How to Retire Into the Golf Industry

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CARLSBAD, Calif. (MainStreet) -- Golf shouldn't be relegated to a corporate drone's second love when it could just as easily be his or her career's second act.

Pete Wlodkowski was working as national sales manager for online ticket pioneer TicketWeb 11 years ago before it was bought by Ticketmaster (Stock Quote: LYV). He had bounced there from sales positions at EMC (Stock Quote: EMC) and Internet software maker Inktomi before it was bought by Yahoo (Stock Quote: YHOO). His heart, however, was on the golf course.

Wlodkowski had played college golf at Middlebury College in Vermont, played high school golf while growing up in Connecticut and briefly served as a PGA Tour marketing director for the TPC at River Highlands in Connecticut. He had a working knowledge of amateur golf, but it wasn't getting him much more than the occasional Monday off to play tournaments.

"I always wanted to know what tournaments were going on," he says. "I always lamented that in New England there just weren't that many golf tournaments going on, whereas I was like a kid in a candy store when I moved to California and there were 250 tournaments a year."

In 2000, Wlodkowski bought the domain name AmateurGolf.com and began building his own business by setting up amateur golf tournaments. Wlodkowski is now the chief executive of an organization that hosts 15 tournaments a year for competitive amateurs and less-than-average players with handicaps as high as 15.

"When I tell people what I do, nobody asks me how much money I make, but how I make money," he says.

The tournaments brought in some revenue, but building the site into a database for all amateur tournaments and players while adding course reviews, equipment reviews, player rankings, instructional blogs and more helped bring in paid memberships and sponsorships from Fortune Brands' (Stock Quote: FO) Titleist and other golf equipment companies.

We spoke with Wlodkowski about transitioning from the corporate world to the $26.3 billion golf industry and came away with some tips for entering the golf world as a second career or a retirement option without giving up the freedom to play the game:

How do you make the decision to switch gears after being entrenched in one job for so long?

Wlodkowski: Look at the conversations we're having right now with entitlement programs and Social Security. If you're 45 years old right now, you're not looking at retirement at 65. You're looking at maybe 67 and you don't know what your benefits are going to be.

They say there's never an easy time to have a child and you just have to take the plunge. Well, whenever you decide you're passionate about something, whether it's at 32 or 45, somebody who's looking to enjoy the second act of their career should work on it even if they're working a job now. There's no reason that you can't be starting to do some things on the side or starting to plot out a course and starting to visualize what your perfect world is so, when the time comes, you're not just wondering how you get into it. It won't happen overnight.

You worked with the PGA Tour for about a year. Why didn't you make the jump then?

Wlodkowski: I was looking for a job and wasn't looking to be in the golf business whatsoever, and there just so happened to be a position that combined a golfer and a person with a business marketing background to do marketing for one of the TPC courses. I did it for the wrong reasons. I thought that this was my dream chance to go into the golf business, but what I didn't realize was that it was a job just like anything else.

When you look at people who work for the PGA Tour or people who work for the USGA, a lot of people pride themselves on the fact that they don't play golf and are just in the golf business. If you don't realize that upfront, you're going to wind up disappointed. I was looking at having less opportunity to play golf working for the PGA Tour because the guilt starts kicking in -- nobody else on your staff is playing, and the PGA pro at the club isn't playing.

I was still very competitive in my amateur golf career and playing in tournaments, and those tournaments required Mondays off from work. It was a lot easier to tell my boss at a lighting company or a computer company that I needed a Monday off to play at an amateur tournament than to tell my golf boss that.

Do you consider that a missed opportunity given your current line of work?

Wlodkowski: If my goal was to be a senior staff member with the PGA Tour someday, I was in the right place at the right time. In my case, and I was only into it for less than a year, I decided that it wasn't for me. It defined me later in life because I decided one of the reasons I wanted to work for myself was that I didn't want anybody to tell me when to play golf and when not to play golf.

You start to feel guilty about playing golf when you're leaving things unattended, but when you get your work done golf is a great reward. And now, through this business, I'm able to play golf whenever I want to. I enjoy the game more than ever now.

So what put a career in golf back into the picture and how did you afford to make the commitment?

Wlodkowski: The thing that tied it all together was the Internet and having something as esoteric as the right domain name. I was working for TicketWeb and I registered that domain name one day almost by accident.

The people I worked for were nice enough to congratulate me on starting the business and asked me to stay for six months until I figured out what it was. I was lucky on a number of fronts: I was able to think about and plot my business while I still had some money coming in and I also had some success in life, had some savings, was a homeowner and didn't have to worry about what happened if I was out of work or didn't have revenue coming in for six months. The person that has more cushion can take a longer view.

Were there obstacles early on?

Wlodkowski: I found the technology to be a hindrance. If somebody else had the technology to do the online registration and the scoring and everything, it would have been a lot easier to focus on the tournaments. In our case, I had to figure out some of the technology to do that.

I grew up playing competitive golf and played for a college golf team, so all the scoring and the formats weren't new to me. Somebody who's not as competitive may have a tougher time with it.

Is there a way for golf fans in the business community to get involved, maybe through equipment development or sales?

Wlodkowski: Everybody thinks they're going to invent a game improvement device that's going to help golfers. Guess what? You're one of 100,000 people thinking like that, and it's like getting a hit record trying to do it that way. That said, there are people out there doing it every day -- and there are guys who invented a device called the Orange Whip or the Putting Arc that are selling them every day.

Anybody that has any idea of getting into the golf business that doesn't involve working for somebody else, then I think they should try to attend the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. It's not open to the public, so if you're smart and have a friend who works at Titleist or have a golf pro at the club who can invite you as a representative of the club, you can get it. If you're worth your salt in business, you can get into the PGA expo. It's not like getting into a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Let's put it another way: If you were trying to break into the industry again today, how would you go about it?

Wlodkowski: The economy has really taken a toll on charity golf. The Monday golf outing where you pay too much for an entry fee but you know it's for a good cause when you give them $300 to $1,000 for a foursome has really suffered.

If I was starting something now, I'd look at charity golf. There still isn't one website that does a good job of covering all that. If you're in a region that has a lot of golf courses, I think there's an opportunity to help or manage charity golf tournaments. That might have a little longer curve, but those tournaments make a lot of money for charities, and you could do a good service for people while making a business for yourself.

There is some truth to the fact that people who have a business background can bring some value to something that isn't thought of that way. The charity golf tournaments typically have a committee -- no one person is dedicated to it, and they work at the last minute. A businessperson can come in and tell a committee that they want him to make money on their tournament. Because if you bring in $100,000 and I take 10%, it's still more than the $50,000 you made when I wasn't taking 10%. As long as the person gets paid based on the money they're making for the charity, I don't think anybody would begrudge them that opportunity.

Any last bit of wisdom for people looking to retire into your industry?

Wlodkowski: People need to set their expectations. For some people, the dream or second career -- particularly for someone who's very comfortable in their financials -- may be getting involved no matter how much money they make.

We have a staff of course marshals that tend to be retired people and there are dream marshal jobs out there where you get to work at a private club and golf as a benefit. To me, when I retire, that's my dream. For some people, that's what the goal is.

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—For more tips to get your retirement in order, visit MainStreet’s “Retirement” topic page for all of our latest coverage!

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