Long-time pro from Corvallis won six times on PGA Tour, 10 more on Champions Tour
Born and reared in Corvallis, Or., Bob Gilder was a walk-on golfer at talent-laden Arizona State who defied the odds, making the team and ultimately winning a Western Athletic Conference championship. He earned his PGA Tour card on his third try at Q-school, missed the cut in his debut, and then won his second tournament, the 1976 Phoenix Open at age 25.
“I guess you could say it was a little unexpected…,” Gilder said.
“I wasn’t any superstar, that’s for sure. There were guys who had a whole lot more ability than I ever had. But I really worked hard at it, and I enjoyed it, and I loved to compete.”
Gilder won five more times on the PGA Tour, including three wins in 1982, and earned more than $3 million. He made his debut on the Senior PGA Tour —later the Champions Tour and now the PGA Tour Champions — in 2001 and in the ensuing years won 10 tournaments and earned $11.4 million.
The 2017 PGA Tour Champions season will be his last as a full-time player, Gilder said. At age 66, he seems motivated to prove something to himself after a “very disappointing” 2016 marked by career lows in tournaments played and money earned, and by the end of his streak of 75 straight starts in Champions Tour majors.
Gilder said his swing troubles, particularly hitting irons close to the pin, developed over a couple of years since the death of his long-time coach, Paul Obermeyer, after a long battle with prostate cancer. He had worked with Obermeyer since the week of that first PGA Tour win, a career-making teacher-pupil relationship.
“A great man,” Gilder said. “I definitely credit him for that win. … He got me doing some things that gave me a lot of confidence. And I happened to end up winning, which was a bonus. What it said to me is that ‘wow, I do belong out here, I can play with these guys.’ As rookies and young players, you have to be able to say that to yourself, you’ve got to feel like you belong. You’ve got to feel like you can play with them.”
Play he did, tirelessly, tournament after tournament, year after year. Gilder won tournaments on the PGA Tour in his 20s and his 30s, in Japan the year he turned 40, and on the Senior/Champions Tour in his 50s and at age 60. In 2013, he became the 19th golfer with 1,000 combined starts on the PGA and PGA Champions Tours.
As befits a guy who raced cars on the Trans-Am circuit, Gilder had a quiet flair for the dramatic. His victory in the 1982 Westchester Classic included a double-eagle on the 509-yard No. 18 hole when he holed a three-wood from 251 yards to end the third round. He won the 1983 Phoenix Open in an eight-hole playoff that included Mark O’Meara and Johnny Miller. Three of his 10 Senior/Champions Tour wins came in playoffs; his last win, in 2011, came by a stroke with birdies on three of the last four holes, and in the final round of the 2014 Senior Players Championship, in which he finished 12th, he shot 63, which happened to be his age.
And then there was the 1983 Ryder Cup, when Gilder’s Sunday singles victory over Gordon Brand, 2-up, provided a crucial point in the U.S. victory, 14.5 to 13.5, as the squad captained by Jack Nicklaus narrowly avoided becoming the first U.S. team to lose the cup on American soil.
“It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve made a team like that, and having those name guys relying on you as a team member to win a championship,” Gilder said.
It was the third Ryder Cup in which British players joined forces with Europeans such as Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer.
“It was nowhere like it is today, but it was the very start of it,” he said. “They (the Europeans) were in tears when they lost. They thought they could beat us, and from that point on they thought they had a really good chance to beat us every year. I would say it was a big deal to us, but it was a bigger deal to the Europeans, because that was the start of when they believed they could beat us.
“They finally had the players.”
Gilder and his wife, Peggy, married almost 46 years, moved from Corvallis to North Scottsdale, Ariz., more than a year ago, but Gilder said they’ll always have a place in Oregon. That’s home to their children and grandchildren, including a 14-year-old grandson with cystic fibrosis, and where Gilder headlines an annual tournament at Pumpkin Ridge to raise money to fight the progressive, genetic lung disorder.
Late last year, Gilder began working with Arizona teaching pro Craig Bunker and was encouraged by the results.
“I’m hitting some really good shots, and I just want to see what one more year would cook up,” Gilder said. “My wife was telling me go out have fun this year. ‘You know it will be last year, go out and enjoy it and have fun with it. If you do well, you do well, and it you don’t, it’s not a big deal.’”
This story originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Pacific Northwest Golfer Magazine.