Ryan Retires from the MGA

After 21 years as the MGA executive director, Tom Ryan leaves behind a remarkable legacy.

June 30, 2023 | 5 min.
By Warren P Ryan
Photos by W.P. Ryan

“I didn’t take it personally,” joked Tom Ryan to the MGA Board of Directors during a recent meeting this past spring. The longtime MGA executive director and COO, having recently announced his retirement, was reflecting on the irony of a decades-long decline in golfer participation which, by happenstance, coincided with his start at the MGA. In August of 2002, Ryan took the reins from the outgoing executive director, Julie Sprau, who was the MGA’s first female chief executive and one of the few women to run a state amateur golf association. 

“It wasn’t because of me or unique to the MGA, it was happening everywhere,” Ryan said.

After 21 years as the MGA chief executive, Ryan is planning to exit the association in the fall.

In post-9/11 America, with U.S. forces involved on the ground in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, even the President of the United States very publicly quit the game. After the boom years of the 1980s and 90s, the 2000s amounted to a nasty hangover for the golf industry. 

But the challenging times didn’t dim Ryan’s passion for the amateur game, nor did the hurdles—some of which were highly existential—stand in the way of Ryan’s prolific and productive career at the helm of one of the country’s most admired state and regional golf associations. 

During his tenure, the MGA produced two economic impact studies, three strategic planning summits, revamped the club membership model, dealt with fallout from internet discount programs, established a golf foundation and one of the nation’s most active player development programs in Youth on Course, successfully combined the women’s public and private golf associations under the same tent, and proved indispensable in getting golf open during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Ryan is quick to point to the MGA’s highly seasoned senior staff, six of whom have a combined 130-plus years of golf administration experience, as the reason for his success in the executive director’s role. 

“The unique part was we all grew up in the job together,” he explains.

But close observers point out that there is more to an organization’s success than its skilled or seasoned individuals. 
“Tom was always aware of the bigger picture and willing to consider change, and that’s a really positive attribute in a leader,” says Ede Rice, MGA president and a member of the association’s search committee tasked with finding Ryan’s successor. Both Rice and Cal Simmons, a past president of the MGA who chaired the search committee which identified Ryan as one of two finalists in 2002, recalled exactly the impression he made when interviewing for the executive director position. 

“The most persuasive thing Tom said was, ‘this is my dream job, and the way I would wish to finish my career,’” Simmons says.

Simmons, who jokes that hiring Ryan was the only thing he accomplished as president, also acknowledges that Ryan and another longtime executive director, Warren Rebholz, are cut from the same cloth. Both were raised in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, both attended Cretin High School and both played their public golf at Highland National Golf Course. Rebholz, or “Rebbie” to one and all who knew him, was a former president of the MPGA and the MGA, before accepting the executive director position in 1973. He retired in 1992, after shepherding the association through an era of unprecedented growth in amateur competitions and member club services, and in particular, the introduction of a universal handicap system. Rebbie is, for all practical purposes, known as the “George Washington” of amateur golf in Minnesota. 

“They’re both authentic leaders who made decisions that were best for the game,” Simmons says. 

Both Rebholz and Ryan served as presidents of the IAGA—the International Association of Golf Administrators—and it was a point of pride with the latter. During Ryan’s tenure as president, the IAGA made strides in improving its relationship with the USGA and its new ED, Mike Davis. 

Relations between the MGA and Minnesota PGA Section were a little strained, recalls Jerry Clark, a longtime tournament volunteer who was an officer and president during Ryan’s early years. 

“With my brother being a PGA professional and with Tom’s passion for engaging with our allied golf associations, one of the big things we did was to reconnect with the PGA leadership and make a concerted effort to improve that relationship. We made a commitment to facilitate numerous regional meetings and golf outings to the hinterlands of Minnesota.” 

Clark, along with PGA Section president Jock Olson, organized a golf clinic at Worthington Country Club for MGA members, which was led by golf professionals from the surrounding areas, including Worthington, Marshall and Fairmont golf clubs. 

One of the fruits of this collaboration was a joint venture to create and promote a specialty license plate for golf aficionados. Called Play Golf Minnesota, revenues from license plate sales help fund feeder programs for juniors, veterans and underserved populations. To date, more than 5,000 license plates have been sold through the Minnesota DMV, which annually generates $150,000 in grants and foundation programs.  

Long simmering on the back burner was talk of a proposed merger among Minnesota’s amateur golf associations. The advantages of a combined golf association were obvious, given the aging demographics of volunteer board members, the duplication of championship administration efforts and the decline in golfer participation. But tradition, mission and association loyalties ran deep. 

Rob Etten, a board member and strategic planning executive, knew the merger was good for golf in Minnesota, in spite of the turbulence the idea created in some minds.  
“We were very deliberate and inclusive from the beginning” he said, adding, “Tom took all of the questions and never flinched nor waivered—and that’s leadership.”

After a highly structured process which involved all stakeholders and impacted parties, plus the support of important influencers, including Rice, Nora McGuire, women’s vice president, and Barb Hanson, a past president, officers representing the MGA, MWGA and MWPGA formally signed a merger agreement, effective Jan. 1, 2016. 

“Tom made the leaders of the women’s golf associations feel like they were bringing value to the table, and the vision that what was good for amateur golf in Minnesota was good for women’s golf. While Rebbie was the right leader for his time, Tom was the right leader for the merger,” Rice explains.

“We can’t replace Tom, but we can search for a worthy successor.” - Ede Rice

‘Growing the game’ is a popular industry motto, yet real growth is one of golf’s greatest challenges. The golf industry took almost a decade to recover from the economic downturn of 2008-2009. Just as golfer participation began to tic up in 2019, the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020. 

There was more than just a little bit of panic among golf course operators that Governor Tim Walz, via executive fiat, would keep golf courses closed indefinitely. A coalition of association and golf industry leaders, with Ryan at the helm, worked behind the scenes with the governor’s team in drafting and communicating a package of best practices that demonstrated that golf facilities and staff could open and operate in a safe and responsible manner during the pandemic. Thanks in part to Ryan’s consensus building, steadying influence and communications skills, just five weeks into the global pandemic, Walz opened golf courses on April 18.
“The MGA really led the way in convincing the powers that be that golf could be played safely,” recalls Simmons. As a result, golfer participation would spike to 30 percent in 2020, after golf became one of the few outdoor activities possible under social distancing requirements. Ryan’s fortitude served the game and the MGA well, and he’s left them both in a better place, says Etten. 

Warren P Ryan

W.P. Ryan is the MGA’s communications director and editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine. Prior to his communications career, he has worked at several golf clubs in Florida, Maryland and Minnesota "guarding the Titleists" and teaching the game to junior golfers. 

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