On the Road With Joe Assell

August 21, 2015
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Joe Assell is a man on the move. As the co-founder and chief executive of the golf-lesson provider GolfTEC, Assell flies more than 100,000 miles per year to all corners of the country and beyond. He’s witnessed arrests at the airport, flown on a plane grounded by birds and walked into an NBA player’s hotel room—uninvited. Take it away, Joe…

We’re a golf instruction company and we’re in 87 cities in the United States, with 190 locations around the world, so I’m on the road a fair amount, probably 30 trips a year. I have a family, with two young kids, so when I travel, my main goal is to get home as fast as possible, which means I don’t usually bring my clubs. But I am fortunate to get invited to some of the greatest courses in the world, so I make exceptions. I brought my clubs to Australia and played Royal Melbourne, which was unbelievable. In 2014, I played Pine Valley. My general rule is, if it’s a Top 100 course, I bring my sticks.  

In 2013, I was invited to be a speaker at a golf forum in St. Andrews, so I packed my clubs. It was the first time in my life traveling internationally where I checked my bags. I got on the plane in blue jeans, and when I got to Scotland, my luggage and my golf bag hadn’t made it. There I was in the home golf, without my clubs, getting ready to give a presentation in blue jeans to a room filled with suits. I was also supposed to play the Old Course but I decided to cancel that, which might sound crazy, missing out on the Old Course. But I had a very busy schedule and not having my own clubs was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Then, about 90 minutes before my presentation, my luggage arrived, so I got to change into more appropriate clothes. The next day, my clubs arrived, so I scrambled to reschedule my tee time and wound up playing the Old Course after all. It was incredible. But I learned a lesson from that trip. I always carry on my luggage on international flights, even if I’m checking my clubs.  

We have a saying around the office that as long as you have your iPhone, your passport and a laptop, you can survive almost anywhere. But on flights I also bring noise-cancelling headphones. I’m basically a work guy from takeoff to landing, especially on domestic flights. I’ll get on a flight with 100 e-mails in my inbox and land with it empty. Everybody in my office knows when I’ve landed because I plug in and their email boxes fill up.  

I’ve had some unusual experiences on flights. I was on one from Denver to San Francisco before the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club [in 2012], and a guy on the plane had a heart attack. We came screaming in for a landing in Grand Junction, Colo., almost like we were on a fighter jet. The paramedics wheeled him off and it looked like he was going to be O.K.  

On another flight, the guy seated next to me started foaming at the mouth. I think it was a diabetic seizure because they gave him some orange juice and he recovered. But he had zero recollection of what had happened. He didn’t remember anything.  

I’ve seen two people get arrested. One was a woman who was standing on the jetway, refusing to get on the plane. She had a dog with her and for some reason said she wasn’t ready to board. She was screaming and saying the airline was going to pay for her distress. Next thing you know, three cops took her away. On another flight, to San Jose, Calif., a guy was talking on his cellphone and the flight attendant told him it was time to put it away. He made a derogatory remark about her and kept talking. She came back a few minutes later and he was still on the phone. She said we weren’t moving until he got off and he called her something I won’t repeat. A few hours later, when we landed, the cops were waiting and they arrested him. The whole plane cheered.  

Some crazy things happen on the ground, too. I went to Las Vegas for the PGA Show and an NBA Players’ Association convention going on at the same time. At the hotel check-in, they gave me my room key, and when I walk in, I see a couple of size-16 high tops by the door. There’s a razor out by the sink and some really big dude in the room. I didn’t take time to figure out who it was. I just turned around and walked right out.  

With all the travel, I’m a 100K flier on United, and there are two big benefits to that. First, is my family gets to enjoy first class when we go somewhere on vacation. We also get to go through the shorter lines in the airport. As we do, I always take the opportunity to point the other line and how long people are waiting. I tell my kids, “You see that massive line over there? Not going in that line today is your small reward for dad being gone so often.”  


Least-favorite airport: More and more, I try to avoid LaGuardia [in New York]. There are frequent delays in and out, and the airport just seems to be getting more rundown by the day.  

Jet-lag cure: On international flights, I’ll take an Ambien the first night to make sure I get a good night’s sleep. If a door slams or some other noise wakes you up, you wind up staring at the ceiling all night and the next day is going to be very rough. You want your mind to be sharp. When I come back home, I’ll take Ambien again for two days to get back on schedule, and then I’m done.  

Scariest travel experience: On a flight out of O’Hare [in Chicago], the wheels had just come up and one of our engines blew up. Birds had flown into it. We were barely over the rooftops of the Chicago suburbs when we turned around. The pilot just said we were going to circle back, but all happened so fast that there almost wasn’t time to be afraid.  

Oddest fellow passenger: Once there was a guy in the row ahead of me who started shaving in the middle of his flight. He just pulled out an electric razor and went about his business, right there in his seat.  

Eating on the road: My rule is to eat whatever the locals are eating. I dive right in. I don’t want to offend but it’s always great to have new experiences. I don’t always know what I’m eating. In Seoul one time, we had something that my hosts didn’t even know what it was. I asked them and they said they had no idea. It looked like a noodle. But it was a body part of an animal of some kind.

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