Courtney Stiles makes an impact in her own backyard

By Lisa D. Mickey

There was always something about the wind in the pines, the sandy soil and the ubiquitous pine needles that felt like home to Courtney Pomeranz Stiles.

And while golf-industry jobs took the Lee County native to different and lovely places to live and work, something was missing. She found that Florida was fine in the winter and coastal Georgia was gorgeous nearly all the time, but try as she might, Carolina was always on her mind.

So when Stiles got the opportunity to return to the Pinehurst area three years ago as executive director of The First Tee of the Sandhills, out came the suitcases.

It was a chance to bring her golf career back to the place where she had learned to play and an opportunity to offer guiding direction for Pinehurst-area junior golfers — just as she had experienced years ago.

“It’s pretty awesome she’s stayed in golf and come back to this area,” said her first teacher, Bonnie Bell McGowan, co-owner of Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club. “She loves her home roots.”

As a youngster growing up just down the road from Pinehurst and Southern Pines, Stiles found golf was an easy sport to embrace in the state’s avowed mecca of the game. Her father’s first cousin, Jay Overton, a PGA Life Member with longtime ties to Pinehurst Country Club, showed her the business of golf.

And with top instruction nearby, the youngster honed her skills under the tutelage of McGowan — whose mother, legendary instructor Peggy Kirk Bell, sometimes popped in to offer her thoughts during lessons.

“I ate a lot of banana pudding with Mrs. Bell at Pine Needles,” admitted Stiles, 35.

“Spending time with her was never about golf tips,” she added. “(She) had a huge heart and always gave back to the game.”

Stiles played college golf at North Carolina State University, where she earned a communications degree in 2004. But even as a collegiate player, she made an impression on Wolfpack coach Page Marsh, who saw valuable qualities in the young woman. Marsh called Stiles “relentless, but gracious” and described her as “a great ambassador” of the game.

Transitioning from college to professional golf, Stiles qualified for the Futures Tour (now Symetra Tour), where she played from 2005-2006.

“I loved the experience because it was highly competitive,” she said. “I also learned how to handle my emotions while traveling alone on a very tight budget.”

But life on the road as a touring pro was a grind for Stiles. The highway miles seemed endless, and the paychecks barely covered her expenses. Stiles also hoped to start a family in the near future.

After two seasons, Stiles decided to make a change. In late 2006, she made a phone call to the PGA Tour through a contact she had made on the Futures Tour.

That phone call turned into a job in new media at the PGA Tour. It was there that Stiles learned about customer service with golf fans and media research. She also worked with the Tour’s marketing campaigns.

Interested in tournament operations, she was at the right place at the right time when the PGA Tour launched the McGladrey Classic. Stiles was assigned to run the event in St. Simons Island, Ga.

She worked there from 2007-2010, and moved on to the Davis Love Foundation in St. Simons Island from 2010-2014. It was an easy transition for the North Carolinian, who enjoyed working with community charities and nonprofits.

“We had 85 different charities at the tournament there, so I really got exposed to all of the needs of people in the community,” she said.

It was actually Love who approached Stiles about starting a First Tee chapter in St. Simons. For two years, Stiles molded and guided what would become The First Tee of the Golden Isles.

About the same time the First Tee program was fully chartered in St. Simons Island, another job opened that caught Stiles’ attention. The First Tee of the Sandhills was looking to replace its executive director.

On one hand, she had invested massive amounts of time and energy into developing the coastal Georgia program. On the other hand, this was a job in a place she loved.

Stiles applied for the position and was offered the job. And with the blessing of Love, she headed home.

“It was a great fit to go back home, and my kids were at an age when it was just right,” said Stiles, who married PGA Professional Cole Stiles in 2007 at Pinehurst, where he currently oversees Pinehurst courses No. 6 and 8.

“To be able to stay in golf, essentially in my backyard — with my home county eventually becoming a part of our chapter as we expand — is a big thing I wanted to do when I took the job,” she added.

The First Tee of the Sandhills currently serves six counties in the Pinehurst area. The next step for the local chapter is to expand the program into Fayetteville and its Fort Bragg Army base — a plan that excites Stiles in an effort to include children of area military families.

But her work in the Sandhills has already drawn praise from her former teacher.

“Courtney has put her heart and soul into it and has already taken the First Tee program here and grown it to four times its previous size,” said McGowan.

“It’s not just a job,” McGowan added. “She truly loves the game and wants to see it grow, so we’re blessed to have her here.”

Marsh noted that the former college player she once guided has now come full circle to make her own mark in the game.

“Courtney loves the game and is a great role model,” said Marsh.

The former professional regained her amateur status in 2008, but family and career demands have limited her rounds for nearly a decade. She estimates that she played three rounds of golf in 2015, and “maybe” six rounds in 2016.

When she learned there was going to be a summer qualifying tournament in the Pinehurst area for the USGA’s 2017 Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship, she began practicing with a goal. She won that August qualifier at the Country Club of North Carolina to advance into the national championship — rediscovering an energized competitive spirit.

“The competitive juices definitely tried to come out, and I’ve tried to push them away because I don’t want to put any expectations on myself,” she said. “The reality is, I work 60 hours a week, have two kids, a husband and a household.”

But while her rounds are few, Stiles finds greater satisfaction in being back on familiar turf.

She also knows it’s her turn to help teach the next generation in her home state. Fortunately for Stiles, her mentors are now her peers and are still offering to help.

“I want the kids I work with to see this as a lifelong sport,” she said. “I want to show them that you can do things through hard work and perseverance.”

And sometimes, all of that work finally brings you right back home to where you want to be.  PS

Lisa D. Mickey is a North Carolina native and Florida-based freelance golf writer.

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