Bob Ford calls himself a dinosaur, an odd characterization for a
42-year-old at the top of his field. As the head professional
for the last 17 years at Oakmont Country Club outside
Pittsburgh, Ford is lucratively ensconced in a bastion of golf
that has held more major championships than any other club in
America. He's an acknowledged master of his craft, whether the
task is creating a pro shop with the feel of an elegant
boutique, fostering a sense of discovery on his lesson tee or
knowing just the right way to tell powerful and sometimes
cantankerous members that they had better play faster.
Still, Ford is correct in seeing himself as a dying breed, for
he is that rarest of club pros: one whose game is as good as the
big boys', the Tour pros. Ford finished 40th in June's U.S. Open
at Oakland Hills, and had he made the cut last week at
Valhalla--he missed by eight strokes, shooting 78-75--he would
have become one of the few club pros since the PGA Tour split
from the PGA of America in 1968 to make the cut in two major
championships in the same year. In 1983 Ford also became the
last host pro since Winged Foot's Claude Harmon in 1959 to make
the cut in the U.S. Open. Such feats make Ford one of the few
good arguments left for the PGA to continue to reserve 25 spots
in its championship field for its 24,000 members.
"It's our presence that gives the PGA its uniqueness as a
major," Ford says in a soft-spoken way that's given authority by
an even stare. "And high finishes by club professionals are
inspirational to every head pro and assistant pro in the
country. It makes them want to keep their games up when the rest
of the business is pushing them away from playing and toward
computers and cash registers."
There was a time when stars such as Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan
anchored their incomes with head-pro jobs, while full-time club
pros like Harmon or Ford's predecessor at Oakmont, Lew Worsham,
were good enough to win the Masters and the U.S. Open. Back
then, aging Tour players such as Dow Finsterwald would routinely
settle into comfortable club jobs when their playing days were
over, impressing members with their skills and stories.
Those days and circumstances are long gone. Pro tours on five
continents have made it possible for more young players to make
a living competing rather than working at a club, while the
Senior tour has cut off the pipeline of older men to the
club-pro ranks. As a result most golfers seeking head-pro jobs
have never played at the highest level. At the same time the
more competitive retail environment has turned too many PGA
members into merchandisers who rarely get out on the course, so
the quality of play among club professionals has declined
sharply, a fact that is underscored by their lack of success in
the PGA Championship. No club pro has finished in the top 10
since a 61-year-old Sam Snead, representing The Greenbrier in
White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., tied for ninth in 1973. Last year
the PGA reduced the number of spots allotted club pros to 25
from 40. Last week only three--Bob Boyd of Remb Golf Management
in Wilmington, N.C.; Stu Ingraham, the head pro at Overbrook
Country Club in Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and John Reeves, an assistant at
Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Conn.--made the cut.
Ford has bucked the trend despite having one of the most
demanding club jobs in the country. He serves a membership of
840 and oversees a staff of eight. In the years when Oakmont
hosts a major--and Ford has been on board for five of them,
beginning with the 1973 U.S. Open--his responsibilities nearly
double. Even during light weeks Ford never plays more than two
rounds, and he has no special preparation for majors.
To his peers Ford's most remarkable gift is his ability to clear
his mind for competition. Ford uses a technique he learned from
a hypnotist before the '83 Open, when he was both host pro and a
competitor, to literally take himself to another level.
"When I'm on my way to the 1st tee, I imagine I'm on an
elevator," Ford says. "When I get to the 1st tee, the doors open
and I'm on a whole new floor. It's not hard for me to do because
I don't play unless I've taken care of business first. So I
cherish the time I'm on a golf course, which is infrequent. When
I play golf, I don't think about the problems in my life."
Not that Ford feels he has a lot of problems. When things get
hectic at Oakmont, he gets on the elevator to regain his focus.
Ford's ability to excel in different areas has been rewarded
with a variety of PGA citations. Before winning the
association's player of the year title in 1988, he had been
voted merchandiser of the year (1985) and club professional of
the year (1987). As an instructor whose pupils range from
touring pros to beginners, Ford is unusual because he prefers to
work with high handicappers. "I love to see them get better, and
they are so easy to please," he says. "When you take a 22
handicapper and make him a 15, that player thinks you're a god."
Ford recently achieved the PGA's highest designation, master
professional, of which there are 180. The final step was
writing, with Dick Beach, the instruction book Golf: The Body,
the Mind, the Game. In short, if the PGA put together a
decathlon for club pros, Ford would have to give everybody the
equivalent of at least two a side.
Ford's achievements would suggest a hard-charging man with a
type-A personality, the kind who runs those around him ragged.
But Ford's undeniable fire within smolders well below the
surface. "What makes him so well suited to being a head pro is a
manner that is naturally easy, stable, understated and
deferential," says Bob Walton, a member at Oakmont who caddied
for Ford at Valhalla. "From his name to the tone of his voice,
Ford wears well. You could go up to the biggest pain in the ass
at our club, a guy who has problems with everybody, and ask him
about Bob, and he'd say, 'Fordie? Oh, I like Fordie.'"
Ford describes his formula for working at Oakmont as a large
dollop of devotion mixed with a dash of detachment. "Our
challenge every day is to make our people feel important," he
says, "and to make somebody who was unhappy when they walked
into the shop happy when they walk out. And I never forget that
I'm not a member, nor is my family. I'm an employee."
Ford does not deny a deep emotional tie to Oakmont. In 1975,
when at 21 he was hired as an assistant pro by Worsham, he lived
in a musty room on the third floor of the clubhouse amid
scattered memorabilia honoring Oakmont conquerors from Bobby
Jones to Jack Nicklaus. "That was just magical," he says. When
Ford was named head pro in 1980, he and wife Nancy moved into
the club-owned two-story, green-shuttered house so close to
Oakmont's famed 18th green that it is occasionally hit by
wayward approach shots. Ford's garden is tended by James
Pernice, an 84-year-old Oakmont caddie who first looped at the
club when he was 11. "I am still excited to go to work every
day," says Ford. "It's never felt like a job. It's an incredible
place for someone with my background."
Ford grew up near Philadelphia, where his father, an executive
in the steel industry, was a member at Aronomink, the site of
the 1962 PGA. There Ford fell in love with the game and the
business of golf, earning spending money by caddying for, among
others, Jay Sigel, a two-time U.S. Amateur champion before he
turned pro to play the Senior tour. "What I took from Jay was
his calm demeanor and pace, on and off the course," says Ford.
"Of course, I was pretty much like that already."
Ford's first contact with Oakmont came when, as a 19-year-old
member of the golf team at the University of Tampa, he wrote
Worsham asking for any job available during the 1973 U.S. Open.
Worsham hired him to help in the stockroom, and after Ford
graduated two years later, Worsham made him one of his assistants.
Determined to play the Tour, Ford failed in four attempts at
qualifying school and played with little success overseas and on
domestic mini-tours. In the interim he had grown close to
Worsham, who, according to Ford, "always impressed me with the
way he could turn a complaint into a smile." Still, some members
were taken aback when Worsham, after deciding to retire after 32
years as head pro, picked the 25-year-old Ford as his successor.
"I had never had any thoughts of becoming a club pro, because I
wanted to be a player," says Ford, "but I hadn't had much
success. My instincts told me, I can't pass this up. I knew
there were skeptics. I worked very hard to prove to the people
who hired me that they had made the right decision. I wanted
them to feel successful with their choice."
During his off-time in the winters of 1981 and '82, he played in
a string of Monday qualifiers on the Tour, which only reinforced
his career choice. "I had some success, but the lifestyle was
torturous, not only for me, but for Nancy," Ford says. "I felt
guilty for what it did to her. I respect the guys who do it, but
it wasn't for me. So I've never felt the desire to give up what
I had to play the Tour."
Ford has resolved any remaining conflict by satisfying his
competitiveness with a steady diet of club pro events on a
local, statewide and national level, as well as an occasional
Nike tour tournament. And he has qualified for three U.S. Opens
and six PGAs. And if anything, Ford believes he is now a better
player than he has ever been. His upright swing is notable for
its simplicity and tempo, and his overall game reflects his
controlled, well-rounded personality. "As I've matured, as I've
thought about the game all these years, I've improved," he says.
"I think I have the game today that could hold up on the Tour. I
think I have for the last 10 years."
Ford is certain much of the improvement is due to the demands of
Oakmont, particularly in terms of making him a steady driver
with a stellar short game. "When I play that course, I feel like
I'm playing in the U.S. Open, so it's a real advantage," he
says. "Because of Oakmont, I wasn't intimidated by the greens at
Oakland Hills. In fact the last Open is the best I've ever
Ford admits that the challenge of performing well in majors
stretches him to the limit. "Realistically I just want to make
the cut," he says. "The dream would be to finish high enough to
qualify for the Masters. But I've come to accept that as club
pros, our egos are more fragile than those of players who are
out there every week. We just aren't as tough."
Ford's frustration at the erosion in the quality of golf played
by club pros is strong enough to sound out of character. "I hate
what is happening in our business," he says. "The pro who sits
in the pro shop all the time and says, 'Geez, I've played nine
holes in the last three months,' is a disgrace. Part of being a
golf professional is playing with your members and setting an
example of how to be a golfer. When I was growing up, I died for
my pro just to watch me hit a shot. And I died to watch him."
Ford hopes he is wrong, but he's afraid that the only club pros
left to die for are dinosaurs.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Ford's students range from scratch players to kids, but his favorites are high handicappers. [Boy swinging golf club while having his head held by Bob Ford]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Normally able to raise his mind and his game in the majors, Ford fell short at Valhalla. [Bob Ford golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Because he always goes by the book, Ford has succeeded as a businessman as well as a player. [Bob Ford in his office]