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Lost And Found

How A Golf Pro Discovered Millions In Lost Savings For Fellow PGA Members

By Sean Fairholm   •   May 14, 2019

In the summer of 2015, longtime Scioto Country Club head professional Bill Stines and his wife were preparing for the trip of a lifetime. To celebrate his wife’s 50th birthday and their 30th wedding anniversary, the couple planned to travel to Australia and New Zealand. As he sat in his office at the Columbus, Ohio, club where Jack Nicklaus learned to play, Stines received the rarest of phone calls. His expensive excursion was about to be paid for, in full, thanks to $20,000 he didn’t realize he had.

“When I got the call, I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Stines recalled. “I just had to call this guy, give him my social security number, and boom, there it was. My wife and I still laugh about it. We got a free trip to Australia and New Zealand.”

Tim O’Neal

The call had come from his good friend Tim O’Neal, then 21 years into his tenure as head professional at North Shore Country Club outside Chicago. O’Neal, who was preparing to retire the following year, had been getting his financial affairs in order when he realized something was amiss.

More than three decades ago, O’Neal and hundreds of other golf professionals who sold Slazenger brand equipment and apparel had contributed to a retirement fund called the Slazenger Founders Club. It was an incentive program for golf pros, who once owned golf shops in far greater numbers than today, to pay their bills on time. A percentage of the money pros spent with Slazenger had been accruing, somewhere, in an annuity.

However, when Slazenger ceased its U.S. operations in the early 2000s, the quarterly statements from the company stopped coming. Some assumed there wasn’t much money and Slazenger’s demise probably wiped all the accounts clean. But the vast majority had just forgotten about it.

Almost everyone except for O’Neal. He had discovered that nearly $5 million of golf professionals’ money was sitting in accounts they didn’t realize existed.

In the shadow of neon lights, amid a cacophony of bells and dings from slot machines, David Branon and Geoff Gorman sat together at a smoky steakhouse inside the Circus Circus casino in Las Vegas. The two men, coming from different sides of the golf industry, were in the process of forming an unlikely partnership.

Branon had spent 10 years in the marketing department at Titleist in the late ’60s and early ’70s, back when the company sold its products solely through green-grass pro shops. But that era was also marked by consolidation and conglomeration, when golf brands were swallowed by larger companies. The Ben Hogan Co. became part of AMF (American Machine and Foundry), which built everything from boxing rings to nuclear reactors to Hatteras yachts. MacGregor, the company of Jack Nicklaus, was purchased by Brunswick, which made bowling products. And Wilson Sporting Goods, which originally sponsored Sam Snead, Babe Zaharias and Arnold Palmer, became part of PepsiCo. Quarterly earnings and Wall Street expectations suddenly became a big part of the golf industry. When publicly held conglomerate American Brands in 1976 acquired Titleist’s parent company, the Acushnet Co., Titleist, too, had to change strategies.

“You had to keep your shareholders happy,” Branon said. “You couldn’t have a bad sales season due to weather. The fact that it rained three months out of four didn’t matter.”

Suddenly Branon was in charge of marketing to not just pro shops, but to specialty stores, mass merchants and others. It marked what he described as a sad shift in the industry because he felt a close connection with golf professionals who were now being undercut by the likes of Kmart and Nevada Bob’s. So when Branon took over in 1978 as the vice president of marketing for Dunlop, a company that followed the same general model as Titleist, he hoped to find a way to reconnect with PGA professionals.

Slazenger fell in the family of Dunlop brands, which also included Maxfli golf balls. Founded in the 1880s and originally known for making tennis products used by English nobility, Slazenger developed into a respected international brand for apparel. Seve Ballesteros wore the company’s iconic cheetah logo. But Slazenger had no footing in the United States.

Seve Ballesteros wearing the Slazenger cheetah logo at the 1979 Open Championship Photo: Peter Dazeley, Getty Images

Seeing his chance, Branon decided to partner with Gorman, a longtime PGA professional in California who had become Dunlop’s national sales manager, to bring Slazenger Golf to America. It would be sold exclusively to on-course pro shops through contracts signed with golf professionals, just like the old days when Branon was at Titleist.

Fast forward to in 1985, when Branon and Gorman were enjoying their steak dinner. Branon jokingly describes the exchange as “just a couple of drunks thinking things over.” But it became a brilliant idea.

“I turned to Geoff and said, ‘What do you remember about being a club professional?’ ” Branon recalled. “And he said, ‘I worked as a shop boy for a pro named Buzz Pendleton out at Harding Park in California and he was one of the few Wilson staff home professionals. Most of their money went to the PGA Tour, especially Sam Snead. But Buzz was a loyal Wilson staffer for 20 to 25 years and when he announced his retirement, I remember standing in the shop behind the counter. Two employees for Wilson, the regional manager and local salesman, came into the shop. After exchanging good mornings, the first thing they asked him is who his replacement would be.’ ”

His reward for more than two decades of work with Wilson was nothing. No gold watch. No vacation.  Certainly no money.

“So Geoff says, ‘What if they had given him $10 for every $100 he spent with Wilson over the years? What kind of check would that have been?’ ”

Branon nearly leapt high enough to be considered a part of the casino’s trapeze act. Instead of offering a discount program like most other companies were doing, Slazenger would take care of golf pros – all of them, no matter the facility. If they paid their invoice within 30 days, the company would set aside 10 percent. If they paid within 60 days, the company would set aside 5 percent. When they retired, they would receive more than a “good morning.”

Slazenger Golf sent out its first U.S. shipments in 1987. It soon became a wild American success.

“Anything they wanted on an exclusive, one-price-for-all basis, they could find from little old Slazenger,” Branon said. “We went from $5 million in sales the first year to $63 million. Let me tell you, our cash flow was terrific.”

It was a total game-changer for PGA professionals, too.

“It felt like David Branon was really committed to PGA professionals,” O’Neal said. “You can tell he just liked golf pros. He would send out a quarterly newsletter and also produced motivating videos that explained how to sell the product, which I think was very helpful to all of the pros. Their above-and-beyond service to club pros was the underpinning of the entire company.”

Slazenger’s success raged throughout the ’90s, all stemming from Branon and Gorman’s core belief that the PGA professional was the cornerstone of the industry. They wanted to go to bat for the little guy, not just because it was good business but because it mattered to them.

“We were one of the pro’s best friends,” Branon said. “The guys who got behind us really got behind us. They could only do that if the product was good. And it was fantastic.”

During the brand’s heyday, Branon estimated that 75 percent of golf professionals owned their pro shops. As the new millennium inched closer and the industry evolved, that shop-ownership model changed. And with it changed the relationship Slazenger had with golf pros.

Cinven, the private equity firm that owned Dunlop Slazenger, handed the company over to its banks in February 2001, marking the beginning of the end for Slazenger Golf in the United States. British retailing group Sports Direct International acquired Dunlop Slazenger in 2004, but that company’s CEO, Englishman Mike Ashley, had no interest in continuing the Slazenger brand in America. Slazenger Golf eventually crept back into the United States, but is now sold only through a licensing agreement with retailers Dick’s Sporting Goods and Golf Galaxy.

“It broke my heart,” Branon said, pausing to gather his emotions. “It was a moment in time. It probably couldn’t have sustained itself as a pure pro-shop-only product because the golf professional kept losing control of the pro shop. Times had changed.”

The brand had been read its last rites in America. But the money from the Slazenger Founders Club didn’t die with it. The last quarterly statement Slazenger sent to club professionals was mailed on Dec. 31, 2001. After that, the forgotten funds sat, slowly accruing interest.

Slazenger put $18 million aside for PGA professionals, Branon said. A large number of pros who had participated in the program cashed out before to Slazenger’s withdrawal from the U.S. market. But many were still in the middle of their careers, figuring they would claim their money when the time came.

It wouldn’t be that simple.

O’Neal remembers the first time Slazenger sales rep Jim Janks walked through his golf shop at High Ridge Country Club in Lake Worth, Fla. Janks explained the new line of golf balls and then ended with a presentation showing the benefits of the Slazenger Founders Club program.

“They had charts saying, ‘Look, here is where your fund could grow to by the time you retire,’ ” O’Neal recalled. “I thought it was a great idea. The one thing we didn’t have with the PGA of America at that time was a retirement plan. Every other big company had one, but we didn’t have anything.”

One attribute that made O’Neal an outstanding head professional for 40 years was his meticulous nature. There may be no better example of his extraordinary attention to detail than his remembering a quirk in the Founders Club program that eventually would lead him down a bizarre investigative path.

Slazenger used two companies – MassMutual and Provident Midwest Annuity – to manage the Founders Club. Originally, participants received two Founders Club statements – one from Slazenger that listed both MassMutual and Provident Midwest Annuity balance information on it and another from MassMutual that also listed balances from both companies.

It wasn’t the most clear-cut situation, but O’Neal filed each of them away with the assumption that he could retrieve his money eventually.

“At that point, you didn’t pay much attention to it, because it didn’t really amount to much,” O’Neal said. “It was a long way off. It was like, ‘In 30 or 40 years when I retire, I’ll go back to revisit this whole thing.’ So you just file away your statements without thinking much about it.”

Before Slazenger’s retreat from the U.S. market, the MassMutual statements stopped including Provident Midwest Annuity balances, O’Neal said. That didn’t matter much to golf professionals at the time. But it set off O’Neal’s ensuing wild goose chase.

One attribute that made O’Neal an outstanding head professional for 40 years was his meticulous nature. There may be no better example of his extraordinary attention to detail than his remembering a quirk in the Founders Club program that eventually would lead him down a bizarre investigative path.

MassMutual, a large company many people are familiar with, continued to send statements. But when Slazenger ceased to operate in the United States, the Founders Club statements it sent stopped.

“Once I got to the point where I was nearing retirement, I started to go back and look at the statements,” O’Neal explained. “Something didn’t seem right because I just couldn’t find the Provident Midwest money. I looked on the internet and couldn’t even find anything about Provident Midwest Annuity. I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ ”

O’Neal’s options for figuring out this puzzle were somewhat limited. Branon had long since retired and says he had little to do with the financial specifics in the first place. Gorman, the man who had come up with the concept, died in March 2006.

Not knowing where to turn, O’Neal called MassMutual. He remembered the original plan administrator, even though they had never spoken, was named Eugene Marshall. It was printed at the top of Founders Club statements. But Marshall had retired. The man who replaced him was named Parks Stallings.

“So I got (Stallings) on the phone and he said, ‘Boy, I haven’t had a phone call like this in a long time.’ ” O’Neal recalled. “And he said, ‘There’s a problem here. You will never receive a statement because you never really received a statement in the first place from this Provident Midwest Annuity.’ ”

In that sentence was the crux of the problem. Provident Midwest was a small company based in Greenville, S.C., the same place where Slazenger’s U.S. operation had been located. Its name was included on Founders Club statements, but the company itself never sent statements to participants.

Provident Midwest Annuity had changed its name and moved, making it difficult to find. Stallings couldn’t find it. O’Neal had a close friend who worked in the insurance business and was certain he would be able to track down the company.

“He came back to me three of four days later and said ‘Tim, we have no idea where this company is,’ ” O’Neal said. “We can’t find it. Your money is probably gone.”

By coincidence, Stallings had an emotional attachment to O’Neal’s quest. His local golf professional in Jacksonville, Fla., also was a contributor to the Founders Club. Stallings wanted to help his pro.

To do this, Stallings did some sleuthing and found the former financial officer for Dunlop Sports Group Americas, Slazenger’s parent company.

Stallings’ pro didn’t have any statements, but Stallings’ intervention prompted Dunlop to issue the pro a check for $25,000. As for O’Neal, he only grew more suspicious that something was amiss.

O’Neal called Dunlop Sports Group Americas and reached a receptionist who had been working at the company for 28 years. She remembered the Founders Club and told O’Neal that he needed to speak with the company’s director of finance, Scott Morrison. Morrison was on vacation at the time, but the receptionist said he would call O’Neal back as soon as he returned from his trip.

Morrison called O’Neal on the exact day the receptionist said he would.

“He said to me, ‘Tim, you are 100 percent right,’ ” O’Neal recalled. “ ‘There is money in that account.’ He said, ‘I am the only person who can access that account because you will never receive a statement from them. If you give me your social security number, I’ll tell you how much is in there.’ ”

As anyone who has received a scam e-mail or phone call can understand, O’Neal wasn’t exactly willing to hand over personal information to a company he didn’t understand or a person he didn’t know.

“I was hesitant,” O’Neal said. “I didn’t want to give him my social security number. And he said, ‘Well, look at the top of your statement at your account number’ – back in those days, our social security number was our account number. So there it was, my social security number. The entire thing.”

After talking with Morrison further, O’Neal decided to disclose his information. A minute later, Morrison came back on the phone.

O’Neal had $22,000 in his account. He also had a lot of questions.

“Well, how do I redeem that?” O’Neal said. “And then I remember saying, ‘Can you tell me about your company and how your money is being administered?’ This guy was super honest and he was the key to the whole operation. Morrison said, ‘I am here and I am willing to help you get the money.’ ”

With a year left before his planned 2016 retirement, O’Neal didn’t want to take the money out and pay taxes on it. Stallings advised O’Neal to roll over the $22,000 into the MassMutual account. And that is exactly what he did.

Given the difficulty he’d had, O’Neal called other recently or soon-to-retire PGA professional friends who also had money in the Founders Club. He started with Bruce Carson, the Illinois PGA Professional of the Year in 2012.

“It was pretty incredible what Tim did,” Carson said. “He called me and asked if I knew anything about the funds. I didn’t realize what had happened. He has helped a lot of pros get their money.”

O’Neal started calling approximately two professionals a week. Stines, Dave Bryan, Doug Hart, Charlie Bowie, Bruce Patterson, Joe Burch and Bob Ford were among the PGA pros he contacted.

Ford, the longtime pro at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh who is now at Seminole Golf Club in Florida, was surprised to hear from O’Neal.

“I had a brother who was a Slazenger rep, so I knew all about the Founders Club,” Ford said. “I was under the assumption that my money was in there, so when Timmy called me up, I was taken aback.”

O’Neal quickly realized that while his efforts were impactful, he needed additional help in order to be more efficient in reaching people.

“So I went to the PGA Merchandise Show. I knew it was a bad time because these (PGA) officers are so busy,” O’Neal recalled. “But I just camped out near Paul Levy’s office – he was the incoming president at the time – and I said, ‘I just need 10 minutes.’

“I started explaining this whole story to him and he said, ‘We are going to help you.’ I told him that the director of finance at Dunlop Sports Group Americas (Morrison) was willing to help us, but he also had a day job and we couldn’t have all of these people calling him. So we needed a plan to work together to make all the pros with money in this account aware that it was available to them.”

That’s when PGA membership director Tom Brawley and an intern named Dustin Bitter went to work cross-referencing a list of Founders Club participants with a PGA membership list. On paper, the task sounded simple. But Dunlop could not legally provide social security numbers or other data that could have expedited the process. Also, the PGA membership database was exhaustive and featured many people with the same names, making it difficult to figure out which ones could have participated in the plan.

So, how did this happen? Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former Dunlop employee placed the blame on Slazenger personnel changes. The Founders Club simply got lost in the shuffle. By the time the PGA got involved, all Dunlop had remaining was an Excel file with names, social security numbers and earnings.

This created a logjam in cross-referencing the lists. Despite this, word spread and the PGA’s efforts to contact members resulted in about $2.3 million being claimed by PGA professionals as of March 2017. Since then, a little more than $140,000 has been claimed with only $12,000 being claimed in 2018. However, as of the end of 2018, $2.3 million remained unclaimed in 760 accounts.

That’s an average of just more than $3,000 for an account, although there are multiple professionals with more than $30,000. The highest sits at $70,000. The remaining $2.3 million sits on the balance sheet of a third party and not with Dunlop.

Morrison is no longer with Dunlop and control of the funds has been transferred. The person now in charge is Eddie Ban, a financial controller for Everlast, a New York company known for boxing and mixed martial arts equipment. Sports Direct International sold Dunlop in 2016 to Japan’s Sumitomo Rubber Industries, and control of the Founders Club funds now sits with Sports Direct International Holdings USA Inc., which owns Everlast.

The most important detail is that PGA professionals still are entitled to their money and Ban is more than willing to help. If a participant in the Founders Club program is deceased, a death certificate needs to be provided to ensure the money gets into the hands of a beneficiary. And even a family member who is not the listed beneficiary can contact Ban to see whether there are funds.

... as of the end of 2018,
$2.3 million remained
unclaimed in 760 accounts.