By Lisa Schmelz
In this ever-changing global economy, it’s rare that a person gets to spend 34 years doing what they do in the same location, and rarer still when the place they work changes ownership multiple times. When the going gets tough, as it will in any industry and especially the fickle hospitality sector, staying employed often means uprooting your family when the writing on the wall offers only a question mark.
But that hasn’t been the case for Dave Hallenbeck, the director of golf for the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa. For 34 of his 37 years in the golf industry, Hallenbeck has spent his days right here on this secluded green slice of paradise on the outskirts of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
“I love the property,” he says from his office, on the edge of The Brute, one of the Midwest’s premier golf courses. “There were good days with Playboy, good days, and then there were changes. I’ve been here at highest and lowest points.”
Dave Hallenbeck’s reflections are low-key, not filled with judgement and not intended to impress. He is merely offering the perspective of someone who has had a front-seat to the history he speaks of.
The Playboy Club, complete with a world-class golf course, opened with global fanfare here in 1968, and Hallenbeck came on board in ’73 as the head lifeguard while he put himself through UW – Whitewater. He was here in 1981, when the bunnies hopped away after Americana purchased the property, staying on as a first assistant to the course’s golf pro. He was here when Americana, which never could manage to recapture the Playboy glory days and make needed repairs to the aging property, went into foreclosure. He was here when a series of out-of-state management companies, with more ideas than money, tried to save the day but never quite did.
And he was here when, finally, in 1993, a new set of suits came in — these suits from Wisconsin and bearing the surname of Marcus.
“I was the guy who used to have all the potential (buyers) come through here and tour. I knew they (Marcus) were the ones who could make this place work,” recalls Dave Hallenbeck. “They had a passion for golf. They saw the potential here like they did with the Pfister Hotel. For a small hospitality company, they really knew what they were doing. They just had the whole concept of what it takes and the deep pockets to make it work.”
Like all sports, golf has a language unto itself. The term follow-through refers to the part of the swing that occurs after the ball has been struck. In golf and life, it’s not just about making contact, but what you do in that split-second after. On and off the course, follow-through has been the hallmark of Hallenbeck’s life.
“It’s all about timing and tempo,” he says.
Hallenbeck’s introduction to golf at age ten did not produce any sort of instant passion, nor does he recall anyone saying he was a natural. In fact, Dave Hallenbeck remembers very little of his first day on the course other than he didn’t really know what he was doing.
Fast forward a decade and then some, and this lifelong athlete who grew up at the end of Snake Road in Lake Geneva and graduated from Northwestern Military and Naval Academy in 1973, found his way once again to the golf course. This time, it was by way of a baseball diamond.
“I really didn’t start taking up golf until my junior year in college,” he explains. “I was a baseball player and got injured and wanted to stay competitive.”
Dave Hallenbeck did stay competitive — but in golf not baseball. He stayed so competitive that he turned pro after he graduated UW – Whitewater. Though he had entered college planning to become a clinical psychologist, he saw a real future for himself in golf. Returning to the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva seemed a solid move, only now he returned not as a lifeguard but as the resort’s first assistant pro.
What were the Playboy years like?
“Exciting,” he says. “That would be the word. It was the start of my career.”
Trying to get Hallenbeck to dish about the celebrities and athletes he met during that time takes some doing. He offers no catty gossip. Nor will he comment negatively on the games of the rich and famous he’s played alongside.
“There’s so many bad golfers,” he says, laughing softly, “and you just don’t want to mention them by name. It’s about coordination, patience, and the tempo of the swing. It’s not about how hard you hit the ball. You have to hit with a smooth, controlled swing.”
Pressed, he starts to offer names of famous faces he’s encountered on and off the course here. Bob Hope, Lee Trevino, Mickey Mantle, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, John Denver, Joe Walsh, Sonny and Cher.
Hope, though, stands out.
“He did a show out here on his 75th birthday and I was fortunate enough to play nine holes with him … he was a good golfer and had a very good swing. I never heard him swear. He was just a real gentleman. I was totally in awe.”
Even when times got tough after Playboy sold out, Dave Hallenbeck still remained in awe of the resort’s potential. This husband and father of two grown children says he was never worried about his future even when the resort was in the rough.
“Some people might consider this egotistical, and it’s not,” he says. “But if you have confidence in yourself and your staff, you can do just about anything.”
For Hallenbeck, one of those opportunities took him off the property for three years when he accepted a head pro position at the Olympia Resort in Oconomowoc. He returned when a management company, taking over for the Americana, lured him
back with the same title. It was during this time that Hallenbeck really learned what follow-through was about.
RE-INVENTING AND RE-BUILDING THE PROPERTY
“When I came back, I was hired by J&B Realty to do the dream job I always wanted and it (the property) was just a rat-hole … it was survival. Those really were the toughest times, and I think the word to describe them would be survival. But during the lean and mean years, I think I learned the business the best. We had no money, we had no budgets, we had no capital, but we still had to put out a real product for our guests. Those years were my most creative and we made it work.”
Creativity and learning aside, Hallenbeck acknowledges that had Marcus not stepped in when they did, the resort and its championship courses wouldn’t have survived.
“To make a four-diamond resort out of something that was ready to be bulldozed,” he marvels, “I don’t think anybody could have done what Marcus did.”
Jason Boaz worked under Hallenbeck for 6 ½ years as the course’s head PGA professional. Today, he’s the director of golf at Coldwater Canyon Golf Course at Chula Vista in Wisconsin Dells. Boaz says Marcus was equally lucky to have Hallenbeck, and calls his longevity with the course “pretty rare” within the industry.
“I think it’s given them a lot of stability,” says Boaz of Hallenbeck’s history with the resort and its golf operations. “A lot of groups, and there have been quite a few over the years, they know Dave well and I’m sure that’s helped.”
Dave Hallenbeck has also helped others over his decades on the greens, organizing dozens of charity tournaments each year, and raising millions for worthy causes. Last year, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Variety – Children’s Charity of Wisconsin. That organization provides assistance to disabled children in over 14 countries.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done helping others,” says Hallenbeck. “It’s made a difference in so many lives.”
Thanks to his follow-through, of course.