A Sporting Mix: Beau Welling Voted President of World Curling FederationMar 07, 2023 04:42PM ● By Amy Bonesteel
It’s a story that brings to mind the unlikely Jamaican bobsledders of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Alberta, Canada: How did a South Carolina golf course designer become obsessed with the ice sport of curling, eventually coming to be the president of the World Curling Federation?
To hear Beau Welling tell it his involvement was based first on curiosity, then obsession.
“I was a sports fanatic (as a teenager),” he recalls. “So I went out of my way to learn about it when I saw it on the 1988 Winter Olympics.” Still, his first impression of the mindfully strategic game was not completely positive – “I remember thinking, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Welling, who has a physics degree from Brown University and an international business degree from the University of South Carolina, has a wide range of interests. His studies included landscape architecture and Irish drama, and his professional experience includes working for Siemens in Germany. Investment/international banking work brought him back to Charlotte, where he would later be hired by golf course designer Tom Fazio.
It was while working for Fazio that curling would re-enter Welling’s life. He found himself watching the sport on television again, this time as part of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. He mentioned his interest in the sport to a co-worker who had grown up in Canada. “I asked questions – the more I learned, the more fascinated I got,” Welling recalls.
He admired not only the strategy employed in curling but the history of the game, which has many things in common with golf. Both originating in ancient Scotland, they both have the “spirit of honor, tradition and values,” he notes. “And are arguably both excuses to drink Scotch.” There has long been crossover in the two sports, he says, and many historic Canadian curlers have also been golfers.
By the time the 2006 Winter Olympics came about, Welling was obsessed. And NBC carried 80 hours of live curling, he recalls. “I stopped working and watched curling for two weeks.” While immersed he noticed all of the US curling athletes were from the same place – small Bemidji, Minnesota, a town on the shore of Lake Bemidji four hours north of St. Paul known for being the origin of the Mississippi River, Paul Bunyan, and a curling mecca.
What happened next was pure magic, the collision of people and place that would lead Welling’s curling fixation to the next level. Finding out the small town was about to host the U.S. curling national championships, he checked his schedule. As fate would have it, a planned work trip to Europe fell through at the last minute, freeing him up.
“I remember checking weather.com and seeing there was a -55F wind-chill there,” recalls Welling, who asked his assistant to look into the trip. Not knowing what sort of reception he would have or even if “outsiders” were welcome, she boldly called the organizers, booked him a seat at the competition and a flight. (“You ought to go - they seem like nice people,” she told him.)
He was soon landing at a small, snowy airport and checking into the local Holiday Inn Express. Getting coffee the next morning he was thrilled to meet Pete Fenson, “skip” of the U.S. men’s rink that had just won a bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics. And the day would only get better – as Welling made his way to his reserved seat for the competition the transported Southerner was made to feel not only welcomed, but honored.
“They were so nice, welcoming me and buying me drinks,” says Welling. “I remember calling my sister and saying, ‘Maybe I should leave’ – she talked me into staying for nine days.” Highlights of his time there included an ice fishing trip and even the town celebrating Welling’s birthday by throwing him a party.
To top it off, the head of the U.S. Curling Association recognized him with a standing ovation, proclaiming Welling the “official Southern ambassador” of the sporting group. “Two months later I got a call from the U.S. Olympic Committee asking me to be on the board,” he says.
He would go on to use his golf experience to help the organization revamp the way they ran championships, with the U.S. Open as an example. The group was able to raise more money as a result, and Welling’s curling profile rose.
After 10 years with Fazio helping him manage the firm and build over 80 golf courses Welling opened his own business (Beau Welling Design) in 2007 in his hometown of Greenville, and was soon busy with regional and international projects. But he wasn’t too busy to share curling with others in the unlikely region of South Carolina.
After setting up a Facebook page for “South Carolina Curling” he was pleasantly surprised when close to 500 people clicked “like.” After organizing a meeting at a local restaurant he started the Palmetto Curling Club, now run by area enthusiasts with close to 70 members. The club plays at The Pavilion ice rink in Taylors and offers team building curling experiences (ideal for companies) and open houses for those interested in trying the sport.
Welling’s involvement as a board member (since 2018) with the World Curling Federation led to his election to a four-year term as president last September at the group’s general assembly in Lausanne, Switzerland, and he continues to promote the sport. “People call it chess on ice,” he notes. “And it’s substantially more physical than people think.” It’s also easily made accessible for people with handicaps and can be played by all ages.
Fellow WCF board members like Scotland’s Robin Niven say Welling has “shown outstanding leadership as director and now as president (of the organization). He is a remarkable teambuilder and has a great way of getting the best out of people.”
Cultural literacy is key in the international arena, and Niven notes Welling brings respect and sensitivity to his role. “He has a high understanding and empathy of needs, so all the developing nations are treated in the same regard as the established nations.”
Niven says Welling’s contributions have particularly impacted the evolution of the group’s Strategic Plan: “He has been instrumental in the ethos of a strategic board supporting an operational executive,” he notes. Welling is skilled at honoring curling’s legacy as well as its future, says Niven, pointing to the new presidents’ forming a committee to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and sustainability.
As chair of the structural group, Welling’s contributions have enriched “forward plan” for the sport of curling, says board member Toyo Ogawa (Japan). “He [Welling] also brought in a way of looking at things from a business standpoint,” he adds. “He is always looking for what can make the organization better.”
Welling’s firm continues to stay busy, managing land planning, landscape design and streetscapes for the mixed-use Camperdown project in downtown Greenville and advising North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate on land use, among other work.
Like its founder, the firm has a broad range of interests: the 10-person small business specializes in golf course design, land planning, and advisory services. “The overall theme is we are making places or spaces that allow people to come together and have these human moments,” says Welling.