Nikki Gatch has had a career of firsts leading the way—the PGA way
By RANDY YOUNGMAN
First woman on the Southern California Golf Association Board of Directors.
First woman president of the SCGA, as well as the first PGA member to serve in that role.
First woman Executive Director/CEO of the Southern California PGA Section—a job she began this past January.
As her impressive resume attests, Nikki Gatch’s career as a golf executive clearly has established her as a pioneer of sorts in Southern California.
She says it never was her goal to be the first at anything—except, of course, when she teed it up in competition at Palm Desert High and at Oklahoma State or in any of the many tournaments she entered through the years—and that her first-ever job distinctions merely came as a direct result of following her passion.
“It’s not something I set out to do; it just sort of happened,” Gatch, 51, said recently during an interview with California Golf & Travel, reflecting on her path as a trailblazer for women in golf management. “I’ve been fortunate to have a career to do something that I love and am extremely passionate about.
“I’ve worked really hard, and I’ve just been in the right place when the right opportunities presented themselves. But when you start reeling off those (firsts), I pinch myself sometimes. It’s been a phenomenal journey.”
Her career progression might not have been pre-ordained, but Gatch’s involvement in golf was anything but a surprise. After all, she was introduced to the golf world at a very young age, because her late father, William “Buzz” Gill, was a PGA member and instructor in Oklahoma when she was born there.
“I just like to say that golf is in my DNA,” Gatch said. “I grew up around it. I think I was first exposed to golf at the age of 5 . . . and I started taking to the game when I was 11 or 12.”
The people that her father worked with and for were in golf, too, so Nikki considered all of them her “aunts and uncles.”
She was 10 when her father moved the family to Thousand Oaks to help develop Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley, a private club where he served as president and director of golf. Four years later, the family moved again, this time to La Quinta when her father became an executive for Landmark Golf, which developed courses at PGA West, La Quinta Resort and Mission Hills Country Club, among others.
By then, she was hooked on golf, and she played four years on the golf team at Palm Desert High—the boys team. “They didn’t have girls teams back then,” she recalled. “Looking back, it probably made me a better player, because I had to work extra hard and sharpen the short game.”
She earned a scholarship to Oklahoma State (1990-94), where she played on the traveling squad and won two conference championships. But her dreams of being “the next Nancy Lopez” ended after college when she realized there were too many better players than she who were struggling to establish themselves in professional golf.
“I played in a few tournaments after school, on the Players West Tour, a kind of mini-tour for women, but I quickly realized this is not going to pan out,” she said. “My degree was in broadcasting and journalism, so I did a couple of internships—worked for the PGA Tour one summer, worked for a couple of local TV stations in the desert. It was fun, but it wasn’t really a passion of mine.
“So, I just kind of gravitated to what I knew and what I loved—and that was golf. Call it following in Dad’s footsteps or whatever.”
That’s when Gatch tried the career path as a teaching professional.
“My first so-called real job after college was at Mission Hills Country Club as an assistant golf pro,” she said. Then it was on to Kiawah Island in South Carolina to help a family friend open a new private club.
“Long story short, I decided to pack up the car and drive across the country and go to work for them,” she said. “So, I did, and it was great. We opened up the club, everything was wonderful; that’s how I met Don, and we got married.”
Naturally, Don Gatch also was a PGA professional, and still is.
But Nikki said something didn’t feel right.
“I kind of go back to that word: passion,” she said. “It just wasn’t quite there for being a green grass professional. I didn’t hate it, but something was missing. I was a little homesick (for California). An opportunity came up—this was in 1998—and my dad saw that the (SCPGA) Section had posted an opportunity to work in junior golf, in what was then called Desert Junior Golf. It was the junior golf program in Palm Springs, which is what I grew up playing on.”
It sounded perfect. She wanted to come home and stay in golf, and she got the job.
“I came full circle,” she said. “So, that’s technically when I started with the Southern California PGA.”
Don and Nikki had two children, and there was one brief move back to South Carolina, but they came back to Southern California at the end of 2002 after the SCPGA gauged her interest in the vacant position of junior golf director.
Then came the career progression.
From SCPGA Junior Golf Director, to Foundation Director, to Assistant Executive Director under longtime Executive Director/CEO Tom Addis.
“Then the PGA of America came calling in 2012,” Gatch recalled, leading to seven years as Player Development Regional Manager, then Regional League Manager, while continuing to work with Addis on SCPGA initiatives. “The PGA of America needed boots on the ground, so to speak, working alongside PGA Sections. It was the right fit at the right time.”
So was Gatch’s eventual return to Southern California and the SCPGA, as Assistant Executive Director/COO, to be groomed as Addis’ successor. (There was also the one-year term as SCGA president in 2021, another first.)
“It wasn’t a given, but I was fortunate to be selected as the new executive director (and CEO) when Tom retired at the end of 2022,” she said. Another first.
“What’s the saying? It’s great to be first, but what’s most important is that you’re not the last,” Gatch said, echoing the famous sentiments of Sandra Day O’Connor. “I hope I can be an inspiration to other women, but really for anybody—to follow your passion and work hard and that opportunities will come your way.”