After 37 years at Oakmont Country Club, Bob Ford, the club’s head professional, will retire after this year’s U.S. Open. Before the club’s fourth Open under his tenure, Golf Digest’s Tim Rosaforte caught up with Ford during Open Week at Oakmont.
Rosaforte: What a week for you. There’s the obvious club responsibilities, and you’re making your debut on stage during the Open for Fox Sports. With all the added attention this week, where’s your head at right now?
Ford: Spinning would probably be accurate. No, it’s great, for me. It’s a busy week but it’s a fun week. We’re doing a lot of hosting at the house and the club. And it’s just great to have the best players in the world at Oakmont.
You have a reputation of being the best head pro in the business. Nobody likes talking about themselves, but what’s the secret to being Bob Ford? What do you feel like you’ve done that you’re proudest of when it relates to your job?
Well, the most fun of my job is just welcoming the members and guests everyday. Seeing how they played and watching the pain on their faces most of the time. We’re a sadistic bunch at Oakmont. I think just trying to be fair and friendly. It doesn’t cost more to be nice. That’s our saying in the pro shop here: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” That’s been the most important thing. And it’s been easy. It’s been a lot of fun.
Talk about the journey for a kid from the Philadelphia suburbs, who ends up at the University of Tampa and then connects with Lew Worsham, who, if you know your golf history, actually won the 1947 U.S. Open, and he’s the guy who gave you your break at Oakmont. Could you have seen yourself reaching the levels where you are today?
No, you know, it’s funny. Back in 1975 when I was getting out of school, in the spring, I had this tournament, the Tampa Amateur, where I shot 65-65 and lost to Gary Koch in a playoff, which I’m still mad about. All of a sudden, it looked like I could play a little bit. I really wasn’t any good as an amateur until really my senior year of college. So I went down to see Lew in 1973 and worked at Oakmont during the Open when Johnny Miller won. And so I went to him and just wanted some advice from him. And he said, “Why don’t you come to Pittsburgh this summer, and we’ll find out if you can play or not.” And I was like, “What would I be doing?” And he said, “You could be my assistant at Oakmont.” I was blown away, I thought that’d be the coolest thing. My folks lived in Western Pennsylvania, so that was kind of coming home for me. So it was a ball working for Lew -- he let me play all the time. And sent me away in the winter time. I got together with a family and they sponsored me in Europe and Australia, and so I traveled the world and got to play. Then all of a sudden it was the 1978 PGA at Oakmont, and there was talk about Lew retiring after the PGA, and low and behold he did retire in the fall of 1979, and the club members told me I ought to apply for the job. I was just 25 years old at the time, so it seemed like a stretch. So I said, “What’s to lose?” I really came to play, and didn’t see myself as a club professional. But it worked out: I got the job and ended up staying for 37 more years.
It’s your fourth U.S. Open here. And you’ve made the cut in two Opens, Southern Hills and Oakmont in 1983. So that year, you played and competed, and had the merchandise tent in your spare time. How did that work, playing and working in the tent that same week?
It’s hard to believe—it feels like yesterday. Having a lot to do is a good thing for me, it keeps my mind from wandering. I played in the morning here in the 1983 Open, and then headed to the tent to sell merchandise in the afternoon. Bringing boxes up of hats and shirts. It was fun; it was a fun time for my family and staff. Getting to play was a bonus, but then making the cut that year was over the top. One of the highlights of my golf career I’d say.
This has to be an emotional experience, saying goodbye to this place on such a special week.
Well, it is. It’s hit me a couple times already. But it’s just time. Everybody has a shelf life. I didn’t want to be here longer than I should be. I didn’t want people saying, “There’s the old pro, those sort of things.” And maybe there’s another chapter in my life. Who knows. I’m anxious to see what’s next and what will open a few doors. Especially during the summers. I still have the Seminole [head professional position], I love it down there. In the winter time, it’s great. I’m looking forward to watching [predecessor Devin Gee] grow, at what’s truly a special place in the world of golf.
Editors' Note: This story first appeared in the June 15, 2016 issue of Golf Digest Stix.