Jim Cook surveyed his domain in wonderment.
He recalled when there were no chalets at Firestone Country Club for corporate outings and guests to stay overnight. He remembered former general manager Don Padgett II grousing about the ugly roof of the clubhouse, pockmarked by air conditioners, and dreaming of a hospitality area there. Cook thought back to the days when Firestone negotiated its own television contracts, before the PGA Tour swooped in.
Cook was part of all that. Although he spent part of his career in California, Cook was involved in PGA Tour golf at Firestone from 1964-2004, serving as tournament director for over 25 years. Getting his law degree while an assistant football coach at the University of Akron and going to work for Firestone Tire and Rubber, Cook and Padgett were the visionaries, turning the famous course on Warner Road into a world-class golf palace.
“Boy, what a place. This place is so beautiful, my God, this is about as good as it gets,” Cook marveled Saturday.
He was following his son, John, 61, now a member of the PGA Tour Champions, with his grandson Jason, 33, toting John’s bag in the third round of the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship. Jason took the week off from his job mowing greens at the Oak Bridge Club at TPC Sawgrass, a course John is redoing, to caddie for his father.
Daughter Cathy, now manager and director of operations at Cooks Creek Golf Club in South Bloomfield, Ohio (south of Columbus on U.S. 23) and her daughter Catey, a senior at Rollins College, will join them on Sunday.
“This is a special time for us,” Jason said.
Jim Cook is 85 years old and still working. He pulled a Cook Golf business card out of his pocket, which held several more. He lives at Cooks Creek in an old farmhouse where his dad used to reside with his uncle. He said his father, Burt Cook, bought and sold the public course, bordered by the Scioto River and Little Walnut Creek, three times.
“He’s up and out every morning. He does not quit. He tells the maintenance crews what to do at the golf course,” Jason said of his grandfather.
Jim Cook was also a dynamo at Firestone, where he worked in public relations and personnel and ran tournaments, along with automobile racing responsibilities. He was transferred to the Los Angeles area to be Western manager of public relations, and Firestone leaders helped him start his own business, first Jim Cook Associates and then Championship Management. He split his time between California and Akron, also running the San Diego Open and Las Vegas Invitational.
From 1964-73, Firestone hosted three PGA Tour events — the American Golf Classic (which started in 1961), the World Series of Golf (1962) and the CBS Golf Classic (1964). When John Cook was 3 or 4, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player would let him sit on their golf bags on the driving range.
Jim Cook said the course was the first to draw an international field, lured by large purses that would help players qualify for the PGA Tour. And Cook kept pushing the purses higher, unpopular at the time. He said in the early ‘80s, most only offered a total of $400,000 to $500,000.
“One time at the sponsors meeting in Dallas, there were tournament people all from all over, [and] everybody wanted to know what we were going to do with prize money,” Cook said. “I was doing the NEC World Series of Golf and the Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational. I said, ‘At the NEC we were $500,000 this year, we’re going to be $800,000 next year. In Las Vegas, we were $700,000, we had a big pro-am, and we’re going to do the first million-dollar tournament.’
"I got booed. At the time John’s on tour, [and] they think I’m doing it for him.”
Cook found the perfect mastermind to help him transform Firestone in Padgett II, the father of Bridgestone Senior Players executive director Don Padgett III.
“Don and I were a good team together,” Cook said of the elder Padgett, now retired after working for 10 years at Pinehurst Country Club. “He had good ideas and he worked hard. When Padgett was here, we were changing everything. That’s one thing that kept it good — his ideas and changing and making it better all the time.”
They built the first villas on the 16th hole, Padgett putting it together with owner-operator ClubCorp, and Cook convincing local businesses to buy them. They developed hospitality centers, using 10 trailers in the parking lot with picket fences until Cook watched John playing in the Masters Tournament and saw that Augusta National placed theirs in the trees.
They instituted a pro-am in 1981 and selected Chi Chi Rodriguez the first Ambassador of Golf. Rodriguez was managed by Akron’s Eddie Elias, and tour officials said the pro-am didn’t have to be stocked with tour players, so they invited the flamboyant Puerto Rican.
That wasn’t the only crafty move Cook made in his life. Cook was a member of Sigma Chi fraternity, as was Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes. He convinced Hayes to take him on as a graduate assistant, then agreed to update Hayes’ master’s thesis.
“That’s my famous deal in football,” Cook said. “It was all about statistics of high school football coaches in Ohio. He was my adviser — if I did that, I got a superior grade. Anybody who doesn’t believe it, I tell ‘em it’s in the library down there.”
It was the deals Cook made when he worked for Firestone that helped transform it into a venue worthy of hosting a World Golf Championship from 1999-2001 and 2003-2018. It was why members of the Champions Tour players board swooped in, eager to return to a venue they’ve loved and respected for years. It was why eight-time champion Tiger Woods said a year ago he can’t wait until he turns 50.
“This whole setting and everything that’s happened is pretty darn impressive,” Cook said. “It’s almost as good as it gets as far as golf. I’m so proud of being part of the history of this place. The people … it just keeps getting better and better. [General manager] Mark Gore, Donnie [Padgett III] … the history of the people, not only working here, but having a good time.
“The family, we’re proud of being around here again.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.