When we talk about torches passed, guards changing or new sheriffs in town, the first thing people tend to think about is inevitable new philosophies and the changes that come with that.
Not quite so for Cary Corbitt and John Farrell at Sea Pines. Here, we’re talking about two legends of Lowcountry hospitality. Corbitt has spent 44 years at the resort, 37 of them as mentor to Farrell. So when he stepped down as vice president of sports and operations on May 14 and Farrell was promoted from director of golf to take Corbitt’s position, the change was more of a turning over of the family business.
“Cary’s been a great mentor. We have a tremendous relationship, based on doing the right thing for our guests,” Farrell said of taking the reins from Corbitt. “We’re very different folks. I’m an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, he’s a Southern gentleman. I like Clemson, he likes USC. But we’re Brady and Belichick really, and of course I’m Brady, the handsome one.”
After a pause for a laugh, Farrell turns serious in reflecting on their shared core values when it comes to customer service.
“We may have different styles, but we both have servants’ hearts. That person in front of us is the most important person, from the minute we step on property to the minute we leave.”
Corbitt, who first fell in love with Hilton Head and Sea Pines as a teen golfer touring the island, couldn’t let the Brady-Belichick beauty quip go unanswered.
“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, I guess,” Corbitt said with a sly smile before giving equally effusive praise to Farrell.
“I recognized early and often that John was a leader and it was an honor to work alongside him for 30 years,” Corbitt said. “We had some lean years, some times when behind the scenes was uncertain and we’re fighting through bankruptcy, but John and I always worked to make sure that the owners got top-notch service and that the guests always got the highest attention we could give.”
Farrell has been integral in the continued elevation and evolution of excellence in the resort’s three golf courses since joining Sea Pines in 1989, but now, he will be responsible for all golf operations – including golf maintenance and overseeing golf operations for the RBC Heritage. He will also manage tennis operations, which includes Sea Pines’ long-standing relationship with the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy.
“Cary has done an amazing job during the past four decades improving, expanding and enhancing every aspect of our golf and tennis operations,” said Steve Birdwell, president of The Sea Pines Resort. “All three of our championship golf courses have been rebuilt under Cary’s leadership and two new award-winning golf clubhouses have been constructed. We are so appreciative of Cary’s contributions to our resort and the community during his tenure.”
Birdwell felt fortunate to not have to look far to find a worthy successor.
“Filling Cary’s shoes is a monumental task, but John is extremely qualified and well regarded in the national golf community,” added Birdwell. “He is very passionate about golf, Sea Pines, and Hilton Head Island, and is constantly searching for ways to improve our guest service and operations to remain the premier resort on the Southeast coast.”
Farrell said that this new position is the next chapter in a career dream since he left his hometown of Pittsfield, Mass., for Springfield College and a post-graduate move to Hilton Head.
“I was blessed to start at Shipyard Golf Club as an assistant golf pro, a place that had a reputation for attracting and training folks that wanted to make golf a career,” he said. “To have experience both there and at Oyster Reef Golf Club, it was a blessing. But when you get to the island, the dream is Harbour Town.”
Farrell was named head pro at Harbour Town in 1991 and promoted to director of golf in 2009. He said his time learning under the Corbitt’s tutelage was a masterclass in treating every guest like they’re the most important person at the resort.
“Cary had a relentless pursuit for better, to be the best you can possibly be every day. That’s a drive that was instilled in me by my mother and father and Cary just helped me hone and elevate that passion and pursuit of excellence,” Farrell said. “This is a bucket list day for our guest, that one week a year many get here is their everything. So the person in front of you at any moment is the one that deserves our utmost dedication to the highest level of service.”
Farrell said that now, as he works to uphold and extend Corbitt’s standards, he reflects to his childhood, growing up across the street from Pittsfield Country Club, his work as a caddie there and his time learning from his father.
“My dad, he was a man who treated the locker room attendants with the same respect as the chairman of the board, that’s who he was,” Farrell said. “Cary had that same approach. So for me, this new position is about taking our service efforts to an ever higher level. That’s always the challenge, what drives me. I mean, listen, this isn’t a job. This is a blessing to get to lace up my shoes and come here every morning.”
While cosmetic upgrades and capital improvements are always happening, Farrell said that “higher level” is less about material things and more about a feeling.
“You want every guest to know in their gut that when they depart here, every touching point, every interaction we have with them without exception, they know I appreciated them and feel like their choice to come here was the best decision of their life.”
Corbitt said he and Farrell shared that determination to serve, whether in the resort or in helping to build and organize the Lowcountry community of golf professionals.
“I worked with some amazing folks. I think of all the staff that was with us for 30, 40, 50 years. It’s family,” he said. “We demanded a lot of our team and thankfully, the company has always made sure they feel rewarded for those efforts.”
It’s the kind of commitment that led to Corbitt and Farrell both being inducted into the Lowcountry Golf Hall of Fame. Farrell has won just about every honor that is awarded both in his profession and by his Lowcountry hospitality peers. But he says the new position is far from a career victory lap.
“All of that, it’s flattering and humbling and you want to always make sure you’re worthy of such praise and to always keep earning it,” Farrell said. “One of my greatest joys is building teams, instilling excellence in those just starting their careers. You can never afford to be planning for tomorrow at the expense of today’s guest. Mediocrity is an epidemic, we’ve become too accustomed and worn down in society that we’re OK with average at times, but in this resort culture, that’s a cardinal sin.
“I don’t want staff that say, ‘I did what you told me to.’ Listen, I have struck lightning twice in my career. To work with Charles Fraser and now with Steve Birdwell, these are two people that never rest until they have squeezed every bit of innovation out of a day,” Farrell said. “Their commitment to building this resort is immeasurable. So it’s my duty to always train a team that sees challenges as opportunities in disguise, people that embrace conflict resolution, that look forward to exceeding guest expectations.”
Corbitt said if there was one thing he’d say to his successor, it’s to continue to eradicate procrastination whenever possible.
“John knows I could never stand it. My parents wouldn’t allow it, and John and I share that idea that you stay as late as you need to, to get done today what needs to be done.”
Farrell looks forward to leading the charge for what’s next at Sea Pines, which currently includes projects such as the rebuilding of the Quarterdeck restaurant and construction of employee housing.
“There are so many good things ahead. I am blessed to have someone like Steve that’s committed to always elevating this resort,” Farrell said. “I’m blessed to have my wife, Jane, my three kids who have loved me, motivated me and put up with my crazy hours in pursuit of this life of ultimate service to our guests. I love that my commute is three minutes – four or five with a stiff wind. But above all, I love the people, our crew. I’m a kid in a candy store here. So I always need to be earning this dream.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton and covering Southern Beaufort County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.