How did I end up on the board of directors of the PGA of America? It’s all Bob Lanier’s fault.
Growing up in East Chicago, Ill., my friends and I didn’t pay much attention to golf. I never even swung a club until my late 20s, when I was playing for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and attended a charity tournament at Tripoli Country Club. I thought, How hard could it be? Just hit the ball and go hit it again. I had a rude awakening that day, to say the least. I didn’t have a clue about what club to use or anything. The other guys on my team wanted to win, and I’m sure they were looking at me and thinking, What are you doing out here? You can’t play dead. I was out of my element.
Then Lanier was traded to Milwaukee after a stellar career with the Detroit Pistons. He got most of us Bucks playing golf, and the only thing he liked better than taking our money was reminding us of it later. He was so much better than the rest of us, he couldn’t wait to get us to the 1st tee. He did everything but send a limo. Bob hasn’t played in a while because of some lingering physical issues, but he was a pretty good golfer in his prime, and that wasn’t easy, because at 6′ 11″ there’s a lot of room for error.
That’s when I really caught the golf bug, although I didn’t really arrive as a golfer until 1994, when I joined Valhalla (site of this year’s Ryder Cup) in Louisville. That course is so demanding that I had to either get better or give up—so I became determined to get better.
I’ve had my share of highlight moments. I’ve broken 80, and in the pro-am at the Tour Championship a few years ago, I played 18 holes with Tiger Woods. Watching him hit a golf ball up close was a tremendous thrill. The sound was different, everything was different. I say this and I believe it—he plays a different game. Far different from the one I play even today.
At 54, I’m a successful businessman (my company owns and operates more than 200 chain restaurants in the Midwest and the South), and I carry a 10 handicap at Valhalla. A friend recently pointed out that my handicap is lower than my NBA career scoring average of 13.6 points a game over 12 seasons. Believe me, the 13.6 was a lot easier to achieve than the 10.
Having been named to the PGA of America board last month, I just attended my first meeting and was so impressed. The board represents about 28,000 PGA members, who work at places that vary from exclusive private clubs to driving ranges to municipal courses. I was amazed by how committed they are to making golf a better, more inclusive game. They understand where the sport has to go—not necessarily on TV, but by making it a game that everyone can play and enjoy. I can’t put into words the dedication of these people.
I love golf, but I’ve grown up playing team sports, so I’m really looking forward to being a member of this squad and contributing whatever I can. Who would’ve thought that a kid with a nice jump shot from East Chicago could wind up here? Lanier never would’ve believed it. I think I’ll call and tell him about my new golf gig. And say thanks.