All images courtesy of Troon International
If you ever want to learn about life from an early age, take up caddieing. As a 10 or 11-year-old, the stuff you will hear, it will open your eyes to the big world out there like no other way. It is an experience money can’t buy, listening to men talk about things going on in their lives and discovering words you didn’t know existed!”
Those are the words of advice from a man who should know.
Mark Chapleski has been immersed in the world of golf for as long as he can remember and now — after a long and eventful journey that has taken him around the globe from the United States to Japan and then the UAE — the Troon Executive Vice President will retire at the end of July following 24 years with the golf and club management team.
It can be strange sometimes when you set out on one path, with a plan in mind, and you end up somewhere completely different. Mark explains this is exactly what happened after his academic career and a faltering attempt at life on the pro tours.
“I got pretty good in junior year in college,” he tells Golf Digest Middle East at The Els Club in Dubai. “I was an honorable All-American, and was planning to be All-American first or second team the following year, but my senior year didn’t pan out as planned. I didn’t play as well, putt as well, as I hoped, and that was pretty much my career done right there. There was another guy on my team who went on to play professionally for 10 years, but for me it never worked out. I played a few events on the PGA Tour, and I tried other tours like in South America, but my pro career was pretty much over before it began.
“I never thought I was going to be in the golf industry. I figured if I didn’t make it, I would become a stock broker or do something in the investment world, but I just kinda fell into it.”
So as it was, Mark hung up his spikes. Then an opportunity arose at just the right time for him to prolong his time in the golfing realm.
“After I got out of college, I met a guy who happened to be called Don King — not that one,” the now-62-year-old laughs. “I grew up in Michigan and other than travelling to play golf, I hadn’t been about. Don said there was an opportunity in Arizona at Yuma Country Club, if I wanted to come out. It’s a place that never rains and plenty of great weather. So I just up and left. The rest is history.”
And it is quite a history.
“I actually got my game back for about eight months while I was out there,” he adds with a shake of the head. “I had forgotten about this. My clubs got stolen and it was right after that I found something in my game. It’s not like today with all the technology to help you — if your clubs got stolen, you started changing stuff, because you had had the old ones so long anything else is unfamiliar.”
With a shrug, he adds: “Anyway, I still couldn’t putt worth a damn so I never would have made much money on the tour.
“Yeah, so I decided to get into the industry and joined the PGA of America Programme as an apprentice at Yuma, I was in the golf shop, or doing whatever needed doing as an assistant pro.”
Following three or four years serving at the country club in the Southern California Desert, the next chapter in Chapleski’s journey began and it led to one of his bucket-list destinations.
“I knew I had to make a move or I could end up stuck there at Yuma forever, so I upped and went to Palm Springs in California and got a job working at Marriott Desert Springs, then the high-end Vintage Club. I was only there for six months when someone told me that a very well-known pro Craig Williamson, the man behind Kapalua on Maui, was opening a new club — in Hawaii.”
Ko Olina Golf Club was the place where Mark would call home for the next 10 years, and he remembers it fondly.
“Hawaii had always been on my radar since I was a kid, watching ‘Hawaii
Five-0’ with my dad, so I made the decision to head for O’ahu Island, and that is really where I cut my teeth on the business side of things in the industry. This was a start-up, so we were doing everything from scratch and I learnt a lot.”
While Mark was learning the basics, he was also part of a bit of sporting history — just one of his many fascinating tales.
“Craig came up with an idea — I guarantee you he was the first to do this — to put the Ko Olina ‘ladybug’ logo on the back of the shirts,” he explains. “Legend says that if a ladybug lands on your shoulder, you can blow it off and make a wish. This is 1990, no one had anything like this on their shirts, and I thought: ‘Hey that’s a bit weird.’
“But after the first year, the shirts with the logo on the back had gone from around 10 per cent of shirt sales to around 90 per cent… and now almost every sport has shirts with sponsors and things on the back shoulder. That was great to be part of.”
Mark climbed his way to Director of Golf Operations at Ko Olina when news came through in 1999 that the club was being sold to Marriott. Mark was on the move again — and this time ended up on Troon’s doorstep.
“I knew [Troon COO] Bruce Glasco from my days in Michigan on the amateur golf scene,” he says. “I think he was VP at Troon at this point, so I sent in my CV — they were expanding pretty fast — got hired and moved to Scottsdale, back in Arizona.
“That’s when the call came in that a team from Troon was needed to go to do due-diligence on six golf courses in Japan. So a team including myself and Bruce went over there, and soon after [then part owner] Goldman Sachs said we need to open an office in Japan, because there was a lot of work to be done.
“We started the office in Japan with a team of four or five people. What was meant to be a short due-diligence trip turned into four years — four interesting years — working with bankers like Goldman, Morgan Stanley, all these guys. We were there to analyse and value their golf courses.”
The culture of golf was quite different to in Japan, so it was a challenge to know just what was required and Mark was learning as he went along.
“Golf in Japan was a day-long event back then,” he says. “The guys would go out in the morning, play nine holes then stop for lunch. Mandatory. You go in, get drinks, food, the lot, and then get back out for the back nine. By the time you add in transport, post-round bath and everything else, the whole day was gone.
“However, we could see that was changing. The younger generation didn’t want all this. They wanted to get a round done in four hours as they had other things to do. So, we helped create what is now the second largest golf company in the world.”
Mark’s next stop would finally see him settle — the UAE in August 2004, and since then he certainly has seen some changes both to the golfing scene and the city of Dubai as a whole.
“They were looking for someone to run the opening of Montgomerie,” he says. “I recall my first visit here from Tokyo. I think there were maybe five clubs at the time — Abu Dhabi, AD City, Nad Al Sheba, Creek and Emirates Golf Club. But the Montgomerie was being built and that’s what we were brought in to oversee.
“It has been quite a transformation since then. We went from one golf course at the Montgomerie, then the second one came up at the Els Club — there was no Sports City or anything, complete green field out there at the time.
“It is completely different now as a city and even the golfing scene is much more mature — and I feel Troon coming in helped create what we have today. The teaching and academy side has gone through the roof, too. From having the Butch Harmon Academy with us, and what that brought to the region, meant it really raised the standard of coaching across the board, Jumeirah Golf Estates raised their game, Pete Cowan came in, and you can really see it in the quality of the players we are producing in the UAE now. To get to where we are today has been an amazing trip.”
As Mark gets ready to step away from the coalface — and wind down the air miles — what is next for the Troon legacy in the UAE now that the likes of Yas Links, Saadiyat Beach and Yas Acres have joined the Viya portfolio?
“There are still more courses that are being talked about and being planned, so I think the UAE will continue to be our home base,” he says confidently. “It is such a central location and has a great air lift with Emirates. We are still bullish about what this region holds for golf in the future. I believe there is a big opening for golf tourism in this country and it is something that we are definitely working on.”
Whomever comes in next certainly has some big shoes to fill, and hopefully they will have just as many tales to tell.
Troon is a global leader in club management and development, with more than 770-plus facilities in 30-plus countries.