By David Droschak
Spend more than five minutes with Dona Lerner and Kathy Bounds and its evident there
is a true division of labor in the well-oiled machine that is the Dona Lerner Golf
Lerner is the face of the business while Bounds is the worker bee. The common ground
is a love for the game and the thousands of young lives they’ve touched in the state of
North Carolina and beyond with equal parts golf and life lessons.
The line is blurred for many of the students they have taught from South Carolina to
Virginia, from North Raleigh to New Bern, hard to distinguish what “lesson” is more
beneficial as the junior golfers have advanced from puberty to productive adults.
“For me, it has always been about the relationships,” Lerner said. “Golf is a by-product.”
The two will retire from their Brier Creek Country Club location in September, leaving
behind a legacy that will be difficult, if not impossible to replace.
They will head to Hilton Head to unplug, but they both may find that task more of a challenge than filling their retirement days with pickle ball games, some much missed time on the links or sipping fine wine.
Many among their dedicated fan base across many sectors of golf knew this day would
come since Lerner will turn 62 this winter and Bounds is 68. Still, the recent
announcement was met with equal parts joy and sadness from students and their
Triad Golf Today and Triangle Golf Today will host a golf tournament on Aug. 2 at
Devils Ridge in Holly Springs to honor the two award-winning golf instructors. Details on
that event will be available in the coming weeks.
Over the last decade, Lerner and Bounds have placed more than 50 golfers in college and influenced countless lives. It’s not uncommon for the Dona Lerner Golf Academy to
teach 35 lessons a day while embracing its motto of “Hard Work Pays Off.”
“A lot of my players will stay in touch with me from a coaching perspective, helping
them with their heads and understanding golf, but I am hoping I will be able to walk
away,” Lerner said. “But I will be honest, I anticipate several lesson inquires.”
When asked, Bounds said she will not be changing her cell phone number.
“I still want anyone who I ever taught to know I am there for them,” Bounds said. “I
run our Early Starter Program and just the other day when we made the announcement
of the retirement one parent told me ‘this is going to be so hard because my kid gets
up at 8 o’clock in the morning and gets dressed and wants to know if he can go to
the course, and the program doesn’t even start for them until 2 p.m.’ For a 3- or 4-year old to be that excited to come and learn, now that’s very rewarding.”
High school coaches and junior tournament spectators can tell if one of their players is a graduate of the Dona Lerner Golf Academy – toes on the line, shirt tucked in, emotions in check.
“With Dona, it’s about more than golf, it’s about developing,” said Megan Kanaby of
Chapel Hill, now a star player for Washington and Lee University who has been
receiving lesson from Lerner for a remarkable 16 years. “Yes, she is the greatest at
developing your golf game, but she teaches us that golf is a game of integrity,
sportsmanship; a lot of the lessons you learn on the golf course can be applied to other
areas of life. With Dona my golf game has certainly developed, but she has helped me
develop as a person and an individual beyond golf.”
Both Lerner and Bounds plan to remain heavily involved in running tournaments,
including the U.S. Kids World Championship qualifier events.
“Dona Lerner is a true superstar and has an unmatched passion for teaching the game
of golf,” said Peter Stilwell, President of Tarheel Communications Solutions and the
marketing and operations arm for U.S. Kids in Pinehurst. “Her drive and dedication to
introduce, improve and perfect the golf swings of her students is amazing, and growing
the game of golf is part of her DNA. She makes learning the game fun, which creates
long-lasting opportunities for her students.”
“When I became a golf professional all I wanted to do was help families carve out time
together using golf as a vehicle,” Lerner said. “Everyone told me I would be poor, and
now 23 years later everybody wants to know the secret.”
Bounds, who as a youth caddied for her father at a local Laurinburg course, played on
the first women’s golf team at N.C. State, and was an accomplished amateur golfer
prior to turning pro. She played on seven South Eastern Women’s Amateur teams,
representing North Carolina in the six-state event. Bounds was also ranked in the top
10 female amateurs in the state by the CGA for a decade, winning the 1986 World Golf
Her love for the game blossomed under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Peggy Kirk Bell at
Pine Needles Resort, where Bounds spent several years as an intern.
“I talked to coach Bell about going on Tour and what I needed to do, but it was just
financially impossible so I went into the working world,” Bounds said.
Meanwhile, Lerner’s first love was horses and she was a world-class rider before
breaking her back in a fall in competition in Canada at the age of 14. After a stint as a
golf instructor, she landed in the automobile glass replacement business for 18 years from 1981-1998 before launching her “second” teaching career.
“I traveled 37 weeks a year and it was a very grueling job,” Lerner said of her life
before the Dona Lerner Golf Academy. “I used to have to look at the license plate on
the rental car to see what state I was in. I remember calling my dad from Colorado
Springs and telling him I was done, that I was going to retire and was going to pursue
the LPGA — and then I held the phone away from my ear because I was making a lot of
money and I thought he was going to rip me. But I heard — ‘It’s about damn time.’ The
rest is history.”
Lerner, who launched her academy at The Preserve at Jordan Lake before moving to
Brier Creek Country Club, and Bounds had been friends for years before connecting on
a business level in 2009.
“When my business career came to an end I came to Dona and asked what
I could do because I didn’t want to go back to a cubicle,” Bounds said. “So we set out a
path to get my Class A Professional teaching certificate.”
Business partnerships can often be difficult, but Lerner and Bounds feed off each other’s strengths, and seldom, if ever, cross into each other’s territory.
“In our partnership we have a very clear division of labor and we never overlap each other, we never compete with each other, we’re on the same page. I am the admin, I am the ops, I am the marketing, the strategic face, and Kathy is the behind-the-scenes, organizer, coordinator, get-it-done, hard worker, physical – she does all the things I’m not good at. Together we could really run the world,” Lerner said.
“So, together we just trust one another, we talk about everything we’re
going to do in a process. We recently had a 190-player event in Southern Pines, and we
were absolutely 100 percent on the same page about it all. Our events run smoothly
because we don’t compete with each other. We get there and we both go in our
different directions and at the end of the weekend it’s all done.”
With everything firing on all cylinders as golf interest skyrocketed during the COVID-19
pandemic, the two will walk away knowing they build a lasting legacy. However, Lerner
remembers the early struggles establishing a foothold in the market.
“I remember meeting with a couple of directors of golf asking for a position as outside
staff and I was told I would have to learn how to get up at Dark 30 and go to bed at
Dark 30, and they thought I was too soft to do that. But (professional) Fran James gave
me a job at the Golf Center (in Durham) and that’s where it all started. She was
wonderful and very supportive of me. From there things evolved and I went to the
Preserve. I went to everything I could go to – every Boys Club, every Girls Club, every
youth group, every YMCA – everything, just to get out there because I always wanted
to teach families and kids.
The wall in the DLGA office is covered with a massive amount of awards and honors that these two professional teachers have garnered. Both are LPGA Class A members, US Kids directors, Master US Kids teachers, LPGA/USGA site directors and North Carolina high school golf coaches.
Lerner’s accomplishments range from prep coach of the year to LPGA Southeast Teacher of the Year with national honors to being named the 2017 National LPGA Junior Leader of the Year, as well as a Top 100 LPGA instructor.
“Here we are 23 years later and we’ve made a little bit of a footprint,” Lerner said. “It is because we had a vision and we never, ever waivered from it. To this day it is still my vision, and even though we’re going to walk away from the lessons and coaching business, we are not going to walk away from the tournament business. We are still going to watch these kids that we started and spent so much time with and their families, we’re going to watch them grow and develop. That’s the reward.”
Well done ladies, well done.