WHEN Melissa Ellis took on the general manager’s role at Castle Hill Country Club two years ago, a few bold members gave her the moniker “non-golfing sheila” but it didn’t take long for the sobriquet to wear off.
“I came from a non-golfing background so when I first started here that’s what they called me, but it was not said in a derogatory way,” she laughed.
Ellis might have lacked experience in the field of golf when she joined the Sydney club but hard work, common sense, passion and a dogged determination has worked wonders.
She quickly gained the trust and admiration from the club’s 1500 members because of her “open door policy”.
“Everyone has access to me and I am out and about on the course and leading the club from the front at all times,” she said.
“It’s important the members can pull me aside and have a chat. It certainly stops things from escalating if you are there at the coalface.”
I ask Ellis if she has become “Queen of the Castle” (Hill), but she was quick to say, “I don’t think so”.
From Newcastle, Ellis started her working life in hospitality with the Hoyts Corporation.
She later owned a successful catering business before moving into hospitality education – writing training resources for the Club Managers’ Association and private colleges.
“I moved into club management almost by default,” she said.
“When I was teaching, clubs would ask me to advise them and they hired me as a consultant.
“I worked for The American Club for four years, but I have always been relatively sporty and wanted to get into sports management at club level.
“I tried a few of the golf clubs, but it was difficult because I was a non-golfer and a woman.
“So, I went to Castle Hill Country Club. They have a progressive board and gave me a shot.”
Since then, the club has gone from strength to strength and recently posted a tidy profit.
“I think it has been an advantage because everyone in the club knows golf and having someone that is more business and commercially focused, I think it might have been beneficial,” Ellis suggested.
In the past 18 months, Ellis has overseen a makeover renovation that has Castle Hill looking fresh and new.
“We are enjoying good success with our corporate clients,” Ellis said.
“David Andrews manages our corporate golf and this area of the business is going well.
“We have the best chef and the best food and people who come here really enjoy the experience.”
Tournament golf is an area close the Ellis’ heart and she is particularly proud of hosting the NSW Open.
“I love the NSW Open because we try to put a different slant on it. We had an Eat-Street and an international food precinct,” she explained.
“We tried to make it an event for everybody where families could come and participate and/or watch the golf.
“We put a lot of thought into getting people along to watch a golf tournament that normally wouldn’t go and we found people were willing to embrace it.”
Even the club’s members, who oftentimes object to giving up their course for a week, embraced the concept.
“We had 220 volunteers and people worked hard to make it work. “Unfortunately, the rain spoiled it for two days but I loved it and enjoyed doing it.”
Now Ellis is in talks with Australian Ladies’ Professional Golf boss Karen Lunn and is lobbying the NSW Government in the hope of staging a major women’s tournament at the club.
“Queensland and Victoria have big (women’s) tournaments and NSW has nothing,” she said.
“We want to create a Ladies Tour Championship and make it an international event. It is hard for ladies golf and I think they get a raw deal.”
In January, Castle Hill will host a (Sir Nick) Faldo Series qualifying event in the lead up to the Asian final to be held in China.
If Ellis has her way, Castle Hill will host a final in the years ahead.
“We are just trying to holistically help golf and we don’t mind putting the work in,” Ellis said.”
Ellis might come from a non-golfing background, but she is an accomplished horse rider and played competitive softball until a few years ago when a wayward ball smashed into her face.
That resulted in a depressed cheek that forced her to quit the sport.
Now Ellis is taking golf lessons from club pro Shane McLeod and often sneaks out to play a few holes late in the day.
“I really like being out on the course … it’s heaven on earth,” she said.
“I also enjoy playing at other courses and have become interested in what other clubs are doing.”
Now Ellis has started meeting regularly with other general managers. Initially, she was reluctant to attend meetings because “I didn’t want any outside influence”.
“I just want to make my own vision.”
Part of the vision is to build a conference centre.
“We are in the biggest growth area in Sydney and enjoy a magnificent vista over a valley in the Hills District.
“We have just opened a new bistro and the local community is enjoying it along with the members. It’s going really well and is a big winner.”
For Ellis, the formula is to offer a great product and a business model based on sound principles.
Of course, the friendly, loyal and efficient staff ensure members and visitors enjoy a warm and friendly welcome.
“I have really great team of people around me,” Ellis added.
Away from the rigors of a hectic work schedule, Ellis enjoys travelling (East Africa is her favourite destination), bushwalking and spending time with two adult daughters.
“We are big into food and wine so we go out every weekend and have something nice,” she said.