Road Less Traveled: Kierland’s Dickens Breaks Down Man-Made Barriers Of Golf Industry

Road Less Traveled: Kierland’s Dickens breaks down man-made barriers of golf industry

As the club manager for upscale Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale, Nancy Dickens holds some lofty status among her peers in the golf industry. That she rose from the superintendent’s position at Kierland Golf Club to actually run the entire operation of the club for her employer, Troon Golf, also speaks volumes.

But when you consider that Dickens is only one of 12 women in the country vs. approximately 2,000 men who are certified golf course superintendents by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (the official body), Dickens becomes even more unique. According to Craig Smith, the director of communications and media relations for the GCSAA, there are 14,000 members in the GCSAA of which only about 100 are female.

“Nancy is a special member of the GCSAA in that she is a pioneer who has not only been with the profession for over 20 years, but has advanced to where she is recognized as one of the best in the business, as a certified golf course superintendent,” Smith said. “We are proud of all that Nancy has accomplished. She certainly has a great story to tell.”

Dickens, who grew up in St. Joseph, Mo., mastered tennis before golf, and once worked for Hallmark Cards, gets a little uncomfortable, however, when someone mentions the word “pioneer.” She quickly tells her inquisitor that she prefers the other “P word” – professional.

“I guess you could make a story out of that (being a woman and a pioneer in a man’s world),” Dickens mused as she pondered the question.

“But I’ve never seen being a woman as a disadvantage, especially at Troon. And for that matter, I’ve never felt discriminated against in the golf industry. To me it’s about a passion for growing the game . . . dealing with the challenges that face the industry . . . (and) getting the job done for the people I work for and with, as well as our taking care of our customers.

If Dickens sounds like she means business, that’s exactly what the former inventory controller is talking about. But she does it in a way that commands nothing but respect – “a true professional.”

“That’s pretty much how I’d describe Nancy,” said Carl Bielstein, the vice president of operations at Troon Golf and Dickens’ operational report at Troon.

“She’s always prepared. She makes great decisions. She hires good people. And, basically, is respected from top to bottom in the organization. She was Troon’s superintendent of the year (2006), and is pretty much known throughout the industry as being really good at what she does. That’s what’s important to Nancy, and she is, without a doubt, one of the best.”

That golf turned out to be Dickens’ dream job is an amazing journey, and certainly it came down a road less traveled. As a kid, she learned tennis and golf from mother, although tennis is where she first displayed her athleticism at the early age of 6. That skill only got better, and she was good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Missouri, and played in the NCAA tournament her freshman year.

But Dickens was restless by the summer before her junior year, and transferred to Baylor, where she played one more season of tennis before “getting serious about college.” She graduated with a bachelor of business administration-finance and then “floundered around a bit.”

“I thought about going for an MBA, but mostly I just bounced around it the restaurant business for a few years, working as a server and bartender in Kansas City,” she recalled. “About that time (1988), I applied and got a job with Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, which was one of the top 100 companies in the U.S.

“It was a great job, a great company, and a good time in my life. But something kept telling me that I didn’t want to do it this for the next 30 years.”

Even though Dickens climbed the corporate ladder at Hallmark, rising from telephone sales to inventory controller, she was restless. Oddly, her boss-at-the-time’s brother was the assistant superintendent at Kansas City Country Club, and working in golf had huge appeal for Dickens over her desk job.

“It just came to me: ‘Hey, this is a job for me,'” Dickens said of her epiphany. “When you’re a superintendent, it’s like running a small business, and that just had a lot of appeal to me, along with the golf and being outdoors.

“And what came next was one of the big breaks in my career . . . even though when I told my mom about my great adventure, I remember she cried.'”

Dickens enrolled at North Carolina State in its turf-grass program and got a job on the weekends working as a crew member at nearby Pinehurst No. 2. Her salary of $5 an hour at Pinehurst No. 2 was prestigious but it didn’t quite pay the bills, so Dickens took a second job waiting on tables at night. Maybe that’s what made Dickens’ mom cry, or maybe it was Dickens’ 24-7 schedule that brought the tears. Whatever the reason, Dickens’ drive to get her career off the first tee was nonstop, as she never looked back.

“Monday through Thursday I’d commute to Raleigh to work on my turf degree, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday I was working at Pinehurst No. 2,” she said with a laugh. “(The busy schedule) was awesome.”

Along the way, Dickens did several summer internships. The most noteworthy was at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., which led to another big break.

“I knew what I wanted, but if someone would have told me I’d become the superintendent on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course this quickly out of school, I never would have believed it,” Dickens said. “And (seven years later), to get an opportunity to work for Troon at The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa (the Gary Player and Pete Dye courses), well, I’d made a lot of great moves up to that point, but that one, at the time, was probably the best.”

Of course, there also came great opportunities at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, where she began as the director of agronomy in 2008 before being named club manager in July, 2013 – the woman in charge of the entire golf operation. It was heady stuff, but not entirely a surprise to Dickens, at least at this point.

“It’s always kind of where I thought I’d end up, having a business background and all,” said Dickens, who gets to play a little more golf these days than when she was a “super.”

“I’m a firm believer that if you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life. And so far it really has been fabulous.”

But those who know her well, like Bruce Lange, the managing director at Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, it’s all well deserved when it comes to the woman in charge of his golf course.

“Nancy is, indeed, a rarity, having come up on the agronomy side and being so successful that she now has the top job,” observed Lange, who works directly with Dickens. “I know that a lot of the guys in her position got there with the golf club in their hands, but Nancy got there through hard work and being exceptional.

“For one thing, she is laser-like on the business side of it; very analytical. And for another, she’s very creative, which is one of the reasons we’ve been so successful with our innovative programs like segway golf, golf bikes and golf boards.”

The new programs involving segways, bikes and golf boards – yes, like motorized snowboards – are called “golf-letics” by the Kierland Golf Club staff. Or as Dickens put it: “If this is the way to grow the game — with segways and bikes and boards — then why not?

Lange, who has worked with Dickens going on nine years, agrees wholeheartedly. Plus, he likes the fact that Dickens has tee times up 10 percent, and revenue up 11 percent even if Dickens is so humble that she brushes aside such results by saying Scottsdale golf, in general, is “up across the board.”

As Lange pointed out: “The golf course industry has this idea that you can get business (tee times) by going low (with green fees). But Nancy’s smart enough not to buy into that trap. She gets it by giving her customers more while still maintaining the bottom line, which makes it a win-win.

“But mostly, Nancy just gets her arms around things and makes them better.”

Perhaps the most unexpected repercussion of Dickens’ giant leap from superintendent to club director, she said, is that she gets to play a little more golf these days.

As a super I hardly ever played,” she said. “But as (club director) I’ve tried to play a little more; maybe twice a week in summer although, in peak season, it’s tough.

“I guess the good news is, I’m not bad. I’ve had a couple of holes in one and I’m a 9 handicap who is working on getting better.”

Not that driving it long and making putts will ever cut into Dickens’ never-ending drive to be the best she can be when it comes to her work. And despite all of her success, she keeps her management philosophy simple: “It’s a total team effort here, and I’ve been lucky to build my own team (Pete Treyve, head pro; Dan Figueras, superintendent).”

And, yes, Dickens gets it when it comes to the positive impact she will have for women who will follow in her footsteps.

“I realize this career path is not common for most women, but I’ve never really looked at it that way,” Dickens said. “The truth is the job can be very rewarding and it can also be very demanding – long hours, lots of weekends.

“But it’s been really, really good to me for 22 years now, which is why I want to give something back and truly grow the game.”

Spoken like a true professional, a word that seems to sum up Dickens to a “P.”