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Three years ago Chris Whitten envisioned taking on the executive director role at the Golf Association of Michigan as a new adventure in leadership, a benefit to his family and an opportunity to have more of an impact in the game of golf.
He joined in 2019 amid the centennial celebration of the association’s service to Michigan golf. But like everyone else, Whitten didn’t see a global pandemic coming, or the golf boom of sorts that followed it.
“All those things happened and they all produced unique challenges, including many I never expected, but they also provided opportunities to learn,” he said. “Even though it’s only been three years I feel like I’ve gained 10 years in experiences because of all I learned in that time. And that’s all a good thing.”
Whitten, 42, is a former University of Notre Dame golfer who became a collegiate golf coach, first as an assistant at Notre Dame, then worked as a golf professional for Miles of Golf in Ann Arbor and the Inverness Club in Toledo before returning to coaching. He had been the head men’s golf coach at the University of Michigan for eight years after a half decade stint as an assistant when he came to the GAM.
He said the challenge of going from leading a team of eight college golfers to leading 70,000 GAM members, staff, volunteers and more appealed to him.
“What it all boiled down to was the opportunity to make an impact at a bigger level, all across the state where I grew up and in [a] game that has been really good to my family all the way back through my parents and my grandparents,” Whitten said.
He is the son of Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member Buddy Whitten (and Julie), a long-time PGA professional and former PGA Tour Champions player. Chris was born and raised in the Grand Rapids area where his father worked for Blythefield Country Club. He and his wife Amy have two sons, Graham, 11, and Lucas, 9.
“The move to the GAM made sense for me on a personal level, too,” he said. “It was an opportunity to be more of a presence at home, and to keep our boys involved in golf. I saw a bigger team to be a part of and a team that had a lot of support.”
Whitten said many of the things he envisioned have worked out even better than he expected. He found great support and great passion on his staff and in the large volunteer population at the GAM. He said those things are what helped him handle the unforeseen challenges.
He said his lasting memory of joining amid the centennial year was nervously appearing at a GAM Foundation fundraising gala event that celebrated the centennial but also included Jack Nicklaus and the goodbye to David Graham, who had been the longest-serving GAM executive director for 18 years and who earlier this year was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame for his contributions to Michigan golf.
“I still remember the opportunity to take the microphone at the centennial event and getting to introduce David and providing him the opportunity to stand so he could be recognized for all he had done for the GAM,” he said. “That turned out special. It was nothing planned in my notes. It happened in the moment. And then I had the opportunity to introduce Jack Nicklaus to a room full of golf-loving people. I remember the nerves of just wanting to get it right, and that was also my real introduction to what I call the GAM family, those there who support the association and love the game.”
Year two meant dealing with the pandemic year of 2020. It tested the GAM and its supporters as it did people and organizations globally. Whitten has a vivid memory of a first Zoom meeting with all the tournament volunteers after his staff had planned to move forward with the 2020 golf season.
“We had been out of the office for a long time at that point, but we had continued to do the work and we made the decision to go forward with the tournament program, protocols in place,” he said. “That was a proud moment. We had not run a tournament yet, but the staff was organized, had made decisions and developed a firm plan that we now look back and realize went smoothly. That meeting showed me a lot about the relationships our staff had with the volunteers and how they all worked on the same team to make in happen for our players. I learned tournaments are more than just a fun afternoon for our volunteers, and I learned how much our staff cares about getting it right.”
Tournaments happened the right way in 2020, outside with creative adjustments and protocols, and some of those practices became part of the 2021 tournament season.
“As I look back on what has happened I understand the desire to be outside more, how people took on working remotely and adjusted schedules and knowing that helps the golf boom makes sense,” he said. “We weren’t sure at the time what to expect, but I’m most proud that when the boom happened our team was ready. We had good systems in place. What we were offering our members obviously mattered to them. We did a good job of telling our story and welcoming new people who had not been a part of us and golf before. We met the demand.”
Whitten said in some ways the three years look anything but routine, but that the nature of golf and its season in Michigan lends a cadence to the work of the association.
“For instance my work right now is concentrated on our governors and the changes in the officer team that will happen in 2022,” he said. “Our foundation was just starting when I arrived and the things people like David Graham and John Schulte (GAM president emeritus) put in place have expanded to where we now have Laura Bavaird taking on a role in leading the foundation when before it was just one of the things I did. Then when the golf season arrives and our tournaments start, I will really enjoy being part of that again, too.”
Mark McAlpine, GAM president emeritus who served in 2020 and was part of the officer team and hiring process for Whitten, said the GAM searched for a leader with communication, organization and management skills.
“We needed someone to keep us on the tracks and grow in the future, and Chris has been everything we hoped he would be for us,” he said. “The Covid year, or two years really, have been a good reflection of that. He worked with the Michigan Golf Alliance to create one golf voice in the state and at the same time developed protocols and strategies for the GAM to operate and even grow. From my standpoint, we are absolutely thrilled with what he has done.”