This past weekend, the Northern Ohio Golf Association family lost one of its long-time members and a truly important visionary.
Robert A. Wharton passed away on Friday, March 15th at the age of 88.
Many golfers knew Bob not only because of his NOGA position, but because he was the type of person everyone wanted to know. Friendly and kind. Quick with smile. Always offering a hearty handshake and a good word.
As both a person and as an idea man, Bob made a lasting impact on the game of golf in Northeast Ohio.
Bob was a long-time member at Oberlin Golf Club, including acting as president of the club in 1985 and 1986. Bob was also a member of the NOGA Board around that time, and later became the President of NOGA in 1988.
But Bob took those volunteer roles much further than most.
Bob was the driving force behind the continued operations of the Plain Dealer Junior Tournament, at a time when the event definitely needed a kick-start. Even though Bob was still mid-career, he devoted hundreds of hours to rebuild and regrow the junior event. His effort was so significant that he was given the Platinum Putter Award in 1990. The award’s plaque says it all:
Bob’s untiring efforts to aid junior golf has been unsurpassed. Almost single-handedly he has taken on the task of handling the Plain Dealer / NOGA Junior Golf Program. The massive job of handling over 700 contestants each year has taken much of his time and patience. Both the Northern Ohio Golf Association and Plain Dealer appreciate his help to further and keep alive our interest in junior golf. We at the Northern Ohio Golf Association hope this award will serve as a reminder of his many years of service to the game.
Those volunteer efforts made Bob a natural choice as a NOGA executive later. After ending a 40-year career with B.F. Goodrich, Bob became Executive Director of NOGA and its charity arm from 1993 to 2005.
But it was the ambitious actions he took in his leadership role with NOGA that made his tenure memorable.
Bob saw ways to enhance the game of golf in Northeast Ohio, then put plans into place to make those ideas reality. On his way to achieving those plans, he constantly engaged golfers, club officials and golf course superintendents – people who then would gladly help him however they could.
Ideas like the dream of establishing a “home” for golf in Northeast Ohio, with a headquarters, offices, a hall of fame, a library and historical archives.
Like the idea of the association having its own golf course to be used for turfgrass research, in conjunction with the local superintendent’s association.
Like the goal of offering a place for junior golfers to learn.
To those ends, Bob was instrumental in acquiring the North Olmsted Golf Club and overseeing the building of the NOGA Golf House on that property. But Bob’s vision went past office space, turfgrass and junior golf. Bob also saw the need to establish both the place and the programs required to improve the health and wellness of people with physical disabilities. To provide recreational opportunities through adaptive fitness and golf. And perhaps most importantly, to provide social activities to individuals after a life-altering disability.
Bob gathered community support for such a vision, and in 2001 the Return To Golf program began. Today, that program is called The Turn and it serves more than 250 individuals annually.
The facility built at the North Olmsted Golf Club was later named the Wharton Golf Center, in Bob’s honor. That location now houses the staff for NOGA and The Turn, the Hall of Fame of the Northern Ohio Golf Course Superintendents, and a nationally-recognized space for the adaptive fitness programs.
Of course, Bob’s visions for NOGA took some time to be realized. But the NOGA of today is a direct result of Bob’s dedication and achievements. Without the Wharton Center, NOGA’s offices might be located in an office park or strip mall. The Turn and its important programs would not exist.
NOGA’s current Executive Director, Robb Schulze, summed up Bob’s legacy perfectly. “In many ways, both NOGA and The TURN are standing on Bob’s shoulders. His vision and wisdom to move NOGA’s headquarters to a facility at the North Olmsted Golf Club was a game changer for both entities. Bob was chosen a couple months ago to be a 2019 inductee into the NOGA Hall of Fame – the Hall of Fame which Bob started. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to all that he accomplished.”
One of Oberlin’s biggest club tournaments is named after Bob, the Wharton Cup.
NOGA’s home is named after Bob, the Wharton Center.
Perhaps that says the most about the life of Bob Wharton.
Many people are passionate about golf. Some support the game and participate in it enough to make it a real part of their life. And a few people are even willing to reach out to help the game grow, making golf better for both current players and future generations.
But it is the rare person with the ability to see opportunities to expand the game to people not generally thought of as golfers, and to then make them golfers, too.
It’s those people – people like Bob – who deserve to have trophies and buildings named in their honor.
NOGA.org will have further details on the funeral services for Bob as they are announced. In lieu of flowers, the Wharton family asks that donations be made to The Turn c/o The Wharton Golf Center, One Golfview Lane, North Olmsted, OH 44070.