Homegrown Passion

Teacher, player, coach and friend — SCC’s Gus Ulrich is a man on a mission

By Lee Pace

The northwest end of the driving range at Pinewild Country Club is Gus Ulrich’s ultimate playpen. There’s plenty of hitting turf, a practice green and bunker, and a concrete surface with a mat that makes it easy to videotape golfers taking lessons. He’s got a handful of training aids like the Orange Whip and homemade swing plane guides made of old golf shafts and polyethylene swimming pool noodles. Inside the building alongside is a workbench to replace grips, a couple of clubfitting carts, a computer monitor to view those videos just shot outside, and an array of posters, books and photographs illustrating Ulrich’s singular devotion to the sport of golf.

He’s just 3.5 miles from the village of Pinehurst, where his wife bartends at the historic Pine Crest Inn, and from the venerable No. 2 course at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, the site of three U.S. Opens, one PGA Championship and a Ryder Cup. And he’s just 7 miles from Sandhills Community College, where he latched on in 2008 as golf coach when the school formed a team to compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association (and winning a national title in 2014).

“I just love it here,” says the 55-year-old Ulrich, one decade into his stint as director of the Pinewild Golf Academy. “You know, Pinehurst and Pinewild are perfect for me. I’m a golf nut and I love golf.

“I love to teach it.

“I love to play it.

“And I’ve gotten to love coaching it. So it’s been a good spot for me and for my kids to have grown up here. I’ve loved every minute of living here.”

If the old saw is true that if you “choose a job you love, you’ll never have to work another day in your life,” then Ulrich has been in playground recess all his life. And gotten paid for it.

“Gus just has a love for golf, probably unlike anybody I’ve ever seen,” says Kelly Mitchum, a teaching pro at Pinehurst and Ulrich’s longtime partner in Carolinas PGA Section team competitions.

Ulrich grew up in Garner and learned to play golf around age 11 at Garner Country Club, a nine-hole course. He was a walk-on for the N.C. State golf team and, he says,  “scraped and clawed” his way into the starting lineup as a senior in the spring of 1985. He competed in several PGA Tour Qualifying Schools in the late 1980s — missing his card by one shot in 1987 and three shots in ’88 — and then spent two years on the Hogan Tour (today’s Web.com Tour) full time in 1991-92.

“I came real close to getting on tour but never quite made it,” he says. “I think I’ve got a really good short game, and my ball-striking has actually improved over the years. But I was always just average off the tee. If I could have been 15 to 20 yards longer, I think it would have made a difference.”

Ulrich gave up chasing the pro tour in 1993 and started his teaching career and working toward his PGA membership at a driving range and par-3 course near Garner. Several jobs later, he was offered an assistant pro position at Pinewild, where he worked for four years. Then he went to teach at Forest Creek Golf Club and Pine Needles before coming back to Pinewild in 2008 to run the Pinewild teaching operation.

He gravitated toward the instruction end of the business — as opposed to becoming a head pro, general manager or sales job of some sort — because it was the best way to stay connected to the grassroots of the game.

“You’re around the driving range or putting green or golf course all the time,” he says. “Or at least 90 percent. I love the game and just wanted to stay close to it.”

Ulrich became friends with Sandhills Community College President John Dempsey while giving him lessons at Forest Creek more than a decade ago. Ulrich joked that if Dempsey ever started a golf team at Sandhills, he’d love to coach it. Dempsey took him up on that in 2008, and the Flyers finished second in national competition in 2013 and ’15 and took first place in between.

“The term golf professional kinda rolls off the tongue without really thinking about it, but Gus is truly a professional,” Dempsey says. “He’s not only a good player — and he’s a very, very, very good player — and a good teacher, but he’s a good ambassador for the game and the kind that people want to be around. He’s the kind of person our kids want to be around.

“He’s a gentleman and a gentle man. There are not many higher compliments than to call someone a ‘gentleman’ and be able to split that into two distinct words. He is a gentle person. Gus is a great addition to our team and to this community’s golf culture.”

Ulrich’s playing resume is impressive. Of late he’s played in two U.S. Senior Opens and two Senior PGA Championships; he missed the cut by one shot at the Senior Open at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016, and at the Senior PGA at Trump National in Washington, D.C., the following year. He won the Carolinas PGA Section title in 2011 at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island and was Section Senior Player of the Year in 2016 and ’17.

Ulrich and Mitchum once shot a 57 in a two-man scramble format in the Carolinas Pro-Pro at Dormie Club, including a double-eagle on the par-5 fifth hole with Ulrich holing out a 5-iron from 205 yards. They won the Pro-Pro in 2004 and 2011. Mitchum remembers one time in a scramble hitting a 55-yard wedge to one foot and then watching Ulrich jar it right behind him.

“At our level, he’s probably the best partial wedge player I’ve ever seen,” Mitchum says of the 25-to-75 yard distances. “He’s got a beautiful wedge game. But Gus really has no weaknesses. He’s a solid ball-striker and knows how to manage his game around the course very well.”

Ulrich takes that feel and talent from his own short game and emphasizes it with the members at Pinewild and his other pupils — whether they are kids in a First Tee outing at Pinewild or his golfers at SCC.

“I stress short game for sure,” he says. “You almost have to pull them away from the range to do that a lot of times. But I do feel like with my skill level in the short game, I can share that and express that as well as anything. With golfers who are limited with physical ability, you can only do so much with the full swing. But you can overcome a lot with a great short game.”

In any given week or any given day, Ulrich might be competing, running a kids’ golf camp, handling recruiting or scheduling issues at SCC, or working on his own game.

“I’ve got my hands full,” he says with a smile. “I stay busy with the whole gamut. I thought I’d lose my desire to play as I got older, but it hasn’t happened. I feel like I keep getting a little bit better. The age is going to catch me at some point, and maybe I feel like I just don’t want that to happen, so I work harder and harder.

“I’m just trying to share my passion for the game with as many people as I can and hopefully encourage them to play. To me, it’s all about sharing the game.” PS

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has been chronicling the Sandhills golf scene in PineStraw since 2008.

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