Bethpage State Park has a new tagline: “The People’s Country Club.” But it’s been my country club since I first played there in 1977. Back then it wasn’t much of a “country club”; bunkers had little sand, greens bounced more than they rolled, and some holes had more crab grass than real grass.
But that all changed when the USGA chose Bethpage’s famed Black Course to host the 2002 U.S Open. With national attention (and money), there’s been a transformation from the old, a bit ratty, Bethpage to “The People’s Country Club.”
And the arrival of Bethpage’s new Director of Golf, Kelley Brooke, is the last piece of the puzzle in that transformation.
Winning the Director of Golf contract at Bethpage State Park is a very big deal. First off, there isn’t just one golf course at Bethpage, there are five championship-caliber courses. That translates into 300k rounds of golf a year. From a Director of Golf perspective, that’s a lot of members to please!
Bethpage’s Director of Golf is also responsible for the driving range, pro shop, lessons, golf programs, caddy program and golf carts. The Request for Proposal Kelley submitted to New York State was 100 pages long—even she didn’t realize what a big deal it was when she started the process. And she won the bid over many competitors, including the PGA itself!
There were many factors in her win—I won’t go into all 100 pages here—but one of the biggest was that Bethpage wanted to have a junior golf program, and Kelley had more experience than anyone building junior golf programs. In the 1990’s, she started the NYC Police Athletic League’s golf program, which enabled over 4,000 economically disadvantaged children to participate in golf. Then she started what turned out to be the biggest golf program for special needs children in the world! She also began the only not-for-profit junior golf program in NYC.
She believes that she was given her first contract with NYC because of her philanthropic work. Over time, she was awarded contracts at Riis Park Golf Course and Brooklyn, Randall’s Island and Alley Pond Golf Centers—all which paved the way to Bethpage. What a perfect example of good guys finishing first!
So, just who is Kelley Brooke? And how did she master both of the roles—golfer and businesswoman—that are essential to success in one the biggest golf gigs in the country?
Let’s start with her upbringing. You’ve heard the cliché, “she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth”? With Kelley, it was a putter that her mother put in her crib the day she brought Kelley home from the hospital! And as soon as she was old enough, her parents gave her professional golf lessons. Kelley went on to play for the University of Iowa golf team before spending two years playing on women’s golf tours.
But golf is only half of it. What makes her a successful businesswoman? When I interviewed her for this piece, she told me her father owned an air conditioning and ductwork company, so Kelley grew up learning first-hand what it takes to own and run a business. From him, she absorbed one of the most valuable lessons of entrepreneurship: there will be ups and downs, but when the downs come, you must always assume things will get better.
She has certainly experienced some downs. Once, at another location, two of her employees were arrested because they were stealing from her. She admits she was scarred by this experience, but she learned from it. When she came to Bethpage, she made sure to hire only, in her words, “the cream of the crop.”
No staff is ever going to diss their boss, but when I reached out to some of Kelley’s employees, their responses about her were very consistent: great boss, good listener, intuitive, real lover of the game, generous, always smiling, and smart.
Good listener and smart were apparent right from the start: one of the first things she did after she was awarded the Bethpage contract was to reach out to some of the local golfers to learn the ropes from their perspective! It was the first time I can remember any Director of Golf asking Bethpage golfers our opinion.
The changes Kelley has brought have been huge: Bethpage’s own robust junior program—a simulator (with more to follow); a pro shop that rivals any other with new, high-end products; GPS technology in our motorized carts; and best of all, new mats at the driving range. To some facilities, that’s a given, but hitting balls off Bethpage’s old mats literally hurt my hands!
And there are plans to go even further by creating a new, state-of-the-art practice facility. One would think an establishment as large as Bethpage would already have a comparably large practice facility, but we don’t. There isn’t a practice bunker or even a place to practice chipping. In an act of defiance, my friends and I have chipped into the “No Chipping” sign.
But with all the changes she’s made and hopes to make, the biggest change Kelley Brooke has brought to Bethpage has been attitude. When I said hello to previous Directors of Golf, I was lucky to get a snort. Look, this is New York; sometimes snorts are all you’ll get from anyone. But not long after she arrived, I saw Kelley at the driving range and introduced myself. She couldn’t have been more gracious. And she’s not just that way to me, she’s that way to everyone. That’s saying a lot for a state-run facility, where it’s easy for players to be invisible.
The bottom line? With Kelley Brooke as our Director of Golf, Bethpage truly has become “The People’s Country Club.”