Lon Fellenz goes the extra mile
Par for the CourseTraveling All Over the World is Just Part of the Job for Golf Tournament Organizer Lon Fellenz
By Tony Bridges
Lon Fellenz is one of those guys who goes the extra mile for his job. Actually, make that a million extra miles.Over two decades in the golf business, Fellenz has traveled the globe so much that people sometimes wonder whether he even lives in Tallahassee anymore.
He works off the course, setting up tournaments and arranging games for some of the best golfers in the sport. It’s a career he arrived at in middle age, and one he has no plans to abandon now, even at age 60.
Golf has given Fellenz a home in Golden Eagle, more frequent-flier miles than a rock band, and a cell phone full of buddies.
“It’s been good,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade the friendships I’ve made.”
And yes, for the record, he still lives in Tallahassee. It’s been his home since 1971.
For a recent interview, Fellenz walked into a restaurant in a red Harley-Davidson T-shirt and sneakers, looking like a man who had spent the weekend relaxing in a backyard hammock. He showed no sign that he had stepped off a 24-hour flight from Japan less than two days earlier.
The trip was his 29th, or 30th, or 31st to that country. Fellenz has been there so many times, he can’t remember the exact number.
He peered at a menu with inquisitive, bright blue eyes and ordered a buffalo chicken salad with extra bleu cheese on the side. He said he tries to eat right, more or less, and exercise as much as he can.
Fellenz appears fit and youthful, but figures he could do better. It’s just difficult with all the travel.
At his peak, a couple of years ago, he was traveling 30 weeks out of the year as vice president of the LPGA Tour.
“That’s the way golf is – it’s not done in one place,” Fellenz said. “It’s such an international game.”
These days, the pace is a little slower, although he still works all over the world and spends at least one month a year in Japan. He mainly takes American players – including Tiger Woods – overseas to compete in Japanese tournaments.
“Just trying to raise the profile of the game there,” Fellenz said.
He didn’t start out to be a golf manager.
Fellenz graduated from Florida State University in 1968 with a degree in marketing and went to work in the banking industry – first in Atlanta, then in his hometown of Miami.
When his company needed someone to open a branch office in Tallahassee, he immediately volunteered.
“I loved Tallahassee, and I got back here as quick as I could,” Fellenz said.
He has always been a “sports nut,” he said. Fellenz has held season tickets for FSU football and men’s basketball for more than 30 years. When his cell phone rings during lunch, it plays the “Monday Night Football” theme song.
It didn’t take long after his return to Tallahassee for Fellenz to start playing golf in Killearn. He also started volunteering at the annual Tallahassee Open professional golf tournament.
Fellenz said he liked the excitement and the charged atmosphere of competition. But it wasn’t just the game. He realized that he had a talent for the networking and complicated logistics that come with holding a tournament.
In 1985, he left banking for golf. Fellenz took a job with Executive Sports, a tournament management company owned by golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
His job was to handle everything “outside the ropes” at golf events – promotions, TV coverage, volunteers, parking. When he wasn’t working the events, Fellenz traveled to Japan and other countries to teach pro golf groups how to stage their own tournaments.
He was good at what he did, and people in the golf business took note.
When Tallahassee Open president Mac Cairns needed a tournament director in 1985, he offered the gig to Fellenz. It was a year-round operation, with a budget between $2 million and $3 million.
“I knew he could do the job,” said Cairns, who has remained friends with Fellenz. “He just loves the game of golf, loves everything about it.”
Fellenz ran the tournament – renamed the Centel Classic – until Sprint became the new sponsor and moved it to Daytona Beach in 1993.
In the 13 years since, Fellenz has gone on to direct tournaments across the country and around the world. He has done so for private companies as well as both the PGA and LPGA tours. He now owns his own consulting company, Rising Sun Golf.
Asked where the job has taken him, Fellenz took a sip of tea and thought for a minute.
Hawaii. Canada. China. Spain. Switzerland. Hong Kong. Ireland. Scotland. England. France. And Japan, of course.
“There’s probably not a prettier place in the world than Evian, France,” Fellenz said. “It’s spectacular.”
It sounds kind of glamorous, and sometimes it is, but all the travel can be a grind, he said.
He has logged 1.5 million miles on Delta Airlines alone; he has used 400,000 frequent-flier milers already this year – and still has 1.2 million left. While serving as director of the Sarazen World Open, Fellenz commuted from Tallahassee to Atlanta every week for five years.
“I know the guys at the airport pretty well,” he said. “You have to get used to it.”
What makes it worth it is the golf – Fellenz has been to the exclusive Masters at least 15 times – and the relationships built over the last 20 years.
He held up his cell phone and flipped it open.
“I have about 130 numbers in here, and probably half of them are golf-related,” Fellenz said. “The people in golf are phenomenal at all levels, and I’m not just talking about the players.”
But he knows them, too. Just about all of them.
Fellenz took Aaron Baddeley – winner of the Verizon Classic earlier this year – to his first international tournament in Japan when Baddeley was just 18. He turned PGA Tour pro James Nitties on to the FSU Seminoles.
And he was there in St. Andrews, Scotland, when Jack Nicklaus played the last hole of his career.
“He’s as well known in golf as anyone,” Cairns said of Fellenz. “He knows everybody.
“At tournaments, when he walks onto the practice tee, if he doesn’t walk up to the players, they’ll walk up to him.”
A world traveler with hoity-toity friends. That could make a guy a little snobby, but apparently, it hasn’t.
Trey Jones, golf coach at FSU, said he had just taken the job three years ago when Fellenz called to welcome him to town. Fellenz helped the coach get his family settled in and made sure he met plenty of new people in Tallahassee.
“He’s been wonderful to me, my family and my team,” Jones said.
Three years later, Fellenz still makes sure to ask after Jones’ wife and kids every time they speak – something other people seldom do, Jones said.
Fellenz is old-fashioned that way, according to Cairns. Have him and wife Nancy over for dinner, and he’s sure to follow up with a thank-you note, a phone call or an e-mail, Cairns said.
Just don’t expect to be playing much golf with him.
After talking about it, thinking about it and working at it all week, Fellenz isn’t in much of a mood to play it on the weekends. He figures he has played maybe 36 holes altogether this year.
Does that mean Fellenz has had enough of the game? Is he ready to punch out, stop traveling and spend more time with his six grandkids?
Nope, not yet.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I woke up on Monday and didn’t have something to do,” he said.