Category - Major Events
Oak Hill's Jason Ballard Ready to Host 2023 PGA Championship
By Jay Coffin
Jason Ballard (far left), pictured in 2019 with KitchenAid Senior PGA Champion Ken Tanigawa.
Jason Ballard’s first day as Oak Hill Country Club’s PGA Head Professional produced quite a culture shock. It was Feb. 1, 2014, and the wind chill reached minus 20 in Rochester. The average temperature that month was 6 degrees and there was 18 inches of snow.
“Remember, I’m a kid from California, lived in Georgia, spent time in Arizona and all these hot places,” Ballard said. “I’m thinking, what did I get myself into?”
The answer? A dream job at one of the most historic clubs in the country, a decision he hasn’t regretted once since that bitter winter day nearly a decade ago. Sure, those first few months were an adjustment. It was his first job as a PGA Head Professional and he was replacing Craig Harmon, a beloved figure from a legendary family who had held the post for 42 years.
“I got asked in my interview, ‘How do you expect to follow in Harmon’s shoes?’ ” Ballard, 44, recalls. “I wear size 8½ so I can’t fit in anyone’s shoes.
“I’m a different person. I’m not going to try to be him. That first year, I evaluated the operation and made changes slowly. They didn’t want someone to come in and shake things up right away. The changes we made were slow, but sure. It feels like yesterday.”
While early memories of Ballard’s love affair with the game do not feel like yesterday, they do remain extraordinarily vivid. He grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., and baseball was his first love. That quickly changed during junior high school when his grandfather, Jim, and uncle, Don, both worked at Bennett Valley Golf Course and constantly nudged Jason to concentrate on golf. Don Ballard is still the superintendent there, having served for more than 40 years.
Young Jason remembers riding his bicycle to Bennett Valley every day one summer with golf clubs on his back. He’d play all day, then join his grandfather and uncle later for nine holes.
“I loved playing with them,” he said.
Jason played competitive golf in high school, which propelled him to play college golf at San Diego State. He played there for a year, then left, moved to Arizona and turned professional. After jumping around on West Coast-based mini-tours in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ballard quickly concluded that lifestyle wasn’t for him. He needed a steady paycheck.
But he loved golf and wanted to remain in the game. Becoming a PGA Professional was the obvious choice, and in 2004 he received PGA membership for the first time. Ten short years later, he landed the Oak Hill job.
That decade, however, was jam packed.
Ballard’s first job was as a Senior Assistant Professional at The Rim Golf Club in Payson, Ariz.
Then the whirlwind started when Ballard heard about an opening at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta and, surprisingly to him, he was granted an interview. He didn’t have much experience, had never traveled east of Arizona and figured he was considered a fish out of water. But he got the job.
“That opened my eyes and opened a lot of doors,” Ballard said. “I met a lot of great golf pros there. That step was important.”
East Lake hosted, and still does, the PGA Tour’s Tour Championship each year and the club did massive retail numbers, both things he had never experienced. Four years later, Ballard moved across Interstate 20 to Augusta National Golf Club, where he was a Senior Assistant Golf Professional from 2008-14.
“I didn’t come from a country club background and played at places where there was no dress code,” Ballard said. “Then fast forward 10-15 years later and I was working at Augusta National. It tells you anything is possible in this crazy game.”
With Augusta National closed during summers, Ballard spent that time as an assistant at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. In 2013, he joined first-time PGA Head Professional Derek Brody at Inverness Club. Brody was an assistant at Augusta National and he called on Ballard to join him in Ohio so he could see the challenges that a new pro would face.
Just about that same time, word began to circulate that Harmon was ready to retire from Oak Hill. Ballard quickly threw his name in the hat.
“During the interview process, I got asked a lot more about my experience at Congressional than I did about my experience at Augusta National,” he said. “The clubs are very similar. Both have 36 holes, both are big clubs, active, with junior and ladies’ programs.
“At Augusta, it’s the attention to detail, the exceeding expectations, all of that played into it and was important. But the similarities between Oak Hill and Congressional were the selling point.”
The PGA of America helped Oak Hill with an employment search and found 162 candidates. The job posting was sent to those 162 and 32 applications were received. The search committee whittled it down to 10 and started interviewing. From there it was cut to two final candidates.
East Lake, Augusta National, Congressional, Inverness, Oak Hill. Within 10 years. “I always wanted to be at the more historic courses,” Ballard said.
Nine years later, Oak Hill remains a well-oiled machine. The club has 950 members, rounds played have been at an all-time high and retail numbers are through the roof, leading Ballard to be named PGA National Merchandiser of the Year (Private category) three years ago.
The club’s mission statement has long been to host major championships and always remain involved with contributing to the growth of the game. Old and new members alike have bought into that mission and Ballard has never once heard anyone complain about having to give their golf course up to host events like this week’s PGA Championship.
Ballard was not at the club for the club’s last PGA Championship, but he has an inkling of what’s in store. Every volunteer position for the week was filled in less than 48 hours, there’s been a buzz at the club for months and the corporate and community support has been overwhelming.
“We are a golf town. This is our Super Bowl."
Jason Ballard, PGA
“Oak Hill is ready, and as the Head Golf Professional there’s a great sense of pride being a PGA Member and hosting the PGA Championship. It’s going to be a great week.”
Jay Coffin has had a long career as a golf writer with previous positions at Golfweek magazine and Golf Channel.