Bob Darling, the local golf pro at Fox Ridge, looks to sharpen his skills by competing at this year’s Maine Open

AUBURN – Bob Darling rocked back in his office chair, his long legs crossed at the ankles and his arms folded across his chest.

Someone unfamiliar with Darling, the director of golf and the head professional at Fox Ridge Golf Club, might find his gaze from underneath his baseball cap and, on occasion, over the tip of a cigar, imposing.

But only until he smiles.

“All of the little freshmen girls had a crush on him when he was in high school,” said childhood friend Nancy DeFrancesco, who is now the executive director of the Maine State Golf Association. “He’d look at you with that smile and those dimples. He looks the same now.”

Darling may look the same, but his golf game is much improved, and as the Charlie’s Maine Open shifts north to Fox Ridge for the first time, he is once again in the spotlight.

Growing up right

DeFrancesco, Darling and a host of other young golfers growing up in the 1970s in the Cumberland area got their start in golf early, thanks to the proximity and availability of Val Halla Golf Course.

“That course really fostered golf in the ’70s and ’80s,” said DeFrancesco. “We all had a great time there when we were kids, and it really gave us the appreciation for golf.”

Darling’s father, Bob Darling Sr., was one of the founding members of Val Halla.

“That’s how a lot of us got started there,” said Darling. “It’s as junior friendly, even now, as any other course in Maine. We all started out caddying for our parents there, and then after they’d play, we’d take their clubs and go bang it around. As I got a little older, my buddies and I started playing 36 holes at a time.”

“It was one of those things,” said DeFrancesco. “We all grew up there, we hung out. What else was there to do in Cumberland?”

Darling’s father returned the favor years later and caddied for him, though that may, at one time, have put added pressure on the younger Darling.

“I know he wants to see me do well, and there were times when I wanted to do that well and then some to impress him, and I might have wanted that a little too much,” said Darling, “but now that I’m getting older, I’m able to put that in perspective a bit more and realize that as long as I go out and just play as well as I can, that’s fine.”

The first step

“I didn’t really know what I was doing in high school,” he admitted. “I just was decent at it. It was good enough to get a scholarship, but that’s about it.”

Despite this self-admitted “shortcoming,” Darling did earn a scholarship to play college golf at the University of Maryland. There, he played with – and against – some top-level talent, including PGA Tour regular Fred Funk.

“I remember him very well,” Funk said last week before teeing off at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. “He’s a great guy. I remember him as this big, burly guy who was just so easygoing. He was such a people person, even in college.”

Darling refined his swing, and indeed his entire game, while at Maryland.

“I had to scrape and scratch, and I got better because of that,” said Darling.

Headstrong and sure of his impending status as a professional golfer, Darling jumped right in. With a partial sponsorship, he attempted to play on the Space Coast mini-tour in Florida.

“I don’t know that (Funk) even had a sponsor, honestly,” said Darling. “My sponsor basically wanted me to try for my tour card twice. At that time, you tried in the spring and again in the fall.”

At the time, he even lasted longer than Funk.

“I went to a satellite tour for one year and went broke,” said Funk. “So the opportunity presented itself to go back to Maryland and coach, and that’s what I did.”

His tenure as a Division I coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference didn’t hinder Funk from working on his game, though.

“He wasn’t the kind of guy to send the kids off the tee, go down to the local bar, have three or four beers and come back when they were coming in, I’m sure,” said Darling. “He’s going to be practicing or playing all the time.”

“I just wanted to give it a shot,” said Funk, who had, indeed, worked hard through the ’80s. “I wanted to give it a shot, I wanted to see how good I could get. If that was good enough to be on tour, fine.”

Since 1988, his last year coaching at Maryland, Funk has seven PGA Tour victories and 88 top-10 finishes in 565 events played.

Darling, meanwhile, plied his trade at Martindale, first as an assistant club professional in 1984 and then as the head pro from 1987 to 2002.

“The job I had at first over at Martindale, that was pretty good,” said Darling. “It didn’t pay a lot of money, but I was able to play and teach.”

Solid sidekick

In 1984, Darling married wife Diane. He continued to make trips to Florida in the winter, until his kids started to grow up.

“There was 10 years, or so, once the kids got to be in junior high, where we didn’t go down to Florida at all,” she said. “Once the kids both got into college, then off we went again.”

After Darling became the head pro at Martindale, his wife quit her job at the library and started working with him at Martindale, helping to keep the books and run the pro shop, which he also owned.

“In reality, there was no way I could have run that business myself and do the book work,” he said. “Diane did all of the book work, and we pitched in and ran the business together. Without her, I couldn’t possibly have done it.”

“It’s been a team effort for the last 25 years,” his wife said. “That’s a good thing.”

Through the years, she has become an integral piece of Bob’s golf game and now caddies for him in most tournaments.

“Now I get to travel with Bob, and I get to caddie for him,” she said. “I’m mostly there for support, though, not to tell him, ‘Yeah, I think you should use the 7-iron.’ It’s more for moral support.”

“We’ve been together for such a long time now, she knows my game pretty good,” said Darling. “Not that she’s going to try to coach me in any way, but just to have a person, especially your wife, to be able to talk to, that’s the biggest thing. A lot of times, you’re out there by yourself, and you just need that person there to help you focus on your next shot.”

The next step

Four years ago, Darling said he wanted to hit the ground running on the Champions Tour (formerly the PGA Senior Tour) when he hit 50. Now, at 49, the goal remains the same, but his attitude has shifted, if only a bit.

“It might be advantageous for me to pass for this year,” he said. “Just to wait to see how it goes, to see what the format is.”

Funk, meanwhile, doesn’t see a reason Darling couldn’t make a run at playing on the Champions Tour after turning 50, but acknowledges that a certain element of luck also exists.

“There is such a fine line between success and failure,” said Funk. “If he’s going to go, he’d better be ready to play at this level of competition. It’s very different, it’s difficult at first to adjust.

“The biggest thing is just to go out there, really, and have fun,” he continued. “At this point, I would imagine, it probably doesn’t matter financially if he fails or succeeds on tour. That’s the biggest thing.”

The Darlings have looked harder at the financial aspect of trying to make it on tour, too.

“Doing it on your own, without a sponsor, that’s not a rational thought anymore,” Bob Darling said. “You’ve got to have quite a bit of money behind you.”

Still, the dream lives on. This winter, he will look into playing some of the courses where qualifying events are held, and he may enter a tournament or two, but he won’t do it cold.

“I’d like to go play some practice rounds at some of these courses,” said Darling. “I don’t want to just go down, throw my money in and go play a course I’ve never played and say ‘OK, let’s go try and make the senior tour.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

Even if it takes an extra year, though, Darling plans on following through.

“I don’t ever see myself stopping until I don’t think I’m going to be competitive enough to do anything,” he said.

“You have to give it a shot,” said Diane Darling, who acknowledged full support of whatever decision her husband ends up making. “If you don’t give it a shot, there is always room to say, ‘What if?’ So you give it a shot, and if it happens, that’s a good thing, and if it doesn’t, you move on. It’s a team effort at this point.”

And don’t worry about taking care of Fox Ridge.

“My time would definitely be limited up here,” Bob said, “but as the tour travels around, and as it starts to come back up north, we’d be able to come back home to Maine and travel from here. We’ve already come to an agreement that if that is a factor, that we’re ready for it, on both sides.”

For now, though, his next step is preparing his golf course – and his game – for the Maine Open.

“I play in some tournaments in the winter with guys that are 64 and 65 who are still consistently playing well,” Darling said. “I look down the road and see how they’re playing and God willing, and if I keep myself in good shape, I see myself doing the same thing when I’m that age. I don’t really think I’ve reached my pinnacle yet.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.