October 28, 2020

Growing the Game While Guiding Springdale Golf Club, Head Pro Stewart Wins NJPGA’s Strausbaugh Award

GROWING THE GAME: Keith Stewart, left, presides over a youth event at the Springdale Golf Club. Stewart, the head golf professional at Springdale since 2009, recently won the NJPGA’s Bill Strausbaugh Award, which recognizes a golf pro who displays outstanding integrity, character, and leadership through a commitment to mentoring and making significant impacts on the careers of PGA professionals. Stewart is known around the club as the “Director of Fun.” (Photo provided by Keith Stewart)

By Bill Alden

Before taking over as the head golf professional at the Springdale Golf Club in 2009, Keith Stewart was steeped in the traditions of the game with broad experience in managing prestigious venues.

Upon arriving in Princeton, Stewart’s resume included stops at The Ridge Club in Sandwich, Mass., Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, Mass., Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, Fla., and the Warwick Country Club in Warwick, R.I.

But it was a stint working part-time at Walt Disney World in Orlando that had a major impact on his approach as he took the helm at Springdale.

“I needed money to make ends meet when I was working at Isleworth so I moonlighted by working at Disney World and I had to go through all of their training,” said Stewart.

“It is so brilliant in how you handle things. They have no members, they have to make everyone come back. Mine will come back, they have paid for the year. We have always tried to have a mindset here that we want to treat people such that we know that they are not guaranteed to come back. We will get to know them and treat their families the best we can.”

Treating people well over the last 11 years has led Stewart to earn a number of honors, including four NJPGA Section Awards and being named the NJPGA Golf Professional of the Year in 2019.

Earlier this year, Stewart added another accolade, getting chosen as the winner of the NJPGA’s Bill Strausbaugh Award, which honors a golf pro who displays outstanding integrity, character, and leadership through a commitment to mentoring and making significant impacts on the careers of PGA professionals.

For Stewart, getting the Strausbaugh Award was particularly meaningful.

“He was someone who did two things very, very well that everyone knew about — one, that he tried to help everyone in his career and, two, that turned into helping other people,” said the lanky, amiable Stewart, 46, who uses an exercise ball as his desk chair in his Springdale office for extra core training.

“The two pillars are that you help people advance their career and you help maintain or grow a connection with the community. What makes me most proud is that my peers think I do a really good job of helping other professionals and then helping other people.”

Growing up in Edison, Stewart got into the golf community as a teenager by working as a caddy and playing recreationally.

“My grandparents were members at Metuchen Golf and Country Club so they introduced me to the caddy master there,” said Stewart.

“I liked golf, I would watch it on TV, as my parents would tell you, at a very young age.”

But in those years, Stewart’s main sporting interest was lacrosse as he starred at St. Joe’s Metuchen and then went on to play for the men’s lax team at the College of Holy Cross.

After graduating from Holy Cross in 1996 as a double major in biology and premed, Stewart got a job in golf while he prepared to apply to medical school.

“I went down to Cape Cod to work at The Ridge Club in Sandwich,” said Stewart.

“I needed to take a year off to build my resume in order to get into medical school. I had good grades but I didn’t have great grades. I had to take the MCATs. I thought I would teach high school science for a year. I was applying to get those jobs and I started working at a golf club. I had a really good time doing it, I never looked back at going to med school.”

Heading to the Boston area, Stewart became an assistant pro at Brae Burn.

“We were the home course for Boston College, it is a Donald Ross golf course,” said Stewart.

“It is a really, really super place, 27 holes right there in the city. It has a very busy caddy program. It is what you would think a classic blue blood New England club would be.”

Moving south, Stewart came to Isleworth in 1998 to work under legendary head pro Gregor Jamieson. There he became friends with another golf legend, Tiger Woods, a member of the club.

“He was just the greatest guy, he is two years younger than me,” said Stewart, who has a framed montage of autographed hole flags from Woods’ “Tiger Slam” in 2000-01 hanging on the wall behind his desk at Springdale.

“At that point in his life you could imagine the external pressure so when he was there in Isleworth, he felt safe. The staff were his closest people because we are all about the same age. We all had a huge interest in golf. It was great to get to know him and he was nothing but the best to us.”

In 2003, Stewart returned to New England, working as an assistant pro at Warwick under Jim DeMarino.

“The idea was to apprentice under him and try to find a spot between Philly and Boston to run my own club,” said Stewart, who met his wife Laurie while working in Florida.

“My wife is from Bucks County originally, I am from Central Jersey so we thought something around here would be great, whether Mainline, Monmouth, or Bergen, or the roots I had planted in New England. It was a super, super competitive time in golf because it is the late 2000s and the gravy train is running. Everything is great in golf, everything is great in real estate.”

Stewart found a home at historic Springdale, which was founded in 1896, featuring a course designed by Willie Dunn, Jr and then made over in the 1920s by William Flynn.

“The membership at these places that are like 100 years old plus was something I was comfortable with because I had worked with that culture and community at all of those different clubs,” said Stewart who lives in Hopewell with Laurie and their two children, 12-year-old Owen and 10-year-old Abbey. 

“Princeton is just a wonderful, wonderful environment in which to raise a family. It is very academically driven and family driven. I was certainly drawn to this community because I thought it could certainly survive any sort of recession, the club has got to be here.”

In getting the job, Stewart utilized his Disney mindset to impress in the interview process.

“I can confidently say we are going to raise our level of professionalism, we are not only in the service business, we are in the entertainment business,” said Stewart, who demonstrated his attention to detail by calling the pro shop before his interview and telling the selection committee that he would change the phone greeting to have the employees show more pride in the club.

“It is my job to think of this place, not as a rest stop but as a destination. When my members come here, I don’t want it to be the Molly Pitcher rest area out on the New Jersey turnpike. I am meant to be more like Long Beach Island.”

Upon taking the job, Stewart took a number of steps to serve the members, beefing up the club’s youth golf program, getting more women into golf, instituting player development programs, and getting the club involved in charity activities, including the Christine’s Hope for Kids Foundation and N.J Golf Foundation programs.

“We have done some fantastic things in my tenure that has allowed us to become the hottest property in town as far as people who want to get introduced to golf,” said Stewart, who typically works six days a week, 10 hours a day.

“People call all the time saying I just want to take golf lessons or I want to learn about your club. We just kept taking that to the next level and now it is to the point where the university invested in the land. They put in a training facility for their teams for $1 million. This whole thing is working together to preserve the game, promote the club and for those who are involved here, to make sure that they are having fun. There are more children and more women playing golf here than ever before in the 125-year history of the club.”

In fact, Stewart is known around the club as the “Director of Fun.”

“If you are one of those people who is an ambassador of the game, you sell the game in a manner which makes you feel most comfortable,” said Stewart, who has a display on his wall with a “Director of Fun” license plate cobbled together from the states that he has lived in.

“Why do you love it? If you are going to take someone out to play golf, you should play golf the way you want to play. If that means you are going to put music on in your golf cart when you play, just because the place is 125 years old doesn’t mean that you can’t play music. It doesn’t mean that you can’t play a forward tee, it doesn’t mean that you can’t play with men and women together or with families together.”

The focus on fun has led to an upbeat atmosphere around the club.

“We have created and instilled a mindset in my 11 and a half years of people just having a great time,” said Stewart.

“We have this saying all the time ‘Have a Springdale Day.’

When people come here, we want to make sure that they understand that nothing else is bothering them in their world and nothing needs to bother them here. We want them to enjoy their time. The club is thriving. I am thriving, my staff is thriving, and the membership is thriving.”

In making an impact on the world of golf, Stewart has gotten involved in broadcasting, hosting a show on 920 The Jersey Fox Sports Radio (WNJE-AM) where he interviews golf luminaries and does spots on the Sirius PGA Network.

“The members tune in to hear what their golf pro has to say about the world of golf,” said Stewart, who has also coordinated educational seminars for the NJPGA and given a number of speeches to golf pros covering a variety of industry topics for continuing education.

“We have gone macro, it is not a myopic view. As a result, it introduced us to all of these different things that are going on in the world with social media. In this day and age, how are you going to get more people to come through, you are going to have to go down those different mediums and platforms.”

Helping people through community outreach is one of Stewart’s proudest achievements.

“With my staff and the club, we have raised over $100,000 for charity for Christine’s Hope For Kids and the New Jersey Golf Foundation’s Golf in Schools Program,” said Stewart, whose staff has annually held a 100-hole marathon fundraiser for Christine’s Hope.

“That is something at the end of the day that you can put in my epitaph and I am cool with that.”

With interest in golf swelling during the COVID-19 pandemic as a safe outdoor activity, Stewart is looking to keep that trend going.

“We have this amazing opportunity with the pandemic; golf has become a very hot commodity because it is socially distant,” said Stewart, noting that Springdale had 130 rounds played on a recent Tuesday as opposed to an average of 90 in past years.

“Whatever people I can reach, that is the story I am going to tell them. It is please just try it because it is not the same thing you thought it was five years ago.”

In Stewart’s view, trying golf can be a life-changing experience.

“Golf is like swimming, it is something you can do for the rest of your life and it is always loads of fun,” said Stewart. “I am going to continue to pay back so that inspires me to keep going.”

And few enjoy the game more than Springdale’s Director of Fun.