity to start building a valuable network of contacts from within the industry as well as highly-successful individuals from other walks of life.”
In addition to Watney, PGA Tour professionals in attendance included Tom Lehman, Olin Brown, Jason Gore, Tom Hoge, Aaron Oberholser, Tom Pernice Jr. and eventual champion Bryce Molder. Along with his amateur partner Jim Strickland from Whisper Rock Golf Club, Molder edged Watney and partner Jordan Scott from La Cumbre Country Club by one stroke. The two-day totals were 129 and 130, respectively.
Low club professional honors went to Scott Heyn, the PGA general manager at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, California – who teamed with amateur partner Corby Segal from Woodland Hills Country Club for a total of 134.
“Year after year, this one of the best events for PGA Professionals,” said Heyn. “I really enjoy how Straight Down brings together some of their PGA Tour staff with club professional partners. It’s so unique and it makes for a great atmosphere, I look forward to it each year.”
Added Cashman: “Mike Rowley breeds a culture of relationships within Straight Down. He is an incredible ambassador for their brand, for the game and for PGA Professionals.”