The Pro Shop is my new Barbershop

One of my true, simple joys in life is a great conversation. The topic of the conversation is almost irrelevant, so long as it’s interesting, and it reveals something about whomever I’m conversing. The first place I remember observing, and then participating in what I considered great conversations, was the barbershop.

I can close my eyes and still see the green and black asbestos floor tiles of the original Hair Den in downtown Bowling Green. The whirring of the Wahl trimmers and antiseptic whiffs of Barbacide confirmed that I was in the barber shop. The story telling, the opinions on everything from last night’s ball game to next month’s election flying around, and the gossip confirmed that I was in my barbershop.

This was a place where I was generally seen and not heard.

Haircuts came with high performance conversation. Grown men disagreed without being disagreeable, and I learned to listen for what wasn’t being said. Men in coats and ties waited their turn next to guys in jeans and work boots, decorum maintained by a common understanding that this was their place. I remember watching and listening intently as my dad test drove political persuasion talking points on the barbers and fellow customers, alike.

As the traditional barbershop recedes from Americana writ large, so too does the environment that the shop fostered, where discerning citizens placed a value persuasive personal debate and well-spun yarns. The desire to engage people on that level persists, though, and with increasing frequency, I find conversations that foster a feeling of community in the pro shop or the practice green of my local golf courses.

The conversations with my golf professional friends nominally begin with something golf related, such as a recent tournament or course conditions, but they rarely end there. Local politics, course improvement plans, beleaguered sports fandom, and status updates about our kids are common transitional topics to drive the conversation from the perfunctory to deeper, more substantive topics, even if they remain tangentially connected to golf. It’s a bonding endeavor, going beyond simple courtesy and customer service, even if only accidentally or involuntarily.

Diversity of topics and viewpoints is what makes these conversations so special, and what ties them to the shop talk of my youth. They provide the opportunity to stay “in the know” for the local golf scene, as well as what’s happening beyond my immediate field of vision. For example, the idea that venerable Valhalla Golf Club might have to paint its fancy new zoysia turf for next year’s PGA Championship if we have another late winter seems like an unfortunate yet humorous self-inflicted blunder from the PGA of America’s decision to move it’s championship to May.

Some of my favorite conversations have occurred right here, at the Picadome back patio and practice green.

Earnest chats with my golf pros give me a chance to test out my latest theories about what’s going to happen such-and-such facility, or which courses I should steer my golf travel towards. Most importantly, from a purely selfish viewpoint, it gives me the chance to pick the brains of people that know the game, sport, and business of golf so much better than I do.

Sometimes it’s a quick-hitting conversation while handing in a scorecard, while on other days I’ll catch a pro behind a desk or on the patio outside the clubhouse with a few free moments to spare, where we can dig into the news and mutual grumbles of the day. We might talk politics without getting political, so to speak, more concerned with what’s happening in City Hall that might affect the golf course than confirming the merits of our respective tribal creeds. Commiseration of our favorite baseball teams’ or our beloved Kentucky Wildcats’ seasons proves a popular topic, too.

Beyond those surface level conversation starters, though, there’s enough trust in our mutual discretion to speak freely about what’s going right and what has gone terribly wrong, in golf and life. Golf professionals listen to a lot of what people want to complain about, so I think they enjoy the idea of someone actually listening to them for a change.

Imagine the tales that have been told around the pro shop at a place like Leven Links.

The golf shop certainly isn’t unique in offering a sense of belonging. Coffee shops and taverns across the world become “our place” for any number of wayward souls and kindred spirits, though you’ll rarely find me in either, these days. Even within the confines of a golf facility, there can be just as entertaining conversations with the turf guys or the cart jockeys (conversations with superintendents are their own, different, special opportunity). Yet, the pros and their assistants provide a continuous thread, a lineage of sorts that help forge a connection to not only a place, but the game itself.

I read recently that this element of the golf professional job description, where the pro knows you and takes time to get to know you better, is dying out, much like the traditional barbershop experience. Once the golf equipment manufacturers stopped relying on “green grass facility” sales in favor of big box stores and online merchandising, the pro shop changed, as profit margins tightened and stress levels rose, or so goes the common wisdom. As operational staff cuts thinned the body count at golf courses, the pro’s time became too valuable and stretched too thin for things like frivolous conversations and building relationships with their golfers. I’m certainly glad that this hasn’t been my experience, so far.

The golf shop at Kearney Hill has hosted untold yarns and chats.

Nothing generates the nostalgia of those old conversations from the barbershop, talks equally frank and funny, consumable for old men and little boys, as my chats with our community’s golf professionals. I’ve already begun to enculturate my sons in the golf course community, hoping they will develop a comfort and reverence as I did, only at a younger age.

Perhaps another tradition will come along that supplants their pro shop, much as I lost connection to my barbershop, but I plan on getting by on bad coffee and good conversation at the putting green for quite a while longer.

James E. “Jimmy Kirkwood.
The Barber.

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