NJSGA Hall of Famer Ziobro, NFL Colts Owner Irsay share longtime Bond
Following seven years on the PGA Tour (1971-77), NJSGA Hall of Famer Billy Ziobro resumed his career as a head PGA professional at courses throughout the Northeast, including Beaver Brook Country Club in Annandale, the Salem Country Club and Ipswich C.C., both in Massachusetts, and at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe. He also had an office at Atlantic City C.C. where he served as vice president of Golf Operations for Caesars Entertainment.
One of the proudest achievements for Ziobro, who won both the NJSGA Amateur and Open Championships at age 21 in 1970, was mentoring an amazing 32 assistants who became head professionals, including Mike Preston at Echo Lake, Steve Napoli (formerly at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City) and two-time National Club Pro Champion Kirk Hanefeld – who succeeded Ziobro at Salem Country Club.
One other young man he had nurtured was a caddie with fond recollections of Ziobro, who drew the caddie’s name by a random drawing prior to the 1975 U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club, just outside of Chicago. Back then, qualifiers were not allowed to bring their own caddies.
“He told me his name was James. He told me he went to boarding school in Chicago (Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill.). It may well have been one of his first attempts as a caddie. I showed him the proper way to carry a bag.
“After that, I wanted to engage him and make him feel part of my two-man team for the entire week. To me, the more I could encourage him, the more he would enjoy the week and it would make things easier for me as well. I included him in the decision-making, asked his opinion on the yardages to the front of every green, and we would decide on what clubs to hit. I knew what club I would hit, but I still wanted him to feel part of our two-man team,” said Ziobro, who played in five U.S. Opens, twice making the cut.
In coming years, he used a similar strategy in endearing himself to his assistants. Ziobro would empower them and offer them decision-making opportunities. Then he would support their effort while at the same time preparing them in all aspects of a head professional’s job.
About three or four years ago, Ziobro received a phone call from an unidentified person asking if he was Billy Ziobro, the golfer. The caller informed Ziobro he would be receiving a jingle from an associate of his in coming days.
“I thought it was a little unusual. A few days later, I received a call from Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts. I asked him what I could do for him. He asked me if I remembered him, that he had caddied for me at the 1975 U.S. Open at Medinah. I said, ‘James is that you?"
Yes, the 16-year-old caddie at the time was the son of Baltimore Colts owner, Robert Irsay. After graduating from SMU in 1982, Jim joined the Colts' professional staff. He was named Vice President and General Manager in 1984, the same year the team relocated to Indianapolis.
After his father suffered a stroke in 1995, Jim assumed day-to-day management with the role of Senior Executive Vice President, General Manager and Chief Operating Officer in April 1996. When his father died in 1997, he became the youngest NFL team owner at age 37.
Irsay has never forgotten Ziobro. On March 31, a package of personal items, including a bottle of champagne, arrived at Ziobro’s home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Irsay had found out that Ziobro had been inducted into the NJSGA Hall of Fame in 2019, and the package was Irsay’s way of congratulating him.
Irsay was effusive in his praise for Ziobro when reached at his office in Indianapolis recently:
“Billy was such a great player, but an even better person. I had the thrill of my life caddying for him in the 1975 U.S. Open, and it can’t be misunderstood what a great player he was. I know just to qualify for the U.S. Open is special, but he proved over time to be one of the most special players on the planet. I look at him somewhat like a cut between Ian Woosnam and Tom Watson…a compact swing, consistent and really very comparable to Tom Kite,” Irsay stated.
“But I’m so proud I was able to caddie for Billy in the U.S. Open at age 16. I was a player in high school, but I still had much to learn being a ‘Pro Jock’ as Bill Murray would say. But it was a beautiful weekend – Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Medinah – and I must confess that it was a thrill of a lifetime. Billy was always very kind to me, and I couldn’t have picked a better player and person than him to emulate."
Added Ziobro: “When Jim first contacted me a few years ago, he told me he had learned so much during that week of the 1975 U.S. Open. Specifically, he said I was encouraging and inclusionary toward him during the decision-making process on the golf course. It became a management strategy that he embraced and applies to this day with the Colts.”
Playing out of Union County’s Ash Brook Golf Course, Ziobro is the first player in NJSGA history to win the Amateur, Open and Junior championships. Ziobro is one of only two golfers to win the NJSGA Amateur and Open in the same year; he did so in 1970 (Charles Whitehead was the first in 1942).
He won his first professional event, the Dodge Open, at Rockaway River in the spring of 1971. While playing on the PGA Tour for seven years, he had 10 top-10 finishes. He made the cut at The Players Championship, and played in the PGA and Senior PGA Championships. Ziobro has also won the New Jersey PGA Section championship, two Dodge Opens and the Vermont Open.