REDMOND — Let’s get this part out of the way, because other than its fun-fact component, his age will not matter for the remainder of this story. James Billings is 28 years old, one of the youngest head golf professionals in Central Oregon, if not in the entire state.
Yet his professionalism belies his age. He is poised and confident in his abilities. He has been around golf his entire life, he says, and has worked within golf operations since he was 16. Growing up in Vancouver, Washington, Billings would clean golf carts at a local club and then inquire around the clubhouse: “How does this course operate? Why does it work? Teach me.”
He is a graduate of the University of Idaho, where he studied professional golf management in one of 19 programs in the country accredited by the PGA of America, according to the PGA, and the only such program in the Northwest.
Billings is the director of golf operations at Juniper Golf Course — only the second head pro at Juniper since 1983. Despite his youth, his confident tone, his knowledge of the game, and the respect he has already earned in his eight months at the Redmond course make Billings exactly the guy to succeed former longtime Juniper pro Bruce Wattenburger — taking Wattenburger’s already strong, thriving course and maintaining its status as a gem among Oregon courses.
There could have been concern among Juniper members during the changing of the guard, but, Juniper general manager Travis Kane assures, there was not.
“James was obviously going to be completely new to the (Juniper) membership,” Kane says. “But being a traditional golf professional like Bruce is a very strong component. Having that classically trained — like myself, like Bruce — type of professional walk in made it for a very easy transition for the membership.”
Billings, who began his duties at Juniper this past November, took over the course when Wattenburger retired after nearly 34 years at the track. Wattenburger “is a legend in this area,” the new pro says, noting how Wattenburger had built up Juniper, a nine-hole course when he started, into a facility that, while perhaps unsung, is generally recognized as one of the finest in Oregon. Juniper was named by Golf Digest as the best municipal course in Oregon in 2009-10 and was a regular among the magazine’s “Best Places to Play” in the state from 2008-09 to 2011-12. A year after Juniper’s current layout was designed, Golf Digest voted it one of “America’s Best New Courses” in 2006.
Because of Wattenburger’s longevity, consistency and contributions to Juniper, his reputation could have left shoes too large for a successor to fill. Yet, Billings says, the transition for the newcomer has been smooth, allowing Billings, after spending four years as the lead assistant at Palouse Ridge Golf Club in Pullman, Washington, to step into his first gig as head pro with ease.
“General managers have come and gone, but Bruce has been the constant. He’s been the staple,” says Billings, who also credits a turbulence-free transition to an “awesome” club membership at Juniper. “He’s made things really predictable and really reliable and really stable. … I had to ask for their (members) trust. ‘This is what I went to school for. I’ve got four really good years under my belt as the lead assistant at Palouse. I feel confident that I can do this. I’m not going to be perfect. I’m not going to do everything as well as Bruce did. But trust me. Give me a chance.’ The member base is very understanding.”
The meeting between Billings and Kane last summer, as Billings tells it, was something of a coincidence. Both men were in Spokane, Washington, to play in July’s Rosauers Open Invitational. Billings was in the first group of the day, Kane in the fourth. Billings had kept an eye on the company, CourseCo, that manages both Palouse Ridge and Juniper, among its 28 West Coast courses. He says he knew Wattenburger was on his way to retirement, and Billings and Kane began chatting on the driving range just before teeing off.
They discussed the soon-to-be vacant position at Juniper, and they talked about Billings’ interest in filling it. Kane then, according to Billings, spoke with Palouse Ridge general manager Todd Lupkes, asking if it made sense to hire Billings and if he was ready to assume the role as director of golf operations. By November, Billings was in place as Wattenburger’s successor.
“I never felt rushed,” Billings recounts, adding that the move felt right considering Kane is also a PGA professional and had worked alongside Wattenburger for a year, allowing him to bridge the gap between the two head pros while easing the young professional’s transition to Juniper. “It was never disjointed. There was no disconnect there. The golf professional duties that I assumed, there was a learning curve, but that was going to happen even if there was overlap with Bruce or not.”
Wattenburger, who Billings says will “always have a home at Juniper,” is still around, in more ways than one. Billings, who had only limited contact with Wattenburger over the years before he came to Redmond, says the former head pro is playing rounds at Juniper and teaching a few lessons. And Wattenburger is still present behind the scenes: how to set up tee times, how to group golfers, how to stage the carts, how to divvy up payouts — all of which Kane relayed to Billings upon arrival.
Billings acknowledges that his task, now that he has taken the reins from Wattenburger, is to steer Juniper into the future. The foundation of the facility, Billings says, is solid — from the teaching program to the amenities to the tournament schedule. Now, he says, “we just want to increase volume.”
Billings says he wants to expand golf opportunities for women and juniors via a six-week Lady’s Academy for Beginners and the Juniper Junior Golf Program.
“It’s a family thing,” Billings says. “We’re pushing to make Juniper the place to be for family activity.”
Juniper does not boast a pool or tennis courts or an athletic club. “We’re not trying to be something that we’re not,” Billings says. But neither is Juniper strictly about golf. The facility offers live music on its patio, prime rib feasts on Tuesdays, couples tournaments on Fridays. On the Fourth of July, couches were set up on the driving range for guests to watch the local fireworks display. In August, Billings says, carts will be staged on the range for a drive-in movie. Both events were established by the time Billings arrived — and he is determined to keep them alive.
“We want to create this atmosphere that, when you’re thinking of something to do in Redmond or Bend … we want them to consider what’s going on at the golf course to be a part of as a family … THAT,” Billings says, “is what’s going to grow Juniper quicker than anything else.”
Billings says his age is rarely mentioned anymore by members. He is outgoing, often taking time to roam the restaurant to chat up members and guests or to play a round with them. Those interactions are key for any head pro — especially for a young one succeeding a former (and familiar) longtime professional.
“The membership likes James,” Kane says. “His primary goal (just after starting at Juniper) was to get to know membership on a one-to-one basis. That was his step 1. We had him playing golf with the membership, had him out front talking to them.”
Says Billings: “I like to think that, so far, I haven’t let them down.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0307, email@example.com