PGA Professional Dan Pasternak of the New Jersey PGA Section is multi-faceted manager, mentor, leader
To say that Dan Pasternak, pga general manager at Essex Fells (New Jersey) Country Club, is passionate about golf is like saying Einstein embraced mathematical formulas, Julia Child was devoted to cooking and Carl Sagan savored astronomy.
To say that Pasternak, the 2018 PGA Golf Professional of the Year, is dedicated to the business of golf, devoted to the PGA of America and commit- ted to a career in the game is an understatement. If ever a PGA Professional loved golf, lived golf and made golf his pastime and profession 24/7/365, it’s Pasternak. His passion for golf in all of its glory is unparalleled.
Need evidence? Consider that the 50-year-old Pasternak proposed to his wife, Courtney, at Bally- bunion Golf Club in Ireland after a spirited round of golf. He has played golf in 20 countries, and in 2010 wept on the first tee of the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. His international golf travel has taken him to Ireland on 20 occasions, and Pasternak owns the course record at Donegal, the birthplace of his great-great grandfather, Daniel McFadden.
On the domestic front, Pasternak’s passion for golf is personified in many ways. He named his dog Augusta. He took his son, Liam, to the Masters for his 9th birthday, and allowed the youngster to have the Masters logo shaved into his head. Pasternak also took Liam to the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine and the ’16 PGA Championship at Baltusrol, where he served as a referee and Liam met his hero, Rory McIlroy. He has similar golf plans for his 6-year-old son, Ryan.
“I agree with Little Hardy Greaves in The Legend of Bagger Vance, who said, ‘Golf is the greatest game there is,’” explains Pasternak, a native of Morristown, NewJersey, and the first New Jersey PGA Member to be named PGA Golf Professional of the Year.
The enormity of being named the 65th PGA Golf Professional of the Year, the highest honor bestowed upon a PGA Professional, is not lost on Pasternak.
“It is really overwhelming to be selected,” he acknowledges. “It is also a bit intimidating as I will need to work extra hard to hopefully live up to this honor bestowed on me.
“Being the first from New Jersey has great significance to me. Although I am the one receiving all of this attention, the honor says we have truly great PGA Professionals in this Section. I hope my friends and fellow professionals in New Jersey, espe- cially those who mentored me, know I share this amazing honor with them.”
Shares Love of Game
Admits Pasternak, the national 2013 PGA Bill Strausbaugh Award recipient and a two-time New Jersey PGA Section Golf Professional of the Year: “What gives me the most satisfaction, or is most gratifying, is simply sharing my love for the game with others.
“I love to watch golf; I love to read about golf; I love to learn about the history of golf; I love the values of honesty, integrity and perseverance that are the core of how we play. And I love everything about being a PGA Professional.”
How Pasternak developed his deep passion for golf is a story that began when he was 11 years old. His parents didn’t play the game, but his uncle, Nicholas Kroeper, and his cousins, Kurt and Nick Kroeper, were members at Beacon Hill Country Club in New Jersey and literally put a club in his hand.
“It may sound cliché, but I knew within the first three swings that I loved this game,” says Pasternak, who played baseball, basketball and golf in high school. “My cousin Kurt, who is two years older than me, was a good athlete and quite a good player. The competition and my desire to be as good as him is initially what inspired me. I looked up to him and still do.”
Pasternak lettered in golf all four years at Mater Dei Prep School in Middletown, New Jersey, often inventing a makeshift practice regime to work on his game.
“Back then, when I couldn’t get to the course for practice, I used to take a huge bucket of balls to the local middle school fields to hit shag balls back and forth for hours on end,” recalls Pasternak.
“I would also create my own holes playing from baseball diamond to baseball diamond, with the hole in front of the pitcher’s mound created by the pitcher’s toe serving as my cup.”
A Helpful PGA Professional
It was during one of Pasternak’s impromptu practice sessions that he encountered Jack Skochil, the PGA Head Professional at Beacon Hill Country Club.
“One day, while I was pitching balls back into my bucket, Jack Skochil was watching a soccer game on a school field and came over to chat with me,” recalls Pasternak. “I knew him a little through my uncle and cousins. He grabbed my Wilson Staff sand wedge and bet me a nickel he could pitch a ball into the bucket. He banged his first shot right in. I can remember to this day how, before he went back to the soccer game he was watching, he got down on one knee, adjusted my left hand grip a touch and provided me encouragement that a grip change was tough, but I should stick with it.
“I knew right then that I was going to make my career in golf. That nickel was the cheapest lesson I ever got. The lesson was don’t bet a man in yellow pants and a pink V-neck sweater, and don’t underestimate your ability to positively influence a child. Thanks, Jack!”
Pasternak’s first job in golf was typical of most entry-level positions. While in high school, he picked up the range and staged golf cars at Bamm Hollow Country Club for PGA Professional Lou Katsos, where his passion for the business mush- roomed.
“It was the greatest job ever,” says Pasternak. “My major responsibilities were pulling out 60 golf cars in the morning, going to get breakfast sandwiches at the Sunnyside Deli, putting members’ clubs on the golf cars, and picking the range at night. When I wasn’t working, Lou let my cousin Kurt and I play as much golf as we wanted and we took advantage of that incredible perk.”
Rejoins Longtime Mentor
After playing at Glassboro (New Jersey) State College (now Rowan University), under longtime coach Richard Wackar, Pasternak continued work- ing for Katsos and worked on his game with an eye toward playing professionally. In the late summer of 1991, Skochil offered Pasternak an assistant professional position at Beacon Hill Country Club the following spring. Still highly dedicated to playing the game, Pasternak worked diligently during the winter in Florida while playing in tournaments. Tragically, Skochil passed away that winter in his early 40s, but his replacement, Terry Woodard, welcomed Pasternak aboard in the spring. And when Katsos offered Pasternak a job at his new facility, Shore Oaks Golf Club, Pasternak rejoined his longtime mentor.
It was Katsos and PGA Professional Brent Studer who taught Pasternak everything from A to Z in the golf business, and inspired Pasternak to give back by mentoring as many young PGA Members as possible when Pasternak eventually became a PGA Head Professional himself.
“Lou Katsos was instrumental in my development as a PGA Professional. He not only gave me my start, he taught me how to run a business,” says Pasternak, whose commitment to education is reflected by his recent completion of the PGA Certified Professional Program in General Management.
“Lou was particularly good to me after my father passed away in June of 1991 when I was 23. My dad was awesome and very much my hero, and his passing left a huge gap in my life,” recalls Pasternak. “I owe Lou a ton. Like a lot of knuckleheads, I thought I was a lot smarter than I was. He should have fired me many times, but fortunately he never did.
“Lou served on many PGA Section Committees and made it clear through his actions that as a PGA Member, you had a responsibility to give back. I was with Lou a long time. In addition to working for Lou at Bamm Hollow through high school and college, I was with him as an assistant professional for three years at Shore Oaks Golf Club.”
Studer is Strong Influence
Pasternak worked as an assistant at Manasquan River Golf Club under Studer, who led by example and showed Pasternak how important mentoring is while running a full-service golf operation.
“As far as I am concerned, Brent Studer is the PGA Professional of the year, every year,” says Pasternak. “The way Brent carried himself had a profound impact on me. He is living proof that PGA Professionals can still be the ‘rock star’ at the club. He inspired me to want to get better at every facet of the golf business — playing, teaching, merchandising and, most importantly, being a leader.
“He built an incredible team. I don’t know how many head professionals Brent has trained, but in addition to myself I know of Brian Gaffney, Brad Olson, Mike Kierner, Adam Machala, Chris Dymek, Vince Giunco, Brad Sumenek and Brian Linton. Though his nickname is ‘The Little Guy,’ he has a big and generous personality. Brent was a great boss, and he and his wife Jenny have been great friends to me.”
Pasternak embraced the mentoring mantra him- self after earning his first PGA Head Professional position in 1997 at Madison Golf Club in northern New Jersey, when club president John Moser “took a chance on me when I was still pretty green,” remembers Pasternak.
“Mentoring my fellow PGA Professionals is personally rewarding and a key responsibility we have as PGA Members,” says Pasternak, who was elected to PGA membership in 1996. “Mentoring for me started after I was hired as the head professional at Madison Golf Club.
“In having success through the interview process, others sought me out on how to prepare and give a good interview. When those initial few had their own success, it sort of snowballed from there with more coming to me for assistance. I am extremely proud of Tom Flatt, Brian Gaffney, Brad Olson, Dan McCarthy, Mike Kierner, Eric Shillinger, Tony Santillo, Craig Lindsey and George Ancuta.
“It is an incredible honor when somebody trusts you enough to seek your advice. They are all great PGA Professionals who taught me more than I ever taught them, and they are even better friends.”
A Penchant for Service
Pasternak’s passion for golf is equaled only by his penchant for service to the game. The first PGA Professional to serve as general manager at the 122- year-old Essex Fells Country Club has served as a New Jersey PGA Section officer and on virtually every committee in the Section over the past 20 years. He also served as the District 2 representative on the PGA of America’s Board of Directors, and helped launch the New Jersey Golf Foundation while serving as its president in addition to his duties at Essex Fells Country Club.
“I really enjoyed my time as an officer in the New Jersey PGA Section,” admits Pasternak, a four-time recipient of the Section’s Bill Strausbaugh Award while serving as the PGA General Manager at Panther Valley Golf & Country Club in Allamuchy, New Jersey, where he worked for 11 years.
“It was a great learning experience, and what I liked best is the relationships that were built,” says Pasternak. “I looked up to Ted O’Rourke, Mickie Gallagher III and Mike Sparks, the officers I served under, and I have incredible respect for Bryan Jones and Andy Brock, who served as my vice president and secretary.
“What I like best is how they all rolled up their sleeves and worked very hard for the Section, the PGA of America, and the game. Since I moved to the past presidents table of the New Jersey PGA Section, I am so impressed with those who have stepped up to lead.”
During his tenure on the PGA Board of Directors, Pasternak experienced firsthand how the national board operates and makes decisions in the best interests of all 29,000 PGA Members.
“I can say with 100 percent conviction that every PGA Board member I served with checked their personal interests at the door and did what they believed was best for the Association,” says Pasternak. “It is a great feeling to be in a room with some of the best and brightest the PGA has to offer.
“We use the catchphrase ‘to serve the member and grow the game’ to encapsulate the PGA’s mis- sion, but I think it is critically important not to for- get the third part of our mission and that is to support the vocation of the PGA Professional. (Former PGA CEO) Pete Bevacqua probably got tired of me saying that, but I believe it is worth repeating. We have tremendous assets in the PGA Championship, Ryder Cup, KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship and now the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship; but our greatest asset is the 29,000 men and women of the PGA of America. I am honored to be one of them and honored to have served them.”
Injury Curbs Playing Career
Pasternak has always taken tremendous pride in playing the game proficiently, but a fluke injury he sustained in January of 1999 while participating in a pickup basketball game in Tampa, Florida, temporarily curbed his enthusiasm for playing and presented one of the most significant challenges of his career as a PGA Professional.
“Typical of many of us northeastern PGA Professionals, I was down in Florida for the winter, work- ing on my game and playing in local mini-tour events,” recalls Pasternak. “I was working at Madi- son Golf Club at the time. The facility was only open nine months a year. The night it happened, I was playing with a couple of other golf professionals, Bryan Bermudez who was an assistant professional at Morris County Country Club, and Sean Toohey, who is now the PGA Director of Golf at New Jersey National, and other random people at a local court.
I wasn’t doing anything unusual. I made a rather weak backdoor cut and it just popped. I ruptured my Achilles tendon. At first, I thought somebody kicked me in the calf. It was rather surprising as I was only 30, and pretty fit.”
The surgery to repair Pasternak’s Achilles was successful, but he’s never been as flexible and mobile since. “I had a very tough recovery that took a great toll on my flexibility, athleticism and swing,” confides Pasternak. “I worked hard trying to come back with very poor results. I kept trying to swing the way I used to, but my body would not let me do it. I got very frustrated and darn near quit playing.
“I was back pitching and put- ting within about three months, but I ended up getting tendinitis and other issues in my ankle that were very slow to heal. It was still bothering me 15 months after surgery. Although the Achilles has completely healed, my flexibility has been poor since. The imbalance has also caused some arthritis in my left hip. It stinks to get old.”
Just when Pasternak wondered if he would ever play golf again, PGA Professional Dan Colvin of Fishers Island Club and previously of Somerset Hills in New Jersey, stepped in to help him rediscover his passion for playing the game.
“After another fruitless and exasperating session, recognizing my growing frustration, Danny asked me a very simple question that instantly gave me back my love for playing,” recalls Pasternak.
“He said: ‘Why don’t you stop try- ing to be what you were and focus on what you can be?’ Talk about some Jedi Yoda stuff, it was like a lightning bolt to my psyche.
“In that instant, practicing and playing went from a chore to a joy again. I focused on what I wanted to do right instead of what I was doing wrong. Thanks to Danny, I regained my love to play, which I still have to this day.”
Becomes PGA General Manager
Pasternak is perpetually learning and trying to enhance his career, as evident by his recent comple- tion of the PGA Certified Professional program in General Management, and his decision to pursue PGA Master Professional status. How he became a PGA General Manager is an interesting story, perhaps demonstrating that such was his destiny.
“The opportunity to become a PGA General Manager was not something I aspired to; it was born out of circumstance,” explains Pasternak. “The GM at Panther Valley, where I was the PGA Director of Golf, left at the start of the 2010 season to take a new job. The club president, Gene Thaw, and vice president Andy Blair asked if I would step up in an interim capacity while they con- ducted a search. They knew I had been involved in Section leadership for a long time and recognized that quality in me.
“Ultimately, they never ran a search. I am not sure when interim was taken out of my title, but they gave me a huge opportunity to take on more responsibility and try something new. When I moved into the manager’s office, I quickly real- ized I loved the challenge. Obviously, I had a lot to learn, but new challenges are exciting and what keeps you motivated.”
It was another PGA Professional, Michael Leemhuis, former General Manager at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, past president of the National Club Managers Association, and currently serving as president of the Ocean Reef Club in Florida, who motivated Pasternak to complete the coursework necessary to become a PGA General Manager.
“Completing PGA Certification is something I did to help me get better at my job. My only regret is I should have done it sooner,” assures Pasternak. “I had been thinking about doing it for quite a while; I had even purchased the classes, took a few, but got busy and stopped.
“However, I made a commitment to complete certification after sitting in a meeting with Michael. I got to know him when we served on the Workforce Task Force together. We were in a transition meeting as I was stepping down as chair of the national PGA Employment Committee and he was taking over. In the meeting, one topic we discussed was how and what support we could provide as an Association for PGA Professionals to penetrate the most aspirational jobs in the industry. One thing that is critical is education.
“He said, ‘You have to continue to put the arrows in the quiver. If you want to compete effectively for those jobs, you have to do the things that differentiate yourself from the competition.’ I could not have agreed with the statement more. This was an eye-opener to me. I see no rea- son that PGA Professionals should not hold the most esteemed positions within the game, not just at clubs, but as leaders of regional and national golf associations, club and clothing manufacturers, chief level positions at the PGA of America, PGA Tour and allied associations.”
Varied Career Opportunities
Pasternak believes PGA Professionals enjoy more career opportunities than ever, with the PGA of America providing the educational and training bridges to help PGA Members reach the highest of career heights.
“We have many smart and talented PGA Members who the younger generation contemplating a career in golf can, and should, look to for inspiration,” says Pasternak. “There are substantial opportunities throughout the golf industry. Successful PGA Members such as Michael Leemhuis, Roger Warren, Dana Garmany and Joe Assell have helped build great companies and are running huge operations. John Easterbrook has stepped into the C-suite at PGA Head- quarters as our first Chief Membership Officer, and he even served as Interim Chief Executive Officer. As an Association, we should promote their success as an example of what is possible.”
As the PGA General Manager at a 122-year-old private facility, Pasternak faces some unique challenges while teaming with PGA Head Professional Brian Gaffney at Essex Fells to maintain the longstanding tradition of the austere club while introducing new, contemporary programs.
“Brian and I are committed to maintaining the great tradition of the club, which is known for its outstanding PGA Professionals,” says Pasternak. “The biggest challenge in being at a 100-plus-year-old club is honoring its traditional way of doing things while making it modern and attractive to the next generation of members while being respectful of those who built the club.
“Finding the balance between tradition and progress is critical in being successful in today’s rapidly changing and ultra-competitive market.”
A Career of Milestones
Pardon the passionate Pasternak if he gets a lump in his throat when reflecting on a PGA career rich in milestones and memories.
“I have had an amazing golfing life,” reflects Pasternak. “I have played golf in more than a dozen countries. I’ve been fortunate enough to hold several course records, including one in Donegal, Ireland, which is the birthplace of my great-great grandfather, Daniel McFadden. I cried on the first tee the first time I played at St. Andrews. I have been a national PGA Director representing District 2, and I got to be a forward Rules observer at two Ryder Cups. I’ve been recognized by the New Jersey PGA Section, and now for a second time on a national level – all incredible stuff.
“But my No. 1 greatest memory in golf is still walking up the rope line on the 11th hole at Augusta National holding hands with my son Liam, and he says to me: ‘Daddy, this is the greatest day of my life.’ Can it get any better than that?
“I look forward to making those same memories with my younger son, Ryan.”
Liam has already taken to golf with a passion similar to his father’s. He has been the player of the year in New Jersey in his age group the past three years, and has competed twice in the U.S. Kids Junior Worlds in Pinehurst. This year, he finished 50th in the world. Last year, Liam played in the U.S. Kids Holiday Classic before Christmas at PGA National, with then-PGA CEO Bevacqua caddying for him.
“Liam loves all sports, but especially golf. My 6-year-old son Ryan is starting to ask to play more often and we very much enjoy playing together,” says Pasternak. “Golf with my family is very, very special to me.”
Now, what about that passion play years ago when Pasternak proposed to his wife, Courtney, at Ballybunion in Ireland? What were the circumstances surrounding that life milestone?
“When I decided I would propose at Ballybunion, I knew I wanted to do it overlooking the beautiful beach. The nervousness of knowing for 17 holes that I was going to ask her had a very bad effect on my round,” confides Pasternak. “I played very poorly.
However, Courtney was playing literally the round of her life. Typical of Ireland, we had sun, we had rain, we had wind, and then we had even more wind. Conservatively, the wind was sustained at 35 mph with gusts near 50 mph throughout the round. When I dropped to my knee and opened the box with the ring, she quickly said yes and shut the box. When we got into the clubhouse, rather than champagne we celebrated over a pint of Guinness.”
Years later, Dan and Courtney Pasternak are no doubt celebrating his well-deserved 2018 PGA Golf Professional of the Year honor.