Bill Wood: Retiree with a mission

Head pro Bill Wood (left), who retires Dec. 31 after 54 years at Cincinnati Country Club, and daughter Sarah Wood Evans, the club’s golf shop manager.

Head pro Bill Wood (left), who retires Dec. 31 after 54 years at Cincinnati Country Club, and daughter Sarah Wood Evans, the club’s golf shop manager.

CINCINNATI – After more than a half-century in golf, Bill Wood has come full circle.

Wood, 65, is packing up a lifetime of memories and will leave Cincinnati Country Club on Dec. 31, ending a 54-year association with the club, including the past 37 as head professional.

There have been longer tenures by PGA professionals, but few rival the depth of Wood’s connection to his hometown’s eponymous club.

Since age 11, when he would hitchhike to caddie at Cincinnati, Wood has been a fixture at the haven for the city’s east-side establishment. He graduated from the caddie shack to the pro shop as an assistant. Only a 1966-68 hitch in the Army, where he served as a military policeman with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam, and a brief teaching stint on the late Hall of Famer Henry Picard’s staff at Seminole interrupted his tenure at Cincinnati.

“I came in quietly and want to leave the same way,’’ said Wood, a husky 6-footer who smiles easily and exudes a reverence for the game.

A recent sendoff foiled any such attempt at an anonymous exit. Some 300 club members and friends saluted Wood, and there were proclamations from the USGA and Western Golf Association, among others. A personal tribute from Sarah Wood Evans, weaned from the bagroom to the pro shop much like her father and now Cincinnati’s golf shop manager, touched him like none other.

“That was pretty moving.’’

Pat O’Callaghan, the general manager at the 900-member club, has known Wood for more than 30 years. “His tenure speaks for itself,’’ O’Callaghan said. “He treated everybody with dignity and respect.’’

Perhaps the greatest accolades were from golf professionals who recalled life lessons working for Wood.

Daryl Hartig, 53, an assistant under Wood in the late ’80s, has been the head pro at Westwood Country Club in St. Louis for 18 years. He called his apprenticeship under Wood “a gift to my career.’’

“You didn’t have to wonder if you were doing something right,’’ Hartig said. “He was super-supportive. Whatever area you were in charge of, you took ownership and did your job. He would just gently steer the ship in the right direction.

“Everything that I do is linked to Bill, from merchandising to teaching to playing to dealing with people.’’

Pete Garvey, 44, spent 20 years under Wood’s tutelage, first as a caddie and later as an assistant pro. A letter of recommendation from Wood got Garvey to Idlehour Country Club in Lexington, Ky., where he has been the head pro since 1995.

“He used that caddie program to his advantage,’’ Garvey said. “He would always take the better kids from the caddie yard and promote them to the bag room. And those kids that could play, he would instruct them. Many went on to become pros. He had a great track record of placing assistants.

“The only reason I’m in the golf business today is because of Bill. I can remember him telling me, ‘The way to keep me happy is to keep the customers happy.’ ’’

So, when winter eases its grip on the Ohio Valley, Wood intends to write his next chapter in golf. Hartig, Garvey and the countless acolytes who have ascended golf’s club-pro ranks under Wood’s guidance might recognize the plot.

It will star the next generation of golfer – not necessarily the privileged, for whom opportunity to excel abounds, but those who need a hand up and some direction to find their way in a game sorely in need of new blood.

“I want to spend some time with young people and get their interest perked up,’’ Wood said. “Not just the ones that are competitive but the ones that show an interest in the game. That would be something that I would enjoy.

“So many of these kids never get to play beyond their introduction. I’d like to turn it up a notch.’’

Bill Wood has earned his time in the sun. Long hours turned into years at the club decades ago. He and his wife, Sandy, have talked about spending more time at their vacation home in Kentucky and the cold months in Florida.

“Physically, I still feel good and love to play the game,’’ he said.

To be sure, there will be time for that, plus the grandkids.

But a life’s calling still resonates with this pro’s pro, and it continues to stir the teacher in him.

He talks not so much of what he wants to do in retirement but what he thinks needs to be done, for the good of the game. Identify potential in youngsters, much as he did at Cincinnati with his trademark pipeline from the caddie shack to the pro shop, and “get them exposed to some better sides of golf,’’ Wood said.

“That was a carrot that was always dangled in front of me, getting to see nice places, which caddying lends itself to doing. I would have never been introduced to golf had it not been for a caddie program.’’

So how to bridge that chasm in a cart-centered modern game that, with few exceptions, has little use for a caddie as an entryway to golf?

Bill Wood connects with people, young and old. (“I have a Ph.D in people,’’ he says with a smile.) His contacts at a club where captains of industry and the city’s high society mingle won’t hurt.

“If I had the beginning of some corporate sponsors, to put a nice pair of slacks on these kids and show them how to wear their cap, with a person like myself right there with them, what club could deny a person with my experience to allow them? I think I could have that door open to almost every club in the country. I just want to expose young people to the wonderful things that golf can afford all of us.’’

How’s that for a retirement plan?

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