Minority Report: How Innisbrook is helping change the face of golf

By John Kim, Coordinating Producer
Published on

INNISBROOK, Fla. - It's one thing to know the names of the 700 employees at a golf resort; truth be told, many people in golf facility management are renowned for their interpersonal skills. But Rodney Green, the Director of Golf at famed Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort, in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, doesn't just know names, he knows stories too.

"That's Diane," he says after introducing this writer to one of the attendants at the Packard's Steakhouse restaurant during an early afternoon lunch interview. "She's a great person, great fighter. She's been out with a health issue, but she's back. Still smiling too. How can you not love that?"

"That's Philip," he explains after calling out to another employee who's leaning in through the grill shop window. "Great guy. Came to us from New Jersey. He works in shipping and receiving."

And so it continued. After lunch, while touring the facility in a golf cart, Green's hands spent as much time waving and shaking other hands as they did on the steering wheel.

"I need to trust and believe in everyone that works here," Green explains, "to know that we have the right people in the right positions to create the best environment and conditions for every visitor that comes to tee it up."

It's just another day in the life for Green, now entering his third year as the Director of Golf at Innisbrook. His day consists of marketing meetings, spreadsheets, apparel approvals, dozens of emails and hopefully, greeting a few golfers. It doesn't seem all that different from scenes played out at elite golf resorts all over the country. But it is.

Rodney Green may be the highest profile African-American Director of Golf in the country. Being at Innisbrook Resort, site of the PGA Tour's Transitions Championship and home to four championship layouts, Green's position would be in the spotlight regardless. But the fact that he's one of a small number of black high-ranking golf personalities within the vast golf community, there is an added attention that he's well cognizant of.

"I don't want to be known as the best black Director of Golf in the country," Green states, "I want to be the best Director of Golf, period. That was the mission and goal when I was hired and that's where my efforts lie. That said, of course race is something that I'm aware of, that Dr. Johnson is aware of, that the staff is aware of. We need to succeed first as a business, for Salamander Hospitality and for our employees and guests. But yes, we want to show that African-Americans can be as successful in golf management as anyone else. I'm sure there may be some people that are uncomfortable with seeing someone like me in a position like this, and wondering if I can pull it off. But, trust me, I understand that ultimately - whether we succeed or not - will not be because of the color of my skin."

Dr. Johnson is Sheila Johnson, owner of Salamander Hospitality, the management company of Innisbrook Resort. Dr. Johnson, one of the nation's wealthiest African-Americans, purchased Innisbrook in 2007 and in 2009 hired Green, who had been Director of Golf Operations at Disney World Resorts for a dozen years. Together, they have spent a great deal of time, money and sweat equity into renovating the resort - with aims of taking it from good to great.

"Our goal and vision is to develop Innisbrook into one of the top golf resorts in the country," explained Dr. Johnson. "We have a lot of momentum and it is virtually unrecognizable from the place we purchased. I'm so proud of the renovations, additions, our staff and the quality of our courses."

Dr. Johnson's assessment is shared by not only golf media and resort guests, but as host of the Transitions Championship on the PGA Tour, the resort garners overwhelming favorable reviews from the world's best players on a consistent basis.

But traditional barometers of success aren't the only standards for Innisbrook now, and both Dr. Johnson and Green understand that. Both appreciate - and even embrace - their roles and responsibilities as high-profile personas in a sports culture that's been admittedly lacking in persons of color running high-profile establishments. And though neither views the golf world solely through the prism of race, both acknowledge that the industry as a whole has been slow to evolve from the perception of a privileged, elitist, and frankly, mostly white, arena.

Green reflects on the need for diversity in golf, not just as an African American, but as a businessman. "Golf as a sport, for its own survival, has to embrace - and even lead - the changing demographics of the country. I come from a family of golfers, I went to college on a golf scholarship (South Carolina State), I've played professional golf - I love this game and am so grateful for the opportunities it has given me. And we need to make more of these same type of opportunities available for more people. I know that as an industry, as a community, we can do this. I've seen the change happen, albeit maybe slower than I'd like. But the joy of golf, of hitting a pure shot or sinking a clutch putt, that's not segregated by race. The golf ball doesn't care what color you are, where you're from, where you worship."

Dr. Johnson elaborates further. "As a business owner, my goals are no different to that of many others - to be successful, happy and treat my employees with respect. However, I understand that I hold a position within the black community and that I have a voice. There is no doubt that the golf industry as a whole has had challenges with diversity, and I have spoken about this several times. I encourage everyone to give golf a chance - after all, if I can start playing, then anyone can! And, I have Rodney Green to thank for his patience and skill for that."

Green has been proactive in encouraging youth - of all races - to think of golf management as a viable career.

"I often attend the Minority Collegiate Championships over in Port St. Lucie," explained Green. "Sometimes, it takes a few talks to the kids to breakthrough that what I do is a great career. I understand, many of the kids there have their own dreams of playing professionally. I get it. I did that for a while myself. And it was great. If that's something you are passionate about, of course, chase that dream. But there may come a time, as it did for me, where you have to make a decision as to where your future lies, what's the long term viable career. I'm there to tell them, it can still be golf. Whether it's marketing, sales, media, management or many other facets of the business, you can still make your mark, regardless of your race, in this industry."

Dr. Johnson, who is often asked to speak to youth groups on how to succeed in life and business, offers a consistent message. "It is a privilege to be asked for advice. I always tell people to accept the challenges that come your way, meet them head on and use those experiences to succeed. Make sure you are keeping company with other successful people that you admire and from whom you can learn. Then, once you have succeeded, support those in similar circumstances in which you once found yourself."

Says Green, "We want - no, we need - golfers of every race to feel at home here at Innisbrook. We would be foolish to allow race to dictate our management or marketing. We hire the best qualified people. The most important color here is green. It's how we want the course to look; it's how we want the bottom line to look."

Green's climb up golf's ranks has not gone unnoticed by the leaders of the industry.

"I've known Rodney Green since the first moment he became a member of The PGA of America," says current PGA of America President Allen Wronowski, who was an officer of the Middle Atlantic PGA Section at the time of Green's election to The PGA and actually handed Green his certificate of membership. "Rodney has always represented the skills, the work ethic, the class and integrity that we value so much within The PGA.

"We all recognize the importance of growing the game within every community. Rodney is a great example of what passion and dedication can bring to any PGA Professional. I'm very happy for his success in the golf world and I truly hope that it leads to greater success; for him, for Innisbrook and for future minority golfers that have hopes of becoming a part of the golf industry."

And ultimately, that is the hope that both Dr. Johnson and Green share for their legacy.

"We want to impress our golf visitors," says Green, "we want to impact this industry and we want to inspire the next generation."

And across this great golfing nation, thousands upon thousands of young African-Americans are wondering if golf can hold the key to their dreams. Because of the hard work and success of Dr. Sheila Johnson and PGA Professional Rodney Green, they need to look no further than Innisbrook to know that it most certainly can. 

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