The first day of the event was cold and dreary, and both Bob and Arnie shot 75, three or four strokes behind the leader. Palmer had to go into New York City on the second day to accept an award and do a little promotional work for the upcoming Westchester event, so he teed off early. He shot a 69, and then left for New York feeling confident about his chances for a victory. Bob played much later in the day, and played so well that he said to reporters, “You would think lightning was about to strike.” He needed only 28 putts and a chip-in for 34–34–68, and won by a stroke. Palmer returned from New York in time to attend the Association’s reception and dinner, and reportedly was surprised, even shocked, to learn he had lost. However, he sought out Bob at the reception and warmly congratulated him. Bob’s win was big news in Pennsylvania, and indeed across the country, that a club professional beat Arnold Palmer on his home course, even in a 36-hole tournament. Palmer was in the midst of a pretty fair year himself. In 1967, he passed the million dollar mark in total earnings (the first to do so) and won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average for the fourth time. The wire services picked up the story, and Bob Ross’ name appeared for a day in headlines across almost every sports page in America.
Bob’s win in the 1967 Pennsylvania Open perhaps should not have totally surprised the golfing community. A quick look at the scoring archives in the Caribbean and PGA events shows no wins for Bob (although he did register a fourth place finish), but there are plenty of newspaper accounts of tournaments in which he led or contended after a day or two of play, ahead of quite a number of well-known touring pros. And Bob did have a 33–29–62, carded at the Valley Country Club, on his record.
Club Professionals on the Tour
We chatted quite a bit with Bob about the fact that he and some of his compatriot club professionals were able to “keep up” with the touring professionals for a day or so, but rarely made the 36-hole cut and almost never won. Of course, there are two easy explanations: The club professionals, like most of the rest of us, are “weekend warriors” who run substantial businesses, supervise staffs, and conduct club golf schedules seven days a week. The other easy answer is that the touring professionals play five rounds a week and are in top physical shape and able to spend hours practicing. Bob Ross suggests something else: That the club professional, who occasionally raises his game to Tour levels, nevertheless needs to concentrate desperately hard on each and every shot, and consequently is worn out at the end of the day. It’s hard to play good golf when mentally worn out. The Tour professionals learn to deal with the pressures of the Tour by handling them repeatedly and getting toughened by them week after week.
Bob ended the 1967 Pennsylvania golf season at an event at the Edgemont Country Club staged by the Blind Golfers Association in real style when he set the course record of 62 and won by four strokes. For the record, the runner-up was Doug Ford, a fellow Connecticut native, and a past winner of the Masters and PGA Championship.
We also asked Bob if, after that wonderful season of golf in 1967, he had ever wrestled with the thought of playing full-time on the PGA Tour. He answered that he had. He was in those days competing and beating PGA Tour players regularly. Some of them were friends of his, and they were telling him he would do well on the Tour. But in the end, attractive sponsorship deals were hard to find, and Bob had a young family, which for him was the bottom line. The financial risk/reward relationships in those days, long before the PGA Tour financial profile ballooned as a result of hugely increased TV revenue, were far different than today. And he had, after all, a promising future as a club professional.
Bob the Teacher
One day we asked Bob where he made his first hole-in-one, and he answered with an extra twinkle in his eye, “Hungary.” The story behind that story is that Bob was invited to work as the golf professional on a couple of European river and canal barge cruises. The barge traveled up and down the Rhine and other rivers, and stopped each day or so at various golf courses. Bob gave lessons and played golf with the passengers. He also made a couple of trips to Japan, sponsored by the Rotary Club, designed to promote golf, evaluate the programs at various golf clubs, and provide guidance for the resident professionals at those facilities. Probably the most noteworthy recognition of his teaching skills came when Ken Venturi and Byron Nelson invited him to teach at their golf school. Bob admits to having taken one golf lesson in his life, and that occurred while he was warming up for the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Over the years, he has given thousands of lessons. “The swing’s the thing” he would say, while adjusting grips and postures, stances and planes. He would watch his students from his office window, and many a time one of them would be told some such thing as “you’re getting steep again.”
Bob, like the Baltusrol membership, takes great pride in the number of assistant professionals who “graduated” from his golf shop to become head professionals at other clubs. He made sure they knew the business of golf administration before they left his shop. We asked Bob to name his top mentees, and he replied, “Well, first of all there’s Dougie [Doug Steffen]. And I remember Al Sutton, today of Paradise Valley, Arizona; George Dietz, at Canoe Brook; Mark Hartfield, at Sankaty Head; and Larry Dornish, at Muirfield Village; and quite a number of others. Bobby Mulcahy is still in golf, but not in a professional’s position, and Allan Strange [twin brother of Curtis’] is doing something else.” Bob’s business plan was very simple: Take care of the members, and they will take care of you. That’s how he did it, and that’s what he taught his assistants to do. He ran a tight ship in the golf shop, and his assistants obviously benefitted from the supervision and later thanked him for it. The careers of these gentlemen are part of Bob’s contributions to the game of golf.