Whittney Coon first ventured onto the Lusk, Wyo., Niobrara Country Club golf course at the age of 2.

It was where locals like her parents and oil-and-gas industry executives met and played. Coon was soon hooked and began playing alongside other members. By her sophomore year in high school, she had landed a summer job working for a family friend who happened to be the club pro.

Today, Coon is a UCCS junior studying for a bachelor’s degree in business with an emphasis on golf management.

“Once I graduate and finish my internships, I’d like to teach, showing others how to play the game,” she said.

Getting that first job, however, might be rougher than she imagined.

Over the past few years, the economy has hit golf hard, especially low- to middle-tier courses, forcing hundreds of clubs to cut back operations or close, according to the National Golf Foundation.

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As many as 15 percent of the nation’s 4,400 private clubs have experienced “serious financial problems,” according to BusinessWeek magazine.

Professional Golf Management Director Ed Kelbel says so far entry level placements are going well. But grads will have to wait a lot longer to make their way up from typical starting salaries of $25,000 to $40,000 before earning prestigious jobs as director of golf at a major golf resort like The Broadmoor.

UCCS’s four-and-a-half-year College of Business major is aimed at helping those would-be pros prepare for a career in the game and boost their earning potential.

Russ Miller, director of golf at the Broadmoor, was one of the first students to graduate in 1986 from a four-year professional golf management program at Ferris State University in Michigan.

He says he uses what he learned on an everyday basis.

“I get asked all the time, ‘You get to play golf all the time, right?’ Truth is, I never play golf. This is truly a business, especially at a five-star resort like the Broadmoor. (Playing is) my least priority,” he said.

No wonder: managing a staff of 180 and meeting with corporate clients is a full-time gig.

Miller’s operating budget runs about $7 million a year, excluding major championships like the U.S. Women’s Open scheduled for summer 2011, and he easily pulls down a six-figure salary.

But he’s not your average club pro.

“What these kids need to know is that it’s not just about teaching or being the director of golf at a club. You have to be diversified. … You need to understand golf course construction, retail management, financials, golf course construction and marketing. That’s actually what I love about what I do — the variety,” Miller said.

Dan Ferg, another UCCS junior, will intern at The Broadmoor this summer and has already spent a lot of time behind the scenes.

“I’ve worked in Denver and Breckenridge at about every job I could find, from caddying to spotting balls, tending pins and raking traps,” he said.

With one of the worst job markets in decades, a willingness to do whatever it takes can’t hurt.

“I love being outdoors. And I’m good at building relationships, getting to know the golfers. As a PGM with an emphasis on service management, I can do a lot of different things. And I might eventually want to work for the PGA,” Ferg said.

Even golf teachers have to know how to market themselves or how to manage a golf shop, Coon says, adding that she hopes to make a career out of instruction, but is willing to learn other skills.

And both expect to be able to play a little golf now and then.

While the PGA estimates golf-related unemployment slightly above 4 percent, that number doesn’t reflect how many people have simply left the industry.

Experts like Pellucid Inc. consultant Jim Koppenhaver estimate the number of golfers belonging to clubs is now down to just over 2 million, off about one-third from peak levels of the early 1990s.

He also believes the recession has left as many as 1,000 marginally-run country clubs at risk of closure or conversion to public play, decreasing the pool of prospective employers.

Still, Ferg and Coon are optimistic about finding jobs.

Already the two juniors say they’re building a network of contacts throughout the country, including fellow students and supervisors at clubs where they’ve already interned.

With 2,800 PGM students enrolled in similar business degree programs in 20 colleges and universities throughout the country, they’ll not only have to pass a test, complete three internships and meet a qualifying golf score; they’ll have to beat out the competition.

And the pay won’t be great.

As one of three assistant PGA professional at the Rolling Hills Country Club in Wichita, Kan., UCCS PGM graduate Landon Harms makes no more than $35,000.

A lot of assistants, he said, leave to sell insurance or take other higher-paying jobs. But there are few jobs that beat being a golf pro or assistant, he said.

“When the sun’s out and it’s high season, you spend most of your time on course operations, scheduling tee times, meeting with vendors for the pro shop or doing club fittings. Or you work on building your own small business. And then when it snows, it’s not busy. You have time, but you can’t play (because of the weather),” he said.

“But it’s worth it to me because golf is what I love.”