In the 33 yearsWest Lake Country Club has existed, Mark Darnell has been the only head pro the Martinez private club has known.
That changed Tuesday, when West Lake president John Landrum terminated the contract of Darnell, who is the chairman of the board of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and the only full-time Augustan who is a member of the hall.
The West Lake contract was terminated without cause, Darnell said.
Phone calls to Landrum, who has served as West Lake president since February 2002, were not returned.
The move came just two months after a successful restoration program at the course.
Not only was Darnell the only head pro to work at the course, starting in September 1968, but he also served as the club's general manager on four occasions. The latest stint ran from 1995 to Oct. 1, 2002, when Darnell voluntarily stepped down.
From 50 original members, West Lake now has more than 500 golf members.
Darnell, who also built the first house at West Lake, planned to retire from the course in four years, he said.
"The move came as a complete surprise," Darnell said. "It really caught me off guard. We'd just come off another extremely successful member-guest tournament, which we have built up quite a reputation for in the industry. I thought everything was OK and on a level field.
"But evidently, after 34 years of one philosophy or one course of action, the board wanted to change directions and take a different course," Darnell said.
The West Lake board of directors met Thursday night to discuss Darnell's release and other matters.
"It was a business decision," Darnell said. "The club is moving into a new era, and they felt as if they needed someone else to take them down that road.
"I parted West Lake on good terms," Darnell said. "I'm not mad at anybody, that's not the case at all. I'm thankful for the 34 years I did have at the club. They appreciated the 34 years, and I appreciated it. I think we made a mark in the city of Augusta and the state of Georgia."
Darnell has a high profile in the PGA of America, where he is one of just 175 Master Professionals. He has been the featured speaker at more than 200 national PGA of America seminars and workshops in the United States and Canada, 41 PGA of America sectional seminars and nine PGA of America national business schools.
At West Lake, Darnell won two major PGA of America awards: the Horton Smith Award for education and the PGA Merchandiser of the Year in the private club category. For a record 10 years, from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, West Lake was ranked in the top 20 in Golf Digest's best pro shop operations for private clubs.
"I had the good fortune of being able to build up a nice reputation and resume, and receive a lot of honors from the state of Georgia and other golf associations from the United States," Darnell said.
Darnell's departure makes Palmetto Golf Club's Tom Moore the dean of area pros. Moore, who worked under Darnell at West Lake from 1977-82, has been at Palmetto, in Aiken, for 20 years.
"West Lake is going to be the big loser in this instance," Moore said. "They're losing probably the most qualified golf professional in this part of the country, if not the United States.
"For them to do this to him, it's a tragedy," Moore said. "He's made that club into a special club over the years. He's spent basically his whole adult life making sacrifices for his family for the betterment of West Lake. It's a shame."
Darnell isn't the only fixture at West Lake to leave. Shop attendant Eleanor Patrick, who has worked at the club since December 1970, was the only employee paid directly by Darnell. When Darnell's West Lake contract was terminated, so was hers.
"Mark is West Lake," said Patrick, who was semi-retired and worked one day a week at the club. "I walked around the club the other day, and I thought every inch of the paint in this club is Mark Darnell. The club is so big and so wonderful, and Mark gets none of the credit. It just breaks my heart."
Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851.