John Heggarty is a PGA Master Professional and he has been head pro at Royal Liverpool Golf Club since the age of 23 in 1982. Heggarty, a TGI partner, spoke exclusively to Robin Barwick about the prospects of hosting the 2014 Open Championship
Please can you offer a description of your business?
My shop covers approximately 15,000 square feet, and it is linked to the players’ entrance to the clubhouse, where all our visitors first enter the golf club, so while I own and run the shop, our role is also very much to meet and greet. The shop is also the main thoroughfare from the clubhouse to the golf course, so it is a key access point for our members and guests.
We also have an indoor video room, equipped with Trackman, and I am a Callaway ambassador, so we have their full fitting cart, among others. I employ three full-time assistants and I am taking on a fourth for the summer through the PGA’s graduate programme at Birmingham University, which I do on an annual basis, and I always find them to be very skilled.
Have you played much competitive golf?
When I was 20, 21 I played on the South African and Australian circuits, but when I came to Royal Liverpool, I took over from a tour pro called John Morgan, and part of my remit was to be here at the club. I enjoyed playing competitively, and if I have one single regret it would be that I never found out how far I could go in the Tour arena, but being pro here and seeing how the club has evolved has been reward enough for that sacrifice.
How important is custom fitting at Royal Liverpool?
All the clubs we sell are fitted, even putters, and these days we actively discourage our customers from going out and trying product before they have had a fitting. We are a private members’ club so we are not talking about fitting a high volume of golfers like at a driving range.
How is Callaway’s hardware selling through so far this year?
I have been in the trade for a number of years and I have seen Callaway right at the peak of the industry, when every pro shop you walked into carried Callaway product. Over the last eight or nine years Callaway has not enjoyed the market share that it once had, but due to the various changes within the company over the past couple of years, the brand is now back to where it used to be at the top of the tree, and the products fit the brand.
The products now are selling exceptionally well: the Big Bertha and X2 Hot drivers, and the X2 Hot irons, and I am playing the Apex irons, which is a fantastic set of forged irons. Across the board, with the new Mac Daddy 2 wedges and the Odyssey putters, it is all very positive.
Where is the focus in your shop this year in terms of soft goods?
This year I have partnered with Bobby Jones, as Jones won the grand slam in 1930, part of which was the Open at Hoylake. We have dedicated an area of the pro shop to Bobby Jones clothing, and we have complemented the product with imagery of Jones in 1930 with the Claret Jug at the club. There is a nice synergy there between the club and a successful brand that is repositioning itself in the UK market. I also work with Peter Millar, adidas and we have a relationship with Ralph Lauren as it is an Open patron and supplier. I have also just started working with Ahead with headwear.
What sticks in your mind from the 2006 Open?
There were varying emotions. When the club was asked to host the event for the first time since 1967, you wonder if the club can cope with holding the Open. First of all you think of all the reasons why the Open was not held here for so long, but then you take a step back and remember that fundamentally we have one of the best golf courses in the world, which is key, and the infrastructure surrounding the event is fantastic now.
We had incredibly hot weather in the build up to the 2006 Open – one of the hottest summers on record – and temperatures of 118˚ were recorded in the maintenance compound. We had seven weeks of incessant sunshine before the Open, so the golf course went from very green at the end of May – just like the course is now – to having incredibly golden, fast-running links fairways. The greens putted beautifully too, and as long as golfers positioned their tee shots in the right part of the fairways they were rewarded with the chance to have a go at the flag. From the wrong part of the fairway, golfers might have to play over a bunker and then struggle to keep their ball on the greens. That’s links golf at its absolute finest. The course was an absolute winner that week.
Ultimately we saw the number one player on the world win the Open at Royal Liverpool with record crowds and beautiful weather, and it all went off smoothly, so in the end we felt that we must have done something right at the club. To be quite honest it was just a wonderful experience to be involved.
How is the course shaping up so far this year?
It is highly improbable that the golfers will find the same golf course conditions this year than they did in 2006, so they will be faced with a different set of challenges. If the conditions are benign then it will set-up an exciting championship of low scoring, but if the wind blows it will be much more difficult.
Our course manager Craig Gilholm is one of the finest links managers you could ever come across – he came to us from Muirfield – and he will have the golf course prepared immaculately. Then it is down to Mother Nature to see what she wants to throw at the golfers.
How did winter treat Royal Liverpool?
We are blessed here. We are right on the coast and the golf course sits on a sand base so it drains very quickly. Generally it is only snow that closes the course. That is one of the great things about a links course like this; it can take as much water as you can throw at it.
The mild winter did mean that some of the normal diseases in the grass weren’t killed off as readily as usual, so Craig has had to fight with moss over the winter, but he is such a perfectionist that now you wouldn’t know there had been a bit of moss in the greens.
Traditional thought was to protect areas of the course where you would expect heavy use during a championship – certain pin positions and backs of tees – but without footfall on these areas it actually encourages moss to develop even more, so we often set-up tricky, championship pin positions for the members, and we encourage them to walk on the backs of the tees to alleviate the moss.
How do you manage footfall on the course in an Open year?
We try to keep the same amount as we would in a normal year, but we need to protect the condition of the fairways and limit divots, so golfers use mats for shots from key fairway areas. We are conservative with footfall to ensure we provide the best quality golf course we possibly can for the championship. There is a balance to be struck between welcoming people to play the course, and preparing the course as well as possible for that one week when you are in the eye of the golfing world.
If we get the balance right then footfall at the club will take care of itself for years to come.
How was business in the pro shop back in 2006?
The golf world was a very different place in 2006, and it is not as buoyant in the pro shop this year as it was pre-Open in 2006. That is indicative of the marketplace in general, although I am sure we will get busier in the build-up to the Open. Overall, 2006 was a positive year in the pro shop.
One of the challenges I face is that during Open week itself, the general public does not have access to my shop, so our custom will primarily be members and their guests. The Open has its merchandise pavilion, and for us it is quite a challenge to get our stock levels right. We need to serve our members, yet we will have quite a large competitor right on our doorstep!
Having the Open Championship can never be a negative, although there are sacrifices we make, such as closing the course for two weeks prior to the Open, and during June the course is only open to members and members’ guests. Coaching is also limited as the practice ground and short game area are closed, but you can’t have it both ways.
Although I am the club pro and I derive an income from shop sales, my role is to represent the club in a much wider spectrum during the Open. We will put our best foot forward in the shop, but that week is about where Royal Liverpool Golf Club is positioned within the world of golf.
The advantages for my business are long-term, and over the next few years we hope the club will attract a lot of visiting golfers from within the UK and overseas. The pro shop and club should benefit from that.