Visionary. Trailblazer. Father of the PGA TOUR. This was Bob Harlow, the man who packaged and promoted golf in this country into an entertainment business. What were innovations for Harlow are institutions today, ideas such as a year-round schedule, the concept of a volunteer system and the PGA’s Merchandise Show. “He was the one who really put it in some kind of order, setting up the basic framework that exists today,” said golf writer Al Barkow. He did this right after the Depression, selling golf not only as a sport, but as a product. He was the game’s first mover and shaker.
Harlow’s background was newspapers, but he loved the Theatre and reading Variety, the show business bible. As a youth, he had been a performer, and he married a woman who was a concert singer. His first connection to golf was through the management of Walter Hagen, but that was a no-brainer. Hagen was a showman, and Harlow wrote most of his material. It was a great marriage.
"First to keep the game of golf before the sports-loving public so that enthusiasm may be maintained in a game which is getting plenty of competition from other sports. The second is to provide a great deal of competition for our professionals so that they can maintain a high standard of play and that new players may be developed."
Hagen was the box office, but it took more than a marquee for Harlow to sell the sport in America. Being the son of a minister certainly helped. Sitting through those Sunday services taught Harlow how to proselytize and raise money. He would go into towns and cities and convince the local Chambers of Commerce and the community leaders that playing host to golf tournaments was the way to go. He would get businesses, country clubs, radio stations and newspapers behind the event, and then he would go on to the next town or city, doing the same deal all over. The PGA of America hired him for $100 a week to do this job, but there were spinoffs that Harlow could cash in on. As the manager for Hagen, Paul Runyan, Horton Smith and Ed Dudley, Harlow practically controlled the show, so he would book these marathon exhibition swings where his players would play against each other, five to six times a week, for more than a month. They would do this traveling through the American heartland, states like Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.
In November 1930, Harlow proposed the idea of a year-around tournament circuit. He introduced the concept of public relations and published the first media guide called the Tournament Players Record Book. In it, he wrote: “Entertaining of newspapermen is recommended.”
Harlow was a master of “spin.” During the Depression, he announced that there would be “fewer and better tournaments” for the 1934-1935 season. Purses dropped as low as $1,500, but Harlow kept the tour afloat. “The Tournament Bureau of the PGA is working for a number of worthwhile purposes,” Harlow wrote. “First to keep the game of golf before the sports-loving public so that enthusiasm may be maintained in a game which is getting plenty of competition from other sports. The second is to provide a great deal of competition for our professionals so that they can maintain a high standard of play and that new players may be developed.”
The PGA eventually felt that Harlow had too many irons in the fire and elected to replace him in 1936 with Fred Corcoran. At age 57, he went on to form the weekly magazine, Golf World. The idea, in the words of golf writer Charles Price, was “put the whole community of golf on a party line.” Moving to Pinehurst, N.C., he became publicity director for America’s golf capital and publisher, writer and photographer for Golf World.
There were never enough jobs for Bob Harlow, and it can be said he did them all very well.