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.