Bob Ford probably has one of the greatest or the toughest golf jobs in the U.S. Ford, 53, is the longtime head professional at historic Oakmont Country Club, outside of Pittsburgh, the host site of this year’s U.S. Open in June. He is also the head pro at equally famous and exclusive Seminole Golf Club, outside West Palm Beach, Florida.
A throwback to an earlier era in golf when dual-club pros were more common, Ford serves at Seminole, the winter gathering spot of many of America’s corporate elite, from October to April. He then moves North to work at Oakmont during the late spring to early fall months, heading South again for the opening of another Seminole winter season.
In addition to his East Coast travels, Ford, who grew up in the Boston area and caddied there at an early age, is an accomplished player. He’s qualified for three U.S. Opens, nine PGA Championships, and three Senior PGA Championships and is a two-time winner in the PGA National Stroke Play Championship. He has won a variety of PGA national club pro awards and briefly played on the PGA Tour in the early 1970s, before joining the staff at Oakmont in 1975.
Before this year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, Ford took time to talk about his unique role with Golf Connoisseur contributor Art Stricklin. He talked about the challenges, the changes and the joys of serving as head pro at two of America’s most famous private clubs. He also talked about the unique privilege of hosting the 2007 U.S. Open.
Golf Connoisseur: What does a host professional for a course holding the U.S. Open do?
Bob Ford: A host professional really doesn’t have a lot to do these days. I’ll mainly just stand around, greet and meet people during the week. I will be a starter on the 10th tee, Monday through Wednesday, and they (USGA) have asked all my former pros to come back during the tournament and help with starting which is very nice. During the weekend, I’ll just watch golf, work the range and put out any fires which come up.
GC: How has that changed from previous Opens?
BF: It’s changed a huge amount. In both 1983 and ’94, I ran all the merchandising, and there was a huge amount of pressure in doing that. That was all the income for the club in ’94 and a lot of pressure to sell all the merchandise. In fact, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now if I was still responsible for all the merchandise.
GC: Oakmont has hosted multiple U.S. Opens along with many other prestigious tournaments. Is the thrill and newness gone for hosting a major event there?
BF: To some degree the newness and the excitement for the older members has been lost, but we’ve had between a 30-40 percent turnover in membership since the ’94 Open, and most of the staff is new, so with the new people it’s still creating quite a buzz.
GC: How did you get your start at two historic golf clubs like Oakmont and Seminole?
BF: I was hired at Oakmont in 1975 as assistant for the legendary pro Lew Worsham and then in the summer of 1980, I was promoted to head professional. Seminole was kind of a different deal. I was hired in the fall of 1999, when the pro who had been there 27 years, Jerry Pittman, retired.
GC: You already had a great and historic job at Oakmont, why did you add Seminole?
BF: I knew quite a few of the members at Seminole and had played a lot of rounds there. They asked me if I would do both jobs (Seminole is shut down Mother’s Day to September when Oakmont is Open). When they called me, I just couldn’t turn it down. Oakmont had to sign off on it, of course, but it has worked out great.
GC: What’s the biggest difference between Oakmont and Seminole?
BF: The biggest difference is that Oakmont is a true country club in a rural setting. Most of the members are from Pittsburgh, or the tiny town of Oakmont itself. It’s a rural membership in a local, rural setting. Seminole is truly a national or a world wide club. Member’s jet in and jet out all the time and they’re just here for the winter. One is a country club with full amenities; the other is a golf club with lunch only served. There is a small saltwater pool at Seminole, but I have never seen anybody in it in all the years I’ve been here.
GC: What about similarities?
BF: They both want members to have a good golf experience when they are here. The members want to play golf at a great place. At first I was intimidated by Seminole, to be honest, all the icons of the business world are here, but they just want to play golf and have a good time.
GC: Any members at both places?
BF: Only three, about the same number we’ve always had.
GC: You’re a pro at a winter and summer club, as well as a top flight player; it seems almost a throwback to another golf pro era?
BF: Yeah, I’m a dinosaur, I think that’s what you’re trying to say. There aren’t many pros like me today, only a few. I think one of the reasons you don’t see young guys doing this is a family issue. I’m moving in the spring and the fall every year and my family stays in Florida all the time and comes up to visit me in the summer. It can certainly be lonely at times, so that’s another reason you don’t see a lot of younger people doing this.
BF: With your great playing record (three U.S. Opens and nine PGA Championships), did you every consider playing for a living before becoming a golf professional?
BF: I went to qualifying school four times and played some Tour events before I came to Oakmont in 1975, and decided that wasn’t going to be for me. I wanted to do this instead.
GC: Are you going to try to qualify for the U.S. Open this year at your home course?
BF: Yes. This will probably be my last one, but I wanted to try it because it’s at Oakmont.
GC: You were at Oakmont in ’94 when Ernie Els won in a playoff over Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomery. That was also the year that Roberts shot a 64 at Oakmont. With the advance in equipment and player skills over the last decade, could that be more the rule than the exception for 2007?
BF: I don’t really think so. I think the USGA will have the course hard and fast and the players will have their hands full with Oakmont this year. If they hit it into the rough, it will be no fun at all.
GC: So you’re not predicting a low score by the winner?
BF: I don’t think it’s possible for the winner to go double digits under par at Oakmont this year. If it doesn’t rain, the winner could be over par.
GC: Especially at Seminole, you mentioned you deal with some of the icons of the business world. How do you deal with bluebloods all day long without coming across as a big shot yourself?
BF: It’s always came fairly easy to me. I know what I’m good at, teaching and helping people, and this isn’t exactly rocket science to be a good golf pro. I simply want to help golfers get better and provide a good golf experience for all players. It can sound simple and when you do it right it is.
GC: How are some of America’s top CEOs at taking lessons on the range?
BF: Once they take their tie off, they’re pretty good at taking lessons from someone. More than probably most players, they know what they don’t know on the golf course and are willing to learn.
GC: What’s the lowest you’ve shot at the two courses?
BF: 65 at Oakmont, 65 at Seminole, although guys who play both courses a lot will tell you Oakmont is usually a few shots harder.
GC: Thanks for the time.