River Valley Ranch pro works to make the game of golf accessible for all age levels
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Bringing the game of golf to the community, and particularly making it accessible to young players, is a major focus for Steve VanDyke as director of golf at Carbondale’s River Valley Ranch.
That commitment helped earn VanDyke the Colorado PGA-West Golf Professional of the Year and Youth Player Development awards at the organization’s spring meeting in Grand Junction last month.
“Steve has been a real stalwart on the Western Slope golf scene and is very deserving of these awards,” Chapter President Luke Brosterhous said in announcing this year’s awards. “His dedication to the game is evident daily.”
It’s been a long but not awfully winding road for VanDyke to land where he is today.
After playing golf in high school in rural Nebraska with his father as coach, VanDyke gave it a go at the collegiate level, playing his freshman year at Nebraska Wesleyan University. But he decided early on that he eventually wanted to become a club pro.
He passed his Player Ability Test his sophomore year, which meant he lost his amateur status as a player and could no longer compete at that level.
After completing college, without deviating from that career path, he headed to western Colorado in 2000, where he immediately went to work as an assistant pro and then, from 2009 to 2019, as head pro at the private Aspen Glen Golf Club outside Carbondale.
The public River Valley Ranch course underwent an ownership change in 2019, and the golf course and restaurant operations were leased out to longtime local and avid golfer Red Cunningham and his wife, Julie.
The Cunninghams asked VanDyke to come on as director of golf; an opportunity he jumped at, since a public course opens up more opportunities to introduce the sport to a broader audience.
So what exactly does a golf pro do?
“It’s funny,” VanDyke said. “I think there’s a perception out there when people ask you what you do, and you say, ‘Well, I’m a golf professional.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, do you know Tiger Woods? Or do you play on TV?’
“And I tell them, ‘No, I’m a club pro.’”
During his days as an assistant pro at Aspen Glen, it wasn’t a full-time job, so the Glenwood Springs resident spent his winters working as a lift operator at Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort, and in the ski shop in downtown Glenwood.
But golf course management remained his first choice when it came to jobs, especially after he married and started a family with his wife, Jennifer.
“I love to play and I love to compete, but my focus is on running a business, essentially,” VanDyke said of the all-encompassing golf course management side of the job.
He does give lessons and still finds time to play quite a bit of golf, but the job also involves managing the staff, overseeing golf operations, setting the pricing, keeping track of the finances, scheduling and coordinating tournaments and — very near and dear to his heart — running the junior golf programs.
Growing up golf
Part of his motivation in introducing the game to youth and developing young players has been his own daughters, Sophia, 10, and Thea, 12.
“Both Jennifer and I grew up with golf in our family, and so we understand the benefits — socially, physically and mentally — to learning golf at a young age,” VanDyke said. “It hasn’t been something that we’ve ever really pushed them hard into, it just kind of organically became something we do as a family.
“My dad was a high school golf coach for 35 years, so I think that runs in my blood a little bit.”
Youth golf has been strong in the Roaring Fork Valley for a long time, in part because of programs like Aspen Junior Golf and the various programs offered at the area golf courses.
Golf also experienced a resurgence across the age spectrum during the pandemic, when it became one of the few small-group outdoor activities that people could do together while socially distancing.
“I’d say the state of golf, and especially youth golf, is exceptionally good right now,” VanDyke said.
River Valley Ranch, for one, has a special youth pass for golfers age 19 and under that comes out to $5 per round, with special incentives to get families out on the golf course together.
RVR’s First Tee Program beginning in June is geared toward junior golfers ages 10 and under, and a series of Drive, Chip and Putt lessons are offered for ages 7-15.
Those programs have helped feed the local high school golf teams, hosted at Glenwood Springs High School for the girls golf season in the spring, and at Basalt High School for boys during the fall season.
Both teams take players from multiple Roaring Fork District high schools and area private schools. RVR is the home course for both programs.
“To get kids into the game early, and to the community as a whole, is so important and helps grow the game,” GSHS girls coach Lori West said, crediting VanDyke for the opportunities he has provided as a club pro.
“It’s not only the physical development and mental aspects of the game,” she said. “Golf sort of mimics what happens in the world. You have a lot of ups and downs, and when you hit the ball into the sand or the water, you have to figure out how to deal with that.”
It’s also a way to bring families closer together, and any number of business deals have been made on the golf course between colleagues, West added.
Playing the game
Now 44, VanDyke admits a part of him wishes he would have put a little more effort into his playing abilities in college.
But, after making it to state as a high school golfer two of his four years at Crete High School, he said something was missing when he got to college.
“I came from a very small high school, with my dad as my golf coach. Our practices were very structured, and we practiced and played as a team,” he said. “Then, in college, it was practice on your own, play on your own and report your own scores, so there wasn’t that team dynamic. So it lost some of the luster for me, because what I really enjoyed was just being out there with my teammates.”
These days, in addition to playing in the area pro-am events, he takes in some of the bigger section events on the Front Range as well as the Colorado PGA-West events on the Western Slope.
“This is the start of our busy season at the golf course, so I don’t travel around to play a lot of tournaments, just because I need to keep my operation going here,” he said.
“I do still enjoy playing and competing, and I would like to work on my game a little bit more. That’s the nice thing about golf is you can always get better at some facet of the game no matter if you’re a golf professional or a never-ever.
“But maybe the senior (PGA) tour one day, who knows?”
The Golf Pro of the Year and Youth Development awards were a big honor, VanDyke said.
“There are a lot of great professionals on the West Slope who are just as deserving, so just to be nominated was an honor,” he said.
And what’s not to like about running a golf course?
“Just coming to the golf course every day, especially in a setting like RVR or anywhere in the Roaring Fork Valley, makes it worthwhile,” VanDyke said, as a deer just happened up out of the Crystal River and across the 18th fairway.
“If you can’t be in a good mood with that, you probably should make a change, because it doesn’t get much better,” he said. “And then getting kids into the game and to see the joy that they get from being outside having fun, that’s pretty special.”
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