Don Sandberg worked his way up from collecting balls on the driving range of The Farms Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe to becoming the club’s head pro. Along the way, he rubbed his shoulders with a former US president and sports hall-of-famer, and made a lot of friends.
Sandberg retired from his job June 1 after 33 years with the club. And he plans to keep coming back to play golf with his buddies since one of his retirement gifts was an honorary lifetime membership. He said it’s the best golf club in Southern California, and once he joined the staff he never wanted to leave.
“I guess it’s the way I was treated, the people were so good to me,” Sandberg said. “I felt like I was at the top of the mountain right there at the Farms.”
Life was pretty challenging in the early days of his career. Sandberg moved south from his native Washington state when he was a young man to pursue his dream of becoming a professional golfer. When that didn’t pan out, he did the next best thing, working in the golf industry.
When he started at the Farms, he attended school at a local golf academy every morning, worked at the club chasing balls and cleaning golf clubs in the afternoon, then headed to a Ralphs’ supermarket for an overnight shift stocking shelves. He kept up that hectic schedule for two years. He also met his future wife at the supermarket and the couple are still married today.
According to Sandberg, The Farms is special because of the top-notch condition of its 18-hole championship course, and the fact that it focuses on golf exclusively, unlike some larger country clubs.
“We don’t have tennis courts and swimming pools, we just have people who love to play golf,” Sandberg said. “It’s just a neat culture that’s been created there. The members check their egos at the gate.”
In his role as head pro, Sandberg oversaw a staff of about a dozen, including his roster of golf pros and employees who ran the club’s pro shop.
Sandberg was known for his congenial manner and his welcoming smile, said Frank Flanagan, a longtime club member and president of the Farms’ board of directors.
“He’s gracious and gets along with people very well. It was a delight to have him there all those years,” said Flanagan. “Guys that worked for him just loved him, and the members did too.”
Sandberg’s love of the game of golf came through in his “total and complete command of all the nuanced rules of golf,” said Flanagan, and he could be counted on to resolve any disputes over golf rules that arose. He was also masterful at diplomatically nudging any golfer who was taking too long between shots and holding up the flow.
“Our members like the pace of play to not get bogged down. (Don) was the perfect guy to keep it moving,” Flanagan said.
The club is in the midst of a search to fill Sandberg’s position, but, “we will miss him,” Flanagan said.
Among his favorite memories, said Sanderg, was an encounter with NBA hall-of-famer Michael Jordan, who is a club member. Jordan asked if he wanted to play the next day, and Sandberg thought he was kidding. The next morning, his phone rang at home, and a colleague told him Jordan was waiting to play.
Sandberg hustled down to the club, and spent the day golfing with the Chicago Bulls legend, playing 45 holes, or 2-1/2 times around the course. Once other members heard about it, they swarmed around the group and played along. “That was a cool day,” Sandberg said.
He also played a memorable round of doubles with local golf champion Phil Mickelson and major league ballplayer Mark McGwire, along with one of his golf pros, Augie Kee, and had his photo taken with former President Barack Obama when he visited the club in 2017.
Sandberg, who turned 62 this week, is still getting used to the routines of retirement, but isn’t having second thoughts. He plans to sleep in a bit, play with a new puppy, and spend more time with his wife, Marina (who still works at Ralphs) and family. And get started on a list of chores around the house.
He’ll miss his former co-workers, Kee and Ryan Studt, but the three will be getting together when they can for a round of golf.
Retirement, he said, “feels nice.”
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