PART 3: The third 25-year segment of the Michigan Section PGA (1972-1997)
This is the third of a four-part series produced in celebration of the centennial year of the Michigan Section PGA. The series is being published at michiganpga.com and released to the media over the 2022 golf season.
Michigan PGA Grows With Golf; Executive Director Makes Devine Impact
Golf participation in the United States increased in the 1960s with the development of more public facilities and boomed again in the early 1990s with the continued development of resort golf and construction of high-end public facilities combined with real-estate.
Arnold Palmer and television, Jack Nicklaus and the development of golf’s modern major championships and then Tiger Woods, one of the world’s best known athletes, enhanced the popularity of the game, too. From the mid-1980s to the turn of the century the number of golfers grew by about 50 percent, from 20 million to 30 million, according to the National Golf Federation.
The Michigan Section PGA, in its third quarter of existence from 1972 to 1997, responded with growth in the number of PGA professionals and services it provided, and it was PGA professionals who founded the first university Professional Golf Management program in the country at Ferris State University in Big Rapids in 1975.
With more golfers, facilities and PGA members in the mid-1970s, Jim Dewling, a two-time president of the Michigan Section PGA, first in 1980-81 and again in 2000-2001, remembers the section professionals deciding to hire an executive director to conduct the expanding business and services of the section.
“We didn’t agree on who we needed at first, the old guard and young pros had different ideas, but it worked out,” he said. “We really had three in the job before Ken Devine (Doug Finley, Joseph Falvey and Tom Colucci), but I would say Devine clearly made the most impact,” he said. “He had to make an impact. When he first came in (1991) we had a problem.”
Finley and Falvey had left on good terms for other golf opportunities, but Colucci was convicted of embezzling funds that put the section in peril.
“Once that happened we realized we needed somebody who had business skills to help us recover,” Dewling said. “Ken Devine was a successful sales guy in golf, had a lot of national contacts and he went to work and turned the section around financially. He did a great job with member relations and building relationships with sponsors.”
Devine, who passed away on July 1 at the age of 87, said in a late May interview that he saw himself as a problem solver with business sense built on his experience working for major golf equipment companies.
“I was discouraged at first because I found out that they were not just short on money, they had no money, so I went with my basics – quit spending money you don’t have and then find somebody who will give you some for what you do,” he said.
Devine, sometimes called ‘The Duke’ in reference to his collection of suit coats and jackets, was the executive director from 1991 to 2004 and hired Kevin Helm, the current executive director as his tournament director. Helm became his successor when he retired in 2004.
“Ken was the right guy at the right time and had a very successful run,” Helm said. “He came in and did a marvelous job guiding the section from a difficult period into a solid financial position. A lot of the things he put in place are still part of what we do as a section.”
Devine said the key for the member professionals was having the tournaments to test their games.
“All the things that golf professionals do it still comes back to being able to play,” he said. “We made sure they had tournaments, we got more involved with the golf resorts as hosts of our tournaments and that we had sponsors and that all those people could get involved in our pro-ams. The flag we waved was the one the public and the media seemed to care about – their golf pros and the championships.”
Devine, who played a significant role in the development of the Michigan PGA Women’s Open and the unique Tournament of Champions with Boyne Golf, might be best remembered for a relationship with the Detroit News/Detroit Newspaper Agency that led to bigger purses for the Michigan Open Championship and other section tournaments.
“I met Frank Vega from the Detroit News (then president and CEO of the Detroit Newspaper Agency) when early on I called there one day to complain about coverage of our tournaments,” he said. “I wanted to see more than little tidbits. I heard the writers complain about how little the bosses let them write. I don’t remember how exactly, but I ended up talking with Frank and it went from there.”
Devine said during his tenure he also witnessed changes in the roles golf professionals performed.
“Public courses wanted different things than private clubs, and even the private clubs were changing the way they did things,” he said. “It used to be that the pro trained his assistants to be pros. The pros owned the shop. They taught and they played in tournaments in a way representing that club. That started changing. You had pros being general managers and in charge of all the business at the club, all kinds of things. You had the pros that playing in tournaments was the last thing on their list.”
Learning to manage those lists as golf professionals led to a new training pathway. Mark Wilson, a long-time PGA professional who in recent years has been an instructor and is interim director for the PGM program at Ferris State, said Lansing native and PGA professional Don Perne’ and Robert Ewigleben, a former Ferris State president and philanthropist, were teammates in their college days on the golf team at Michigan State University.
“Mr. Ewigleben worked in education and Don in the golf business, but they stayed connected and Don knew Dr. Gary Wiren, who at that time was a director of education for the PGA of America,” he said. “Mr. Ewigleben convinced Don a golf training program would be a good educational fit for Ferris State and he got together with Dr. Wiren and they worked out this program for Ferris State.”
Currently there are 16 other PGM programs at universities around the U.S. and Wilson said about 60 percent of PGA professionals in the country come through the traditional PGA of America established associate program, and 40 percent come from university programs.
“It’s two pathways that are equally valid,” Wilson said. “I think a program like ours is great for students who want a college experience, especially because they get a business degree while their studies can be focused on being a golf professional and the knowledge and skills they will need to serve facilities and the game.”
As the 1970s and 80s played out the section produced championship-winning golfers and the more traditional club professionals like Randy Erskine, Lynn Janson, Buddy Whitten who brought notoriety to the clubs they served by winning a tournament one day and being back in the pro shop the next day.
Others, however, branched into management areas like Dewling, who in a Michigan Golf Hall of Fame career has been involved in the ownership, development or management of over 40 golf courses.
Wilson followed in the footsteps of his mentor Warren Orlick and became chairman of the PGA of America rules committee and worked golf’s major championships while also serving Watermark Country Club in Grand Rapids.
Gary Whitener, president of the section in 1986-87, was a 12-year section board member and was part of three committees for the PGA of America. He worked for Tam O’Shanter Country Club, Knollwood Country Club and managed the Livonia municipal courses.
“Some first-class people have always been part of the Michigan Section and it’s a real mix,” Devine said in a final follow-up interview in early June. “It’s really the pros themselves who can make it work or not. Dewling, Bill Rogers, Randy Erskine, (Mike) Kernicki, I’m leaving some out, there were pros who were always willing to help and not just criticize … I know I upset some people along the way, ruffled a few feathers with the way I did things, but I like to think we left it a little better than we found it.”
COMING IN PART 4 (1997-2022) The Michigan Section responds to the ups and downs of the industry, instructors gain popularity, technology impacts golf, John Lindert leads the PGA of America and more.
ATTACHED IMAGE: A collage of Ken Devine working with Great Lakes Sports at the 100th Michigan Open, the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame photo of Don Perne’, the Ferris Bulldog and the Michigan Section PGA’s logo for this centennial year.
-Greg Johnson, 616-560-8995