Former QB Ron Jaworski wins big in golf

Pro-File: Ron Jaworski, former NFL playerPortraitBlue Heron Pines Golf Club/Egg Harbor City, NJ, USA7/22/2015X159803 TK1Credit: Jessica Kourkounis
Pro-File: Ron Jaworski, former NFL player Portrait Blue Heron Pines Golf Club/Egg Harbor City, NJ, USA 7/22/2015 X159803 TK1 Credit: Jessica Kourkounis
Photograph by Jessica Kourkounis

For those familiar with Ron Jaworski’s exuberant, wonkish analysis on ESPN’s NFL programming, it is easy to imagine his having been an insatiable game-film connoisseur in his playing days. Yet the quarterback spent his in-season off days more concerned with par 3s than third downs, his 18-hole escapes as important to his recovery as his time in the trainer’s room.

“I was away from the media, away from fans, away from talking about the game,” Jaworski says of his golf outings. “It was where I would recharge my batteries.”

The man known as Jaws explains this while seated in a conference room at Blue Heron Pines Golf Club in Egg Harbor City, N.J.  Embroidered on his orange polo shirt are the words “Ron Jaworski Golf.” Both wardrobe and setting are reminders that Jaworski’s former refuge from work now is his work. With six courses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (including Blue Heron Pines), Jaworski has employed the doggedness and eye for detail that characterize his TV scouting to turn a favorite hobby into three-plus decades of business success.

“It’s like he’s still a quarterback reading the field,” says Ken Kochenour, Jaworski’s partner on five of his courses. “He sees stuff other people don’t see.” Sometimes that means adding an alternate tee, or trimming trees to open up the fairway, in the service of playability. That’s one of Jaworski’s central tenets, along with affordability (his courses charge less than $100 per round, even during weekend peaks), atmosphere (each features a sports bar), and a quick pace of play (which his rangers are not reluctant to enforce).

Other times it means spotting savings opportunities. Ron Jaworski Golf relies on economy of scale, purchasing everything from fertilizer to clubhouse food in bulk to be split among locations. This spring, after his purchase of Downingtown (Pa.) Country Club, Jaworski mobilized employees from his other courses to redo its shoddy sand traps. What would have cost upwards of $110,000 through a contractor was done for $18,000.

“It’s like he’s still a quarterback reading the field. He sees stuff [on his golf courses] other people don’t see.”Ken Kochenour

In golf, “your margins are tight and it can be thankless,” says Charlie Clarke, superintendent at Blue Heron Pines and a longtime Jaworski employee. But Jaworski says each of his courses pulls in six-figure annual profits. “I have never lost money on a golf course,” he says, knocking on the wooden table. “I say that proudly because I know a lot of people can’t.”

Jaworski’s love of the links dates to his childhood in Lackawanna, N.Y.  The son of a worker at a local Bethlehem Steel mill, Jaws was no country-club kid. But around age 9, he and his friends began sneaking onto the grounds of a public nine-hole course near their grade school to play scofflaw rounds, and Jaworski was smitten.

At 22, in 1973, Jaworski bought his first set of real clubs. By then he was a hotshot second-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams, and he put those Wilson Staffs to frequent use. But he was painfully aware of how short an NFL career could be: “I was scared to death of the future,” he says. In 1977 he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he found stability on and off the field: Coach Dick Vermeil installed Jaworski as starting quarterback, and in ’79, the off-season before he led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl, Jaworski and a teammate took over operations at a nearby golf course—an experience he enjoyed enough to begin envisioning his second career.

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins Jaworski led the Philadelphia Eagles to their first Super Bowl; he was still an Eagle when he bought his first golf course.Photograph by Getty Images

Five years later he learned that a bankrupt course in southern New Jersey was for sale. Jaworski scraped together the necessary dough: $1.65 million, more than four times his $400,000 salary. He rechristened the club Ron Jaworski’s Eagles’ Nest and set about cutting greens, raking traps, and riding an F10 mower to trim the rough. “Once you put your own money in the deal,” he explains, “it’s amazing how quick you learn.”

As his NFL career wound down, Jaworski’s stable of courses grew; by the mid-’90s he owned a half-dozen. With the Tiger Woods-driven rise in golf’s popularity came a rise in golf-course valuation, and in 1998 a group of Wall Street investors offered him more than $17 million for the courses, roughly $7 million more than he’d originally paid. “I remember opening the letter, sitting with my wife,” Jaworski recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, I guess we’re out of the golf business.’ ” But the absence would be brief. After a noncompete clause expired in 2000, Jaworski bought Valleybrook Country Club in Blackwood, N.J., launching what became the Ron Jaworski Golf portfolio. Retirement hadn’t agreed with him. “I got a little squirrelly,” Jaworski says. “I was probably playing too much too.”

During football season, Jaworski enjoys no such overindulgences. A typical week includes Tuesday-through-Thursday film study; a Friday taping of NFL Matchup game previews; then Saturday through Monday at either a game site or ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., Between the NFL’s opening night and the Super Bowl, he might play two or three rounds of golf at most.

The workload hasn’t stifled his love of football or his entrepreneurialism. Jaworski is an owner of the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League, and a principal investor in the nascent China American Football League, an indoor league scheduled to begin play in fall 2016. Jaworski is bullish about its prospects in a country of nearly 1.4 billion. A larger-scale league “probably won’t happen in my lifetime,” he says, “but it’s gonna happen.”

He is upbeat, too, about the future of Ron Jaworski Golf in the hands of his son, B.J., currently executive vice president. Though National Golf Foundation statistics show a recent net decline in the number of courses, Jaworski is undaunted. He sees women and children—often shunned or discouraged by snobbish country clubs—as an underserved market that will be golf’s future lifeblood. He’s in the process of completing his second course purchase of 2015, and he’s eyeing more. “The numbers are down,” he says of the industry. “That’s a reality. But they’re not down for me.”

A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “A keen eye for detail on gridirons and greens.”

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