2005: Consummate pro
Thursday, August 18, 2011
By John Steinbreder
Many of us, at one time or another, have shouldered the work of two men. Perhaps complained about it, maybe even boasted about it. But no matter what your task, it’s unlikely it topped the feat Bob Ford pulled off in 1983.
He played in the U.S. Open that year, finished tied for 26th and beat none other than Jack Nicklaus before a hometown crowd at Oakmont Country Club. But since Ford also happened to be the head professional at the vaunted venue outside Pittsburgh, he had to run the tournament’s mammoth merchandising operation. He’d head to his office after rounds and work well into the night, crunching numbers on his calculator instead of crushing balls on the range – before rising to compete again the next day.
“It was mind-boggling,” recalls Ford, who was then just 29. “But somehow, I felt pretty good when it came time to play.”
What Ford did is difficult to imagine, let alone accomplish. But it illustrates the unflappable, extraordinary nature that has placed him on a plateau unreachable by most.
Indeed, he holds two of the most prestigious posts in the business. Besides his leading role at Oakmont, Ford serves as the head professional at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. In his world, that’s the equivalent of running General Electric and General Motors at the same time; it’s a rare double not seen in golf since Claude Harmon held the same titles at Winged Foot and Seminole from 1945 to 1957.
How one man can land two such coveted roles remains a mystery . . . until spending some time with Ford. Unfailingly hospitable– he’ll scramble eggs for members if they arrive before the grill room opens – Ford is dedicated to making all feel welcome. He’s blessed with an undefeatable spirit and business acumen that makes dreaded “Sale” signs nonexistent in his shops. Add to this
mix an uncanny ability to navigate the political pitfalls so common at clubs like his, where members sometimes require as much maintenance as the courses.
For all these reasons Ford will stand a little taller than his peers – or at least appear that way – when they gather this weekend in Orlando, Fla., for the 2005 PGA Merchandise Show. It’s no wonder that they admiringly call him “the pro’s pro,” and say he is everything to their part of the industry that another Pennsylvania golf legend, Arnold Palmer, has long been to his.
“Actually, pro’s pro is not entirely accurate,” says Mary Lopuszynski, longtime manager of U.S. Open Merchandising for the U.S. Golf Association. “He is everyone’s pro, and the best there is.”
At a pancake house not far from Seminole’s hallowed grounds, Ford graciously joins a guest for breakfast to share his thoughts about the profession he cherishes, as if time were not a worry.
“I like playing with the members and playing competitively,” says the gentle, blue-eyed Ford. “I like teaching and merchandising. But most of all, I like being the host. I like making people feel good about where they are and what they are doing there, no matter if it is a member, a guest or the club president. I want them all to feel happy, to feel at home and to feel they are having a great golf experience.”
Ford knows he is pursuing his calling. He is a man content.
But when you are as gifted as he is in so many ways – he’s earned both of the PGA’s top honors, PGA Club Professional of the Year in 1987 and PGA Club Professional Player of the Year in 1988 – it is inevitable that temptation would try to pull you from your chosen path.
Just more than a year ago, Ford tried, and failed, to qualify for the Champions Tour. The fact that he would seek such a life-altering route comes as no surprise. In his younger days, he envisioned a career on the PGA Tour. How good a golfer is he? His competitive resume includes 10-time PGA Tri-State Section Player of the Year, nine-time qualifier for the PGA Championship, three-time U.S. Open qualifier, four-time Pittsburgh Open champion and two-time PGA National Stroke Play champion.
But Ford, 51, is not haunted by what might have been.
“The truth is, I am living my dreams,” he says.
His unsuccessful bid for the senior circuit led him to a realization that his life – as club professional, as husband to his wife Nancy, and as father to their children Kelly, Jay and Chandler – is exactly what it should be.
Ford didn’t think of anything but golf once he started playing the game. Born in Pittsburgh but raised outside Philadelphia, he began as a caddie, first at Overbrook Country Club and later at the prestigious Aronimink Golf Club, where his parents joined when he was 15. (His father
was a steel plant manager and his mother a homemaker.)
“I liked the game right away,” recalls Ford, the third of four children whose older brother Jim is now a TaylorMade-Adidas sales representative in the Philadelphia area. “I liked the people I caddied for, and the way they conducted themselves. And I knew after a time they were the type of people I wanted to be around.”
Ford played baseball during the spring of his first two years at Conestoga High, but switched to golf for his junior and senior seasons. After graduating, he headed to the University of Tampa – mostly in pursuit of a climate where he could play golf year round.
It was during college that Ford got his first taste of Oakmont. He wrote a letter to head professional Lew Worsham asking for a job at the 1973 U.S. Open, and Worsham replied with an offer. Ford spent three weeks on site; his most memorable experience was witnessing Johnny Miller shoot 63.
“I looked up at the scoreboard at one point and said, ‘Mr. Worsham, I think they’ve run out of black numbers because all they are putting up are red ones.’ And he said, ‘Son, I believe those are birdies.’ ”
As a college player, Ford learned how to shoot some birdies of his own. At the Tampa Amateur during his senior year, he reeled off a pair of 65s to finish in a first-place tie with Gary Koch. Ford lost to Koch in the playoff, but the experience showed him for the first time how well he could compete. And he began thinking that maybe he could play for a living.
But he needed affirmation. So he contacted Worsham again. The Oakmont sage invited him to return to the club, where together they could assess whether Ford’s game was good enough.
Ford spent five summers as one of Worsham’s assistants, tending to the pro’s vegetable garden in back of the range when he wasn’t ringing up shop sales or giving lessons. He won the Tri-State Open his first year there and played some offseason events on the Australian and European Tours. But he tried – and failed - to make it through Q-School four times. Going up against the likes of Curtis Strange and Jay Haas proved challenging.“They had all these skills, and I was just an overachiever,” Ford says. “But I was still young, and I thought my time would come.”
Maybe it would have, but then Worsham decided to retire. After a lengthy search, the club offered Ford the top job. He was only 25 years old.
Ironically, a strong finish in the 1980 PGA Championship, which was his first as Oakmont head professional, gave Ford a Tour card for the following season and a chance finally to chase his dream. So he spent nearly three months playing the circuit. Ford says it was an “exciting” time, but he only managed to get through two Monday qualifiers to play in events. Mostly, he remembers yearning to return home. The fire died down, but it had not extinguished.
• • •
From the beginning of his career, it was evident Ford was going to be different. The man dubbed “Grandpa” by his high school buddies always evoked a greater sense of wisdom and experience than his age warranted. His steady, confident demeanor always has been evident.
“I have never seen him flustered, and I have never seen him say he can’t do something,” says Jack Druga, a one-time Ford assistant who works as his teaching professional at Seminole when he is not serving as head professional of the Country Club of Fairfield in Connecticut.
On more than one occasion Druga witnessed Ford’s sure-handed ways. Druga was at his side when Ford made his run for the U.S. Open in 1983. The two drove to Cleveland to play in a second-stage qualifier, and neither of them had touched a club in two weeks.
“I was very nervous,” Druga recalls. “Bob, however, was fine. ‘Don’t worry, we both know how to play,’ he said. And then he went out and qualified.”
That confidence also manifests itself on the business front. At the 1983 U.S. Open, Ford demonstrated his operational skills. In fact, the system he developed for running the loading docks and organizing the “back of the house” of the merchandise tent became a template that the USGA uses to this day for its multimillion-dollar business.
Ford also was the first to sell U.S. Open merchandise via the mail before the event. And he is credited with designing the U.S. Open hats embossed with the American flag, which have been tournament best-sellers for more than a decade. (Ford actually copied the design from a Polo Golf cap.)
“He has a great sense of what sells,” says longtime Oakmont member Bill Fallon about Ford, who twice has been honored as PGA Merchandiser of the Year.
Adds Jim Stahl, a Seminole member and former USGA Senior Amateur champion: “I have never seen a ‘Sale’ sign in a Bob Ford pro shop. That’s a pretty good indication that he knows what he is doing.”
Somehow, Ford, makes the time to nurture all those around him. It’s the essence of how he teaches a lesson, welcomes a guest or mentors an assistant.
He often strolls out to the practice range when members are working on their swings. Not necessarily to teach; just to watch – and offer an encouraging word or two if needed.
“Bob works a range the way a great maitre d’ works a dining room,” says Pat Larocca, the former Oakmont general manager who toiled alongside Ford for 16 years.
One day, Fallon, after finishing a miserable round, headed dejectedly to the practice range in search of a cure. Ford greeted him with a sympathetic “I hear you have a little case of the flu,” gave Fallon a few pointers and restored his faith in the game.
This sense of nurturing is so a part of who he is, Ford refers to his former assistants – many of whom have graduated to prestigious posts of their own – as his “kids.”
When they were under his tutelage, these assistants often did club work in the Fords’ kitchen, and Bob and Nancy treated them as part of their family. During these sessions, Ford was never too big to ask for their help. He always sought their advice when ordering merchandise. That approach wasn’t meant only to train them. He valued “a set of fresh eyes that might see something good he would otherwise miss,” Druga says.
Ford made his management style clear shortly after succeeding Seminole legend Jerry Pittman as head professional in 2000. He gathered all his assistants in a meeting and said simply: “Boys, I’m new here. Tell me what I need to know.”
The respect Ford has earned and the charm he exudes prompt visitors from every walk of life to flock to him at his clubs.
Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than when a number of PGA touring pros came to Seminole for a one-day pro-member tournament. Arnold Palmer, Davis Love III, Ernie Els and Brad Faxon were among those in attendance, and each one of them ducked into the pro shop to pay respects to Ford.
Such admiration for Ford no doubt prompted the powers at Seminole to approach him about replacing Pittman. (The arrangement with Ford’s two clubs works primarily because they operate during different seasons: Oakmont is busiest during the months that Seminole is closed, and vice versa.)
But his hiring likely had as much to do with his ability to be the consummate host.
Gene Farrell, 70, an Oakmont member during Ford’s entire tenure, says Ford remembers the name of all of his guests – even those who haven’t been to the club in three or four years. And one time, Farrell arrived with three guests early in the morning, hankering for some breakfast before teeing off. The kitchen, however, hadn’t yet opened.
“Well, Bob heard about that, and he went back there and cooked us some eggs.”
• • •
But for all the adulation and accolades, Ford, as he approached his 50th birthday, once again felt embers smoldering within: An urge to compete on the Champions Tour.
It led to a period of professional and personal introspection. Soul-searching to determine whether he would give it all up, a life routine uniquely his own: He and Nancy commuted between the club-owned home they have off the 18th fairway at Oakmont and a place they own at Jonathan’s Landing, just up the road from Seminole. Ford went to work each day, and his wife took care of everything else, even home-schooling the children for part of the year as they moved between the two locales.
Then, in fall 2003, he made his decision. He entered Q-School. But almost immediately what had confounded him gave way to a clear view of destiny. He faltered in the first and third rounds, and failed to make the cut.
“I remember asking myself, ‘What the hell am I doing out here?’ ” Ford says. “I had these two great jobs, this wonderful family, and I was thinking of leaving all that?”
The fire that for so long wouldn’t go out, finally did.