Alex Keighley spent five years on the Ladies’ European Tour before becoming the head professional at Huddersfield Golf Club. She tells Andy Brown why she has no regrets and believes that golf professionals need to embrace the retail side of their job.
Growing up just 500 yards away from her nearest course – Lightcliffe Golf Club in West Yorkshire – Alex Keighley played golf, “day and night” and received her first golf clubs as a present from her parents when she was eleven. This present would eventually lead to a 21-year old Alex leading the 2003 Women’s British Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes after the first round. A disappointing second round would lead to her failing to make the cut by just one shot, but her stunning first round had seen her gain national media coverage and demonstrated her considerable talent. While these days that talent is channelled into coaching and running her pro shop at Huddersfield Golf Club, she still fondly remembers that crazy day when she led The Open.
Keighley had to go through two rounds to even qualify – winning her place in the second qualifying round via a play-off – and while she doesn’t think the golf she played on that first day at The Open is the best she has ever played, she admits that everything seemed to go right for her that day. “I don’t think I really reacted to the situation, I was just in a bubble and I played great,” she remembers. “I did hole a lot of stuff, I putted great – it was just one of those days. I remember I hit possibly the best 5 wood into 17 that I have ever hit in my life. I can still remember it quite vividly.”
After her performance came the inevitable media requests and interviews that evening with ABC America, Hazel Irvine on BBC and national newspapers. Keighley describes the experience as surreal, especially when she saw herself in the papers the next day, but things fell apart on day two, partly because of her having too much time to think. “I wasn’t teeing off until late the next day which meant I had way too long to think about it, which was bad. The nerves got to me; I had never felt that nervous before. I started with six bogeys and that was the end of that.”
When she looks back at that occasion and her five years playing on the Tour she describes her experience as, “absolutely amazing, I had a great time although I didn’t play very well! It was an experience of a lifetime, I had five or six years travelling and playing all over the world, meeting great people and enjoying every second of it.”
While playing on the Tour Keighley worked occasionally at Huddersfield Golf Club as an assistant pro and found that a decline in the money she was making on the Tour coincided with an increase in the demand for her coaching. Keighley slowly progressed into teaching and working more hours in the Pro shop.
In 2012, when head pro Paul Carman moved on, she was asked to step up – a challenge she was well prepared for. “Over the last few years working with Paul I had in my mind what I would do if I was head coach and I kept a little book of my ideas about what I would do,” she admits. “Because under Paul the club was part of a buying group a lot was done by them, so I big thing for me when I started was to get in touch with all the agencies and reps and make sure they came and saw me and I could build relationships with them.”
Huddersfield Golf Club is a thriving club that was founded in 1891 and has approximately 700 members – including 150 ladies’ members – and a waiting list for membership. The club have an in-golf studio with FlightScope and the course, which has been ranked in the country’s top 200, is just over 6,500 yards from the back tees.
Keighley believes that it is important that she serves these members by spending a good amount of time in her pro shop. “I have one and a half assistants – I have Jack, who is full time and a young 18-year old lad who does 10 hours a week for me and is in all day Sunday. I always wanted to be in the shop as well, so that was a big thing for me,” she explains.
“I still put myself in the shop as I didn’t want to be that pro who just floats in and out of there, I wanted to make it structured. It was always a key concern for me to be involved in the shop as I enjoy retail and it’s a big part of what we do. I enjoy being in the shop with the members and I enjoy selling and it gives me a bit more of a focus on the shop, which I think you can lose if you are not regularly there.”
The former Tour Pro is keen to stress that she really enjoys coaching but does believe that not enough pros invest enough time in the retail side of the job. “I’m a people-person and enjoy being with customers and selling the right stuff to the right people,” she says. “We do a lot of custom fitting and I like making sure that everything is right for the customers – it’s not a quick sell or a quick buck. I always said from the start that I want everyone who walks through the door to feel like a million dollars.”
Due to her belief in custom fitting, the club pro shop doesn’t stock too much hardware and Alex says that she, “doesn’t really believe in buying off the rack. Obviously sometimes we do have people that know what they want, and that is fine, but for everyone else we want to make sure that the product is correct and that we’re not doing them a disservice. It adds value to the whole experience of buying something for the customer.”
When it comes to the items that make the club shop till ring Keighley mentions what she calls ‘the big four’ in terms of hardware: Ping, Callaway, TaylorMade and Titleist. Regarding apparel, the club opt for high-end products and she mentions Oscar Jacobson, Galvin Green, Ashworth, Roneish and Tommy Hilfiger but reserves special praise for Glenmuir. “We stock Glenmuir mainly in knitwear and they do all of our team uniforms and we have a lot of teams – eight teams at the club. They are great because I can just ring them up with an order and it will be there within the week,” she says. “Obviously clothing is good for margins but Glenmuir is particularly good as it’s not really an online company, so that helps us make a good margin on their products.”
Keighley had a tough first year as head pro in 2012 but it wasn’t anything to do with difficult customers or adjusting to a new lifestyle. It was more of a typically British problem: the weather. “In my first year in 2012 we had terrible flooding in the summer and then the worst winter, so I just thought that I was clearly doomed in this job,” she says while laughing ruefully. “Since that first year we’ve generally seen sale increases year on year which is partly just due to building up member relationships and by having loyalty schemes. We make sure that we sell good products – I try and put in high end products that are going to last and I don’t do a lot of returns because the products are so good. For example, with Glenmuir I’ve probably sent two jumpers back in the whole time I’ve been working with them, so it is a great product to have.”
When asked about plans for the future she mentions a potential expansion of the shop, but it is clear that Keighley is focused on making sure she provides all her members and visitors with the best service possible. “Timing is crucial in the retail business; you have to know your club and your industry and when to be there and not to be there, to assess your client times,” she asserts. “You don’t want members to ask where you are and ‘oh they are on the golf course it can’t be bad’, that sort of attitude. You have to get into a good working routine. Planning is also vital, I do a chart for Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter and I have a budget for each of them. I also do my staff rotas months in advance and have all functions in the diary so we know exactly who needs to be in and when.”
The club have a core group of members who are the club’s main customers, but Keighley says her club shop is always busy due to how much she is involved in all the goings on in the club. “I’m very involved in the club, I do all the golf bookings so there are always people in the shop, be it to buy something or just a question about a competition. It is the hub of the golf club, which is nice.”