It’s a sun-splashed Wednesday afternoon at Independence Golf Club out in Midlothian.
Clad in form-fitting golf attire, Nick Austin bounds into the pro shop like a seasoned professional, looking for his next client to win over.
Before he even finished his hand-shake and brief introduction, Austin was pulled into an engaging conversation with a long-time club member, mulling over price points, member benefits and minutiae unrelated.
A University of Richmond alumnus and former men’s golfer, Austin has been working at Independence since the summer. He describes his position as an “odd job of adding energy and fun.”
In a matter of 15 minutes, Austin has already joked and laughed with numerous older members coming in from long rounds or just going out to the range. There’s an obvious age difference, but his infectious energy makes everyone comfortable. That’s why he’s there after all.
“Golf has struggled recently,” Austin said. “Whether it’s the economy or not having Tiger Woods around any more, participation is down. And we want to go after the stigma sometimes attached to golf. We want to get younger people out here. We want to grow the game.”
Run by University of Richmond alumnus Giff Breed, Independence Golf Club has intimate ties to UR. Both the men’s and women’s golf teams practice there every day and call it home. There are plans for an expansive Spider clubhouse facility on the far end of the driving range. Richmond basketball Hall of Famer Dick Tarrant casually wandered into the pro shop during the interview. Independence has a distinctive red and blue feel to it.
And then there’s Nick Austin.
Austin grew up in Richmond. He played high school and college golf here. Independence fits him like a glove.
“I think people always talk about the need to get away and experience the world and all that,” Austin says. “But I’ve been in Richmond since I was five years old. This is my home. I was out here at Independence on the third day that it opened. It’s been great to build relationships with people in this community. It’s like you’re always at home. I get to see our coaches and our current UR players and still have a relationship with them and motivate them.”
Austin played for the Spiders from 2010-13 and holds the fourth-best career stroke average (74.18) in Spider history. He was a two-time All-Atlantic 10 honoree and two-time Academic All-American.
“I wanted to be at a place where I would really enjoy playing golf and enjoy my academic experience,” he said. “I think that anyone that has ever met Coach Decker knows how fantastic he is. He’s one of the nicest guys on the planet. I couldn’t have asked for a better college experience than at the University of Richmond.”
After college, Austin played a couple of seasons in the professional ranks, competing in the PGA Q-School, but ultimately succumbing to nagging injuries.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Austin said. “It was my childhood dream. I played alongside guys who are on TV now at major tournaments. But I just couldn’t get past some knee injuries that I had. And ultimately, life is about who you want to be, not what you want to be. I’ve utilized everything I’ve learned from competing to what I do now.”
And what Austin does now is work to change the perception of golf, and the perception of a golf club in 2016.
He’s become somewhat internet-famous for his intricate trick shot videos that he has produced on the Independence grounds. And while he enjoys making them and the notoriety they bring, he sees them serving a much larger purpose.
“Every thing we are doing here is about changing the perception of golf. Golf can be fun; it doesn’t have to be stuffy. Those trick shot videos are fun. You watch them and you see us just having a great time around the game. Those videos are an embodiment of the pulse of this Golf Club here. When people walk through the door, you want them to feel like this is the happiest place on earth.”
Austin’s personality has fit right into a Golf Club that is seeking to radically change exactly WHO seeks out a pristinely manicured piece of land in a posh neighborhood in the suburbs. And WHY they are seeking it out.
As he describes, it’s not just golf anymore. Independence has a first-class dining establishment (Tavern 19), a café, glow in the dark golf, range games and challenges, outdoor movies, drone racing, foot golf and a summer concert series.
“We want to strip it back to this being a place where you can have a fun experience. Period.”
For Nick Austin, that task is right down his fairway.