Peter Donahue

Peter Donahue

Founder | Senior Coach

Pete-Headshot

My office is out in the fresh air under some big oak trees. The people with whom I work are all curious, eager, and motivated. I advocate for the game of golf, and also for studentship and evolution. I’m living a dream that I first dreamed fifty years ago. A kid’s dream for sure. Then again, aren’t all the good dreams?

I wake up early out of long habit, and usually arrive at the golf course to enjoy the quiet around sunrise. I wake up my game by pitching and running shots onto the green from out in the fairway. Exchanging morning hellos with familiar smiling faces riding their machines out to make the greens ready for the day, pretty soon the birds and the squirrels will be joining us. It’s our morning meditation.

When the sun gets low and the breezes of the day start to go quiet, I am drawn back out onto the course.  There in the softness of the day I join those players who love to walk and explore and develop their chops, as the lengthening shadows creep over the course and highlight the fabulous textures and contours of the land. Ever since I was a kid. Waves and smiles. Wordless knowing. We all share something.

My dad played golf. He told me it was a game for a lifetime. I began learning from him, and playing some around the time I was ten years old. I didn’t really get into it though until a couple of years later. That was in 1961 when we moved out from town into the Illinois countryside just west of the village of Barrington.  Suddenly, there were no other kids nearby, and I had to find things to do on my own. I loved sports. I had a restless mind and needed to move. On the golf course by myself walking among the oaks in the late afternoons of summer, I could hear myself thinking. That interested me.

“You can’t always get what you want,” goes the opening refrain from an old Rolling Stones’ song. For many years, that summed up my relationship with golf. It  was really one of love-hate. Although I golfed just about everyday in the summers and got pretty good at it, something about it was evading me and I could feel it. Through my adolescence I played a lot with Andy North, and he went on to win two U.S. Open’s. Then, I played a bit in college a year behind Tom Watson at Stanford University, and his golf career was legendary. As a performer, I just wasn’t in their class. It ate at me. I wanted so much to be good at golf, and couldn’t understand why I struggled with it so much. How come I couldn’t be as good as them?

“What you get…you just might find… you get what you need”. What I discovered is that out of such adversity can come insight and skill that you don’t expect. Just like that Stones’ song goes on to suggest, I eventually came to see that what golf was preparing me for was to be a help to others. Somehow I had known for years that I wanted to be a teacher and a builder, but I couldn’t see the field in front of me. Becoming a golf professional was not exactly the career path that my dad and mom had dreamed for me, so it took me a while to see it for myself.

I made my decision when I was in my late twenties, and many people (including my first employer) had serious doubts that someone who was deciding and entering the golf business at such a late date would actually stick it out for than a year or two, much less make anything out of themselves. What they didn’t appreciate was that I wasn’t just deciding on a career path. This was a life path.

Becoming a PGA head professional was a big deal to me, and in the 1980’s I was managing the Winnetka Golf Course. Although I enjoyed the challenge of being in charge of the operation and providing a vision for what WGC could become, I knew in my heart that helping others learn and enjoy golf was what really lit me up. I am well-aware that some people regard golf as nothing more than an idle pastime, but I have long seen it as a vehicle that could bring about really positive connections in people’s lives.

Where else can people share that sort of unique time together getting to know one another? Where else can a whole family play together and compete with one another and cheer for each other and still walk and talk together, all on the same field with rest of the community? Where else can an athlete go out alone and compete and contemplate and develop themselves, and still have room to take in the natural beauties that surround them? Where else can you see and feel the extraordinary powers of the mind-body to create a vision and generate energies which can not only cause miraculous stuff to occur with stick-and-ball, but which can at the same time open up pathways to unseen worlds and elevate your spirit? Man, who wouldn’t want to help people find all that!

Winnetka GC was a terrific surprise. Nothing about that golf facility looked too impressive back in those days, unless of course you looked at the Winnetka people. The patrons from the village and the staff from park district were all really smart and energetic, and they were most certainly folks who would get behind anything that sounded like excellence. I had a dream, and I had a great friend who helped me make it come true. Jon Reese is a fellow PGA professional and a wonderful teacher, and once he came on board he helped me realize that dream of putting together a team of dedicated professionals, discovering the best practices being used in teaching golf, and creating new approaches in how teachers and coaches could help eager students.  Those were great years. What we produced was good for everyone. We built. We innovated. We had fun. The teaching program exploded and became the largest in Illinois. In the process, the physical facilities of the golf clubhouse and practice areas at Winnetka became totally transformed. Everybody won!

GreenToTee Golf (GTT) was launched in 1989 as a privately owned teaching business. It was born out of an idea of one of my students. Joe Bosco’s entrepreneurial mind saw an opportunity for a high-tech, indoor golf-learning studio down in Chicago. Putting together state-of-the-art electronic learning aids with the unique teaching approaches that were developing on the lesson tees at Winnetka seemed like a great idea. Joe called the idea LoopLinks, and he and I set about trying to raise money and get it off the ground. What we didn’t know much about in those days was how to develop and run a business, so we hooked up with general management consultant named Ray Tasch. He was one of the smartest and toughest guys I have ever known.  Ray not only knew every aspect of business, but in his forty-year career with General Electric and then with Coopers & Lybrand he had delved deeply into human behavior and the process of change. Ray became one of the greatest teachers I ever had. Ultimately, we decided not to pursue LoopLinks, but instead we (Joe-Jon-Ray-Me) did decide to go ahead and build a business through our own resources, which would have two different thrusts: (1) a golf-to-business concept and (2) a golf academy concept.

What we were doing was unheard of back in those days. Golf academies that designed and executed long-term custom programs for their students simply didn’t exist. Oh, there were destination golf schools, like Golf Digest and John Jacobs. But, that idea was sort of a “theme vacation” where you could go from 3-5 days, and we knew was nowhere near long enough to really accomplish anything. There is no doubt that we were ahead of our time in many respects; including our utilization of the latest electronic technologies and advanced learning models. GTT grew out of our Winnetka GC success and that team spirit: “If we were going to do the best we could to help golfers make significant lasting change, what would we do and how would we do it?”

What was the norm for golf instruction just didn’t work that well for most people. Tips and occasional lessons rarely brought about the results people were looking for. Weekend or even week-long destination golf schools were popular alternatives, but the concept of developing skills over that short time frame was ridiculous. Most folks would return from such schools flushed with excitement and filled full of ideas, but they invariably crashed and burned from information overload shortly thereafter. Lessons where the pro was the star (and not the student) had the focus all wrong. Lessons filled with golf jargon and obscure abstract concepts just created confusion and frustration.

We had to find ways to operate better in the mind of the student. What were their experiences? How could we build from what the student already knew, and could do or learn easily? How could we create strong sensory registration; which would be then stored, recalled, and used by the athlete more readily and effectively?

We dared to be different, from our trademark training shirts to our ever-present music to our training protocols, which featured red gymnastics ribbons and flying yellow impact bags. But, we not only dared to be dorky in our appearance for the sake of our students, we dared to be different in our core as to how we interacted with them. We did not dictate for the students as to what was right and wrong, but rather chose to find ways to lead our students to discover what was best for them and empower them to be able to teach themselves. Got to admit, it was pretty tough to be different in a culture as conservative as the golf world, and on top of that it’s pretty tough to take a Socratic approach in a world of fast food. We took some ridicule from different corners, but none of us was bothered by it.

Our name Green-To-Tee was derived from what we saw to be the best ways to learn the game of golf. First, since golf is a target game then wouldn’t it be advantageous to first relate to nearby targets before moving farther away? Many of the greatest teachers and players in the game certainly thought so, but most recreational golfers just want to skip that notion.  Second, wouldn’t it be simpler to use one mind-body swing blueprint for all strokes, rather than have different techniques for pitches, then another for greenside chips, and then still another for tee shots?  Time and again over the years, we had seen the root cause of driver swing problems displayed right there in that player’s short chip motions. Third, wouldn’t it be more effective and efficient to change movement patterns in the smaller, slower strokes before ramping these new patterns up to try them on full-powered, ballistic golf swings? Behavioral scientists were emphatic that this would accelerate learning in every student.

The challenges of building a business we continually met and tackled, starting with finding a home. Understandably, most golf courses were not welcoming to a private teaching business being on their premises and competing for students with their resident professionals. After an initial year based at Winnetka GC, we knew we had to hit the road. We borrowed office furniture from a school basement, and then built out a warehouse space in Northbrook. That was the beginning. For much of the next decade we moved and adapted, and we used our wits and our interest in others when that was all the resource that was available.

We found ourselves teaching rhythmic golf in the concourse of a shopping mall in an open studio located just across the hall from a screaming haircut place for little kids. That was back in the mid-90’s. Then in another time, after we decided to become the great “mobile golf school”, there were many winter nights spent unloading a trailer hitched to my car and then dragging portable aluminum tent frames and nets through the ice and snow, in order to set up for golf classes in some remote gymnasium. When we got to Willowhill GC, we turned the howling winds that almost constantly blew up there on that old garbage dump into “a unique advantage” in the minds of our students…. because we truly believed it! Then, a funny thing happened. When indoor winter golf domes started being built first in Northbrook and then in Highland Park, the owners recognized our track record and actually started coming to us to help them build their businesses.

The benefit that GTT brought to golf facilities became apparent. One of the first doors we ever knocked on right after we left Winnetka was that of the man who oversaw the golf operation for the Northbrook Park District, and his name was Don Pilger. You need to bring us on board, we told him. He listened to us, and then he showed us the door. Almost ten years later we were thrown back together with Don, when the privately-owned NorDome indoor golf facility opened up at Sportsman’s GC, and we were recruited by the owners to bring in our students and our programs. After we had worked closely alongside Don and his staff for three winters, he made a point to take me aside one day shortly before he was to retire. “I just wanted to let you know that I made a mistake,” Don said. “I’ve watched you guys operate. You’re different.”  Coming from that tough pragmatic old buzzard, I have always taken that as a great compliment.

The disciplines that Ray Tasch taught us and insisted upon were a big part of what Don appreciated in us. “Live by your principles,” Ray demanded daily. And, I also like to think the other part of what Don saw was that our hearts were in the right place. We made many mistakes. We weren’t right in our thinking all the time. But, one principle that we didn’t need a taskmaster to make sure we lived by was, “Make contribution to others.” So, yes, we moved around a lot for many years, and it certainly hurt us as a business. But, the people who knew and understood the golf market around here came to recognize that wherever we went GTT brought good things:  (a) enthusiastic golfers, (b) excitement for the game, (c) additional revenue for the facility.

The best part is people. Whenever I go into any project or situation the first things that intrigue me and light me up are always the concepts, the questions, and the challenges. But, then just as inevitably it ends up being the people and their incites (and their courage and their capacities) that blow me away and become my greatest takeaways. That people continue to surprise me like this makes me feel at once both grateful and foolish. How long does it take to learn something? Over the years, I have worked with teachers and students who have taught me so much that the reminder of it kicks my habit of prideful thinking right to the ground.  What they have opened up for me and added to my life cannot be overstated. When I think about who each of them has been for me, I wonder at how I could ever thank them.

My favorite students?  I’m often asked about the group of people with whom I most enjoy working. The frequent assumption is that it would be the youngsters or the best athletes or the most motivated. While I can think of many wonderful students who fall into those categories, those things don’t define my preference.  Truth is, because I root for the underdog many of my favorite students are the most unlikely athletes. Truth is, golf is not for everyone, cause there’s a certain patience and gratitude that is required by the sport. Some of the most athletic and most motivated people are not great students, because they just don’t get it. The people to whom I am referring are those who think impatience is a virtue and see mistakes as failure. These people are hard to be with. Golf is a game best appreciated by people who are confident, humble, persistent, and enjoy learning. Those are my people!

Handling change. Life equips you, you know? I used to worry about everything. What if we didn’t have a facility to do business? What if I lost my swing? What would happen when I got older? Yes, I admit that it is a trifle unsettling to see that the face in the mirror smiling back at me reminds me too much of Mr. PotatoHead, but the acceptance that I have practiced for years in the game isn’t about resignation but more about relish. Okay, here’s the situation! What I have learned from golf is that it just doesn’t matter what your circumstance happens to be or how you got there. Whining may feel good on some level but nobody really cares about your sad story, and sooner or later even a slow-learner like me comes to see that it’s just an unproductive waste of valuable resource.  All that matters is analysis and action. “Okay, here’s the situation, what’s the best play from here?”

Reinventing yourself is a fact of life. Thank God, the nature of world requires us to change and adapt. No, I really don’t mind getting older. And truthfully, I don’t mind that the economy is tougher either. I have no real idea what’s around the corner. I’m grateful for the challenge. I’ve always believed that I could and would make a significant contribution to others through golf, and even though the kid’s dream is fifty years old, I feel like I’m just getting started.


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