Profile: Tuck Clagett, the American in charge of St Enodoc

Stuart Phipps
By Stuart Phipps December 18, 2011 13:42

Profile: Tuck Clagett, the American in charge of St Enodoc

The despair as the ball just fails to clear the crest… scaling the sandy heights… the scramble for a stable footing… the stilted, unbalanced swing… the slithering and slipping… the ball buried deeper in the sand… scraps of scorecard blowing away in the breeze…

That’s what the Himalaya bunker at St Enodoc GC means to me, even after 20 years. A giant yellow scar scooped out of the hillside, it lies in the domain managed today by Thomas D Clagett (known as ‘Tuck’ to one-and-all), an American citizen.

St Enodoc, founded in 1890 on the north Cornwall coast, was designed by James Braid – and inspired the famed golf writer [and former GCMA president] Bernard Darwin to describe it in 1910 as “a course of wonderful natural possibilities”, a curious compliment that hinted at better times ahead. This was a prophetic comment, for the course today ranks among the top 60 courses in the British Isles (number 34 on Enjoyed in equal measure by champion players and holiday visitors, the famous Church Course is not long – 6,547 yards – but playing to your handicap here is a notable achievement. The fairways zigzag through huge rolling dunes and the golfer sometimes plays blind man’s bluff on approaching the green. The 10th green – an immaculate putting surface like the rest – lies close to St Enodoc Church, (where the poet Sir John Betjeman is buried), the tip of the tower just visible among the grassy slope, crouching like a spying spaniel. And, on the sixth, there’s the Himalaya bunker…

Yet the sound of the sea stroking the sand and the sight of the sun on the next fairway calms the fractured mind – and the round proceeds; peace and delight restored!

Tuck listened to my memories with a smile, eyes aglow. “I love to hear visitors re-living their round. There’s a ‘WOW!’ factor about the course that everyone feels,” he said. “It’s what makes St Enodoc special.”

Today, Tuck is a very contented man. After eight years managing this quintessentially English golf club, he has the trust of the members – vital if you seek to change the way the club is run, as he is quietly doing.

Following a business administration course at Southern Methodist University in Texas – “the finest business training in the US” he called it – his career began in the commercial world of American ski resorts, at the wonderfully-named Steamboat Springs, in Colorado in the Rockies.

After a spell operating a ski retail outlet, he became the owner of the Steamboat Athletic Club, which had some 600 members. “As the owner, I carried full responsibility for the business, from banking the cash to marketing the product.”

Having gained in-depth knowledge of small business operations, Tuck moved on to become general manager of a complex of lodges at the centre of the ski resort, a job that called for a landlord’s realism and the empathy of a hotelier.

It was on the ski-slopes of Steamboat Springs that he met his wife, Janine, on holiday from her home in Devon. His interest in Great Britain was aroused – and they married in 1988.

There are, of course, no ski resorts in south England – but plenty of golf courses, and so, with an eye to finding employment in his wife’s native land, he turned his attention to running golf clubs.

To learn the golf business, he turned to the most successful golf operator in the US – American Golf – and in 2000 he was taken on as a management trainee at St Mellion in Cornwall. Soon, he was given his head as manager of Cams Hall Estate Golf Club in Hampshire – until 2002, when an advertisement for a manager at St Enodoc appeared. He looked at it with more than passing interest, remembering the application he had submitted two years ago while still working in America. Then, he had not been invited across the Atlantic for an interview; but now living in England, his chances were surely higher. So he updated his CV and sent it off, more in hope that expectation, he admitted, for he wondered why an old-fashioned English members’ club would employ a Yank with the American profit motive rooted deep in his psyche. “Nothing venture, nothing gained” was his attitude when he turned up for the interview. “I just relaxed.”

What he only found out afterwards was that the club’s officials had decided among themselves that the club needed to modernise and be run on a more business-like basis. Fresh ideas were needed and they were anxious to find a manager with a business background. So Tuck’s experience of the commercial side of golf club management was welcome – as was his cheerful, engaging manner. He always radiates optimism – and this rubbed off on the interviewing panel. He got the job.

While his ideas won over the committee, it would take time to persuade the members that new ways of doing things were not inherently bad. “Brits don’t rush into relationships,” as he put it. “Introducing change successfully is a kind of dance of little steps. But I can understand their caution, for the St Enodoc members are the custodians of a glorious piece of English countryside. It is the club’s primary asset and must never be spoiled.”

Nonetheless, the changes he and the committee have introduced are far-reaching and effective. They started with the manager’s office, where new IT systems were installed without anyone noticing. Then, right in the public eye, they set about refurbishing the men’s and ladies’ locker rooms and the lounge area – alterations likely to merit praise from the members. Next they decided that, good though it was, the course could be made even better – starting with the enlarging of the first tee. Since this necessitated pulling down the greenkeepers’ sheds, the committee sanctioned the construction of a new greenkeeping compound, with space and facilities that are the envy of all who see them. Then they tackled the course itself: “I believe that long-term changes should be based on the advice of experts, so we called in Peter McEvoy to give us his thoughts. He loves links golf and revelled in the opportunity.” Based on his ideas, they added new tees and bunkers on a variety of holes and relaid the 13th and the 16th greens.

These changes were agreed to add not only length but interest to various holes. Different angles and target areas were identified and created through the use of new tees and increased bunkering.

Finally, they encircled the clubhouse with practice facilities. “Players can now practice every shot they will need out on the course within 100 yards of the changing rooms,” he said.

Another area of management that has developed extensively is marketing – a taboo previously, since it threatened to open the club to all-and-sundry. But Tuck saw the benefits: “Neighbouring clubs were held at arm’s length: competitors, not companions. Now, by collaborating with our fellow clubs, we have produced a group called ‘Atlantic Links’, where tourists can book games not only on our course, but also on Trevose, Royal North Devon, Saunton and Burnham & Berrow – all through one agency. It is already paying big dividends.” Tuck also sees great value in the reviews in the golfing media.

Despite the Cornish Tourist Board being ‘deaf’ on golf’s attraction to visitors, Tuck went to Malaga last November to represent Atlantic Links at the International Golf Tourism Conference. His aim is to bring more European golfers to the south west of England.

But for Tuck, perhaps the best aspect of his job is the people he’s working with at St Enodoc – particularly the committee, which is elected from the 600 full members, who must have a permanent home in Cornwall. “I am very lucky to deal with such high-quality people,” he said. Country members make up the rest of the club’s membership of 1,400.

Tuck joined the GCMA in 2002, shortly after taking over at St Enodoc. In 2007, he was entered by the captain into the Manager of the Year contest, becoming one of the finalists.

Being somewhat isolated down in Cornwall, he doesn’t attend as many GCMA meetings as he would like – which is a pity, for I feel he has much to contribute. His experience of both commercial and private members’ clubs is a great asset.

Just one thing bothered me about Tuck – so I asked him: “Why are you called ‘Tuck’?”

“My full name is ‘Thomas D Clagett’ – the same as my grandfather and uncle. To avoid confusion, the family all called me ‘Tuck’, so now it’s ‘Tuck’.” Or did he say “it stuck”? I don’t know – but it’s all the same to me!

Stuart Phipps
By Stuart Phipps December 18, 2011 13:42
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1 Comment

  1. Tuck October 5, 15:49

    Thomas Darby Clagett, III is my brother, proud to say. He’s a very good man for sure. I don’t get to see nearly as much of him or his wife, Janine, as I would like.

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