The USGA’s highest honor, the Bob Jones Award, was presented to Bob Ford on June 13, 2017. Bob began his distinguished career at Oakmont CC in 1975, retired from that club in 2016, and became the full-time head pro at Seminole Golf Club, where he has spent his winters since 2000. We had the following golf conversation in the back room behind his office at Seminole, surrounded by golf shirts and shoes.
Golf Conversations: Before we begin, I have to thank you. Several years ago I had an idea called “The Tournament Report” for a member-guest tournament. I would come to a club’s tournament or outing and interview all the players, shoot some video, and create a digital magazine to send to all the participants. I contacted the top 50 private clubs in America … and YOU were the only person who responded.
You sent me an email and then you called me. I always wanted to thank you for that kindness.
Bob Ford: You bet. I don’t understand people who can’t at least get back to you on an email, right?
GC: I don’t understand the lack of civility and manners and it’s everywhere these days. Anyway, I have a few questions for you. When were you introduced to golf and what sort of instruction did you receive?
BF: I guess my Mom and my brother introduced me to the game. I was 12 or so; they were going out to play and I tagged along. I pulled my mother’s cart around the nine-hole golf course they were playing. Once in a while, they’d let me hit one and I quickly got hooked. Then I began to caddie because I needed to make some money.
GC: Where was this?
BF: I grew up in Valley Forge, PA, near Philly. The years 13 to 17, I caddied at Aronimink in Philadelphia. I played a lot, played in high school. I was never really very good. I didn’t play amateur golf the way people play amateur golf today. I went to college in 1971 at the University of Tampa. I would say from an instruction standpoint, I didn’t get much instruction until I got to college. I had a college coach who was really good. When I went to work for Lew Worsham at Oakmont when I was 21, he helped me a great deal.
GC: When you were learning the game, just caddying, were you copying people’s swings?
BF: Yeah. I was a baseball player and I had good hand-eye coordination. I just started swinging; I got hooked and I could hit it. I was somewhat self-taught until I got to be around Lew Worsham.
GC: What did Mr. Worsham help you with? Can you recall?
BF: I can. Pretty vividly. He was out of the game at that point in his career. He had a garden at Oakmont. He’d ride down to his garden and he had to pass me when I was on the range after we closed. He’d say, “Don’t groove that, son.” I finally got enough courage to say, “Ok, what should I be grooving here?”
He had these 2 x 4s that sat vertically [on the grass]. He put a ball right up against the side of it. He said, “Can you hit this?” Now he knew I couldn’t hit it but I thought I could.
GC: Hit the ball or hit the 2 x 4?
BF: Hit the ball! There was enough room for the club to get by but it was very close to the board and that could make you nervous. I swung at it and I hit the board. I missed the ball, I hit the board, missed the ball, hit the board. I said, “I don’t believe anybody could hit that ball.” I thought I was decent at that time.
He got out of his cart. He hadn’t hit a ball in probably two years. Flipped it out like it was nothing. I said, “Ok, you can go back to the garden – I’ll figure this out.” And that was the best lesson I ever got. I was a cutter of the ball; I had to learn to come more from the inside.
GC: Was the ball an inch or so from the board?
BF: There was enough room for the toe of the club to get through.
GC: Well, that’ll teach you.
BF: He worked at Coral Ridge in Ft. Lauderdale in the winter time. I’d go see him there and he’d bring the board out. As long as I did not hit that board, I was doing pretty well.
GC: That’s a great training aid. Maybe you should endorse that.
Go over to Home Depot to the lumber department…
BF: Yeah, we kept them on the range at Oakmont all those years.
GC: A board?
BF: Worsham said, “Son, that’s the best pro you’ll ever meet, that board.”
GC: Speaking of boards, what’s your opinion of the state of golf instruction in the last twenty years or so?
BF: Well, I would say, Robert, it has changed greatly. I think technology has changed it greatly. The advent of Trackman has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in my career: to understand the launch angle, whether you’re hitting down on your driver or whether you’re hitting up on your driver. And if you hit up on it, how much further you hit than if you hit down.
I think the instructors today are more technically inclined. You know, I’m from the old school and while I think my Xs and Os still work – I’m not into technology, I’m not into having encyclopedias that tell you which way the greens are going to break … that little book that they get on the green with.
GC: I was watching the European Tour at four o’clock this morning. Patrick Reed was in Dubai … he was on the green looking at the book, and looking and looking.
BF: Honest to God, you gotta read this in a book?
GC: It’s crazy. It takes some of the skill out of the game. As a professional golfer, you’re supposed to be able to figure this out.
BF: Frankly, I’d be surprised if they don’t outlaw that at some point. I’m sure Jack and Arnie – God rest his soul – and Gary Player are looking at these guys like, “What are you doing? What is it you can’t see?”
But in golf, Robert, if you think it helps you, it does. So if they think that book helps them, then it probably does, and they’re probably going to keep doing it until we take it from them.
GC: Speaking of Jack, Tiger has come out for scaling back the distance of the golf ball for the pros. The head of Bridgestone Golf said the same thing yesterday.
BF: For the elite game? I would tell you that in the last three months, I’ve never heard more comments about it and more people are getting on the bandwagon to do it. Mike Davis is a member here. He’s like, “My goal [by the end of] my career here is to get the ball rolled back.” So I would be very surprised if it doesn’t roll back.
GC: Do you think anyone understands what “bifurcation” means?
BF: I hope so. It’s been a bad word. I don’t quite know how they’re gonna do it. You and I don’t want our ball to go shorter, we know that. Believe it or not, they have developed a golf ball that at our speed, it doesn’t change. At the speed of 108 or more miles an hour, it starts to go down.
GC: I must correct you when you say “our speed.”
My speed is not in the same zip code as your speed!
But thank you for saying it! Getting back to teaching… a junior walks into your club, has never picked up a golf club before. How would you go about teaching a nine-year old boy or girl?
BF: We’d start about six inches away from the hole and start putting. Then we’d learn how to chip, then we’d learn how to pitch. Then we’d start learning how to swing. But it would take a while before he could putt decently and chip decently. I think the game should be learned from the putting green backwards. As opposed to starting with drivers, going the other way.
GC: I think that’s what Harvey Penick used to say.
BF: A lot of guys share that philosophy. I’ve done nothing on my own; everything I’ve ever done has been copying somebody.
GC: Same teaching philosophy for an adult?
BF: Yeah, for sure. Beginners should learn that way.
GC: That’s tough, especially for men; they want to whale away at the driver.
But are the women more malleable to teach?
BF: They’re fun to teach. They can really get better.
GC: Ben Hogan used to come here to Seminole to prepare for the Masters and spent a lot of time here. Do you have any Ben Hogan/Seminole stories that you can share?
BF: George Coleman – he and Ben were great friends from way back. They played in the Crosby together. He was an oil baron from Tulsa. Ben got involved with him in some of the oil fields, and Coleman was a member here and wintered here. When I say “wintered here,” most of the guys back in that era were here February and March and that was it. That was their winter.
It was a great time to get ready for the Masters for Ben. He’d come down and visit his friend George Coleman. He stayed in his house in Palm Beach on the ocean. The great video you’ve seen of him hitting balls into the ocean, that was George’s backyard.
Ben ended up loving Seminole because of his buddy and the winds and the texture of the grass. Augusta was Bermuda back then. He loved practicing here. There was a guy here named Bob Sweeney who was a great amateur player. Kind of a playboy from London who wintered here. Arnold had beaten him in the finals of the US Amateur in ’54 at Detroit. He was that caliber of a player; he won the British Amateur twice. He and Hogan played a lot. The lore is that he gave Hogan a shot a side the first two weeks of March, and they’d play flat the last two weeks. Not too many guys gave Hogan shots.
BF: This guy could really play and, in particular, could really play here.
GC: Do we know how he did against Mr. Hogan?
BF: I’m sure that they went back and forth, ‘cause they played for a long time. Somebody beats you day in and day out, you go somewhere else. When he played members here for money, he always wrote a check.
GC: Mr. Hogan?
BF: Mr. Hogan. Five bucks, twenty bucks, whatever it was. He figured that they wouldn’t cash it.
They wanted his signature. That was kind of cute!
GC: Of course, I’ve heard that story about you at Oakmont … Mr. Worsham told you to call Hogan to give him your specs.
BF: He called him for me, and Hogan said, “What are his specs?” Worsham yelled out, “Ford, what are your specs?” I said to his son, who was the other assistant, “What’s a spec?”
GC: For the low-handicap player – I’m sure you have a lot of them here at Seminole – in terms of percentages, how much would you say his or her success is due to practice and hard work, and how much of it is due to natural, athletic ability?
BF: We have eight former Walker Cup players here. I would tell you that the really good players practice all the time when they’re in town. They’re working on the short game, they’re working on putting. They’re here a lot, practicing a lot. And they play a lot. While practicing is great, I think there’s nothing like learning how to play golf on the golf course. So a lot of our lessons here are playing lessons, ‘cause the golf course is so available. At Oakmont, the golf course was so busy, we didn’t have many opportunities to get out there and do playing lessons.
GC: You were mentioning baseball earlier. I’ve interviewed several baseball and hockey players who are good golfers. Walter Morgan who played on the Senior Tour, was a baseball player. It seems that good players have that eye-hand coordination which is something you’re born with. You can’t get that out of a book.
GC: Speaking of golf books, of course, I read Hogan’s book. Let’s see, that screwed me up for about six years…
Then Sam Snead had me holding the club like it was a live bird…
Then John Redman, the hips control everything. Leadbetter and the big muscles … The Bobby Jones books. I have so many swing thoughts in my head that go in and out … Do you have any golf instruction books that you can recommend?
BF: Well, I wrote a book in 1992. Sadly, it’s out of print so you really can’t get it. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Bob’s book is available on Amazon.]
GC: What was it called?
BF: “Golf: The Body, The Mind, The Game.” I wrote it with a member of Oakmont at the time who has since passed away. It was fun. But philosophically, the golf swing, to me, is a flat-footed, twist of the trunk. You stay on your feet and you twist like you had a medicine ball and you twist it up to the sky. And then it’s a hand-and-arm swing. If you don’t know what you’re doing with your hands – and Lew Worsham really fed this to me – then you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.
GC: Isn’t that antithetical to what they’ve been saying for thirty years: “Keep your hands out of it, don’t get wristy?”
BF: Use the big muscles.
GC: Use the big muscles.
BF: Couldn’t be further from the truth.
GC: I don’t know if you ever read Gardner Dickinson’s book?
BF: No! I spent a lot of time with Gardner, though.
GC: He said just what you said. Teaching at Frenchman’s Creek over here.
BF: Yeah, sure.
GC: When he was growing up in Georgia, his teacher said what you just said, basically. And Sam Snead said that also. I still don’t understand how you hit the golf ball using your big muscles.
And why it’s so awful to use your hands. What sealed it for me, I interviewed a great trick-shot artist, Chuck “The Hit Man” Hiter…
BF: Oh, yeah. He can hit it.
GC: Chuck is balancing on a unicycle, he’s got a tee that’s six foot high, hits the ball with a driver and off it goes two hundred yards! He’s not using his legs to drive …
BF: Terrible, terrible.
GC: Once I saw that, it convinced me it’s a hand-and-arms game. Which, when I interviewed Bob Toski, he told me the same thing. And he said it in a much more … er, emphatic way.
BF: He’s a piece! He’s beautiful. You know Dennis Walters, the paraplegic trick shot player? If you watch Dennis Walters hit a golf ball, you will totally learn how to swing a golf club. He is perfect. He hits the same shot every time.
GC: I think of the tens of thousands … hundreds of thousands of people who read the major golf magazines … and for at least twenty years: “Keep your hands out of it, use your big muscles.”
BF: Oh, my!
GC: You know, most people don’t take lessons.
GC: They read a tip, “Oh, John Daly does this, Brooks Koepka does that.” And I think it’s impossible to use language to explain a feel.
BF: Right. And this is what they think they do.
GC: Thank you.
BF: It was the same with Hogan, by the way. Those Five Fundamentals screwed you up a little bit?
GC: Is this how you hold a golf club, with your arms wrapped in a rope and the opposite sides of your elbows pointing up?
BF: That’s not how he did it.
GC: I tried it!
BF: We all did! We all did!
GC: But it worked for him. He thought.
BF: Something worked for him. I don’t know if he did what he thinks he did.
GC: When you’re not playing golf or here at the course, what are your outside interests?
BF: My family comes first. I have three kids. They are now 27, 25, and 23. Time goes by fast. I’m pretty wrapped up with them and my dog which is this white dog right here. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Bob points to a photo on the wall.] I know you’re a dog lover.
GC: Is that a Pyrenees?
BF: Great Pyrenees, good call. Isn’t he beautiful?
GC: Gorgeous. What’s his name?
GC: Does he..?
BF: Doesn’t shed.
GC: What about drooling?
BF: Not much. When he gets excited, he does. But day in and day out, no.
GC: I’m the same way. Biggs. Great name. How old is he?
BF: He’s five.
GC: Good boy.
BF: Yeah, he’s a sweetheart.
GC: Is he obedient?
BF: He’s not bad. We had Samoyeds prior, and they were not very obedient. He’s not bad. He listens … he’s a pretty good boy.
GC: The fact that you’re a dog lover, that has to be why you won the USGA Bob Jones award.
GC: I’d like to see golf courses allow you to bring your obedient, well-trained dog to the golf course … the way they do in Great Britain. You’d attract a lot more new people to the game that way. And don’t tell me about dogs making a mess; I’ve seen some guys do things on a golf course that a dog would never do!
Is that a possibility in the US?
BF: It’s neat. The Pirates had a doggie night — take your dog to the stadium. We went down to the stadium one evening. I thought it would be easy to get in the ball park and get a bleacher ticket. It was sold out, couldn’t get in. Would it be neat to come to the golf course and bring your dog? I think it would be really cool. Because everybody loves to take their dog with them anywhere they can take him. They’re looking for places to be able to go with their dog.
GC: I think this is a way to grow golf. You could have adoption events at the golf course; get a free golf lesson while you’re here. Introduce new people to the game. I think we should start right here at Seminole.
BF: We’ll work on it.
GC: We’ll work on it? Ok!
I didn’t think that would go over so well!
Any Rules of Golf that you would like to see changed?
BF: It’s interesting that you ask that because the 19 proposed Rules that go into effect in 2019, we play them right now. We love them all: speeds up play, makes the game simpler. I probably would change the out-of-bounds issue and just play everything as a lateral hazard. We did that on this golf course. There’s a lot of vegetation that borders our property. We just instituted that it’s all lateral hazards, so there’s no out-of-bounds.
GC: You’re gonna think this is a dopey question but I think a lot of people don’t understand: what is the difference between a Director of Golf and a Head Golf Professional?
BF: That’s another great question. Quite frankly, I’ve been very opposed to the title “Director of Golf” at a private club like Seminole or Oakmont. I was the Head Golf Professional at Oakmont for 35 years; my last two years I became the Director of Golf ‘cause we had a young man there and we wanted him to stay. So we gave him the title of “Head Golf Professional.” He eventually took over my place when I retired two years later.
It got to be where job bulletins that went out for Head Golf Professionals would say, “Four-year college degree, five years minimum experience as a Head Golf Professional, yada-yada-yada.” Some of these private club professionals decided to become the Director of Golf and make their First Assistant “Head Golf Professional.” So that guy would get five years under his belt and he could apply for those jobs. To me, it’s totally smoke and mirrors.
When you go to PGA National where there’s five golf courses, the Director of Golf is great. And you can have Head Golf Professionals at each of those golf courses. To me, a Director of Golf should only be at a multi-course facility.
GC: Would you like to go on record as saying you’d like to abdicate your position today?
BF: Well, I’m the Head Golf Professional here.
I’m not really called the Director of Golf.
GC: Oh, I thought you were the Director of Golf at Seminole.
BF: People call me whatever they want to call me.
GC: I only want to speak with the Director of Golf! I’m not here to talk to some Head Golf Pro!
BF: There’s nobody above me!
GC: That’s funny. How often do you play golf? Not with the members, but let’s say you have some buddies outside of Seminole. Do you ever go to that Palm Beach Par Three course by the water?
BF: That’s a great call! If I go somewhere, that’s usually where I go!
GC: I love that place!
BF: It’s fabulous. I take my family on Sundays, which is very unusual. When I worked at Oakmont, I never took any days off. But down here, the golf professionals all kind of take Sundays off. Frankly, it’s our quietest day. I don’t leave here very often. Obviously, I love being here; if we want to go play golf somewhere, it’s hard to beat playing here. But we’re going over to Mountain Lake in a couple weeks to play.
GC: We’re going? You and I?
BF: I’ve taken some guys to Streamsong. It’s pretty rare, but I go two or three times a year.
GC: And your wife and children … do they play?
BF: The kids do. My wife doesn’t play.
GC: Was she ever interested in playing?
BF: Not really. On our honeymoon, she hit some balls.
GC: Where was this?
BF: We honeymooned at two neat places: one was Mahogany Run in St. Thomas. Then we went over to the Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic. Gilles Gagnon was the Director of Golf, who’s still there, 37 years later.
GC: Do your kids play?
BF: The two boys, they play pretty nicely. They’re probably 4-, 5-, or 6-handicappers. And the girl, she has a beautiful swing and she can play, but she just doesn’t. She works for the PGA of America.
GC: And the boys – did they have any interest in going into the golf industry?
BF: That’s a cute story. They both got into Florida State in the golf management program. The oldest boy worked at Sea Island, Sebonack, and Shinnecock.
GC: Hmm … any clubs I would have heard of?
What was he doing there?
BF: He was doing grunt work. Scott Nye from Merion and Brendan Walsh from The Country Club came to Florida and gave a seminar, and I took him to the seminar. He was about to go back to Shinnecock for another year, and after the seminar he said, “You know, Dad, I can do this golf thing, I got it. And I can always fall back on it, but I think I want to change my major and become a finance major and see if I can do something else.” I said, “Fabulous, go do it.”
The other boy was working as a caddie at National Golf Links. He also went to Florida State. He never even asked me, he just switched and went into the School of Business there. They both got out of golf, and I kind of blame Scott and Brendan; I tease them that they knocked my kids out of the golf business. But I’m happy for them; they can enjoy golf all their lives and be members.
GC: What is a typical day in the life of Bob Ford at Seminole?
BF: We open at 7:45 so I’m here at 7:30. Do a little office work until 9:00. I usually teach from 9 to 12. Have lunch, play golf, or teach more in the afternoon. It’s really a playing or teaching job, which has always been my forte.
GC: Your Top-5 golfers of all time?
BF: Well, Jack and Tiger. They’re peerless, right? Arnold, obviously. Hogan and Snead.
GC: When you eventually retire from golf – and one day you will – what would you like to do?
BF: Play golf.
GC: Play golf. Perfect!
BF: Retire so I can play golf!
GC: And when you’re away from Seminole, do you watch golf on TV?
BF: Oh, I never miss it. I’m pretty addicted to the game. And I love the Steelers, watch the Penguins, watch the Pirates.
GC: When Bill Mazeroski hit that home run in 1960 and beat my Yankees, you must have been happy about that.
BF: Ralph Terry, I played golf with Ralph Terry. And Maz – both of them. And Bob Friend was the pitcher. He was a member at Oakmont.
GC: His son played…
BF: Played the Tour.
GC: I think he came close in the Canadian Open one year.
BF: Second. Billy Andrade beat him in a playoff.
GC: I have one final question: What’s the best way to sneak on to Seminole?
BF: You don’t have to sneak. There’s a couple of events in May: the Loggerhead Invitational and the Kiwanis Club that have a couple of outings. We don’t charge them anything; they charge their players something. It’s pretty easy to get on.
GC: Thanks for your time, Bob.
BF: You bet.