New leadership at country club

TOM JOHNSON (left), and Gil Russell share high aspirations for the future of the Norfolk Country Club. Both are relatively new to the club, with Russell being hired as its general manager in December and Johnson as the club’s golf pro about a month ago.

Among the oldest golf courses in Nebraska, the Norfolk Country Club is undergoing a youth movement of sorts in hopes of bolstering its time-honored traditions.

In December, the club hired 30-year-old Gil Russell as its general manager. He, in turn, hired 29-year-old Tom Johnson as the golf pro a month ago.

"We have a membership base — some of whom have been here 40-plus years — that is very passionate about this place and want to see it grow," Russell said. "Tom and I are focused on delivering the best country club experience possible.”

From their perspective, that means more than providing an excellent place to play golf or enjoy a meal.

“It means taking care of our current members, as well as getting our message out that we think we can be big part of helping this community grow and thrive," Russell said.

Russell comes to Norfolk from Arbor Links in Nebraska City, considered one of the top 10 courses in the state. He spent the last seven years there since graduating from the University of Nebraska's PGA golf management program in 2011.

"A couple of years ago, I kind of re-evaluated my aspirations. I began focusing my career toward club management rather being a true golf professional," said Russell, who is a native of western Nebraska town of Grant. "I saw Norfolk as a community I could raise my family."

Russell and his wife, Kara, have two children — Luke, 4, and Rori, 2.

Johnson is a 2007 graduate of Plainview High School and also has a PGA golf management degree from UNL.

"My wife, Nicole, is from Lindsay, so when I got the call from Gil, we were both kind of excited about the opportunity to move closer to home," said Johnson, who succeeded Bryan Hughett, who had served as the country club's pro since 2000.

"We wanted to hire somebody who had credibility within the industry and had been at a facility that was busier than the one here in Norfolk," Russell said. "Not only is Tom from the area, but he also has a reputation of providing quality customer service and has a lot of energy. It was a win-win hire for us."

After internships at Fair Play Golf Course in Norfolk and Champions Run in Omaha, Johnson worked for a year at Firethorn Golf Course in Lincoln before returning to Champions Run as an assistant professional in 2012. He was promoted to head professional in 2015.

"At Champions Run, we had around 800 members and accommodated around 25,000 rounds a year," Johnson said. "From what I can tell, just being here for about a month now, is that we have around 300 members. That translate into around 11,000 rounds a year."

Johnson is ready for the challenge of "Delivering a Country Club Experience" as outlined by the club's board of directors.

"There's a lot to be excited about. We're renovating the golf shop to have more of a boutique-type feel and give the entire community, not just our members, access to top of the line golf merchandise for birthday and Christmas gifts," Johnson said.

The country club’s swimming pool and tennis courts add value to a membership, along with the restaurant, he said.

“But it's the smaller membership that really excites me because it's an opportunity for me to do some more member relationship things like growing the social side of the Norfolk Country Club experience," Johnson said.

It didn't take Russell and Johnson long to notice the lack of PGA presence in not only Norfolk, but also throughout Northeast Nebraska.

"We're both PGA-driven guys, so we'd really like to take junior golf to a whole new level," Johnson said. "Golf has always been looked at as an individual sport, but the Professional Golf Association and Nebraska Golf Association have teamed up to offer team events throughout the state where 7- to 13-year-olds play on teams in a scramble-type format with uniforms and everything."

The club will also be making a push for young professionals, they said.

"Gil and I have been going to local businesses, the hospital and banks to meet with some of the leaders in the community," Johnson said. "We wanted to get out in the community and tell our story of our master plan and how we can help each other."

National statistics indicate the sport of golf has been back on an upward trajectory the past two years.

"Girls golf is on an incredible rise right now, and moms are also playing more," Russell said. "I think we've also benefited from the controversy of contact sports. People are realizing golf is a family activity that can be enjoyed for an entire lifetime."

Russell and Johnson said they feel the time is right for the Norfolk Country Club to put its best foot forward.

"Our message is that we're not just a golf course," Russell said. "Our entire staff is about rallying the community to embrace the Norfolk Country Club and what it has to offer. There are numerous places in Norfolk people can gather socially, be it informally or professionally. Our goal is to be at the forefront of those places.

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