Meet the director of golf: Nairn Dunbar Golf Club’s Robbie Stewart

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir March 27, 2020 15:27

Robbie talks about increased professionalism in the industry today, the transition from PGA professional to golf club manager, the restoration works that have been taking place at his course and the benefits of having a leading pro linked to the club.

Robbie, can you tell us a little about Nairn Dunbar Golf Club?

We celebrated our 120-year anniversary last year. We were founded in 1899, 12 years after our near neighbours along the road at The Nairn Golf Club. Much the same as other clubs at that time, Nairn was mainly formed for the wealthy and the well-to-do. However, Sir Alexander Dunbar of Boath, who was the local landowner, decided the game of golf should also be accessible to the working people of the town, so he donated land on the east side of Nairn that could be used for their access. It was originally a nine-hole course here, designed by a local professional, Peter Robertson, and then became an 18-hole lay-out in 1924. It’s an excellent links course, well known for providing a stiff test and challenge, with good greens throughout the 12 months of the year. It is a par 72, but our standard scratch is 74, which is testament to the challenge for all standard of golfer. We’ve held professional and amateur events, including The Boys Amateur in 2017.

You’ve been working in the industry since 1980. How do you think it’s changed in that time – in particular, how golf clubs are managed?

From the management point of view, most clubs in Scotland are around 100 years old or more. They would have been formed by a group of gentlemen, who would sit in a pub, have a beer and decide how the club was going to be run for the next month … and then meet again. For most clubs, to this day, they are pretty much run in the same way (perhaps without the pub!), with a committee meeting once a month to sit and decide the short-term future. There had been very little change over a long period, but now through necessity, financial pressures and members’ expectations, golf clubs have had to become a lot more professional and business-like.

This includes bringing in younger managers if you like, golf industry professionals, who choose golf club management as a career. As that has happened, various national bodies, like The PGA, BIGGA and the CMAE, have all improved their educational programmes to provide a raft of young, highly-qualified golf club managers. It’s no surprise that the clubs who have industry professionals as club managers tend to be the ones that are succeeding more because of their knowledge and education. That has been a big change, and a fairly recent change. Kieran Maclean is our club manager at Nairn Dunbar and, at 29-years-old, has completed his MDP Stage 1 and 2, as he looks to progress his career.

What does your role as director of golf entail and what are your biggest challenges at Nairn Dunbar Golf Club today?  

There are some key challenges. My role originally when I started at Nairn Dunbar in September 2018 was the overall responsibility for the day-to-day management of the golf club which took in every department – the clubhouse, the administration staff and the greenkeepers. It wasn’t so much a hands-on role, but more overseeing each department and being there on call as the main point of contact, for members of staff, as well as members and visitors. Each department has very experienced ‘heads’, they’ve been in position for many years, and all are very good at what they do. We have weekly operational meetings and that has helped to bring each department closer together and working as one. Consequently, the role has evolved to that of golf operations with full responsibility for the pro shop operation in the traditional manner. In addition, I’m closely involved with membership recruitment and retention, marketing and social media promotions, running club competitions and membership of the green sub-committee – basically anything to do with the golf side of the club.

7th par 4 at Nairn Dunbar Golf Club

The biggest challenge, like a lot of other clubs, is financial and membership numbers. We are a pretty small town in the north of Scotland with two excellent golf venues. There is a limited, relatively small population to attract new members from the local community, so retaining members is at least as important for us as attracting new members. If we continue to meet members’ expectations, to the tight budget we work to, we will continue to survive and thrive.

The Highlands, over recent years, has benefited from more exposure, such as with the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, so we are always looking to attract more visitors too. It does take a little effort to get to this area, which is a hurdle, but the golfers who do come receive a typical friendly Highland welcome and more often than not are very surprised with the quality of conditions and service we offer here as a whole. Our qualities are what we need to make more people aware of.

You’ve been a successful PGA professional for many years, were a ClubGolf coach developer for nearly four years and are now a director of golf. Has your career been a natural progression?

For me, it’s always the way I wanted to go. From really quite a young age as a PGA pro I was studying the management side of things, simply to help the clubs I was working at to be better managed. As the golf pro, you are at the forefront of the club, speaking to all the members and visitors and hearing their views. But sometimes you’re not in a position to do anything about the concerns or issues that they raise. I wanted to learn more so I could hopefully have a positive influence at the clubs I was working at.

It’s not for every pro, but for me it was a natural progression. A lot of PGA pros are running their own businesses and have many of the skills it takes to be a golf club manager as well, clued up on the financial side and staff management for example.

The golf pro should have the respect of their members, given they are the expert in the game, have the knowledge to teach and, above all else, be a people person.

The management side is much the same, as how you speak to people – and deal with people – is what defines you.

10th par 4 Nairn Dunbar

You have recently restored the ‘links effect’ through course improvements at Nairn Dunbar. Can you explain what this has entailed?

Going back to late 2015, the club had a vision to restore the links site. The course has long possessed all the essential ingredients of an absorbing links layout and our course manager, Richard Johnstone, and his team, have brought that to the fore in recent years. After receiving consistent feedback that holes nine, 10 and 11 had a more parkland feel, we put a restoration plan in place to unveil as much of the natural dune systems and undulations as possible. Previously there was a band of larch trees, gorse and broom running down the right-hand side of the 10th hole that blocked the view of the Moray Firth and the natural dunes.

Through sustainable management, we have also worked hard on producing more firm and fast greens for links golf and undertaken a rough, gorse and tree management programme.

The overall improvements have been reflected in recent performance data analysis through the STRI programme, which highlighted the consistent quality of the playing surfaces. We are delighted with the quality of the course and continue to pride ourselves on our product, condition and service for members and visitors.

7th par 5, Nairn Dunbar

Russell Knox grew up playing at Nairn Dunbar. How beneficial is it to be associated with one of Scotland’s leading professionals?

It’s great to have an association with Russell. The Russell Knox Junior Open tournament is run in his name, again to be played at Nairn Dunbar in 2020. Russell came up to see us in 2018 when he was over from his home in America for the Scottish Open. It was very, very good of him to give us his time and meet our members, in particular our junior members. Fingers crossed his diary allows him to see us again. Kelsey MacDonald is an honorary member too and she is a great inspiration for our girls’ members, given what she is doing in the game.

8th par 3, Nairn Dunbar

How does Nairn Dunbar fit in with the local community?  

It’s a family focus for us. The more families that can be involved with us the better. The club is in the centre of the town, it’s the hub of the

community. The clubhouse is used regularly by the community as a facility. For example, we have a weekly yoga class that comes in, which is something a wee bit different. We have ladies’ lunches and different local groups using it for their weekly or monthly meetings. The annual Nairn sports award dinner is also held at the club regularly. Our location makes it ideal for people. Anyone living in Nairn can walk to the golf club, probably within a maximum of 15 minutes. We see ourselves as providing opportunities, not just for golf.

8th par 3 at Nairn Dunbar

What is the club doing to introduce more juniors and beginners?

We’ve done various things. We have a newly refurbished junior room which has a big TV and a PlayStation which youngsters can use, before or after their golf. That gets good use from members, as well as the children of social members.

As a PGA qualified coach myself, we also offer a strong coaching programme.

Usually, the better you play the more you enjoy the game and the more likely you will be to stay in the game. For the juniors, the key word is ‘fun’ and keeping them happy. Gary Lister, our teaching pro, runs a fantastic junior programme, where each winter he goes into some of the local primary schools (from aged eight upwards) to do early stages introductory coaching. The children are then all invited to come to the club on a Friday afternoon to take part in basic level 1 coaching, with lots of games. They have fun without knowing they are learning.

The next stage is going on to the golf course, playing three holes, and enjoying a kids’ supper in the clubhouse. As they get older and progress as members of the club, they can receive further lessons, play in junior medals and family-fun type competitions. It’s about getting them hooked on golf and keeping them in the game as they grow up.

10th par 4, Nairn Dunbar

Is the club also trying to attract more women golfers?  

This is another key area for us. I’m quite active myself in holding Get into Golf classes, especially for women. This past year I had three different groups, with each group featuring on average eight women, with an introduction to the game in the first session and moving to the course in the final session of a six-lesson programme. Again, it’s about keeping it fun and encouraging women to come along here, perhaps with friends, if they have talked about giving golf a go. It’s been a great success.

About 50 per cent of women who started the programme have become members of the club. We’re trying to bring more women and young families into the club, as we know it’s the women who tend to make the decisions in the household! We are working hard and seeing the numbers grow all the time, targeting the 30-something age group and hoping they become the backbone of the club going forward.

11th par 3, Nairn Dunbar

What is the club doing to enhance profitability of its food and beverage operation?

Our work in the community is helping the food and beverage side, given the functions and events we hold. The profitability of food and beverage is a critical part of our operation. Our location helps provide a good customer base, loyal and frequent. Our turnover is fairly good, so it’s about how we can improve the profitability of our services.

We’ve recently joined a local ‘buying group’ which will hopefully see our cost of purchases come down, as we will be buying at better prices as part of a group rather than buying individually. We’ve got good staff in place working hard to achieve our targets. It’s strange to say, but one of our biggest growth areas is actually funeral teas, with our locality again another factor behind that.

How do you communicate with existing members?

Social media is one side of it, given how important that area is now for golf clubs. We also use the traditional method of posters in the clubhouse. We know we have members who don’t use social media, so they need to see things in black and white on a noticeboard. We also have a direct e-newsletter that goes out to every member on a Friday afternoon, a weekly update to keep them all informed. In addition, we have a separate e-newsletter emailed from the pro shop every fortnight or so with our own news, any offers and competition news. We are conscious of not bombarding our members, but we are giving them regular communication. We also hold twice yearly open members’ meetings about the golf course, keeping them fully informed on all work, plans, actions and projects taking place. That has gone down very well among members, especially as they know what is happening in advance.

How do you personally keep up-to-date with golf industry news?

I read everything that is on the go! I read all the magazines and keep up to speed on social media too. LinkedIn is very good for articles. It’s a job in itself, from the management articles, to the industry news, to greenkeeping trends, but it keeps me abreast of what is happening across the entire industry. Whilst the women of the house are watching Coronation Street, I’ll be sitting reading through something to find out what I can do better!

View from the back of the green looking back to the clubhouse and town 1st par 4, Nairn Dunbar

You were also the director of golf at Paul Lawrie’s Golf Centre – can you tell us a bit about that experience?

For most of my working life I have been attached to traditional members’ clubs, Largs then Cruden Bay and now Nairn Dunbar. Working at a proprietary golf facility was very different for me so when the offer came from Paul and his wife Marian to join them in setting up what was initially a practice facility with a driving range and nine-hole par three course attached, it was simply too good an opportunity to let it pass by. It’s probably the only job I would have left Cruden Bay for after 20 very happy years there, but who can turn down the offer from an Open champion? I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Paul Lawrie’s Golf Centre, which also housed the hugely successful Paul Lawrie Junior Foundation, with the high-profile nature of the job with Paul’s name above the door bringing with it different demands. I’m proud of the contribution I made and I met many people who remain friends to this day.

Nairn Dunbar will stage qualifying rounds for The Amateur Championship in 2021 – congratulations! What do you think led to the club being named host and how will you prepare?  

Being a co-host of The Boys Amateur in 2017, which was a successful event, gave The R&A a positive experience. The golf course itself is obviously an attraction and the recent enhancements and improvements that our course manager Richard has made to the course have been well-documented. We’ve had industry experts and agronomists visit the course who have been full of praise for the work Richard and his team have carried out. The R&A know we will provide a fair and stiff test, which is what you want for a championship of The Amateur’s stature, while we will also give a warm welcome to competitors, volunteers and spectators, and provide the same level of assistance, notably through our volunteer members, that we did for The Boys Amateur. We look forward to the event very much in 2021, co-hosting qualifying rounds with The Nairn Golf Club.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir March 27, 2020 15:27
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