Country Club of Pittsfield pro Brad Benson ready for retirement
Brad Benson stood on the 18th fairway at his beloved Country Club of Pittsfield a couple of Sunday afternoons ago and sounded the air horn, signaling the shotgun start of the final round of the club's Classic Invitational.
It's something he's done in hosting tournaments countless times as the club's head professional, but this time was different, coming just a few days after he announced he'll retire at the end of this golf season.
"I feel like Derek Jeter," said Benson of the New York Yankees great who is on a season-long farewell tour. "This will be my last time for this event, the Women's Invitational, the Allied events we host, for outings and for member-guest tournaments."
The 60-year-old has been serving the club's members since 1981 -- the year Ronald Reagan took office and a time when golfers were still hitting persimmon woods. The longevity even amazes Benson.
"I've been driving here for 34 years; that's more than half my life," Benson said. "I can't even imagine that. I think I'm most proud of being here that long. That's kind of unheard of in the business."
He certainly didn't imagine that happening when he arrived in the Berkshires with his wife, Janet.
"I remember Brad telling me, even 15 and 20 years ago, about how they drove up here to start the job and [he] told Janet, ‘We'll be here two or three years and then go somewhere else,' " said Greg Knight, the club's golf chairman. "They never did. He fell in love with the country club and the Berkshires."
A confluence of events led to his decision. His mother passed away in January; his daughter, Erin, is giving birth to a daughter in August; and he was deeply moved when he was named the Northeast New York's PGA Professional of the Year in the spring.
"Losing my mother in January and being honored by my peers helped put things in perspective," he said. "And I'm going to become a grandfather for the first time in August. I want to be able to spend time with my granddaughter."
Retirement will provide him the opportunity to pay back his family for moments missed while he tended to the club's members.
"I can't thank my wife and kids enough for what they have done in allowing me to pursue my passion for my job," Benson said. "I'm really looking forward to spending more time with my family," which includes his wife, and his other daughter, Brianna, who lives in New York City.
Given how much he loves his job, this wasn't an easy decision.
"The day hasn't come that I haven't enjoyed coming to work," he said. "It's going to be tough to let go. I'm not exactly sure how I will handle it."
Nonetheless, he is comfortable it's the right call.
"I am leaving at a good time and on my own terms," Benson said.
The decision was unexpected at the club.
"We have been talking to Brad about planning for the future, and he's having a granddaughter, but we didn't think it would be this year," said club President Adam Kirby. "That was a surprise."
"It was a surprise, but it would have been a really big surprise if he had told us in November," confirmed Knight, who will help organize a search committee with Kirby to find Benson's successor. "This way we have enough time to find the right person."
Much to the pro's delight, the club's board of directors is giving him a lifetime club membership.
"The board felt it was very important to give him the membership," Kirby said. "I'm happy for Brad and we wanted to make this a positive thing for him. Now, he can enjoy the place where he has worked all these years. He's well-liked by the members and has always gone out and played golf with them."
"The club couldn't have been more generous," Benson said. "I'll still be here, two blocks up the road. I can come here to play. ... So many of the members are good friends. This is like my extended family."
The close relationships and his impact at the club for 34 years has been evident over the past few weeks.
"There have been some sad faces around here," he said prior to the Classic Invitational. "People coming into the pro shop have been very emotional. It's sincere and they have shown me that they care about me and my well-being. That means a lot to me. It's hard to put into words all the emotions I have been feeling."
And, of course, there are the working relationships with superintendent Jim Conant, the office and wait staffs, current and former assistants, and members of the so-called "red-shirt brigade" of youngsters who help in the bag room and with carts that will also be missed.
"One thing about the club is there has been continuity through the years that the members appreciate," Benson said. "The office and wait staffs have been wonderful and there are so many assistants and ‘redshirts' who have helped over the years.
"Sometimes I could get a little excited with them, but I think they knew all I ever wanted to do was make sure that the members were treated right and that they learned how to deal with different personalities, which is a huge part of the business. I feel like a big part of my job is to be a teacher and mentor."
The next head professional will have gigantic shoes to fill.
"Brad's the consummate pro," Conant said. "It's going to be a big change around here. He's been a joy to work with."
If any club member can appreciate that, it's Knight, who spent three years as an assistant professional at the Harbour Town Links in Hilton Head, S.C., before leaving the business.
"I worked weekends and holidays, on Christmas and New Year's," said Knight. "It was a rat race and it helps me appreciate what Brad has done. Three years burnt me out, never mind 34."
Kirby's personal interaction through the years mirrors those of many others at the club, including Knight, who has been a member since he was 10.
"For me, it's been really special," Kirby said. "I learned golf from Brad, and now I'm getting to watch him teach my kids."
From the days of GE in Pittsfield to today, the demographics of the membership have changed dramatically, but Benson has managed to adapt and serve them all well.
"He has always gone out of his way to make the members happy," Kirby said. "I don't think I have ever heard him say no, even when maybe he should have. He has always found a way to make things work."
"The club is a melting pot and he's been able to juggle all those personalities and do a very good job of it," Knight added.
Like Jeter, Benson isn't out the door yet. He has a summer to enjoy a series of lasts that he'll make the most of.
"All summer, I will get to say goodbye and thank everyone," he said. "So many people in Berkshire County have played at the club and enjoyed coming here. I'm more excited about this summer than ever. I want things to run well."
Why should the 34th and final chapter of this remarkable story be any different than the previous 33?
To contact Richard Lord:
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