Matt Schmidt has a measured, calculating way about him that balances his youthful appearance. Originally from Sterling, Virginia, he lives in Concord with his wife, Sarah, and their children Kaelyn, 11, and Brennan ,9. John Mattes caught up with him the first week after golf courses had been declared open following COVID-19 restriction.
John Mattes: You’re a golf administrator. How did you find New Hampshire?
Matt Schmidt: I’ve been in golf administration since the fall of 2006. After graduation (from the University of Notre Dame) I went back home to Northern Virginia. I grew up just outside (Washington) D.C. and I did what people there typically did: I went to work for a government contractor for about 18 months . . . and really just hated it. As silly as it sounds for someone who was just 22 or 23, I felt lost. And didn’t feel like I was doing something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I had a real fear of waking up when I was 40 and saying, ‘Sure, I may have a successful career, but it’s not something that makes me want to get out of bed every day.’
So I started looking around at sports jobs, and golf had always been a passion of mine. I played in high school for three years; I was taught the game by my father and my grandfather. I stumbled on the Boatwright Internship Program at the USGA and applied to a number of internships around the country and was fortunate enough to be offered a nine-month internship out in Indiana with the Indiana Golf Association. So I loaded my stuff into a little U-Haul trailer and away I went.
I worked there for nine months in the tournament administration side of things and then was really fortunate enough to have a full-time position open up at the end. So I got hired full-time in October-ish of 2006 and I was an assistant tournament director and did some PGA membership stuff, too. And then the tournament director left, so I stepped into that temporarily at first and then eventually was made full-time in late 2008. We ran upwards of 70-80 tournaments a year, everything from local U.S. Open qualifiers, to Web.com Monday qualifiers.
After doing that for three or four years, I was starting to think about what the next step for me was going to be. Logically, it felt like being an executive director and being able to run your own golf association was something that I definitely felt like I wanted to do. I guess there’s a little bit of synergy here because the New Hampshire job opened in the spring of 2013. And it was about this time of year actually that I came out for my in-person interview. I certainly had no real ties to the Northeast. My grandfather was actually born in New Hampshire. And we visited here for a wedding once when I was in eighth or ninth grade. But other than that we had never been up here. My wife’s family is from Wisconsin. But there was something about the organization: It was small enough that I felt it would be really good for my first executive director experience. And so I got offered the job in mid-June and then we were out here right after Labor Day of 2013, so it’s been six and a half years that we’ve been out here.
JM: What’s the mission of the New Hampshire Golf Association?
MS: I think the way that we view it is we are the governing body for amateur golf in the state of New Hampshire. To put it in layman’s terms, I guess I’d say we’re a smaller version of the USGA that governs golf within the borders of New Hampshire. We have 18,000 individual members, about 100 member clubs within the state and we do it all. We’re licensed by the USGA to administer the handicaps for those 18,000 folks. We handle the course rating aspect of the world handicap system and what needs to be done with that. We’re licensed by the USGA to go out and rate golf courses. Obviously the most visible thing that we do is our tournament program. We have everything from the state amateur and the state open which are big events for elite-level players. Now we run events that are geared toward players of all ability levels. And then everything in between – four-ball tournaments for men and women and for seniors, a senior amateur, a mid-amateur, a women’s mid-amateur, you name it. If there’s a market for a golf tournament, we’re going to look to run it and provide that service to the members.
I think more than that we look at being a full-service golf association as doing all of those different things that our members have asked us to do, and quite frankly, the USGA has told us that we need to do, as their allied golf association within New Hampshire. And then looking at what else we can do to provide value to our members, to make it worthwhile to be a member of the association. What else can we do to support our clubs, and to support the game really, to see if we can tap into the golfers in New Hampshire who might not be members of the association now? They may look at it and say there’s not a place for me with the NHGA, and we understand there’s still a perception that the NHGA is still a little bit of an old-boys’ club and really only geared toward elite-level players. We’ve really tried to fight that perception in the last 6 ½ years, and show that we’re an association for everyone. We are here to support the game.
To the extent that we can grow the game, we’re here to do that, too. We’ve got our own junior golf program, our own Junior Golf Tour that we run every year. And look, I think the last six or seven weeks (with the pandemic) have really shown the importance of what our role is in advocating for the game. Certainly, something that caught us completely off guard, and an unprecedented situation, but the amount of people that were looking to the NHGA for leadership and guidance, and again that advocacy to the State House, as to why this game is so important. And that it is important to the state from an economic standpoint: the fact that all of our golf courses are in essence small businesses and employ people not only year-round but seasonally.
The game gives a lot back to the economy. It’s an important part of the tourism economy in the state. The golf community here in New Hampshire is very close-knit, very passionate, as we found out in the course of being shut down by the pandemic. That’s a role that we’ve been thrust into with all of this, really standing out there in the forefront of advocating for the game and trying to get golf courses back open and get the State House to understand that this game is really important to the people whose livelihoods depend on it in this state. and ultimately that it could be played safely. It provides not only a physical help, to get people out there and exercise and move it around, but there’s a mental health aspect to it as well, with everything that has gone on with what folks have been fighting through on a day-to-day basis, the ability to get out on a golf course for four hours can be really therapeutic at this point.
JM: I completely agree with that. Do you have to be a member of a club or a course to join the NHGA?
MS: We use the word “member” and on some level, it’s kind of a misnomer because the members that we have all have handicaps established at one of our member clubs. And that relationship is one-on-one between them and the club where they have their handicap. That could mean that I’m a member of a private club, and that I pay dues every year to access the facility and pay whatever else I need to in order to be a member. Or it could mean I could walk over to Beaver Meadow today and say, “I’d really like to set up a handicap here today so I can post my scores and track my progress.” The club will be able to set me up with a handicap; I don’t have to be a member, per se, of Beaver Meadow. I can simply have a handicap established there. So it doesn’t need to be as involved as I think folks think. You don’t have to become a quote-unquote member of a club. It can be as simple as walking in to set up a handicap. Basically, every daily-fee golf course is able to do that for you.
JM: How many of those courses are there? Is that the case at pretty much every daily-fee course?
MS: Yes, and again, every golf course is going to treat giving a handicap differently. At some courses to get a handicap you have to join a league. Or you get a handicap when you buy a season pass, so you are considered a member. There’s different English on what every club does, or who they consider a member. But at most daily-fee golf courses, you are able to just walk in and say, ‘I’d like to carry a handicap here, and pay whatever fees are associated back to through the home course.’ And then you become a member of the NHGA because you have a handicap through one of our member clubs.
JM: I think that’s important for that word to get out because that misunderstanding can intimidate people so much that they don’t even ask the question.
MS: We totally understand that, and in the last three or four years we’ve been doing it. And you can get a handicap right now straight through our website. We understand that there’s an intimidation factor there for some folks even walking into a pro shop and saying, “I’d like to get a handicap set up.” It’s a difficult thing to do when you’re not comfortable. And now . . .
JM: You can join the NHGA online (looking at the website) right there.
MS: You can join the NHGA online and you will have an active official handicap once you’ve gone through that process. And again we consider those people members of the organization and they’ll be able to play in tournaments and get all the correspondence that they’ll get from us about everything that’s going on to support golf in the state. We like to tell people that our role is to give a lot back to the game. We want to make sure that the revenue that we’re generating will be predominantly giving back to our host courses, and to supporting the game.
That’s why we’ve gone, since I got here, from a staff of two to a full-time staff of four because as a full-service golf association, it’s not just running tournaments. It’s the course rating aspect of it, it’s supporting the clubs and their handicapping efforts. It’s supporting the individual members when they have questions about handicapping. It’s the Rules of Golf. It’s Amateur Status. Since we’ve been running more tournaments we’ve needed more staff support in administering those. So, all of those things combined make something different. Look, I can say that we’re in golf administration, but the reality is we’re a customer-service business. We look at it as we have 18,000 individual customers and we have 100 member clubs who we consider customers. So we’re in the business of providing service back to all those folks.
JM: Has the membership of the NGHA – not the courses but the people – has that been increasing over the last few years?
MS: My first couple years, we saw about a one-percent up-tick in membership, which is pretty good. A lot of associations have seen a down-turn over the last few years with the number of members. So for us to, in essence, stay static is pretty remarkable. And over the six and half years that I’ve been here our numbers have stayed pretty consistent. And I’ll just tell you anecdotally, that we’ve been very apprehensive about what our numbers are going to look like this year for good reason. And with everything that’s gone on, with courses only opening up on May 11, if you compare the number of members active in the system on May 15 last year to May 15 this year, we’re only off by 3,700 members, which is pretty darned impressive when you think about everything that has happened in the last six or seven weeks. We’re really only off by a small percentage.
JM: What’s the biggest objective for the NHGA in the next five to 10 years?
MS: That’s a great question. I think we’ve accomplished a lot in the last six and half years and really grown the organization . . . into a full-service golf association. That’s really been a question that’s been in my mind is what’s next.
I think a couple of big things for us are finding a more permanent home for our organization. We’ve been in our Concord office now since December 2013. And the location is central, but we’ve outgrown it. With the interns in the summer, with the amount of work we have to do, we’re on top of each other.
We’ve started to have some conversations between me and the Board about how it’s really time for the NHGA to put some roots down. How that takes shape, and what an office space looks like, and where we could go that would really fit our needs and put us in a position to say, ‘We don’t need to consider moving for another 20, 30, 40, 50 years.’ This is going to be the home of the NHGA. Before everything (COVID) started happening, we had had some really positive conversations with Beaver Meadow about plans to share some space on the golf course over there. Don’t know where any of that stands right now, with good reason. But we’re hopeful that that’s the kind of conversation that we’ll be able to have when things calm down.
I think the other big piece of the puzzle for us has been our relationship with the New Hampshire Women’s Golf Association. When the USGA decided to go this route of naming an allied golf association in certain geographic areas, they obviously identified New Hampshire as the geographic area and we were fortunate enough to be named the allied golf association, which meant that the relationship between the NHGA and NHWGA was going to change. We’ve had a working agreement with them for the past three years. But I think on both sides, and I don’t want to speak for anyone here, but there does seem to be a feeling that the two organizations, which both have had long and important histories, are better served doing things together, as opposed to operating as separate entities. We continue to have really positive conversations with a working group from the NHWGA, and we hope we’ll continue to move the ball down the field and get over some of the hurdles that you always have when you’re having conversations like this between two organizations sort of see all golf administered from one location as we go forward.
JM: And would that more than likely be in the Concord area?
MS: Yes, Concord’s been a great location for us for a lot of reasons, one of which is just how central it is. When we’re serving the entire state and running tournament programs down at Brentwood or Aching Country Club and up in North Conway and up in the Upper Valley and up at Mount Washington, I mean, we’re all over the place. To have a centralized location for us is a huge benefit for the staff. The reality is, we’re not looking at more than an hour or hour-and-change drive to get to a golf course outside of going up to Mount Washington really. There’s a convenience factor there for sure for us being in the central part of the state.
JM: Good. What’s the best part of your year? What do you look forward to the most?
MS: I think the best part of our year is typically this time of year, when we’ve gotten back out and we’re able to start running tournaments. . . . Being out on the golf course again, seeing people play golf, running our tournaments again, being able to interact with our players, being able to interact with our golf courses and our clubs, whether it’s going out and helping them with a course rating problem or helping them out with handicap administration. It is great for us.
Look, our office gets to be out on the golf course. There are days that we have, running these tournaments with weather delays, that are 12-, 13-, 14-, 15- hour days sometimes. But I always try to keep it in perspective that my office gets to be on the golf course for the majority of the summer.
And you know, we go in cycles. We’re not necessarily sad to see the season end in the fall because it is so much crammed into such a short amount of time, with a short golf season up here. And everyone needs a break when we get to the fall. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a relaxing time for the staff. We’re able to clear up a lot of loose ends and make sure that we’re able to gear up for the next season.
But, boy, by the time we get to the mid-part of January, we’re already chompin’ at the bit to get back out there. We want to see the golf courses open as soon as they can, and the sooner people are back playing golf, the better it is for everybody.
And so it’s disappointing that this year is going to look so different, that we’ve had to push tournaments back to different dates. We’ve had to cancel the state open this year which is a big one for us. And there are some tournaments that we don’t have slots for this year, and we’re scrambling to find spots for those and there’s a chance they could be canceled or permanently postponed until 2021.. . . . Everything is going to change for us going forward for how we run things. It’ll be good for us to be back out there, and we are excited to be running tournaments again. It’s just going to be different this year.
JM: That’s probably an understatement.