Ron Jaworski: Philly is Ready for U.S. Open
Ron Jaworski spent 17 seasons as a quarterback in the National Football League (NFL), most of them with the Philadelphia Eagles, whom he led to the Super Bowl in his MVP season of 1980. Since retiring from the game, Jaworski – or Jaws as many refer to the affable ESPN television personality – got into several business ventures, including a company called Ron Jaworski Golf, which owns and operates five golf courses in the Greater Philadelphia region. With the U.S. Open coming to Merion Golf Club, USGA senior staff writer David Shefter interviewed Jaworski, who plays to a 9 handicap, about the national championship being contested in the Philadelphia area for the first time in 32 years as well as his love for the game, both as a player and businessman.
What’s the buzz like in Philadelphia on the eve of the 113th U.S. Open?
Jaworski: It’s tremendous. Thinking back when it was first announced that Merion was going to get the Open there was some excitement. But now that it’s here, I think there’s not only excitement from the golfing community, but from the sports community as well that it’s coming to Philadelphia.
Having attended your only U.S. Open in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, what were your first impressions?
Jaworski: It’s ridiculously hard. It really does bring out the true talent of these guys. I’ve been really fortunate to play some of the really great golf courses around the country – Cypress [Point], Pine Valley, Augusta, Oakmont and places like that – and the sheer beauty of those courses is pretty incredible. Then you see how they tighten things up for the Open. It’s a real wow! I’ll be out there on the weekend, so I am really looking forward to it.
You’ve played Merion several times. What are your thoughts on the golf course?
Jaworski: For me it was very challenging. I can imagine what it’s going to be for the guys [at the U.S. Open]. We all know the rough can be nasty. For a guy like me, I just took a sand wedge when I got into the rough and got [my ball] back in play. I didn’t even try to advance the ball, and that’s just normal playing conditions. When I played there last year, you could see where the new tees were going in.
You were a three-sport athlete at Lackawanna (N.Y.) High, playing football, basketball and baseball. So when did you start playing golf?
Jaworski: I started playing when I was 9 years old. I played South Park Golf Course [in Buffalo]. It was a nine-hole golf course. I used to sneak out on the second and third hole [because] I couldn’t afford to pay the 75-cent green fee. I could get a few holes in [without anyone catching me]. And I just fell in love with the game.
Could you play a lot during the NFL season?
Jaworski: Golf probably saved me. Tuesday is historically a day off in the NFL and that’s when I would go play golf during the season. It was just a good way to get away from everything. Put that ball on the tee and take out your frustration and get out there with nature and have fun with your friends. I found golf to be very relaxing for me and I still do.
Why are so many quarterbacks also good golfers?
Jaworski: Eye-hand coordination.
You do a great job breaking down quarterbacks at ESPN, but can you break down your golf swing?
Jaworski: I make a lot of mistakes, but at contact the club head is square to the ball. I’ve got a bad grip, a bad swing, a bad stance, but the club hits the ball square and it goes pretty straight.
What’s the best part of your game?
Jaworski: Hitting the ball off the tee. My drives have been very consistent this year.
If I put you out at Merion this week, what score would you post?
Jaworski: Probably 105. As a 9 handicap, I would be thrilled to break 100.
Did you get to play a lot of golf during your Monday Night Football days?
Jaworski: Oh yeah. [Tony] Kornheiser loved to play. And [Mike] Tirico was a golfer as well. We’d play Torrey Pines whenever we’d be in San Diego. We’d always find a place to play nearby the hotel. Tony would call our production meetings on Sunday morning at the local golf course.
How many rounds of golf do you play annually?
Jaworski: I probably play 100. I’ll find a way to get four or five rounds in a week. I’m in my office at NFL Films in the morning and then I go to one or two of the golf courses. And we have a lot of different events at them. We’re big with outings with different companies. You don’t only get the golf, but you get the food and beverage. You try to augment every possible profit center in the club.
Not only are you an avid golfer, but you are also in the business end of the game. When did you get involved with that aspect?
Jaworski: I started in the golf business in 1979. As an NFL quarterback, we weren’t making much money back then. I was always one of those guys who worried that the next play could be my last. So I was always looking for a business to get involved in. [Former Eagles teammate] John Bunting and I leased a club in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, called the Abington Club. It was a nine-hole course. I really learned the business there. A couple of years later, we leased what was then called Burn Brae Golf Club in Upper Dublin, Pennsylvania, and renamed it Twining Valley. Then in 1994, I purchased my first golf course, Eagle’s Nest in Sewell, N.J. At that point, I really got serious about the business of golf. When you put up a couple of million bucks to buy a golf course and you have to run it, mistakes are made, but you learn quickly. From then on, the company has grown to where we have five golf courses now. From 1979 to now, I have operated 24 golf courses. Some I have owned and sold. Some I have leased. Under my management company, we run them for banks and lending institutions. A week doesn’t go by now when I don’t hear from someone inquiring if I have an interest in their property.
Are these all public golf courses?
Jaworski: I operate them under the semi-private umbrella. There is a membership available and members have a two-week notice to make their tee times, then we book the public behind them.
And they are all in South Jersey and Pennsylvania?
Jaworski: Four are in Jersey. One is just outside of Atlantic City (Blue Heron Pines). The others in New Jersey are RiverWinds Golf &Tennis Club, Valleybrook Country Club and Running Deer Golf Club. Edgewood in the Pines Golf Club is in Pennsylvania.
How has the economy affected your golf operation?
Jaworski: When you’re in business, it’s a challenge. It’s like in sports – you compete every single day and you better be up for the grind, you better be up for the competition. I’m involved on a daily basis. My wife (Liz), my son, that’s what we do. That’s what they focus on when they wake up in the morning and go to bed at night. We were fortunate last year in that all of our operations were profitable.
Do you have to find creative ways to keep golfers coming back?
Jaworski: You have to think outside the box. The one area that we’ve focused on and done very well with are female golfers and junior golfers.
How have you reached out to that demographic?
Jaworski: I open up my golf courses to high school teams. We have gotten to the point where our ladies clinics draw more than 100 participants on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night at each golf course. We do a clinic and nine holes of golf and get the women more acclimated to the great game that it is.
Is the Philadelphia market starved for big-time golf since none of the major tours has an event in the area?
Jaworski: We’re fortunate we had Tiger and the AT&T [National] for a couple of years and I really enjoyed going out to Aronomink and playing in the pro-am, and hanging around those guys. That’s always a lot of fun. I am hopeful that the spotlight on Philadelphia next week will make people realize what a great golf community it is. We have some of the greatest golf courses in the world here; not only Merion, but Pine Valley, Manufacturers, Aronomink, Philadelphia Country Club, Philadelphia Cricket Club. There are just so many wonderful golf courses with great history and tradition. And maybe somewhere down the road, a tour event can come back here.