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Hangin’ With Klecko: Stories from Oak Marsh’s GM

It was a frozen morning and I’ll bet I counted a dozen cars in the ditch as I headed toward Oak Marsh Golf Course for an appointment to pitch product.

When I arrived I was taken to the dining area where I was surrounded by a culinary team who tasted samples and asked questions. About 20 minutes later as we were wrapping up, a man walked over to our table and stood silently while listening to the chefs and me finish our bread dialogue.

I was curious, so I asked: “You look like a golfer, are you the resident pro?”

The gentleman greeted me with a friendly smile while handing me his business card, which read: Steve Whillock, General Manager/Director of Golf

After shaking hands I asked if he’d ever heard of my uncle Phil McGleno who golfed on the PGA under the name Mac O’ Grady. 

Steve stared at me in silence with a look of disbelief before answering: “Isn’t it a small world? Yes, I knew your uncle very well. I met him when we worked at the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California.”

Now the GM at Oak Marsh Golf Course, Steve Whillock used to work at California’s Thunderbird and recalls when it was a dude ranch before being turned into a private country club.

After several minutes of talking about my uncle, the culinary team left but Steve gave me some coffee and entertained me with stories.

“The Thunderbird Country Club used to be a dude ranch for movie stars but eventually it was turned into a private country club. It was a great place for me to start out. As I worked my way up the ladder I became a teaching professional. One of the perks of working at the Thunderbird was that I got to golf with some real name-droppers.

“The list goes on, but just to name a few, I golfed with Lucille Ball, Leonard Firestone, Oscar Mayer and Dinah Shore. Most of the celebrity clientele were gracious. The majority of them earned their money themselves. Nothing was given to them, and I think they appreciated anyone who was trying to do the same.”

At this point I interrupted. I had a lot of questions to ask. How does one go from Southern California to Oakdale, Minnesota? Were there many stops along the way, and are you happy where you are today?

Steve leaned forward in a relaxed posture and said: “I love being in Minnesota. I grew up in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, so this is familiar territory, but yes, I did have several pit stops. When I was teaching at Thunderbird, my scores were getting better and better and finally one day some of the club members asked me why I wasn’t on the PGA.”

At this point I noticed Steve blush just a bit and sensed he was touched by what he was about to tell me.

“When I told them I didn’t have the money, they asked how much it would take. I explained it would be at least $25,000 to get up and running. That’s all it took. Many of the members kicked in, and through their generosity I was going to get my shot. Their kindness was overwhelming. Just before I was about to leave for the South Africa Sunshine Tour they pulled me aside and told me that I didn’t need to eat at McDonald’s, sleep in cheap motels or drive cross-country to matches. If I needed more money, these folks were going to fund me.

“South Africa was an education. I was going up against a lot of talent. Ernie Els was on that tour and I’ll bet he had to be 18. I stuck it out for three years but eventually realized it was time to head back to the states. When I returned, I came to Minnesota and thing went well. I golfed well and made a few bucks. I’m not going to lie; it felt good being a big fish in a smaller pond.”

At this point I felt like Steve and I were getting on well so I didn’t feel nervous when asking him if he can still compete. This question produced the biggest smile of our conversation.

Steve answered: “2016 was good. I won the Minnesota PGA Senior Match Play Championship. That just wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did, and in October the Minnesota PGA awarded me with the Golf Professional of the Year Award.”

As Steve told me this, I could see from the expression in his eyes how grateful he was. While he reflected, I asked what makes Oak Marsh special from other Minnesota golf courses.

Steve had several answers.

“First off, I’d have to say location. Oakdale is centrally located and I’m not sure if we could be in a better place. When I came here years ago, I decided I wanted our environment to be like ‘Cheers.’ I wanted to create relationships where our staff knew our clients. I wanted to produce a climate that offered more than golf.

“With the help of a very good staff, we’ve been able to create an event center. We’re doing wedding parties here, often times two at the same time. We’ve also become a fashionable location for catered parties. Like I said earlier, Oakdale is centrally located so we’re in a good position to provide a venue for many people’s needs.”

Then Steve smiled before continuing: “I’ll tell you one of the things that makes me feel good. Most nights we’ll have a dozen to 20 people sitting in our bar that aren’t even golfers. These people are coming here because they enjoy the attention they’re given here. I call them my decoys and that makes them laugh, but nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. Every person that visits here, every car that’s parked in our parking lot makes a statement.

“As you know, relationships are crucial in hospitality. Word of mouth is everything. For a place like ours, it’s more important than TV or radio. People don’t always believe the media, but they’ll always listen to their friends’ opinions.”

At this point my coffee cup was empty and it was time for me to make my next sales call, but before leaving I asked a final question: “I’ve always been curious how golf courses remain viable in the winter. Is it mostly catering?”

Steve shared: “Sometimes downtime is a good time to create win-win opportunities. Several years ago I was disappointed at how much negative press the police were getting. I wasn’t seeing any coverage that reported their bravery.

“I wanted to thank our troops, police and firefighters, so I put together a Salute To Servicemen and Women Dinner. It wasn’t meant to be anything more than a thank you, but after the first year people started donating items and the event eventually became a fundraiser. This year [was] our third time doing this.

“All proceeds will go to the Minnesota 100 Club. That means all money we collect bypasses administrative costs and goes straight to the family of police, firefighters or paramedics in need.”

As I got into my bread truck and pulled away, I was glad to have made a new friend. What a small world. Who would have thought that in the midst of an ice storm I would meet a guy from Trempealeau, Wisconsin, who was friends with my uncle in California? 

Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St Paul and can be reached electronically at kleckobread@gmail.com, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.

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