Stephen Youngner is the head pro at The Ocean Course, site of the 1991 Ryder Cup. And the PGA Championship will be contested at this Pete Dye creation in 2012. Stephen is yet another of Kiawah’s “rags-to-riches” stories.
Golf Conversations: When did you first start playing golf?
Stephen Youngner: I started playing golf before I can really remember but I think I was about five years old. My dad took up the game when he was in his early to mid-30s and he’d never played golf before. He and I learned the game together and we improved together. I think I was able to beat him for the first time when I was eleven. That was one of his prouder moments and one of his more embarrassing ones, too.
GC: Would you say you were a natural at golf?
SY: I would go out with my father and I’d hit shots every few holes. That’s how I started. Then I started playing complete holes when I was about seven or eight years old. I always had a pretty natural swing. I played a lot of baseball and I didn’t really focus on golf until I stopped playing baseball which was around the age of twelve. Then I took up golf full-time and started getting some instruction. Between thirteen and fourteen was when I really improved. And that was over the course of a summer, just by playing golf every day.
GC: Was that when you were getting instruction?
GC: Was there a particular swing theory that your instructor used?
SY: I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina and a group of us had the unique opportunity to work at a driving range which was located across the street from the golf course where we played. It was the only golf course within 30 miles of where we lived and there was a PGA professional there named Jimmy Koosa.
He allowed us to hit range balls and gave us free instruction in return for us helping at the range on Saturday mornings. There were about eight to twelve of us and we would cut the grass and hit the balls out of the woods. Jimmy was our mentor. I’m a left-handed golfer and he was a left-handed golfer so that was quite the benefit to me. Pretty much from thirteen to seventeen I spent all of my time either at the golf course or at the driving range and being around golf.
GC: How did your parents feel about that?
SY: They enjoyed that. I would go to school, then get dropped off at the golf course and my mom would pick me up when she was done with work.
GC: So you were really passionate about the game?
SY: Oh, sure. There was a whole group of us and we were all friends and we would all just basically hang out at the golf course all day and play golf and practice. It was a great experience.
GC: Did you admire any touring pros when you were growing up?
SY: Jack Nicklaus was definitely my golf hero. I always admired the way he played. I admired his approach to the game and his behavior and how he handled himself. I was lucky enough in 1986 to see the Sunday Masters. Me and a friend of mine went to the driving range that morning and Jimmy had two tickets to the Masters for that Sunday that someone had given him and he couldn’t go. So we got the tickets, got in my car, and an hour and a half later we were in Augusta. We watched every shot Nicklaus hit on the back nine.
GC: You were part of the gallery that followed Nicklaus?
SY: Yeah, I just turned sixteen years old and that was an incredible experience. That was by far — and even to this day — the greatest sporting experience I’ve ever seen.
GC: That was a seminal moment in golf history. For Nicklaus. Not you. (laughter)
Did you ever have a conversation with Mr. Nicklaus? I see you have his photo framed on the wall behind you.
SY: I have not.
GC: Well he should call you! (laughter) If I knew him I would tell him to call you. Ok, different question: can you remember the brand of your first set of golf clubs?
SY: It was 1984 – they were a set of Fluid Feel Wilson’s staff irons. They were blades. The previous irons were called FG17s, but they had some issues with the chrome on the back and they were retooled and came back as FG17s. I played those clubs for four years or so. At the time, everybody played blades; hardly anybody played Ping clubs. They were around, the first perimeter weighted clubs, but we didn’t play them.
GC: There was no club fitting back then?
SY: We checked lie angles but we didn’t have the technology that’s there today.
GC: What? No launch monitors?
SY: (Laughter) No. We didn’t have any video cameras or launch monitors.
GC: I find that hard to believe! Okay, when did you first start thinking about golf as a career?
SY: I guess I was in my mid-20s when I first really considered it. My only concern about getting involved with golf as a career was that I didn’t want it to have an impact on my love for the game, my feelings for the game, my enjoyment of the game. And it hasn’t. It’s been a rare opportunity and privilege to spend so much time doing something you love.
GC: So how did you get into the golf business?
SY: Well, I worked for a law firm in Columbia, South Carolina for three years. Then I went to Jimmy Koosa and told him I was considering golf. There’s a process to follow for becoming a PGA professional, and he advised me about the first steps. You have to take a playing ability test, the PAT. I did that and was lucky enough to pass it the first time.
GC: Can you remember what you shot on your PAT?
SY: I don’t remember what I shot. It was at Port Armor Country Club in Greensboro, Georgia. I went to Georgia because the PAT was held in just one day, 36 holes. In South Carolina, the test was two different 18-hole days. I remember I played really well for the first nine; the final nine I had a pretty good cushion, and I remember kind of limping home a bit. But I came in below the target score.
GC: You started as a cart attendant at Kiawah in 1996 and now you’re the head pro at the Ocean course. Do you ever find yourself looking at a cart attendant now and reminiscing about how far you’ve come?
SY: It’s not that uncommon a story here at Kiawah. We really make an effort to promote from within. If you work hard, do a good job, there is that opportunity to advance. No matter what profession you’re in, I think it’s extremely valuable to learn the job from the ground up. It gives you that appreciation for everything that it takes to make the job work.
GC: Do you ever have time to play golf?
SY: I try to play on Saturday afternoons, weather permitting. I probably play at most four times a month.
GC: Do they let you play here for free?
SY: (Laughter) They do … sometimes!
GC: Does your wife play golf?
SY: She does. She’s a very good player. She played college golf at Charleston Southern. She’s played in two women’s Mid-Ams; she’s played in the US Women’s Amateur; she’s a very accomplished player.
GC: What’s a typical day like for you here at the Ocean Course?
SY: (Laughter) I don’t think there is a typical day.
GC: What time does the day start for you?
SY: I get in between 8:00 and 8:30 and, depending upon the time of the year, will work until sundown or so.
GC: The 2012 PGA is going to be held at the Ocean Course. How is that going to impact your duties here?
SY: It’s already impacted us. We’ve already started planning; it’s a partnership between Kiawah and the PGA of America to make the event successful. There’s a lot more community outreach than there normally is…
GC: If you hadn’t been a golf pro, what would you have done?
SY: (laughter) Oh, I don’t know.
GC: Getting back to your wife … when you two go on vacation, is golf part of the mix?
SY: Yes it is. My wife is Canadian so we usually go there in the summer and play golf. It’s nice that we can share golf together. We’ve been up to Bandon Dunes together, down to Florida a bunch.
GC: Are you two competitive with each other when you play?
SY: (laughter) Uh, no.