Bob Ford – The Pro’s Pro

Bob Ford has revolutionized the role of the club professional. The longtime (now retired) head pro at both Oakmont CC (PA) and Seminole GC (FL) combined a variety of skills to redefine the role of the club professional. A master merchandiser who first sold logo US Open merchandise by mail order in 1983, Ford motivated the USGA to take over the merchandising and develop into what we see today. An excellent player, Ford has won multiple Pennsylvania Open championships and played on PGA Cup teams and in multiple US Opens and PGA Championships. He also established a search firm for golf professionals that has helped many pros be placed at clubs around the nation. He’s now the official starter for the US Open, a role he’s had for the past few years and was most recently recognized as the winner of the William D. Richardson Award by the Golf Writers Association of America for consistently making outstanding contributions to golf. Since I’ve known Bob for nearly 50 years (we attended the University of Tampa together in the early 1970’s) I figured he’d be a good subject for my inquiry into the role of the golf professional.

First, I asked Ford how the club professional’s role has changed in the past few decades. He said that technology was the biggest change with software programs like Pro Shop Keeper (now part of Club Prophet) available for administrative tasks and the advent of the Director of Golf position at many clubs which relieves the head professional of much of his or her teaching responsibilities.

Whether at private clubs or daily-fee facilities, Ford sees the golf professional in an advisory role. He acknowledges that it’s often difficult to “speak truth to power” but insists that “when right, there is no limit to how far you can push, but you better be right.” He says that the professional must be willing to speak up, defend the game and “do the right thing”. Ford emphasizes the presentation in these instances but stresses the advisory role of the professional. On the topic of some clubs taking the shop away from the pro, he recognizes that some pros were perceived to have spent too much time in the shop running their retail business and not enough serving the members. He feels that pros running club-owned shops are more likely to be overly concerned about making mistakes with club money than making a mistake with their own funds. Making a mistake with club funds could cost the pro his/her job.

Given his placement of so many of his assistants (and others) as head professionals, I asked what are common characteristics of those that are successful. He emphasized an incredible passion to play the game, a personality that wants to help people and make them feel comfortable and an understanding that “it’s all about our players.” When I asked if he considered being a golf professional as a hospitality function, his one-word response was – absolutely! Ford also emphasized the role of the caddy at those clubs with caddy programs. He asked, “who else does the player spend 4 hours with that can impact the experience?” With many golf professionals pursing general manager positions, Ford never did because he wasn’t interested in learning the F & B side of the business.

Some clubs/courses have eliminated the golf professional position. Ford says that most facilities need a leader and someone who can make people feel at home and comfortable. He emphasized that can be achieved by playing better and that PGA Professionals are invaluable in helping players learn or improve. He feels that not having a pro eliminates a “host” for the club. Ford feels that the golf professional can enhance a club’s economics by inspiring people to play frequently and that many want to emulate the professional, dress like him/her, play like him/her and have their kids learn from him/her. Ford says that his playing reputation and history has been critical to his success and added to his credibility. He adds, however that “it’s not fair” because we all look up to skilled players even and often equate playing ability to other, unrelated skills or personality traits.

Ford thinks that the PGA does a “decent” job of educating its members but that there’s really no substitute for starting from the ground up and learning the business all over the facility. He recognizes the lack of diversity in the game and emphasizes that to get more minorities playing golf more need to be encouraged into the golf business as professionals, GM’s superintendents and other careers in the industry. Ford says that golf needs to “look like America.”

Lastly, I asked Ford about the potential relaxation of rules and policies. He feels that clubs need to make those decisions individually based on the desires of the membership or patrons. He acknowledges that he’s an “old fogie” after 40 years in the business, and while he used to be an anti-establishment guy, he now subscribes to many of the traditional policies. He’s not a fan of the pants Sam Ryder sported at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open. That said, he recognizes the need to change and evolve in some cases. He sees some policies (like various levels of cell phone use, shorts for tour pros and more) as “big barriers to break down” but acknowledges that people often violate rules because the rules are antiquated in a world where people need to be connected.