UNLV’s PGA Program Blends Golf + Hospitality to Perfection!
By Bill Huffman
Academia is not usually associated with the Las Vegas landscape -- until now. Welcome to the sparkling, new Dwaine Knight Center for Golf Management at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where careers in golf are getting an educational boost thanks to a revolutionary program and a budding partnership between the city of Las Vegas, the local golf community, and the golf and hospitality schools at UNLV.
Dr. Christopher Cain, the director of the PGA program at UNLV, one of 18 such programs in the country that have been accredited by the PGA of America, said Las Vegas’ “what happens here, stays here” reputation never was a gamble.
“Our presence in Las Vegas, as a whole, has only helped us grow,” said Cain, who graduated from a similar program at Penn State before joining the PGA program at UNLV in 2004.
“The new building, the new classrooms, the strong commitment from UNLV . . . and none of this would have happened without the equally strong backing of the state, the city andprivate donations. I can’t say enough about our golf community here in Las Vegas. It’s all been amazing.”
Located since January, 2018 in the same futuristic-looking building as UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, the recently named Dwaine Knight Center for Golf Management seems to be thriving in classrooms that feature an indoor/outdoor putting green; a high-tech golf simulation experience, where full-swing lessons are taught; an on-campus retail store, where university and community members can purchase merchandise and be fitted for equipment by PGA Golf Management students; a golf research lab that collects data on golf swing biomechanics, including some dedicated to the UNLV golf teams; and a club design, fitting and repair laboratory. Oh, yes, and everything is state of the art!
“Of the 18 programs accredited by the PGA of America, we are the only one that is closely related to hospitality, and it’s been a great fit for our students and how that all relates to the business of golf,” Cain explained, noting that UNLV’s hospitality program was founded in 1967and is among the most highly rated such programs in the world.
“All 18 (PGA) programs teach the same PGA learning outcomes, but with our classrooms, we wanted to create something special, something that was world-class yet practical. And getting all of this new technology in front of our students, this will really help them to see what they can do.
“Who knows? We may have another Bryson DeChambeau in one of our classrooms.”
Cain noted that the golf center is named after UNLV’s long-time men’s golf coach, Dwaine Knight, whose players won an NCAA Championship in 1998, with 11 alums going on to win 29 PGA Tour titles. Naming the center after one of its own is indicative, Cain added, of Las Vegas’ close-knit golf community. The men’s and women’s golf teams also frequent the facility.
“We have relationships with literally everyone in golf that’s here in Las Vegas,” Cain noted. “The men’s program is one of the best in the country, as well as an up-and-coming women’s golf team.
“Plus we work with the PGA of America, PGA Tour, the Shriners, Tiger’s event, local golf courses from high-end clubs like The Summit, a Discoveryland project, to a top-flight Top Golf facility on the Strip. I think we’ve got, in all, about 50 courses in the area. And that also includes golf manufacturers like Callaway and Mizuno, who have helped us teach our students specialty skills like club-fitting and repair work.“
Of course, Cain could not have done it all without his long-time assistant director, Kendall Murphy and others who have served on his team. Murphy, who doubles as the president of the Southern Nevada Chapter, graduated from the UNLV program in 2008 and returned to his current position in 2012. Like Cain, Murphy has high praise for the environment he teaches in, which by the way, is located near the Hard Rock Hotel and the Strip.
“We’ve been so fortunate to have the support of the university and the community, and to build a one-of-a-kind golf center,” Murphy said. “It’s allowed us to teach our students all different facets of the game, as well as the golf shop and club studio, where it is a lot of hands-on.”
Murphy said that each classroom has an academic and practical side, and noted that UNLV students actually work with the golf teams to collect data that ultimately helps to improve the Rebels’ golf games. The students even fine-tune the golf team’s clubs, from lofts to lies.
“We aspire to be leaders in golf research, and we feel when our students graduate from here, they’ll have a leg up on the competition,” Murphy said. “We’ll have about 100 students in the program in the fall, but that’s a good number for us because we consider ourselves a boutique, family-oriented program, where we not only know our students but their parents and families, too.”
Dawes Marlatt, the senior director of educational and organizational development for the PGA of America, helps oversee all 18 PGA programs, and called UNLV’s effort “highly attractive.”
“Generally speaking, UNLV’s effort is very impressive, very contemporary, and that makes it highly attractive to its students,” Marlatt observed. “They have done an outstanding job of carving out their niche by integrating the game of golf with hospitality, and that’s a very impressive combination, something that the UNLV staff has done to perfection.”
Asked if he thought being in Las Vegas was a help or a hindrance to prospective students, Marlatt never hesitated.
“Oh, I think it’s very beneficial,” he said of the symbiotic relationship between the school and the city. “Sure people come to gamble and party, but it also has a great golf community.
“Plus, with all UNLV’s expertise and technology that comes out of those wonderful and gorgeous surroundings, students understand that the school is serious, as well as the close-knit tie-in to Las Vegas.”
It certainly made a difference for Abby Burton, a 22-year-old recent graduate of UNLV’s PGA program from Des Moines, Iowa. Burton, who grew up in the golf business, took a job immediately out of school as an assistant pro at Desert Mountain Golf Club in Scottsdale, where she had done several internships.
Burton said she made visits to several other PGA of America-accredited programs, but once she found UNLV’s one-of-a-kind golf campus and class setting, it was love at first sight.
“My experience at UNLV was nothing like I ever imagined,” said Burton, who grew up undera father and mother who ran a family golf retail business called Golf Pros.
“I was surprised how connected the school was with the city, and how much golf there is there. I was never a fan of the ‘Sin City’ Las Vegas, and I’m still not. But I love that program and the school and the (teaching) staff. Had I gone anywhere else, I never would have learned as much.”
But why UNLV?
“The directors were awesome. They treat you like family,” Burton noted. “And the hospitality side of the school they offered trumped the business side, even though I eventually minored in business, too.”
But, Burton added, that wasn’t the biggest deal, at least for her when it came to her decision to complete her degree, which like any bachelor’s degree in college requires completion of 120-plus hours.
“The PGA program at UNLV was cutting edge,” she said. “Where a regular classroom, you’re just sitting there going through a power-point (presentation).
“That’s the thing about our classrooms, they alone keep UNLV at the top of a lot of students’ lists. They are exceptionally cool.”
Jeromy Stoks, a former alum of the program who works as a PGA Professional first assistantat TPC Las Vegas, agrees with Burton’s assessment but with a twist.
“I graduated in 2017, so those phenomenal classrooms in that beautiful building weren’t there yet,” said Stoks, a 38-year-old former Minnesotan who got into golf as a second career.“But I’ve been there on a couple of occasions since, and those are quite the incentive for someone to go to school at UNLV.”
Stoks had been an operations manager for a meat company in Las Vegas when his wife asked him a life-changing question: What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do? When Stoks responded be a golf pro, his wife secretly enrolled him in the PGA program.
“I came home one day, she told me what she had done, and I quit my job the next day,” he said. “I was fortunate it turned out so well.”
Through the PGA program, Stoks completed three internships at TPC Las Vegas, and did it well enough to earn his dream job. He gave a lot of the credit to his instructors at UNLV, that included Cain, Murphy and a former UNLV instructor, Kyle Helms.
“They got me involved in all the right stuff, from the way they taught (the curriculum) to getting me involved as a volunteer at the tournament (Shriners Hospitals for Children’s Open),” Stoks said. “I was able to draw a lot from their experiences in golf, and that was a huge help.”
Ultimately, Stoks said, the biggest benefit proved to be the program’s versatility in the golf industry. And Vegas’ sensational strip never really came into play, he added.
“It’s easy to separate Vegas life from family life,” he pointed out. “And along the way I got a hospitality degree in the most prominent hospitality city in the world.”
Another UNLV alum of the program, Paxton O’Connor, adds yet more perspective to this school at the forefront. Not only did O’Connor complete internships at prestigious Forest Highlands and The Country Club at Brookline, he also studied under famed instructor Butch Harmon.
“The Las Vegas program is so different, and that starts with two things – the best hospitality school in the world and Dr. Chris Cain,” said O’Connor, who graduated in 2015 and then worked his way up to director of instruction at Desert Mountain, the same Scottsdale club as Burton works out of.
According to O’Connor, who spent four years under Harmon at nearby Rio Secco in Herderson, Nev., while he attended UNLV, Las Vegas is a strong community, one that few other cities can replicate when it comes to tying in with a local college. The opportunities are boundless, O’Connor explained.
“Initially, I volunteered to work for Butch, and one thing led to another,” O’Connor said of the tie-in that helped him earn his current job. “If I hadn’t been in Vegas, if I had been at another PGA school, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity to work with the No. 1 instructor in the world according to his peers. Now that’s accessibility.”
O’Connor, who is oversees eight instructors, club fitting and the award-winning Performance Center at Desert Mountain, is not surprised the program is better today than when he left it.
“That’s Chris Cain,” he said of the leadership. “I know that I’ve been back a couple of times since they opened the new building, and those classrooms are special.
“They’ve created an atmosphere at UNLV that’s like no other, and that’s fun to see.”
O’Connor, Stoks and Burton are, obviously, a grateful trio of alumni from a school that taught them the art, science and business of golf while learning alongside some of the top instructors and minds in the game. And they did it all in Las Vegas, which leads to a somewhat staggering statistic, as 100 percent of UNLV’s PGA graduates have earned jobs in the industry to date.
“Hospitality is exploding in the golf industry,” Cain explained. “And getting all of this new stuff in front of our students, it’s exciting to see what they can do.”
Cain said that in some ways, Las Vegas is like a double-edge sword.
“I know some use the ‘Sin City’ thing against us when we’re all out there recruiting,” he said of the highly competitive academic world. “But if we can get them to Las Vegas, they’re sold! There are just so many cool things happening here, you can’t walk away from it.”
Or to use a little Vegas-style lingo, Cain added: “This is our first full year that the center has been open, and the students think it’s unreal. I guess you could say, we doubled down on golf, and they love it.”
About the Author:
Bill Huffman has covered and reported on golf since 1985. He currently is the editor-in-chief of AZGOLF Insider and co-host of Backspin The Golf Show, which airs in Phoenix (910 Fox Sports) and Tucson (1290 Wildcats Radio) every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
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