PGA Director of Golf
Desert Mountain Club
Interview with Matt Ward
John Lyberger joined Desert Mountain Club as its PGA Director of Golf in October 2018. One of the most highly regarded club professionals in America, he previously served three years as the Vice President of Club Operations at Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., and 20 years as the PGA Director of Golf at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., where one of his jobs was to arrange golf for the sitting President of the United States. Lyberger is a graduate of Ferris State’s acclaimed PGA Golf Management program, the first of its kind sanctioned by the PGA of America.
THE LYBERGER STORY —
When the opportunity to become Desert Mountain’s PGA Director of Golf was presented to me, I jumped at the chance to be part of this great golf community. The game of golf has always been a passion of mine, and the opportunity to lead Desert Mountain’s extensive golf operation, one of the largest in the country with seven golf courses and a host of world-class amenities, is one I do with great pride and enjoyment.
As a CMAA certified club manager, all of the leadership skills I learned throughout my career, I now get to utilize, to run this massive golf operation. I’m really excited to manage an incredibly talented team of golf professionals, outside services and retail teams. I’m also super excited to work with Desert Mountain’s CEO, Damon DiOrio. He understands what it takes to build a world-class infrastructure, and he also gives me complete autonomy to run the golf operation, which I feel tremendously privileged to do so.
Given the competitive golf scene in the broader Scottsdale area—what separates Desert Mountain from the others in the same lane space?
I would say our physical plant. Nobody has the scope and breadth of golf and club amenities all in one package that we have. We sit on 8,000 acres in the Sonoran Desert, and with seven golf courses, the Jim Flick Golf Performance Center, our Sonoran fitness center and spa, tennis, aquatics, hiking trails, clubs within the club, there are so many things for our members to do at Desert Mountain aside from just playing golf. That’s what separates us—the uniqueness and variety of golf that we can offer and the other activities, especially if you’re a non-golfer.
Who is your customer today?
When I first got here, our member’s average age was in the 60s and it’s now 55-56. We currently have more than 500 members under the age of 55. In the last six months we’ve started to see a lot more families with kids under the age of 16. A lot of that has to do with the family-friendly No. 7 at Desert Mountain™ golf course. Families are starting to experience the many wonderful things to do, besides play golf. We are no longer perceived as a retirement community. Members are pre-planning where they’re going to spend their golden years, which is another big driver for our membership.
What distinguishes the needs of Baby Boomers versus Millennials and what approaches work best for each?
Our baby boomers like to organize their groups and book tee times in advance. They really like to know what they’re doing. They’re creatures of habit and prefer routine, whereas our Millennials prefer a much more casual place. They want to enjoy an impromptu dining experience or show up without a pre-planned tee time. Our Millennials have also driven food and beverage to more all-natural options—gluten-free and vegan foods, craft beers, and other trends.
For the total number of rounds played annually at Desert Mountain, do you have a split on male versus female play? Are any proactive steps used to encourage more female participation?
I’d say it’s 65 to 35 percent men to women. We have an extremely active female membership at Desert Mountain. Any event that we do for our men golfers we’ll do for the women. Our men’s Member-Member has 400 players in it, and our ladies Member-Member has close to 300 competing. On any given Tuesday, we’ll have 175 to 200 ladies playing in our Ladies League, Lady 9-Holers and Par Seekers programs. It’s exciting to see how active our women’s program is and their commitment to the game of golf.
What was the genesis of the par-54, 18-hole No. 7 at Desert Mountain™ and what role do you see that layout playing in conjunction with the other six courses operating now at Desert Mountain?
It was a strategic decision to build an amenity that no one else has and add it to our portfolio. We didn’t need another 18-hole regulation golf course. What we did need was a place for people to recreate and have fun. Seven is actually rated, so you can post a handicap score from all the way back at 3,000 yards if you’d like. But 95 percent of the play is recreational. Our members play it anywhere from 50 to 190 yards and really enjoy the experience of golfing and getting some exercise.
You can play nine holes in about an hour and have the same experience you’d have on a big course, just in a little less time. It’s the proverbial icing on the cake. Every one of my fellow golf professionals tell me, “Man, would I love to have what you have at Seven.” Whether it’s new golfers or advanced golfers, all can play it and have fun.
Plenty of people at various golf clubs and courses talk about the importance of customer service—define the term and how you and your staff engage members and their guests?
Customer service, by definition, is nothing more than providing timely, attentive, upbeat service. It’s reading your customer and knowing their needs. We try and provide as much anticipatory service that we can, and we try to understand our members’ desires and clearly communicate those desires. My job is to take care of the staff, the staff’s job is to take care of the members and the members job is to take care of the bottom line. At the end of the day, we’re in the happiness business. We’re in hospitality, and to me that’s what customer service is all about.
What type of feedback system do you have in place and how does it impact your daily operations?
We have a formal member feedback survey that’s super easy to use. We use a QR code, so every receipt that’s printed, whether it be in a golf, dining or retail facility, has a QR code at the bottom. Even our GPS system has a QR code that pops up when the round is over. That way, if they want to make a comment or talk about their experience on the course that day, they can just take a picture of the QR code and it will lead them right to the survey. We then use the information received as a tool to improve in areas where we need to get better.
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally—what would it be and why?
It would have to be how we currently drop the ball in a penalty or relief situation under the Rules of Golf. You’re required to drop the ball from your knee. Well, there are a lot of folks that have a hard time bending down and getting to their knee. Why not just put your arm out and drop it? Besides, not everyone’s knees are the same distance from the ground—some people are taller and some are shorter. That’s one rule that should be vetted out in time.
The various major golf organizations— USGA, R&A, PGA of America, PGA Tour, LPGA—are all seeking ways to engage Millennials, women and minorities. If you were counseling them, what would you advise they be doing in their efforts to grow the game?
I’d continue the emphasis on the fun factor, really stress the spirit of competition and exercise and how much fun the game is. Golf is good for the soul. It’s a game that you can play for a lifetime. You can play from the time you’re 3 years old to when your body won’t allow you to move anymore. I’d also like to see the PGA, USGA, R&A and all of the other organizations continue to create diversity and growth across all spectrums of people to make it inclusive and fun for everybody. That is how we will grow the game.
What are the biggest challenges—short- and long-term—facing Desert Mountain and what steps are you now taking for each?
It’s the same answer at every club, it’s finding new members and retaining the current members. We have to do this by providing world-class amenities and continuing to invest in the future so that new members will want to join. Currently, I think we do that extremely well at Desert Mountain, which makes it a wonderful place to call home.
Photos courtesy: Desert Mountain Golf Club
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