Oakmont Country Club is blessed with one of the iconic championship logos in all of golf: a nameless squirrel holding a golf ball while sitting atop a Scottish tam o’ shanter bonnet.
An ever-evolving graphic of the nut-harvesting rodent that used to roam Oakmont in bunches – there are far fewer of them now that the course has cut down some 15,000-plus trees over the past 40 years – is credited with helping sell more merchandise than any other USGA major venue over the years. Many club pros consider the golf shop to be the gold standard of merchandising in the industry.
The squirrel gets the attention, but an operation can’t reach these heights with only a lovable logo to offer; Oakmont’s real secret weapon in this arena is Annie Vanzant, the club’s director of merchandising for the past 24 years.
In Vanzant, Oakmont found a true unicorn who describes her love of golf and clothing to be eclipsed only by her love of family. So it’s apropos that making members and guests feel like family is exactly the type of environment that sets her shop apart.
“I treat it like I’m welcoming somebody into my home,” Vanzant told GGP Women. “It can be an intimidating place in terms of the golf course with the difficulty and the exclusiveness. Our focus is just how to make somebody’s day special, for them to take some great things home and just feeling comfortable shopping and immersing themselves in the history of the club.”
Vanzant, 60, was resistant to the job at first, turning it down multiple times before accepting. Now she calls it “the perfect place for me to spend my day” because of how close a connection she has to Oakmont.
Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, Vanzant was taught the game by her father at a young age but did not become consistently active in golf until early adulthood, when she started playing with women at a local public course in Pittsburgh. By that time, Vanzant had fully realized her passion for retail, working at a small specialty women’s clothing store in the city.
“I found that niche of pleasing people and the love of having women be excited about a new outfit,” Vanzant said. “It’s just part of my personality.”
“It’s engaging people in customer service. It’s just treating people like a family. And that’s the secret. I think it’s every bit as important as the logo. I really do.” — Annie Vanzant
That store became a popular shopping destination for many of Oakmont’s female members in the ’90s. The members were so smitten with their experience that they implored legendary head professional Bob Ford to bring Vanzant on board as a merchandising director at Oakmont. The fact that Vanzant played golf made the role fit even better.
“Bob came to my shop twice and asked me if I was interested,” Vanzant said. “I told him, ‘No, no, I don’t want to work at a golf shop. It would be too boring.’ And then he called me probably two more times after that. And I finally said, ‘OK, I’ll come for a day and try it.’”
Less than a month after that trial day in the fall of 1999, Vanzant quit her job and started at Oakmont. It began a run of 18 years during which she worked under Ford, whom Vanzant describes as “the best gentleman on the face of the earth.” Ford retired in 2016, and new head pro Devin Gee took his place – at that time, Gee transitioned to more of an emphasis on selling the old school “OCC” logo rather than relying solely on the squirrel.
“This job has been a perfect match for me, but it’s also the people that you work for and work with is just super important,” Vanzant said. “I work with seven great gentlemen that help me every day here. And, you know, yes, the logo here is powerful. And yes, it sells merchandise. But there’s a lot of great logos out there, and there are a lot of great clubs. There is more to our success here than just slapping the logo on something and putting it out.
“It’s engaging people in customer service. It’s just treating people like a family. And that’s the secret. I think it’s every bit as important as the logo. I really do.”
That hands-on and caring sales philosophy flies in the face of where merchandising is heading, Vanzant lamented. But despite that – or maybe even because of that – she wants to hold on to the old-school approach that Oakmont has perfected over her time running the shop.
Vanzant has no office. She is on the floor every day, keeping track of trends, margins, inventory and turnover rate in her head. Her golf acumen plays heavily into suggestions she gives customers. She relies on a certain artistry that seems to be fading from retail operations.
“Retail has changed so much since the pandemic, with online shopping and retail stores closing,” Vanzant said. “It breaks my heart, but I think it’s the way the world is. People under 40 years old, they couldn’t care less if someone helps them in a shop. All they want to do is order four (items), send three back and make sure it’s at my door by tomorrow. They don’t shop; they purchase.
“In a specialty-store atmosphere where there’s customer service, where someone actually helps you, it’s very different. We may suggest things to you that you wouldn’t normally try on, depending on what you are looking for. We have people that will find it, order it, get it logoed and get it to you. That level of service is not over, but I don’t think it’s appreciated as much as it was. We really strive to stay that way.”
Vanzant is not a PGA member, so a lot of the merchandising awards and accolades get sent in other directions. It’s a matter of semantics, however, given Vanzant’s meaningful involvement in the game that expands beyond her work at Oakmont.
A longtime member at Valley Brook Country Club in nearby McMurray, Vanzant has been a champion of junior girls’ golf at the club and within Pennsylvania as a whole. She joined the Pennsylvania State Women’s Golf Association 13 years ago and was a driving force behind the organization merging with the Pennsylvania Golf Association in 2019. Now she is the first female president in the Pennsylvania Golf Association’s 114-year history.
“Things are definitely moving in the right direction. But the job is not done yet. And I want to finish this.” — Annie Vanzant
A particular passion for her is creating more opportunities for women amateurs to play state championships on Pennsylvania’s crown jewel courses such as Merion, Philadelphia Cricket Club and Aronimink. Because tournament fees fund these championships, and there are significantly more male amateurs than female amateurs, those venues traditionally go to men’s amateur championships.
Vanzant and the PGA have been developing a plan to change that.
“Women of Pennsylvania will get to play the crown jewels in competition,” Vanzant said. “They deserve it. They play at a high-enough level to handle it. And they deserve it. Their brothers and their fathers play there. They should play there, too.”
Two years ago, the state women’s mid-am had a handful of players; this year, there were 25 competitors. The state girls’ junior also has seen its field grow, from 30 players to more than 80 competitors in only five years. It’s significant progress.
“Things are definitely moving in the right direction,” she said. “But the job is not done yet. And I want to finish this.”
That is Vanzant. Her life is buying and selling passion.
© 2023 Global Golf Post LLC
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