Do you know what a golf pro does? It’s far more than you might think, as these local pros highlight the work they do, their expertise on the course and the experiences that brought them to a career on the links.
Perhaps you’ve seen them, and perhaps you haven’t, but they were there either way. Certified members of the Professional Golf Association (PGA) are a familiar face at many a local golf course. They teach lessons and dispense advice, but their years of training also make them well-equipped for the behind-the-scenes operations of any golf course. So, who exactly are these pros and what can they bring to your game? We caught up with a few of them to find out.
Nic Barnes, PrairieView Golf Club
He may be the new PGA professional at this Byron golf course, but Nic Barnes is no stranger to PrairieView. That’s because the Rockford native spent many a summer in his childhood playing these links.
“Basically, from the age of 8 to 14 I just grinded it out here every summer,” he says. “I fell in love with the game, I played a lot, and as I went through high school I decided I didn’t really want to do anything else but play golf.”
Life as a PGA pro isn’t all fun and games. Barnes oversees much of the behind-the-scenes operations, from teaching lessons, budgeting and marketing to running tournaments, personnel and the pro shop.
His work also ties into the indoor/outdoor driving range at PrairieFire Golf and Grill, where several heated bays and Toptracer technology provide year-round entertainment in a setting that feels like Top Golf but has more local flavor.
To become a PGA pro, Barnes studied business management and followed the PGA program at Coastal Carolina University. As he dove into the minutiae of the golf world, he interned at top courses in the Chicago area, New Zealand and Oregon State. Since graduating in 2012, he’s worked at The Glen Club in Glenview, Ill., Forest Hills Country Club in Rockford, and Marengo Ridge in Marengo, Ill. He joined PrairieView this spring.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a better facility within 35 or 40 minutes,” he says. “And the course layout is great. They’re always finding ways to make it better.”
John Schlaman, Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa
As the new director of golf for this premier Galena-area resort, John Schlaman handles an impressive array of behind-the-scenes work. Not only is he concerned about Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa’s four premier courses, which together comprise 63 holes. He’s also overseeing instruction, customer service standards, staffing and whatever else it takes to wow the course’s four main customer groups: resort guests, club members, the general public and residents of what’s known as the Galena Territory.
“The director of golf or head golf professional is instrumental in serving as an ambassador for the brand of the course he’s working at,” says Schlaman. “If I play in or organize and run a tournament, I’m representing Eagle Ridge. If I’m giving lessons, I’m representing Eagle Ridge. If I’m talking with customers or booking a group or dealing with a customer relations situation it’s in the forefront of my mind to make sure the resort is represented properly. My passion has always been to take care of people, and that is what I will continue to do.”
There’s little downtime at Eagle Ridge, because once the golf season is over the clubhouse becomes the Nordic Center, a hub of wintertime activities including ice skating, sledding and snowshoeing. The pro shop becomes a gear and rental shop, and the Trackman golf simulator gets booked around the clock.
For longtime visitors to Eagle Ridge, John Schlaman may look a bit familiar because he was the resort’s director of golf in the 1980s and ’90s. He spent most of the 2000s at Prairie Landing Golf Club in West Chicago and returned to Eagle Ridge in 2021 as the Head Pro at the South Course.
Since the May 1 departure of golf pro Mike Weiler, Schlaman has once more been elevated to the role of director of golf. A PGA member since 1986, Schlaman counts fellow pros Pete Jones and Jay Overton as his biggest mentors. Schlaman says he’s looking forward to guiding Eagle Ridge’s golf experience into the future.
Jordan Zellman & Chris French, Aldeen Golf Club
Visitors to Rockford’s premier public course have a chance to work with not one but two golf pros. LPGA pro Jordan Zellman and PGA pro Chris French together oversee the day-to-day operations, from managing staff, marketing and logistics to executing lessons, training and outings.
“You can see us pulling out carts, cleaning carts, picking up the range,” says Zellman. “We are constantly moving and helping our team to make operations run smoothly.”
French doesn’t just work behind the scenes at Aldeen. He’s also representing Rockford as an active tournament player. This spring he competed in the PGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y.
Zellman is one of three ladies LPGA pros in Rockford, and she oversees lessons at Aldeen’s practice center, where there’s also an outdoor driving range.
“It has been really nice having both sides of the golf world, both PGA and LPGA, because I feel like we can cater to a lot more people,” says Zellman. “There are some people who prefer to have a female instructor and there are many who prefer to have a male instructor or someone who is still competing as much as Chris is.”
Both Zellman and French grew up in the Rockford area, competing in high school and the Rock Valley College team, where Zellman was the only female golfer. After graduating from college in Florida, Zellman landed a job with LPGA champion Annika Sorenstam’s ANNIKA Foundation.
French started his career in North Carolina and eventually landed in California. Both Zellman and French were recruited by Aldeen’s longtime former pro, Duncan Geddes, to work as his assistants before he retired in late 2021.
For those golfers who want to hone their game, French encourages a quick conversation with the local pro.
“If you have questions, just come in and talk to us,” he says. “We’re here basically every day. We’re easy to find.”
Jeff Hartman, Park Hills Golf Course
For nearly 50 years this golf pro has been a familiar face around Freeport’s twin public courses. Hartman started playing Park Hills’ East and West courses as a 10-year-old boy and eventually competed with teams from Freeport High School and Highland Community College.
“My first job was at Park Hills when I was 18 years old,” he says. “I was the assistant pro here for four years, from 1985 to 1989, and then the pro position came open and I was fortunate enough to get that. And I’ve been here ever since.”
These days, Hartman serves as head golf professional and general manager, so he oversees everything from the clubhouse operations and the grounds crew to lessons, club repair, food service, and outings and tournaments.
“I’m a man of many hats,” says Hartman. “I do a lot.”
In the offseason, that includes managing the pro shop until Christmas, and through the winter months he plans out next year’s outings, tournaments, merchandise and budget.
Between all of his duties, Hartman also offers private lessons and golf leagues for children and adults. “You’re never too old or too young to take lessons. Even the pros take lessons,” he says.
Park Hills encompasses two 18-hole courses owned by the Freeport Park District. The East Course opened in 1955 and measures nearly 6,500 yards that slope and move with Freeport’s hilly terrain. The West Course, built in 1965, is slightly longer at 6,627 yards and presents its own challenges.
“We have smooth, fast greens, watered fairways, and a greenskeeper who’s been here for over 20 years,” says Hartman. “So, it’s always in great shape and relatively easy to play. We have four sets of tees to choose from, which makes our courses fun for all ages and abilities.”
Ryan Niffenegger, Rockford Country Club
Whether they work at a public course or a private club, golf pros handle many of the same responsibilities. For the pro at this century-old, members-only club in Rockford, that includes lessons, managing the pro shop, organizing outings, handling customer service and maintaining a top-notch experience.
“I joke with all my staff that every course is the same, but it’s just different faces and different names,” says Niffenegger. “Private clubs just present different issues.”
For Rockford Country Club, that includes several golf-related committees where Niffenegger offers his input. While summers are full of activity, winters bring a focus on the next season’s budget, events, member activities and merchandise for the pro shop. On this latter task, Niffenegger finds it’s rewarding but sometimes tricky.
“You’re guessing on the trends,” he says. “There are some years you absolutely miss the boat. But I enjoy the fashion aspect because you’re helping to select what people will wear for the coming year.”
The other part he loves most is teaching lessons, a task he likens to being “a part-time psychologist.”
“There are aspects where people may be struggling with their game, and it’s not necessarily about the how-tos of the golf swing as much as helping them with their mentality,” he says. “We have to help them think about the game and not just seeing and hitting the ball. We become close with these people. We see them every day, and they become part of our lives.”
Niffenegger first fell in love with golf at the age of 13 and spent his high school years working at Marengo Ridge Golf Club, in his hometown of Marengo, Ill. He landed on a waitlist to enter a college golf management program and decided instead to complete his PGA education while working in Scottsdale, Ariz.
In 2007, he landed a job as assistant golf pro at Rockford Country Club and became the head pro in 2012. Now, he oversees an 18-hole course with many traditional features, including narrow, treelined fairways and small greens that slope from back to front. Those who are interested in club membership can reach out directly to Niffenegger, who feels right at home.
“I started working at a golf course when I was 14 and I’m now 41 and I haven’t left,” he laughs.
Brandon Fridh, Red Barn Golf Course
Visitors to this executive course in Rockton, Ill., have the chance to connect with not one but two golf professionals. New owner Richard Barnes, whom you’ll find running the clubhouse and handling behind-the-scenes functions, has a long history of managing top-notch golf courses around the Midwest. He also has bragging rights as he competed in the U.S. Open’s 1979 Regional Qualifying Round and in the 2011 Senior Open Qualifying Round.
Red Barn’s other resident pro, Brandon Fridh, also has a deep history with golf, particularly as a Rockford-area instructor for nearly 31 years. At Red Barn, he focuses on lessons for juniors, men and women who want to up their game.
Fridh’s approach diverges from many professionals you’ll meet, as he places a heavy emphasis on a golfer’s equipment.
“If the pros are as good as they are and they have their clubs worked on weekly, as amateur players we’d better make sure we’re also paying attention to the equipment we have in our bag,” says Fridh.
His career began with two Rockford-based manufacturers of custom equipment – Discount Golf Wholesalers and Parfection Custom Golf – before moving on to national brands like Callaway and Tour Edge. About eight years ago, he studied under master instructor Manuel de la Torre. The late instructor spent 65 years teaching at Milwaukee Country Club, was a member of the PGA of America Hall of Fame, and won the PGA’s first-ever National Teacher of the Year. His finely tuned golf teaching system focuses entirely on the physics behind the game.
“He made me a much better teacher, and his knowledge has allowed me to show every golfer what they need to be focused on and make their game simpler,” says Fridh.
A Rockford native, Fridh was just 15 when he picked up the game and found his life’s calling. He remembers the day his father took him to a double-decker driving range in Naperville, handed his son an old 3 wood and watched the boy swing away.
“I teed up the ball and I hit it so well that I was amazed and decided never to do anything but play golf. I never played football or basketball at school again,” Fridh says, recalling how he then spent summers and any other free time wandering Rockford’s public courses. Shortly after he graduated from Guilford High School, he landed a job at Penguin Golf Academy in Loves Park, Ill., and spent 20 years helping others to fall in love with golf.
Now in his first year at Red Barn, Fridh is bringing that same passion for the game to a nine-hole course that’s received several upgrades under Barnes’ direction. The driving range now boasts Toptracer technology that helps golfers to understand more about the statistics behind their ball’s flight and add some fun into their game.
“When people find out more about Toptracer and what you’re able to do with it, you can have fun and really hone your game,” says Fridh. “I think that’s been fantastic for the facility.”
Rich Rosenstiel, The Ledges
Visitors to this premier public course in Roscoe, Ill., may recognize the resident golf manager for his work elsewhere in the area. That’s because he’s manages all three golf courses owned by Forest Preserves of Winnebago County.
Behind the scenes at Ledges, Atwood Homestead and Macktown, Rosenstiel oversees day-to-day operations, customer service, outings and tournaments, food and beverage service, the occasional lesson and a team of about 54 seasonal employees.
“I love it, and I’m living proof of the old saying, ‘Do what you love and you never work a day in your life,’” he says. “It’s fun. It’s a good time.”
Life in the golf industry has its challenges, and not only because workdays in summer can last 13 hours. When the 9-to-5 crowd is off work, things get hectic at the course. While Rosenstiel tries to play once or twice a week, even that gets challenging at the peak of the season.
“Initially all golf professionals get into the business because they love playing the game of golf,” he says. “And once they get into the business they find out that playing golf becomes secondary. There just isn’t the time to do that in all situations.”
Rosenstiel played golf in high school but never saw it as a career path until, as an adult, a friend invited him to join a golf event. Rosenstiel liked the experience and wondered what it would take to play for a living. He quickly found out there were several routes.
“The people who make a living playing every day, that’s some next-level skill they possess,” he says. “So, that led me into asking, ‘Well, how can I be around the game and still play? And that led me into the work of golf course management.”
The Freeport native started off as an assistant pro at Freeport Country Club, became the assistant pro at Rockford Country Club, and then left the industry for a brief stint in the insurance business. In 2012, Rosenstiel became manager over the forest preserves courses.
All three of the forest preserve’s layouts present a unique set of challenges. Atwood Homestead in Rockford has a more open design with maturing trees. Macktown in Rockton, Ill., was built in the 1930s and has more of a classic layout with popup greens, shorter distances and narrow fairways lined by mature trees.
Ledges Golf Course is set on a scenic landscape that presents many strategic challenges in the form of creeks, ponds, bunkers and some serious rough. For good reason, it’s a popular destination for golfers from Wisconsin and the Chicago area.
“They’re always pleasantly surprised that the conditions of the golf course are so good,” says Rosenstiel. “And it’s also at a price point they’re not used to. We’re charging a municipal rate for a course where conditions are above average. I think that word travels quickly.”