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An End of An Era! Uinta Golf to Sell to Edwin Watts Golf Shops

Sean Smith, the owner of Uinta Golf, the top golf retailer in Utah, has announced that he plans to sell his five stores to Edwin Watts Golf Shops, one of the nation’s largest and fastest growing golf retailers. The deal should be completed within two months. Edwin Watts Golf Shops was a family owned business for over 40 years but in 2007 it was bought by Sun Capital Partners, a private equity company. Since then it has aggressively expanded.
This is blockbuster news for Utah golfers and some would even say it is the end of an era. Uinta Golf has become a marquee name in Utah and even the Florida based Edwin Watts Golf Shop recognizes the value of the Uinta name. It has decided to keep the Uinta name on the marquee. It will be known as Edwin Watts Golf Uinta. In all of its many acquisitions it is the only instance in which Edwin Watts has kept the name of the acquired business.
Sean Smith, the grandson of Smith’s Food King founder Dee Smith, purchased Uinta Golf in 1998 from Gordon O’Neil and immediately built a second store in Sandy and hired Joe Judd as the store manager. Since then he has added stores in Riverton, Orem, and St. George. Through that growth Uinta Golf has been able to dominate the retail sales market and is clearly the number one revenue producer of golf sales in Utah. Outside chains have not dented the Uinta dominance.
“I am selling to Edwin Watts for the good of the business, for the good of our employees and their increased opportunities, and for the golf community,” Smith said. “In this business environment we had to grow or join and we don’t have the capital that kind of growth requires.”
“We are selling to a very good company—the best retailer in the business,” Smith said. “The future will be better for everyone. Edwin Watts will provide strong stability and maintain a close relationship with their customers. They are keeping all 65 of our employees and the friendly shopping atmosphere will not change,” he said.
“We sometimes think big is bad, but that’s not necessarily so. At Smith’s Food King we grew to 130 stores and yet we still maintained the feel of a small, locally owned store. Edwin Watts will be like that. The future is with these guys and I have a great deal of confidence in that,” Smith said.
“I want to express a personal thanks to the entire Utah golf community for their support over the years, the amateurs, the pros, the corporations, the golf associations have all been wonderful to work with and we appreciate it,” Smith said.
Joe Judd will stay on as manager of the Edwin Watts Golf Uinta stores and is positive about the forthcoming changes.
“It will provide our employees with more career opportunities and we are joining a fast growing company,” he noted. Judd worked with Sean Smith at Smith’s Food King for many years before joining him at Uinta.
Uinta has a long history in Utah golf. Gordon O’Neil started it in his basement back in the mid-60s. His first commercial location was at a rental on Wilmington Avenue.  A few years later he moved it briefly to another rental building and then purchased the property and built the building at the present site on 21st South and about Fifth East. He still owns the building and leases it to Uinta.
Jon Unger, now a prominent salesman for Callaway Golf, went to work for O’Neil in Uinta’s infancy, when it was still at Wilmington Avenue. He was a significant factor in the success of Uinta. He was a very popular amateur player, supported the tournaments sponsored by the pros, and was liked by everyone.
“I worked at Uinta for 21 years without a sick day. I was in the trenches during all those struggles and growing years,” Unger recalled. “Uinta was my employer for 21 years and now has been my customer for another 21 years. It’s been a big part of my life. The sale makes me a little nostalgic.”
When Uinta started there was animosity from most of the professionals who felt threatened by the outside competition. In those days it wasn’t kosher to mention the name Uinta around a golf professional. The pros did not want the off-course competition to gain any credibility. Most of the major manufacturers wouldn’t sell to the off-course stores and so O’Neil sagely arranged to get some major products through a few friendly on-course shops that were not being managed by professionals. That was a big boost for his sales at Uinta, but that didn’t sit well with the pros either. O’Neil was never able to bring down that iron curtain although in the later years through the efforts of the amiable Unger the tension was greatly reduced.
The hallmark of the Smith-Judd years at Uinta has been an almost complete turnaround in regard to relationships with the pros. There have been a lot of factors in that change, but the cooperative attitude on both sides has been the key reason. The on-course and off-course shops have come to realize that they each have a niche in the vast marketplace of golf and that niche is being dramatically invaded by online retailing.
“The change of local ownership of Uinta Golf to an out-of-state company marks the end of a significant era in Utah golf,” said Al Simkins, former president of the UGA who began shopping at Uinta when it was at Wilmington Avenue. “Uinta has been a great asset to Utah golfers and I am sad to see it change to out-of-state ownership, but I wish them well,” Simkins said.
Judd and Unger, when asked what they liked most about their jobs at Uinta, came up with identical responses, “The greatest thing about working at Uinta has been getting acquainted with so many wonderful customers. That is the fun part of the job, getting to know people of all walks of life.”
When asked to single out some of their top customers Unger recalls Melvin ‘Pee Wee’ Dell, Mike Tawer, and Gus Paulos, while Judd says that Todd Hewlett has been in the store about as much as any individual customer, Smith’s Food King was the biggest corporate sponsor through its Primary Children’s Hospital fund raising golf tournament.
“Smith’s raised a lot of money for that tournament over the years and in the process purchased a lot of prizes from our store,” he said.
Almost all Utah golfers have spent time in one of the Uinta Golf stores and knowing that you will undoubtedly see an old friend there has been part of the attraction. Shopping at Uinta has been casual, leisurely, and friendly. Many times the golfers have just stepped in the store to brouse and see friends. Whether Edwin Watts can continue that shopper friendly environment will be a challenge.
Staying with the same employees is a good start.