Meet the manager: Gordon MacLeod

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick March 21, 2024 11:31

The general manager of John O’Gaunt Golf Club in Bedfordshire, Gordon MacLeod, who we last spoke to in 2018, talks about the challenges of future-proofing the club, why the pandemic was transformational and the benefits of outsourcing human resources.


You made the move to John O’Gaunt Golf Club since we last interviewed you. What prompted the change and how have you found it?

I moved on from St Ives (Hunts) Golf Club after a relatively short but thoroughly enjoyable three years in 2019, a role which acted as my introduction to the golf industry. My door was ‘knocked on’, I was flattered, tempted by a new challenge and the opportunity to assist with the prospect of modernising a local club and one which I knew of old as a transient golfer around this part of rural Bedfordshire / Cambridgeshire – I jumped in with both feet – and, not long after landing, Covid came along!

Fast forward almost five years – wow! The immediate challenges of Covid aside, and in no way belittling the impact on every aspect of everyone’s everyday life, then and arguably now, it was a truly transformational opportunity for the golf industry in general and John O’Gaunt Golf Club in particular. Timing is everything!

Suffice to say, the past four-plus years have been hugely rewarding, challenging, frustrating and tiring – all in equal measure – and the same for every general manager at every club around the country. Where I have benefitted, has been the fulsome support, drive and determination from the leading office-bearers from within the club to champion change, to modernise, to ‘future proof’ the club … all, without necessarily throwing the proverbial ‘baby out with the bathwater’!

Can you tell us a bit about John O’Gaunt Golf Club?

It’s a big club, one of the largest member-owned clubs in the country: some 1,200 playing members when full (‘all but’, as of now!), another several hundred ‘social’ members; and two very different but complementary 18-hole courses: the John O’Gaunt course, a mature, tree-lined, rolling parkland ‘championship’ course on one side of the road and, the Carthagena course, a shorter, quirkier but no less challenging heathland-type experience awaits across the road. The free-draining heathland provides almost constant playability during the wet winter months, as we’ve just had!

It also had a reputation of being somewhat of a ‘traditional’ club, as I discovered first hand in 1991 when I considered joining as a young 20-something, perhaps predicated by the grand, opulent looking clubhouse which we are so fortunate to have. However, having just celebrated the club’s 75th anniversary last year, we are but young upstarts in golf club terms. Having spent most of my adult life in the military (well, the RAF for those in the ‘military’!), it was always the case that the youngest of the three services, as it was then, less than a century old, we only had habits, not traditions!

The real strength in the club, as in any club, any sport, is the membership; I continue to be astounded (and humbled) by the duration of membership experience of many of the established members; the gent who has just paid for his 73rd year of consecutive playing membership of the club being testament to both the club and the health and wellbeing benefits of this great game of ours!

How large is your team at John O’Gaunt, and how do you manage the workload between you?

I’m fortunate, we have a sizeable team by most measures: 13 permanent, full-time greenkeepers; a ‘flexible’, seasonal team of up to 15 food and beverage; five of us running all golf, administrative, accountancy, membership and maintenance matters; then there’s the team of four in the pro shop who do all you would hope a modern, progressive PGA team would do, and more, including providing specialist personal trainers in our recently launched Golf Performance Suite – a gym to most of us!

Again, I’m very fortunate, team leaders who have deep knowledge of their own specialities, the club and its membership: a hugely experienced course manager who always strikes the right balance between artistry and science; a head chef and clubhouse manager who are continually questioning and challenging our service offering; and an ‘admin’ team with a combined experience of the club which outstrips how long the club has been a club! Central to our approach is, unsurprisingly, communication – open, full, frank where appropriate, all with a clear focus on the task in hand but flexible enough to recognise how, when and where the appropriate balance between task, team and individual needs lies and how it is tailored and negotiated. John Adair’s action-centred leadership, as taught at the RAF College (where I was both a student and an instructor previously) transitions remarkably well into ‘civilian’ life!

You took over at John O’Gaunt shortly before the pandemic. Has this been the biggest challenge in the role so far and how did you manage it?

Where do I begin?! Trite though it may sound, the combined staff and club office-bearer team have taken the view of opportunities as opposed to challenges. The pandemic, more pointedly, the nation’s recovery from and the golf industry’s influx of new golfers was, in essence, the springboard for us to stride forward from, to make up for some lost time and move on with projects and initiatives which had been considered but never launched and with a clear focus and priority on our ‘crown jewels’: the courses.

Projects included investigation into and the installation of fairway irrigation on the John O’Gaunt course, it having suffered terribly from the long, hot and dry summers pre-Covid, and the ongoing engagement with and support from our local water authority and the Environment Agency to identify a secure, ready and sustainable source of irrigation water going forward; the replacement of half of the greens’ equipment fleet (some 20 items of equipment) in an attempt to counter the rapidly increasing costs and provide the best possible precision cutting and ‘preening’ capabilities; the proactive and somewhat belated management of the trees; and the long overdue updating of the clubhouse, both cosmetically and in order to address a number of potentially significant health and safety ‘gotchas’, most notably the extensive and impressive transformation of the patio.

Let’s not forget, as all general managers and their teams will recognise, the effort at ‘onboarding’ nearly 400 new members, approximately one-third of the club’s playing membership, since the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, some four years ago, has been a huge task for the entire team … and the existing members! And then there’s the incorporation of the club and the ongoing journey of transitioning from a ‘traditional’ general committee-style governance structure to a more business-like management board with its issued strategic plan and clearly identifiable deliverables.

The challenge, quite frankly, has been in endeavouring to coordinate and choreograph all of the moving parts of all of the projects over a prolonged period of time, and not losing sight of the fact that the golf club needed running too! Never did I think my PRojects In Controlled Environments (PRINCE2) would come in so handy in the golf industry!

But then there’s the ‘nut’ of culture to crack, particularly in what is akin to a multi-faceted change programme over the course of the last few years, much by necessity, some by choice. I must admit, a catalyst for me was after my ‘in my first 100 days checks’, having worked closely with… nae, having been educated by Golf HR in my previous role, intimating that the then club ‘Disciplinary Process & Procedures’ could do with some modernisation; the response to the effect that ‘it’s served us well for 72 years, it’ll serve us well for the next 72’ still brings me out in a rash!

Unfortunately, Covid soon arrived on the doorstep and the unprecedented actions of a particularly belligerent (ex!) member regarding the club’s decision not to issue a rebate for the Covid lockdown, against investing in the ‘crown jewels’, had to be managed under the ‘old’ processes and procedures – not ideal when battling rogue and spurious social media pages, solicitors letters, let alone significant lawyer’s fees and, ultimately, a court case dismissed. If only I had had Golf HR at the time!

The club works with Golf HR. What service does Golf HR provide you and how is it different to any other human resources provider you’ve worked with?

We do, and thank goodness! That said, we have only formally ‘onboarded’ with the Golf HR team this year at John O’Gaunt. I first used Carolyne Wahlen and her team in my previous role at St Ives – they were absolutely terrific in all matters relating to HR from the employee perspective but, critically, unlike others I have worked with, Golf HR know golf clubs, they know the foibles and potential pitfalls presented by mixing volunteer committees with employees, club members and employees.

I had no hesitation in reigniting my club’s partnership with Golf HR at the earliest possible opportunity for the provision of specialist advice on all HR matters: contract advice; employee handbook review and provision; and, although we all hope it’s never required, disciplinary support whether from the employee or member perspective.

Although I have not been under a formal contract with Golf HR since I arrived at John O’Gaunt, I have availed myself of their services in the interim: their ‘foc’ webinars, particularly as we struggled with the rapidly changing introduction of new employment legislation and initiatives during and after the pandemic, were invaluable. Regrettably, but unashamedly, I had cause to seek personal advice from Carolyne’s team under the auspices of their Employment Law Helpline for GCMA members – suffice to say, some people got a few things way out of proportion during the pandemic and needed someone to blame!

Why have you outsourced human resources to Golf HR and not, instead, selected a committee member to do the club a favour?

Golf HR, as they proved in my previous life, and as they are already proving to great effect so early on in our renewed partnership, are but an extension of the upstairs corridor, and a critical one too! I often remark to the general committee that the two surest ways to the courtroom are breaches of health and safety adherence or the ever-changing field of employment legislation. These are two areas where common sense will only get you so far, previous experience can very quickly be out of date and, whilst the best intentions of enthusiastic amateurs is most welcome, in certain areas, but where specialist understanding, expertise and a definitive, no-nonsense approach is required. Carolyne’s team at Golf HR allow you to sleep that bit easier.

Do you recommend Golf HR to other clubs?

In a nutshell, absolutely. Unless you have unlimited capacity and the ability to digest and distil huge quantities of often contradictory legislation and guidance, do yourself, your staff, your directors / committee and wider membership a favour: contact Golf HR.

I have been fortunate to have been ‘onboarded’ by Carolyne and her Golf HR team twice now – the process is arguably the finest of health checks for a club, particularly to provide the general manager with much required peace of mind.

What effect has rising inflation and the cost of living had on participation and your future planning for the club?

Just when you think it’s all fine, along comes another surprise! On the one hand, participation appears never to have been better; certainly, from the John O’Gaunt perspective, odd though it may sound, it took the pandemic to drive more participation in the sport (addressed elsewhere in recent times) and to present John O’Gaunt with an almost full membership and healthy waiting list for the first time since the Credit Crunch of 2008. This has enabled us to begin to build up financial reserves and to begin striking off commitments from the ‘To Do’ list, otherwise known as the strategic plan.

Ultimately, it has to be all about the ‘value proposition’ offered by the club … specific to the socio-economic, dare I say, demographics, of the catchment area it’s operating in – does membership represent good ‘value for money’ to the individual? And, whilst I may often get carried away about other ongoing projects, it must always come back to the quality and shine of the ‘crown jewels’ – if the golf courses are good enough, you could have a Portakabin as a clubhouse and golfers will still come and play it!

How would you summarise the state of the industry at the moment and what are your hopes for the future?

In rude, but fragile, health – if you pardon the contradiction! I think we’ve all learned over the past few years that we can’t afford to sit back, relax and think all is well. A strategic plan, with a viable Plan B, flexible and committed staff and a good partnership with the members, the local community, local business and specialist providers such as Golf HR.

March 2024

Insofar as the future, and please don’t take this the wrong way, don’t wait another six years to come back and ask for an update – you might find me playing some golf! I’m a great believer, as was the case throughout my military career, that it’s good for the individual, arguably better for the organisation, that there is a constant rotation of ideas and styles and individuals. That thought ought to put an anticipatory smile on the faces of a few!


Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick March 21, 2024 11:31
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