The Impossible Dream

The best thing about golf to Dave Hesson is that you can never golf a perfect round.

Editor’s Note: Embedded in this article is Dave Hesson’s greatest golf tip. This from a 4-to-8-handicap golfer. JHC readers are urged to pay attention.

The Hesson File
Raised in: Kankakee, Ill.
Age: 52
Title: Vice president of operations, Clarian Health, Indianapolis, Ind.
College/major: Eastern Illinois University/Personnel management
Noteworthy: Can’t stop golfing

It was the desire to beat his brother-in-law that drove Dave Hesson to golf. And it’s the desire to beat his personal best that keeps him at it.

In 1980, Hesson stepped onto a par-60 course in Kankakee, Ill., with his brother-in-law, Kevin Weerts, to try his hand at the sport. It was a humbling experience. “He whipped my [behind],” he confesses. Hesson was no stranger to sports, having played softball, basketball, etc., all his life. But golf presented a new set of challenges. And Hesson – a competitor – was hooked. “I wanted to learn the game, so I could beat him. It took me two years to do it.”

Today, Hesson, vice president of operations for Clarian Health, Indianapolis, Ind., continues to drive himself to improve his already sharp game. (He’s a 4-to-8-handicap golfer. To novices, that means you average 4 to 8 shots above par.) And it’s the challenge that keeps him coming back day after day. “The reason it sticks so well is, you can never be good enough at it,” he says.

It is a game that has taken him to historic courses in Europe and, he estimates, to over 200 courses in the United States. It allows him to push his own limits and to gauge the personalities of others. (“I can find out more about someone’s personality through 18 holes of golf than 20 business meetings.”) And it brings him closer to friends and family. (His wife, Diane, has taken up the game, and the two often step outside their house in Carmel, Ind., an Indianapolis suburb – located, of course, on a golf course – to play a few rounds. “It’s great for a marriage,” he says.)

Learning healthcare
Hesson was born in January 1956. (FYI: That year, Jack Burke, Jr., rallied from a Tournament-record eight shots back to defeat amateur Ken Venturi to win the Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club.) He was raised in Kankakee and attended Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. While attending school, he managed a grocery store, and decided to major in personnel management.

But when he graduated in 1978, he changed his plans. Manufacturing jobs were starting to dry up in the area, and with it, the supply of well-paying, secure jobs in personnel management. So he took a job as a purchasing agent at Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee. “My dad said healthcare would always be around,” he says.

He spent the next two and a half years learning everything he could about his new industry. His chief educators were the sales reps who called on him. “They’d spend an hour or two explaining the products they sold, telling me what a catheter was, how it was used, and what made theirs special.”

At age 25, he became materials manager for a 300-bed facility, then purchasing manager for Carle Clinic, a large clinic in central Illinois. In 1983, he made an about-face and became a materials management consultant and project administrator for HCA. “I consulted in over 200 hospitals,” he says. “I may not be the smartest guy, but I got a lot of exposure. I got to see all the rights and wrongs.”

In 1989, he returned to Kankakee as the director of material services for the VHA regional group in central Illinois, a position he held for four years. Then, eight years ago, he moved to Indianapolis to take the materials job at Clarian, which was formed by the 1997 merger of Methodist, Indiana University and Riley hospitals. His job was to create a materials department for the new IDN.

During the winter following the humiliating game against his brother-in-law, that very same brother-in-law helped Hesson set up a net in his garage so he could work on converting his crude softball swing into a surgical golf swing. “It’s a whole different set of muscles,” he says. “In softball, you’re trying to force everything with a violent swing. But in golf, it’s all timing and hand-eye coordination.” There’s room for error when swinging at a 12-inch or 16-inch (Chicago-style) softball, but there’s no room for error hitting a tiny golf ball with a club that’s moving 100 miles an hour or so on contact. “Everything has to be perfect at the time of contact – angle, everything.”

He kept working at his game. Then, when he took the HCA job, a whole new world – or at least, a whole country – opened itself up to him. “As a consultant, if you travel, which I did, you bring your sticks and try to play in the afternoon.” He started to get a taste, indeed, an appetite, for golfing at courses all over the country. “You don’t know what a course will be like before you play it. That’s why I like playing different courses.”

Eleven years ago, for his 40th birthday, Hesson’s brother, Greg, gave him the gift of a lifetime: a trip to Scotland. The attraction? St. Andrews Links, acknowledged as the birthplace of golf. Getting a booking (“They don’t call it a ‘tee time’ in Europe,” he says) at the venerable course isn’t easy. The golfer must call 48 hours in advance to get in a lottery, and then await a return call with news of the booking. “And if you show up one minute late, they’ve already given it away,” says Hesson. But the experience was worth it, not only because of the opportunity to soak up history, but to experience a course that differs from many in the United States.

“Most American courses are perfect, manicured,” says Hesson. “European courses are dead opposite. They’re not necessarily in great shape. They don’t have trees, heather, bunkers.” Instead, many courses – including the Old Course at St. Andrews – are so-called links golf courses. Such courses are often located in coastal areas, with naturally rugged terrain. They have few man-made obstacles or hazards; nature provides its own. Throw in some wind off the ocean, and you’ve got a challenge on your hand. (That said, the United States has a few famous links courses of its own, including Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Pacific Ocean, Whistling Straits on Lake Michigan, and Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Ore.)

Since that trip, Hesson has played a handful of other courses in Europe. But the number and variety of courses in the United States have been more than enough to hold his attention. (He does plan a trip to Australia at some point in his life, which almost surely will include golf.) In fact, four of his top five courses are in this country. They are:

Pebble Beach. “My favorite U.S. course. While it’s not the hardest course, by any stretch of the imagination, the views are the prettiest. Jack Nicklaus was once asked, ‘If you played your last round, where would it be?’ His answer was ‘Pebble Beach.’”

Augusta National. “It’s intimidating as hell. It’s almost impossible to get on. And it has the smallest, most difficult greens you’ll ever play. You have to hit your approach shots [i.e., your second shot] to a very specific section of a small green if you want a chance to make par or better.”

St. Andrews. “A links style course, usually overcast. The North Sea blows in on you. But it’s where it all started. It’s not that difficult. A lot of courses in Europe are harder.”

Medinah Country Club, west suburban Chicago. “A great Midwest golf course – tree-lined, in perfect condition. The most intimidating clubhouse in the world – huge and majestic.”

Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wis. “Absolutely beautiful. The hardest round of golf I ever played was there in a 30-mile-an-hour wind.”

While Hesson enjoys great courses, that’s not what it’s all about, he says. “The quality of the course isn’t that big a deal. With the right group of guys, you can have fun on any golf course.”

Business, life lessons
Today, Hesson golfs a couple of times a week. Living off the fourth tee at Twin Lakes Country Club in Carmel makes it easy. He plays in charity outings and club tournaments, and tries to take at least one golf vacation every spring and summer.

By now, he’s a good golfer. With a set of Titleist 935.CM irons, a Titleist 928 driver and TaylorMade r7 woods, Hesson has a handicap ranging from 4 to 8. (Anyone with a single-digit handicap can be safely said to be a competitive golfer.) He works hard at his game, but when asked for his single most valuable tip, paradoxically, he answers, “Enjoy yourself. It’s not work. It’s just a beautiful game. It’s out there for you to enjoy. So don’t get frustrated.” Yet the game remains a huge challenge for him. “You’ll pay for every mistake you make,” he says.

Hesson enjoys golfing with his wife, friends and family. (His brother, Greg, is also a golf nut.) He also plays with business partners, though not with representatives of companies with whom Clarian is in the midst of negotiating a contract. “I enjoy golfing with people I do business with, because I can tell a lot of things about their personality. Anybody can put a face on in a meeting. But a person’s true character comes out in 18 holes.”

When he turns 55, Hesson hopes to begin competing in USGA state tournaments for seniors. In the meantime, he will continue to thrive on the challenges golf presents. “When you’re playing school sports, even if you win a state championship, you are part of a team. But with golf, you’re on your own. There’s no one to blame but yourself. And nobody can ever shoot the perfect round. That’s what fun about it.”