Hurricane Golf is pleased to share this interview with Derek Sprague, honorary president of the PGA of America, past president of the PGA of America and current General Manager at TPC Sawgrass, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. We’re covering small town aspirations, the greatest player to ever hit a club, role models, proud moments, regrets, the late Arnold Palmer, having a unique business “signature,” why every employee matters, and so much more.
It just so happens, one of our writers learned to play golf as a teenager by taking lessons from Derek, and then worked for Derek during his days as the General Manager of the Malone Golf Club in northern New York. We are thrilled to share her Derek Sprague interview with our readers.
Hurricane: How old were you when you started to play golf?
Derek: Living on the first hole of the Malone Golf Club in northern New York, I was whacking golf balls around 5 years old, but really started to play in grade school around 8-10 years old.
Hurricane: What were your early aspirations that enabled you to go from a small-town student bag boy to the president of the PGA?
Derek: I never had aspirations of being the President of the PGA of America, but the timing worked in my favor and it proves that if you give back to your passion, good things will come your way.
Hurricane: Can you tell me about your experience as GM of the golf club in the small rural town of Malone, New York?
Derek: Serving as the GM at Malone Golf Club really allowed me to learn a lot of different skills due to the small staff we had for the size of the property. We all had to multi-task there, which gave me great knowledge in many different areas of operating a Club.
Hurricane: What motivates you and what do you consider to be your strongest trait?
Derek: I love helping others grow in their roles and it is the most gratifying part of my job if I’m successful doing that. My strongest trait is teaching my employees “Why” we do certain things, so they will be more invested in their role and the company.
Hurricane: What are you most proud of in your career?
Derek: Helping others succeed.
Hurricane: How did growing up in a small town enhance the values you have?
Derek: It taught me a great work ethic. As I mentioned earlier, we had limited resources so you needed to do a lot of things yourself to get it done. It was nice knowing many of the people who lived in Malone.
Hurricane: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Derek: I have received a lot of great advice from various people over the years, so it is tough to name one. However, my mother and father were mentors, teaching me how to be humble and that has helped me immensely in my career. Just remember, no matter how good you think you are, there are others that are doing better and no matter how bad you think things are, others are much worse off than you.
Hurricane: Can you describe a typical day in your life?
Derek: At TPC Sawgrass, we have a staff of 350 team members with several managers. I spend about half of my day in meetings with managers and supervisors, including getting around the property to check in with other team members. The other half of the day is working on our strategy to continue to be a peak performance organization.
Hurricane: Do you advocate any particular style or philosophy in managing your team?
Derek: Do your job to the best of your ability, be humble, and the rewards of your labor will come. Be appreciative of the work every team member contributes to the organization. Every person matters.
Hurricane: What is your most favorite thing about what you do all day?
Derek: Working with the great team we have here at TPC Sawgrass. Everyone is motivated to be better every day. That makes it exciting to come to work!
Hurricane: Who have been your role models?
Derek: Besides my parents, my grandfather Bryce LaVigne was a great role model as he was a serial entrepreneur owning many businesses and doing many neat things throughout his lifetime. And one of my college professors at James Madison University has been a great role model as well and has been my best friend for the past 30 years.
Hurricane: Who were some of the players you most looked forward to meeting throughout your career?
Derek: I enjoyed meeting (and playing with) Tom Watson. When I was just getting into the game, he was the best player at the time. I also enjoyed meeting Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and Jack Nicklaus. I have been fortunate to meet many of the great golfers from the modern era with my involvement in PGA Championships and the Ryder Cup.
Hurricane: In your opinion, who is the best golf player ever?
Derek: No doubt, Tiger Woods.
Hurricane: Have you met Tiger Woods?
Derek: I had dinner with Tiger at the 2011 PGA Championship at the Past Champions dinner at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Hurricane: How was that experience?
Derek: We just talked about the amazing condition the golf course was in (the members played off mats the entire year leading up to the PGA Championship that year - not one divot on the golf course until the tournament arrived). We also talked about all the good players coming on the tour at the time and that the championship was going to be good that week. Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship that year.
Hurricane: From student bag boy in the ‘80s to president of the PGA… what are the biggest changes you have seen in the sport?
Derek: I would say technology in the sport. From golf equipment (wooden woods to metal/titanium woods, to better golf balls like Titleist ProV1 and launch monitors and video technology for training and finding the right equipment). Fitness for golfers has also come into play to perform at a high level. It has all really elevated the level of performance of today’s golfers.
Hurricane: Do you have interesting stories you could share with our readers?
Derek: One of my fondest memories was meeting the late Arnold Palmer at a Past Ryder Cup Captain’s dinner with other past Captains. This was in 2011. He came in the room and it was he, another PGA Officer, and myself. He introduced himself and put his arm around my shoulders and began telling me how the game had changed. He said something like he won 62 times on the PGA Tour and his grandson hasn’t won any but has made more money than him playing golf. We laughed together. He continued to tell me about the golf course bidding process for the Olympic course and that he could foresee a lot of challenges with building the course – he wasn’t sure he was going to bid on the job. He was right, there were a lot of challenges with building the Olympic course in Brazil. It got completed in 2016, just in time for the Olympics. I marveled that at 80 years old, he was still very sharp and knowledgeable about the game and the business of designing courses.
Hurricane: How much play time do you get on the course?
Derek: I try to play at least one time per month. The two championship golf courses here are our core products and it’s important for our team, including me, to play because you see it from our customers’ point of view when you are playing rather than just driving the course.
Hurricane: You’re given three golf clubs to play a round, what clubs do you choose?
Derek: Driver, 8 iron, and putter.
Hurricane: Do you watch golf?
Derek: Yes, I love watching golf, both in person and on television.
Hurricane: You grew up on the Malone Golf Club. When did you first realize you wanted to make golf your career?
Derek: In high school. I played well at the state high school championships, but realized I wouldn’t make it on Tour so I thought combining golf and business made sense.
Hurricane: Just for fun… can you still out-drive everyone at the Malone Golf Club?
Derek: Not anymore. There are a lot of good young players at Malone.
Hurricane: You were very close to your grandfather, Bryce LaVigne. Tell us a little about him and how he influenced your life and career.
Derek: As I mentioned earlier, “Poppy” as the grandkids referred to him, was a great role model to me. He owned and operated several businesses like a motel and restaurant as well as a furniture store and propane company. He taught me that to have a successful business, you needed to have a “signature” or something very unique about your business that customers would remember. For example, at the motel he owned, every room was decorated as a different country. When guests would show up, they would ask to stay in France, or Italy. It was pretty unique. I have used that “signature” advice my entire career and thank him every day for it.
Hurricane: Do you have any regrets and is there anything you would have changed through the years?
Derek: I wish I spent more time with my family rather than working. You never get those days or years back. I should have prioritized family first and put work second. When they bury me, nobody will care how hard I worked.
Hurricane: With all that you have accomplished, how do you stay so humble?
Derek: As I mentioned earlier, there are others doing much greater things than I have ever accomplished and others that are much worse off than I am. Reminding myself of that on a daily basis has allowed me to remain who my parents raised throughout my career.