Chronicler of golf is a 'legend'
By Tod Leonard
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. February 17, 2009
There have been so many thrills and accomplishments in Bob Thomas' 25-year career with the Southern California Golf Association, it would take hours to reminisce about them after his retirement this month.
The regrets? Few, although he certainly would have liked to pare his handicap. Working for the organization that tallies every golfer's handicap in Southern California, Thomas can't fudge when you ask him about it, and his index number right now: a hearty 24.3.
“One of my retirement goals is to get a little bit better, which would imply actually playing and practicing,” Thomas joked.
It's a truism in the golf industry. The higher you rise in the business, the less time you have to play, and seldom has a golf index number been more irrelevant when measuring a person's contributions to the game.
For the past quarter century, Thomas, 63, has been an instrumental part of the SCGA as its director of communications and publisher and editor of FORE Magazine. As the longest standing employee, he has been a roll-up-your-sleeves participant in the enormous changes that have come to the game and the SCGA.
The 110-year-old SCGA had 90,000 golfers as members when Thomas came over from a corporate communications job in September 1983; it has 150,000 today. There were 425 member clubs; now there are 1,100. There were nine championship events; now there are 24. Thomas grew FORE Magazine from a quarterly to six times a year, and he inaugurated the valuable SCGA Directory in 1992.
He has taken thousands of photographs and written millions of words about amateur golfers who played for the love of the game, not for money. The best part is that he shared their passion.
“The word 'legend' is a big word, but to the Southern California golf community, and to amateur golfers, that's really what he's become,” said Katie Denbo, a protege of Thomas who succeeds him as the editor and publisher of FORE.
Frank Moore, 42, has arrived from media relations at Northrop Grumman to be the SCGA's new director of communications and marketing.
“Hands down, I think he's one of the most talented communicators in the industry,” Denbo said of Thomas. “He just has that knowledge of how to interact with players, golf courses, the media, advertisers, all of these different levels. Everybody really respects him.”
Said Thomas: “I care passionately about the game, passionately about the SCGA. We do great work here. The people I work with and work for, the members are uppermost in their mind.
“With the magazines, the directory and Internet site, we spent a lot of hours trying to do the best we could to bring knowledge to people. We wanted people to understand that there was more to golf than hitting a ball around a course. There is so much more to the game.”
Kevin Heaney, the current executive director of the SCGA and the fourth under whom Thomas served, chuckled when he thought of the hours and energy expended by Thomas, who'd send e-mails at 4 in the morning and make phone calls late into the night.
“High energy,” said Heaney, who worked with Thomas for 24 years. “The guy burned through a lot of Diet Coke. It kept him going.”
Some of Heaney's favorite memories about Thomas' dedication are from watching him work the State Amateur when it was held at Pebble Beach. The weather sometimes turned nasty in June.
“And Bob's out there running around with his camera. It was like a bad scene from 'Caddyshack,' ” Heaney said. “Bob's going crazy, trying to stand still in the wind to get a shot. It was classic Bob.”
Through the years, FORE Magazine has been dedicated to covering the top-level amateur events in the state, and Thomas attended nearly all of them in his 25 years. It was easy when there wasn't an Internet and people dutifully waited for the magazine to come out. In recent years, fans and families of players have wanted instantaneous results, and the SCGA was one of the first organizations in the United States to offer live scoring.
Thomas remembers first going live at the 1996 U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge, won by Tiger Woods. There were more than 50 Californians in the field, and Thomas went to elaborate lengths to update each player's card, hole by hole, on the Web.
“Two of the longest days of my life,” Thomas said.
Of course, this was the same guy who years ago brought, every day from home, the first computer into the SCGA's Studio City offices.
“It was supposed to be portable,” Thomas said, “but it weighed 25 pounds.”
Thomas has seen an amazing array of talented players and quirky characters compete in SCGA events. Some of his favorites: Craig Steinberg, Scott McGihon, Pat Duncan, Mark Johnson, Ed Cuff, Jason Gore, Kemp Richardson and Todd Demsey.
There also was the guy who drank beer during events and teed his ball up on a beer can.
“Hard to believe, but I watched him do it,” Thomas said.
Not surprisingly, Woods stands out, too.
In 1994, Woods was a national star, and he jointly entered for the only time the SCGA Amateur and State Amateur. “Tiger was well beyond us at that point, but he took the time to play,” Thomas said. “I never asked him, but I think it was his way of saying thanks for us being there when he was a kid. That is the most special memory for me.”
Woods fired a 62 in one round of the SCGA Amateur at Hacienda Country Club and won handily. In the State Am, he reached the semifinals, but was upset by Cuff, the San Diegan who went on to win.
Thomas has seen the ups and the downs of the golf industry. He believes it takes too long to play a round, that courses have been made too long, too difficult and unwalkable. The prevalence of golf carts is a blessing and a curse, he said.
His gravest concern? “Water will be the biggest single issue over the next 20 years,” Thomas said.
Thomas will keep his hand in some golf marketing, and he'll now have more time to enjoy his other interests – classical music, church activities and public transportation.
Maybe he'll get more time to enjoy himself on the golf course, made freer with no camera over his shoulder. He can pick some sunny days to play.
“Golfers are unique,” Thomas said. “The overwhelming majority of them are solid, wonderful people. That's been the greatest thing working for the SCGA, the people I've met.”