The week of the PGA Championship is always an appropriate time to consider the men and women who are represented by that organization, the PGA of America professionals. And one of the best of that bunch is Bob Ford, the head golf professional at two of the most prominent clubs in America, Oakmont and Seminole.
Tall and athletic, with gentle blue eyes and flecks of gray in his close-cropped hair, the 58-year-old Pennsylvania native can do it all. Merchandise? His pro shops are as well-stocked and displayed as any store Ralph Lauren ever put together. Play? Ford has qualified for nine PGA Championships and three U.S. Opens. Teach? His list of pupils over the years has included some of the best mid- and senior amateur players in the competitive game.
But Ford’s greatest talent and most enduring legacy is the way he has trained and then placed more than 100 former assistants into head professional jobs. Guys like Jack Druga at Shinnecock Hills and Steve Archer at Frederica Golf Club. Fellows such as Sean Farren from The Creek Club and Nathan Olhoff at Interlachen Country Club. Ford calls them his “kids,” even though several are not a whole lot younger than he is. And that description not only speaks to the paternal sense of duty he feels to school his young assistants in all facets of the golf business and then move them along but also to the way they view each other as family.
Ford strives to prepare his charges to become head professionals themselves. And he is so good at that job that being known as “a Bob Ford assistant” can move golfing mountains in the job application process. It’s like being trained at stock picking by Warren Buffet, or taught about new product development by Steve Jobs.
“Once you work for Bob, you have a special badge in this game,” says Billy Anderson, a former Oakmont assistant who now serves as head professional at the Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, N.C. “He is just that well respected, for all he is as a head professional, and for all he teaches those who have worked for him.”
Ask Ford why his assistants are highly coveted, and he responds with typical modesty. “I think a lot of it has to do with my clubs,” he says. “Oakmont and Seminole are so well-regarded, and people think differently about assistants who come from those places.”
That is a factor, to be sure. But there is so much that has to do with Ford being their mentor. His assistants talk about the ways he pushed them all to perform at the highest possible levels, to aim high and think big, to believe they could and should be a head professional at a top-100 golf club.
“Bob wants you to be successful, and he teaches you in all aspects of the game,” says Druga, who worked for Ford as an assistant at Oakmont and Seminole. “There are no books of policies and procedures. He’s very hands-off with his assistants, and he gives them a lot of autonomy and lots of responsibility. You learn by watching Bob, and by listening to him. He is so good at handling people and situations. He has incredible experience. And his goal is to make his assistants good enough to be head professionals at any club in America after four or five years.”
Why mentoring is so important to Ford? “I think a lot of it has to do with Lew Worsham,” says Druga. “Bob was in his early 20s when he came to work at Oakmont as Lew’s assistant. Lew was his first head professional, and he helped Bob in so many ways. So, Bob has always wanted to help his guys.”
Clearly, Ford is driven by a deep sense of professional responsibility. In addition, he wants to work hard for the assistants who have worked so hard for him and his members. But Ford is also compelled to lend a hand because he sees his “kids” as family – beyond the three children he and his wife, Nancy, have.
The connection between Ford and his former employees is apparent at the annual dinner he organizes during the PGA Merchandise Show at Del Frisco’s restaurant in Winter Park, Fla., just outside Orlando. It is also obvious at the yearly alumni golf tournament he stages at the end of that same week, at the Dye Preserve in Jupiter.
The pros come with their wives and children, and Ford catches up with them all, congratulating couples on the birth of a new baby, for example, and asking about a change in jobs and if there is anything he can do to help.
“It’s another thing about Bob that is different,” says Tom Gilbert, a one-time Oakmont assistant now serving as head professional at Gulph Mills in King of Prussia, Pa. “He taught us about the golf business but also about how this game is also about family. He never forgets a name. He always remembers what you are doing. He never misses calling me on my birthday.”
Ford made his “kids” feel like family as he also made them into top club professionals. And the game of golf is so much better for that family of PGA pros he has so capably nurtured.