Graeme Bell, head pro at East Kilbride, was one of the first pros to embrace new technology. Andy Brown spoke to him about why polo shirt sales have dragged, his new golf performance lab and why all pros should embrace the opportunity to work abroad.
With all due respect to Scotland, there can’t be too many people in the world who have turned down a job in the Bahamas in favour of one in that fair country, but that’s exactly what PGA Pro Graeme Bell did. Of course when it comes to golf Scotland is more than a wee bit special, and when he received the job offer Bell had already experienced working in a country with a fairly hot climate – Dubai. After initially studying maths at University Bell had a change of heart and decided he wanted to become a pro and says he ‘studied like a mad man’ in gaining his qualification. It obviously worked as he won awards along the way, being named Scottish assistant of the year and sixth overall in the UK. It was after qualifying that Bell took his first job as a PGA Pro in Dubai at Al Badia.
“When you are in Dubai there are no boundaries when it comes to investment in golf, everything was as good as it can be. Being there enabled me to work with the best systems, see the best coaches and watch the best golfers,” says Bell. “As soon as someone picked up my CV and saw I had a good education background and PGA qualification and then saw I had been to Dubai it opened doors for me. If pros have any opportunity to go away then they should take it, because it opens your eyes. Without that I don’t think I would be at the club that I am now.”
The head pro at East Kilbride left Dubai due to his father’s illness and was back in Scotland in 2008 when he was offered the two positions previously mentioned – one in the Bahamas and the other in Linlithgow. While at Linlithgow Golf Club Bell established an indoor golf studio and stayed there until 2014 when he took over at East Kilbride as head professional. Bell says that the club has, in all its various categories, over a thousand members and that they are focusing on off-peak membership packages as soon they will not have space to admit anymore full members.
In terms of retail 2017 has been a good one for the pro, although the weather in Scotland has caused its fair share of problems. “There are certain categories which are up, such as golf balls and gloves, accessories and shoes. The hardest thing to sell has been polo shirts – it sounds crazy but the temperatures didn’t really get above 15 degrees until the end of May and then we had a wet summer so they just haven’t taken off the way we wanted them to,” says Bell. “In Scotland we have such a small window that we can sell them. The biggest thing I have found is that there is an upper ceiling for the price of a shirt and the ceiling level is £50. Anything over that is very hard to sell. For apparel a lot of things have to be both on and off course, things that you can wear on the course and out to a bar afterwards.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to his background in maths, Bell has been an early adopter of new technology and in 2017 opened a Golf Performance Lab at East Kilbride. The lab includes machines which measure lie and loft, frequency and moment of inertia and also has Foresight’s GC Quad which Bell describes as an ‘awesome’ bit of kit.
Having such technology available for lessons and custom fit is something which golfers are increasingly coming to expect from their pro, but Bell recalls a time when not all golf professionals were as, shall we say, forward thinking. “I remember when I came back from Dubai I had saved up some money and bought a launch monitor. A lot of my peers laughed at me as they said it meant I couldn’t tell what the golf ball was doing! I said the ball might be flying at 150MPH and you are telling me that you can tell me what it is spinning or launching at? A lot of the guys who laughed at me have just now got the technology and it takes a few years to properly understand certain units and what their limitations and benefits are.”
The head pro certainly understands this technology and says that another additional benefit is that he is stocking less actual hardware than ever before. When it comes to hardware sales he singles out Mizuno as being the best performing brand, saying that they have ‘eclipsed all expectations.’ He also mentions that he has never had to return a Mizuno club, which isn’t something he can say for other brands. With customers paying increasingly large sums of money for clubs he questions why certain manufacturers are producing clubs which aren’t fit for purpose.
The role of the head professional has changed massively over the last decade and not only has Bell adapted to the changing of technology when it comes to coaching and custom fit, but also its use for marketing purposes. Bell is a prolific user of twitter and of making YouTube videos and says that he markets himself and his services every day. He is a long-standing Foremost member and he says that the group have helped him with his marketing and that they offer a great platform to discuss his ideas with, signalling out Kevin Stables, business development manager at Foremost, for particular praise. The group have also helped him when it comes to sales – specifically golf balls. “Thanks to the guys at Foremost we put in a very straightforward golf ball display units and my golf ball sales are the best that they have ever been,” he comments. “We are refilling them on a daily basis, whereas before we had a little display on the counter and we were trying to do an American Golf and stock lots of brands, but it didn’t work until we used the ball plinths. Since then it has been unbelievable how much it has changed.”
It’s something which a lot of pros can no doubt relate to, when Bell comments that he increasingly feels under pressure to help members improve their game. “The big thing I’ve found is that I’ve had a lot of people come to me in the last year and say, ‘Graeme, my golf is horrendous. If you do not help me then I am chucking my membership.’ That is the biggest pressure because that could be a loss of £1,000 for the golf club,” he comments. “There are only two people at a golf club that can make more people play more golf; the greenkeeper and the pro because if they are not enjoying the course then they won’t want to be a member and if they are not enjoying their golf they don’t want to be a member.”
Bell – as can be seen from his YouTube videos – is an effervescent and outgoing character so one would expect him to be positive about 2018. However, he has a better reason than most to be optimistic thanks to the Golf Performance Lab. He says that the excitement following the opening of it was massive and that they have created and sold specific packages around use of the Lab for the winter. There is also an online booking system which takes some of the pressure off Bell and his staff as it is done remotely. As the conversation draws to a close and we discuss who Bell looks like – he says the most common comparisons he gets are comedian Jimmy Carr and former cricketer Kevin Pieterson – he comments: “The golf industry can be hard. Social media has been a really good avenue for me in terms of marketing and it is free. You have to keep on selling yourself on a daily basis. It can be hard, but I love what I do.” Ahmen to that.