Bob Ross: The Consummate Pro

Bob Ross: The Consummate Pro

by Dick Brown

Since Baltusrol established the post of the “Professional Golfer” in 1896 or so, quite a number of men have occupied the position. Four of these, George Low, Johnny Farrell, Bob Ross and Doug Steffen, who have served more than a century among them, also have contributed hugely to Baltusrol’s success and became iconic figures at the Club, and indeed, in the game itself. We have reported in these pages the careers of George Low and Johnny Farrell, and since it has been nearly two decades since Bob Ross retired, we think a sizable portion of our membership would enjoy knowing a bit more about him.

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Bob was born in 1932 in Barre, Vermont, where his father worked at the “Rock of Ages” granite quarries, and received his early education in a one-room school house in a nearby town. When Bob was ten years old, the Ross family moved from Vermont to Groton, Connecticut, where Bob’s father had secured a position doing war work in the shipyards. At that time, the golf gods conspired and contrived to cause his father to move into a house located near the Shennecossett Golf Club. Bob was quick to learn that there was money to be made at Shennecossett, and soon he was enrolled as a caddie. He learned to play golf by observing the games of his clients, as so many other great golfers had done before him. He figured out the best caddies were picked to loop for the best players, and he set out to be the best caddie. He saw that really good caddies never lost a ball and soon learned he could find a ball faster if, in addition to getting a line on the shot, he could also judge its length. To this day, he can pretty accurately tell you the distance to a tree or other feature down a fairway. In due course, he became the best caddie and the best golfer in the caddie yard.

He won the caddie championship by the time he was 15, and before long was teaching golf to the members. He also was making himself a reputation as one of the most promising schoolboy athletes in New England. He played both varsity basketball and baseball at Fitch High School in Mystic and won a number of regional golf tournaments. He finished third in the New England Juniors, sponsored by the Hearst Newspapers, when he was 17 years old. The Billiard Academy offered him a scholarship for his senior year and he starred in basketball, baseball and golf. Billiard made the finals of the northeastern prep school championship in basketball that year, and Bob played in the championship game at Madison Square Garden. He scored five points in a losing effort against the Carteret School. Bob made the first or second all-Connecticut basketball teams in both his junior and senior years and was awarded scholarship offers from some highly rated universities. He made what became a career decision when he turned them down, and picked Pasadena City College where he could play golf all winter. Bob recalls having some spirited discussions with his father about that decision, all revolving around the question of whether or not a golf professional could support himself financially, let alone a family. The facts did not support Bob’s side of the case, as assistant pros were making about $35 a week then.

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But Bob persevered with his decision and entered Pasadena City College, where he was coached by Paul Runyon, the famed short-game guru. Pasadena won its conference championship while Bob was there in a tournament played at Pebble Beach. He had been a star in New England, possibly something of a backwater in competitive golf, but he showed himself that he could compete and win in southern California, where many outstanding college golfers developed into topflight professionals.

Bob Becomes a Professional

In 1953 and for a few years thereafter, every physically fit male citizen of the United States was eligible to be drafted into the U. S. Army. After two years at Pasadena, Bob was drafted exactly on schedule and spent two years in various Army posts. He and Dolores, whom he had known since elementary school, reacted to the draft notice by getting married. Bob played some basketball while in the service but practically no golf. He returned to Connecticut after his discharge from the Army, but the employment situation in golf in the Northeast seemed pretty bleak. When he heard about an assistant’s job at the Ross Rogers Municipal Golf Course in Amarillo, Texas, he liked the idea of it. There were a lot of good golfers in West Texas, and he thought it would be a good place for him to be. He applied for the job and got it. He had at the time a three-year-old Ford, to which he hitched a U-Haul trailer with all of their possessions in it, and headed west. Bob still has vivid memories of that trip centered around Dolores sitting for hours in the passenger seat with their baby in her arms, a diaper bucket close at hand, while he drove endlessly westward on Route 66. He remembers Amarillo mostly for its friendly and helpful people and has generally happy memories of that city which otherwise is noted mostly for its dust storms. However, when he learned of an opening in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, for a golf professional and green keeper at the Susquehanna Valley Country Club, he applied.

Located north of Harrisburg and east of Pittsburgh, Selinsgrove was a sleepy little town with a population of 3,300. The Susquehanna Valley C.C. was then a nine-hole course, though it was lengthened to 18 holes while Bob was there. He certainly got hands-on training in golf club operations and even construction at Susquehanna. He rose early, mowed the greens, did whatever else needed to be done by the grounds department, hustled back to the golf shop, changed into golf clothes, opened the shop and greeted the first golfers who arrived about 11:30 am. Bob moved from Susquehanna to the Valley Country Club, northeast of Allentown, then to the North Hills Country Club near Philadelphia, and finally to the Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1966. Each of these moves was a step up the ladder and was made possible by a steadily widening recognition of his teaching and pro shop skills and his attention to the needs of his members.

Bob Beats Arnie

Bob worked hard on his game in those days. He entered every tournament he had time for in the summer, and the southern swings of the PGA Tour and the Caribbean Tour in the winter months. He later said that he earned his “Ph.D. in golf” on the Caribbean Tour, which took him to many of the islands as well as Venezuela, Mexico and elsewhere in South America. Bob played against some very good players on those trips. Among the names we noted in the score sheets were Jim Ferree, Mike Souchak, George Knudson, Art Wall, Raymond Floyd, and Buster Cupit. Many of these men are still friends of his. Bob played some very good golf during the early 1960s, and his game improved steadily so that by 1966 he was a consistent winner in the events sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Golf Association and the Philadelphia Section of the PGA. He maintained the lowest stroke average in the Philadelphia PGA that year and won the Section’s points championship. His great run continued into the summer of 1967, when he won four Pennsylvania events in a period of six weeks. The best known of those wins was the Pennsylvania Open Championship, played on the Laurel Valley course at Ligonier. 

This, of course, was Arnold Palmer’s home course, and Bob beat him there by one stroke. The championship was a two-day event played over 36 holes. Arnie, who had not played in any state events since becoming a touring professional in 1954, played in order to show his appreciation and support of Pennsylvania golf.

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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 pro 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 Pros on the Tour

We chatted quite a bit with Bob about the fact that he and some of his compatriot club pros 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 pros, 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 pros 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 pro, 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 pros 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 pro.

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.

The Road to Baltusrol

In the early 1970s, golf-connected real estate was becoming a large factor in Florida. Sawgrass, one of the prominent developments there, recruited Bob in 1972 to be its Director of Golf. A few years later, Sawgrass was mired in serious financial problems. Robert Finney, a past President of Baltusrol, had met Bob in Florida and asked him if, in light of a possible shutdown at Sawgrass, he would be interested in interviewing at Baltusrol, which had just begun a search for a new professional. Bob supplied his resume which Mr. Finney forwarded to Baltusrol with a strong recommendation that the Club take a close look at him. Soon thereafter, a delegation from Baltusrol's selection committee arrived at Sawgrass. Bob was interviewed again in Dallas and visited Baltusrol, and after considering another strong offer, signed with Baltusrol in time to begin the 1976 season and move into the newly rebuilt Golf House. Bobby Russell later told us the best thing he ever did for Baltusrol was hire Bob Ross.

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Bob strongly supported the various Club competitions over the years. He donated a number of trophies, including the impressive Silver Ball Trophy for the annual fall member/member tournament. He sometimes added a little spice to weekend events by staging such events as closest-to-the-pin contests. This writer still proudly sports a rather faded red, white and blue golf shirt awarded on the Fourth of July when he landed a ball within a four-foot diameter circle that almost touched the retaining wall on #4 Lower. Perhaps more to the point, he also remembers the pro-am events Bob arranged with well-known professionals from nearby clubs. These were all very good fun.

Bob continued to compete when he had opportunities. He played in eight PGA and USGA senior championships, and in some Senior Tour events, and played well in many of them. He qualified for the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. It was his sixth Major, as he had over the years played in three PGA Championships and two other U.S. Opens (Oakmont in 1962 and Merion in 1971). It is remarkable that Nicklaus won two of those Opens and was runner-up in the third; it is also remarkable that club pro Bob Ross qualified for all three of those Opens played over a span of eighteen years. Bob’s scores in 1980 were a highly respectable 76–76–152. His start on Thursday morning with a couple of early birdies landed his name on the leaderboard for a few hours. Sadly, no one thought to photograph the leaderboard at that time; such a photo would be a nice memento to display in the Solarium.

Peer Review

Bob Ross has a room full of memorabilia and trophies earned on the golf course and in the pro shop. That hardware and photography do not reflect one of the greatest awards Bob earned, and that is the total respect of his fellow professional golfers. This respect was recorded over the years in a number of ways. He was elected as Secretary of the Philadelphia Section of the PGA in 1969 and its President in 1971–72. During the 1970s he served as the Assistant Tournament Coordinator for the Caribbean Tour. He was named the Philadelphia Section’s “Professional of the Year” in 1972, and the New Jersey PGA’s “Professional of the Year” in 1980 and 1989. He has been named to the Hall of Fame in both organizations. Jack Nicklaus summarized the view the profession took of Bob in an interview he did with The New York Times while preparing for the 1993 U.S. Open. When asked about the complexity that goes into executing a major championship like the U.S. Open, Jack simply remarked, “Bob’s presence here insures that we will have a successful tournament.”

Baltusrol expressed its gratitude for Bob’s twenty years of service by electing him an Honorary Member upon his retirement in 1996.

A Bob Ross Story

We learned of many Bob Ross stories while preparing this article. Baltusrol members would enjoy all of them, but space permits recitation of only one. That story has to do with the hours after the conclusion of the 1980 U.S. Open, when Bob realized that Jack Nicklaus was still on the Baltusrol grounds, but no one knew where. He asked Doug Steffen, then the senior Assistant Professional, to head up to the Clubhouse to look for Jack and invite him down to Golf House for a celebratory drink with the staff.

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Doug found him sitting alone in one of the locker bays and extended the invitation, which Jack happily accepted. Jack enjoyed himself chatting with the young people present and drank a couple glasses of Champagne with them. Then he left to take his son to dinner. They went to a McDonald's on Route 22 for a hamburger.

Bob Walks Down the 18th Fairway

When Bob retired in November 1996, an astonishingly large group of Baltusrol members, fellow golf professionals and public figures wrote to wish him well. Among these were President Clinton, Vice President Quayle, and New Jersey Governor Whitman. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer wrote, as did Judy Bell, President of the USGA, and Thomas Addis, President of the PGA of America. Dozens of Bob’s old friends in the ranks of the club professionals wrote some wonderful letters. For example, Ron Rolfe, the professional at North Hills Country Club in Pennsylvania, wrote, “I learned more in the year I worked for you than I have learned in over 30 years as a professional and if I worked for you for more than that one year, I would have been a better golf professional.” And Guy Thompson, the Professional at Pine Lakes Country Club in North Carolina, echoed a number of his compatriots as he wrote, “I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to play the final 36 holes of the Dodge Open with you in 1985. I will always remember and have told many times about the kindness and courtesies you extended to me that day. Although I perceived myself as only an assistant from a public course, you made me feel as though I was a competent professional golfer.”

Bob still plays good golf. He lives in Washington, New Jersey during the summer and spends winters in Florida. He serves as the Director of Golf at Hawk Pointe Golf Club. He also does a fair amount of work on charitable events such as the New Jersey Caddie Scholarship Foundation outing every year at Hawk Pointe. Recently, he attended a reunion of caddies at Shennecossett and has for many years played in the Connecticut PGA Championship held there. He has a huge collection of antique golf clubs and a couple of other hobbies.

Bob has played many golf courses, probably hundreds of them, in this country and abroad. We asked him, purely out of curiosity, which one he would nominate as the course he could play for the remainder of his days. Thinking that he might name some unheard of gem in Scotland or Nebraska (or anywhere), he answered, “Well, there’s Pebble Beach … except I don’t like the greens there.” Then he added, “Even after all these years, I still don’t know if it would be the Upper or the Lower.”