Life is about to become quite hectic for the fifth-year Oak Hill Country Club head golf pro as his club gears up to host the 2019 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship on May 21-26. Ballard’s responsibilities overseeing merchandise sales, practice and driving range schedules, locker room assignments, etc. will make for a crazy several weeks. And those weeks could become even crazier should he wind up qualifying to play in the PGA Championship that’s scheduled to take place at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course on Long Island a week before Oak Hill hosts its latest major tournament. Though the timing may be somewhat nightmarish, playing in such a prestigious event would be a dream come true for the Santa Rosa, Calif. native. Yes, he would be doubly stressed, but also doubly blessed.
“It’s a long shot that I’ll qualify, but it would be a huge thrill if I do, and I’m going to give it my best shot,’’ Ballard was saying recently from his office in the Oak Hill pro shop. “It would definitely be a whirlwind, but it’s great that the PGA is being played on the East Coast, an hour’s flight away, rather than on the other side of the continent.”
Should Ballard pull off the impressive daily double of playing in a major tournament one week before hosting one, it would be a feather not only in his visor, but in that of Oak Hill’s.
“Club members and my staff have been so supportive as I pursue this,’’ he said. “The club even has given me some time off to prepare for the qualifier (in Blufton, S.C. in late April). In order to keep my game sharp, they’re allowing me to play a bunch of rounds in Florida and California. They see the benefits to me and to the club, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Somewhere, up above, his late grandfather must be smiling. Decades ago, Jim Ballard introduced his grandson to the game of golf. Jason was a natural from the start, but, early on, golf took a backseat to baseball. A diehard San Francisco Giants fan who has vivid memories of 1980s stars such as Will Clark, Robby Thompson and Candy Maldonado, Ballard aspired to hit fastballs rather than tee-shots for a living. But talent eventually wins out, and as time progressed, it became apparent that Ballard was better at swinging Callaways than Louisville Sluggers.
Before his sophomore year of high school, he decided to concentrate on golf. And although he remains a diehard baseball fan, he has no regrets, only gratitude. Ballard wound up earning a golf scholarship to San Diego State, but eventually left college to pursue his professional career on the mini-tours in Arizona. In 2004, he achieved his PGA professional status, and worked as an assistant at prestigious clubs, such as Congressional in Bethesda, Md., Inverness in Toledo and Augusta National, home of the Masters, in Georgia.
When Craig Harmon announced in 2013 he was retiring from Oak Hill after 42 years, Ballard decided to toss his hat into the ring, never expecting to win the job. But after an exhaustive series of interviews and reference checks, the then-35-year-old beat out 31 other applicants and was hired to succeed Harmon as the golf pro at one of the most respected clubs in the world.
“During the interview process, I told them I can never be Craig Harmon; I can only be myself and try to build on the legacy he created here,’’ Ballard said. “They asked me if I could fill his shoes. I joked that I wear an 8 ½, so I couldn’t fill his shoes anyway. My feet aren’t big enough.”
Ballard and his predecessor have a good relationship, and chat occasionally.
“‘Water off the duck’s back,’ was the sage advice Craig gave me, meaning that I shouldn’t take the criticism of members to heart, and that I shouldn’t take my work home with me,’’ he said. “I think it’s good advice because you can’t please everybody. You just try to do your best every day.”
Ballard’s background makes him ideally suited for helping host a major tournament. After all, he had plenty of experience doing so at his previous stops, especially Augusta National, where he played a role in a major every April.
“The big difference now is that this will be my first time doing it as a head pro,’’ he said. “But I’m confident we’re going to pull this off because we have a solid plan and a tremendous staff. We’re so excited because this is another opportunity to showcase what an iconic place Oak Hill is in the world of golf.”
The golf fan in Ballard is excited, too, because many of the players he followed in his younger days — people such as Freddy Couples, Tom Lehman, Bernhard Langer and Rochester’s own, Jeff Sluman — could be part of the field.
“These were guys I grew up watching — they’re my heroes — and we have the opportunity to showcase them and introduce them to a new generation of fans,’’ Ballard said. “In a lot of ways, I think the players on the senior tour are a lot more approachable than the players on the regular tour, and their willingness to interact with spectators makes for a much more enjoyable experience. Rochester obviously is a great golf town. We’re going to be in for a real treat.”
It’s sure to be a crazy busy time for Ballard. And he can’t wait. He hopes to cram two thrills of a lifetime into two weeks.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.