Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 February 2010 05:40 Wednesday, 27 February 2008 16:35
Neil Roberts began playing golf at the ripe-old age of five and by the time he was 10 he was playing what he says “Seemed like 36 holes a day.”
His dad got him started in golf and he fell in love with the sport right away.
Even today, at the tender age of 51, the Head Professional at Pitt Meadows Golf Club has never lost that fondness for the game and all that comes with it.
He had a go at playing professionally for a time but he came to realize that wasn’t going to be his long-term connection with the game. “I knew I wasn’t going to subsidize my income by playing golf,” Roberts says, adding, “I wasn’t good enough to make it on the Canadian Tour or anything like that so I thought, ‘I’m going to have to spend my life behind the counter of a pro shop playing golf and teaching golf. Which is what I’ve done for a long time and I just love it. I love being around people, I love being around the game of golf, I love teaching young people to play golf and keep them away from the street corners. It’s just a great place for anyone to be and I’ve met so many great people and made a lot of good friends.”
Roberts was born in Lethbridge, Alberta in 1956 and his family moved to Calgary when he was only a year old. He lived in Calgary for 11 years and moved to Vancouver at age 12 when his father was transferred because of work. They bought a house in Burnaby near Deer Lake and Roberts has called the Lower Mainland home now for the last 39 years.
He attended Burnaby Central High School where he played on the golf team but he played all his junior golf at the Vancouver Golf Club. Roberts played in B.C. Juniors and B.C. Amateurs in the same era as the Richard Zokols and Jim Nelfords who became pretty good professionals in their own right.
As he says, “I was making cuts and I went to a Canadian Amateur in Manitoba at Niakwa Golf Club and I just fell in love with competing. It’s really what it’s about and it got the juices flowing for me and I loved it so I really wanted to turn pro at that time. I just loved being at the golf course. I would be there on my days off… all the daylight hours… at the Vancouver Golf Club when I was a youngster.”
It was at the Vancouver Golf Club where he met one of the first highly influential and well regarded Head Professionals he’s had the good fortune to be associated with during his career. Al Nelson, who was the Head Pro at Vancouver Golf Club from 1955-1988, thought it would be a good career for Roberts to follow and he thought young Neil would make a good golf professional. Al Nelson was generally thought of as a very astute judge of talent and character and he wasn’t wrong in this case either.
Under Nelson’s tutelage Roberts turned pro in 1977 at the VGCC. He spent one more season there before moving on to Beach Grove in Richmond where he spent the next five years learning from Sid Dahl. In 1983 he moved on to Carnoustie Golf Club in Coquiltam where he was the Head Professional for two years.
His next move, which took him to Pitt Meadows Golf Club in 1985 where he assisted both Gordon Fairbairn and Rick Parkinson, has taken up the last 23 years. And by the looks of things he may well be there for the next 23 years. As he says now, Roberts feels he has had the opportunity to learn from “Some of the best Head Pros you could ever work for.”
Of course his relationship with Rick Parkinson is something that he’ll never forget and will always cherish since Rick’s untimely passing after a hard fought battle with cancer on December 25, 2004 at the all too young age of 42. “I met Rick Parkinson in March of 1985,” recalls Roberts. “We both started here at Pitt Meadows Golf Club at the same time. Gord Fairbairn (the Head Professional) was looking for two Assistant Professionals and I had left Carnoustie and Rick was coming down from Prince George. It just so happened Rick and I both started March 15th, 1985. That was the first time I met Rick and from then on we became the best of friends.”
Roberts tells also of the effect that Rick Parkinson had on all the people he met, saying, “Everybody was a friend of Rick’s. He was the type of person, well, you just had to love the guy. He was a very special person, he was selfless, he cared so much about other people. And so… Rick and I not only worked together we became friends away from the golf course. Rick did a lot of things for me, anything he could. Especially in the late 80’s and early 90’s when he became the Head Professional here. He gave me every opportunity to play golf and helped me further my career. When he became ill in 2001 he could sort of see the end of his golf career approaching and he really pushed hard for me to be the next Head Professional here and endorsed the board regarding my services and recommended me. I still had to apply for the job and I still had to prove myself but it was Rick who really pushed for that opportunity for me.”
There is, of course, one rather significant playing highlight from Neil Roberts’ career in the game that cannot go unmentioned. Roberts won the 1995 BC PGA Championship at, ironically enough, the Vancouver Golf Club, by posting scores of 71-68-68 for a 3-round total of 9-under par.
Now, that victory in itself was a terrific accomplishment but this particular win brought with it another unique reward in that by virtue of his triumph in the BC PGA Championship, Roberts became the first local professional to be given an exemption into the Greater Vancouver Open, the PGA Tour event that debuted at Surrey’s Northview Golf and Country Club in 1996. An event that he calls the “Thrill of his golfing career, and something that I’ll never forget.”
Because Roberts was, as he put it, “A raw rookie,” and not very high in the pecking order, his tee times were pretty poor. But at the same time, Roberts says, “The tournament was very exciting and I was extremely nervous playing in the golf tournament. I’m practicing and talking to people like Curtis Strange (a 2-time U.S. Open champion), Brad Faxon and Lee Janzen (also a U.S. Open winner). The tournament was fun in itself, although I did not play that well. I shot 81 the first day and 73 the second day, I was extremely nervous and really out of my element."
"I had practiced and played that golf course so much I knew the golf course inside out. I knew it better than anyone, I think, as far as yardages but that’s only one aspect of the tournament. So as soon as I knew I was exempt for a PGA Tour event, which is the dream of any young person growing up playing golf, I was at Northview, it seemed like, every day for 6 months leading up to the tournament. I played practice rounds with people like Ken Duke, who has since made some big moves on the PGA Tour. And I remember talking to Curtis Strange in the players lounge and being with people you’ve been watching on TV. It was really quite a thrill.”
Ironically, in his group at the GVO, Roberts actually played with another Professional who was also a member of Pitt Meadows Golf Club, Mark Kochan, who had managed to ‘Monday Qualify’ for the tournament. Of course the GVO would later become the Air Canada Championship and became well known as Mike Weir’s first PGA Tour title.
Neil Roberts doesn’t get a chance to play many tournaments now. His time is largely spent making sure everything is running smoothly at the golf course. “I try and spend my time here, at the golf club,” he says, “It’s where I want to be… at Pitt Meadows, so I spend my time with the members. This is exactly where I want to be. I have signed a new contract with the golf club, just a few months ago, so they’re going to keep me around for a little bit longer… they can’t get rid of me yet,” he says, with his engaging smile, adding that, “What I’m really looking forward to is growing the membership. We’re putting in the new irrigation system this year and when the new bridge goes in you’ll be able to literally get from our driveway to Langley in less than 10 minutes. We think that’s going to be huge, it’s a 40-minute time saving each way with that bridge in place and that should make it very attractive for people to join in the next couple of years.”
A member of the CPGA for 31 years, Roberts says his greatest accomplishment in golf has been the associations and friendships he has forged during his time working at four different golf clubs. It would certainly appear that being the Head Professional at Pitt Meadows Golf Club has added greatly to that accomplishment. “The members here are the best,” Roberts says, “It’s the members that make a golf club. Our golf course is good, but it’s the people that make it such a desirable place to be.”
By Bryan Outram
Bryan Outram has been editor-in-chief for Inside Golf for the past eight years.http://www.insidegolf.ca