Q&A: How a power-broking female GM plans to bring the U.S. Open back to Oakland Hills
Pooler: Courtesy; Oakland Hills: Larry Lambrecht
Christine Pooler has a long and storied career in the golf industry, with a resume that reads like a page out of GOLF’s Top 100 Courses ranking: stints at Merion as the general manager, Augusta National as the director of club operations, and most recently, at Oakland Hills.
Pooler was named General Manager/COO at Oakland Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., last December. In an exclusive interview with GOLF, Pooler described the challenges of being a powerful woman in a male-dominated industry, what tends to hold women back when pursuing a career in golf, and the big plans she has in store at Oakland Hills.
This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
How did you get started in the golf industry?
I got started through the food and beverage side of golf, and studied hospitality, and left Minnesota and went to Naples, Florida, almost 28 years ago. And I guess how that all happened is as a kid you hang out at Minnewaska Golf Club in my tiny little hometown, and you watch your mom schlep around the baby blue leather bag, and you see all the guys eating a hot dog, or drinking their sodas, or their beers, or whatever they might be, and you want to take care of them.
And I just loved that people were happy and I loved being around it. And so I said to my mom, “I’m just going to study hospitality, I’m going to take care of people.” And so I moved to Naples, Florida, thinking that if that’s the golf capital of the world and that is where my golf pro from my little club in Glenwood, Minnesota would go in the wintertime, that’s certainly where I must go.
You’re one of few female GMs in the golf industry. Why do you think that is?
I think there’s probably an intimidation factor. I think for the women who choose to have a career in food and beverage, they seek out event planning or they’ll throw a party, or make things beautiful, because they don’t necessarily know what other opportunities might be inside the building, if you will. And, or, they attempt to work in the golf side of the business.
It can be intimidating for women. But if you truly want to care for people, employees, members, golfers, everybody, if you truly want to care for them, it doesn’t matter. The intimidation goes away if you have pure intentions or just truly care for them, to provide them a great service, to provide them an experience that they wouldn’t have expected, or something just really special that becomes a memory. Results are not gender specific. I’m a girly girl — I have no problem being incredibly feminine and feel very confident sitting in the board room.
What do you think is the most difficult thing you’ve had to overcome or accomplish thus far in the golf business?
I think the most difficult thing that I have probably faced is making decisions that are personal where I’ve always put my profession first. To make personal decisions that you knew were going to affect members of your team, or it was going to affect other people but you had to do it for yourself.
What would you say is the hardest part of your job right now?
I’m in the midst of a transition. Renovating [an existing structure] is much more difficult. I am a process-driven person. I analyze, I’m thoughtful and thorough. But when I execute, I make a decision, that’s it. Move on. And if it’s a bad one, let’s own it, move on. We’re just going to keep barreling through. And I think sometimes with boards and clubs, they set a meeting to then set another meeting. And I don’t do that. I want action items and I want to move on.
Did you have any female mentors or leaders that you looked up to as you climbed the ladder?
I don’t. I have wonderful friends who are in the industry. There’s a few that come to mind. I would say three, particularly. But my mentor is Mr. Steve Klee, and he taught me to never give up and to never just settle.
Do you feel that you have reached the pinnacle of your career at this point? Or are you still hungry for more?
Right after the U.S. Open at Merion, when people were calling saying, “Oh my gosh, come work with us,” and I was like, “Hold on. Hold on. This is my family. I’ve been here 10 years. I love these people very much.” At the time, I was 45, I guess, 44, and I thought, oh my gosh, this is it. I achieved everything that I could have ever dreamed of in my career. And I was very, very proud.
And I’m still very proud of that. I’m a driver. I’m a builder, and if you put me in a spot where something’s going to be dysfunctional or awry, I’m going to fix it, and I am going to leave it better than I found it, no matter what it is. I think that I just am really proud of having the opportunity to be entrusted with such a cool job, and that has provided some really amazing experiences in my life and has brought some really wonderful people into my life.
Why did you decide to take the job at Oakland Hills?
I came to Oakland Hills for one reason, because I had no intention of leaving Indian Creek [Country Club in Indian Creek Village, Fla.] after I left Augusta. And Oakland Hills called, and I’m from the Midwest and I always thought Oakland Hills was such a special spot, but I knew it could be better.
And when they made the decision and Gil took this [restoration] job, I knew that something special was going to happen because Gil wouldn’t have taken it if he wasn’t sure. And so I thought, all right, I’ll go open this beautiful South Course, 100 percent restoration, which I have massive respect for a restoration and not a renovation.
Because I think nurturing clubs back to what makes them really special is what I’m all about. So, you know what, I could go and do exactly what we did at Merion, because at Merion it was exactly that. It took us four years to rebuild a strategic model to get ready for the U.S. Open, and we did it.
And we built a strategic planning committee, and have a governance structure process taking place. So just super excited about watching something as special as this club become that much more special.
So, just to clarify, your ultimate goal at Oakland Hills is to be awarded another U.S. Open, the club’s first since 1996?
One hundred percent.
Given all that you’ve experienced, what advice do you have for women who want to achieve what you have?
You can have both. You can 100 percent have a wonderful balance in your life and still reach for the stars in this career. You can still be a chief operating officer of the top clubs in the country, in the world, and still have the balance of a family. I think that’s the fear people have, but you just have to set yourself up for it.