Bob McMasters, 'giant' in Michigan golf and Evans Scholar booster for caddies, dies at 86

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Robert "Bob" McMasters, who began golfing as a young child when he'd hop the fence at Red Run Golf Club in Royal Oak and play until he got caught and later became president of the Golf Association of Michigan and a member of the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, died Sunday at his home in northern Michigan. He was 86.

McMasters eventually began caddying at Red Run, and became the club's first Evans Scholar for caddies, earning a full scholarship to the University of Michigan.

McMasters' father died when he was young, and the scholarship would end up shaping his life — in business and golf, where he joined Red Run as a member in 1974 and became club president in 1984, a rare ascension from scholarship winner to one day overseeing the same club where he had looped.

Bob McMasters was a "giant" in golf in Michigan. He died Sunday at the age of 86.

"Imagine how proud he was of that," said Dave Robinson, another past president of Red Run, and a longtime friend of McMasters. "He never lost track of what an extraordinary impact that had on his life, which is why he was just such a tremendous benefactor of the program."

McMasters later ran the club's Evans Scholar program, opening up opportunities for female caddies, as well. Since 1952, 88 Red Run caddies have earned the scholarship to attend either Michigan or Michigan State, including nine in the last year. The scholarships are worth over $100,000, and cover housing and tuition. 

"I'm a Wolverine, but we're all caddies, blue or green," McMasters once said.

Scholarship winners live off-campus in the Evans Scholarship House. The University of Michigan house is named the Robert L. McMasters Scholarship House. McMasters spent more than 60 years raising scholarship funds, and often foot some of the bills himself.

McMasters, who grew up on Connecticut Avenue, a block from Red Run, began caddying at the club when he was 8 years old, and in 1951, he led Royal Oak High School to the Class A state championship in boys golf. In 1952, McMasters was the state individual champion, before attending Michigan, where he was captain of the golf team. In 1956, he graduated with a degree in business administration.

He went to work in the automotive-parts sales industry, eventually forming his own company with Marty Koss, the McMasters-Koss Company, specializing in seals sales. The company became a big success, particularly internationally, and remains in the family.

But if that was his livelihood, golf was his life, particularly the Evans Scholar program.

"The greatest volunteer I've ever known," said Jack Berry, a longtime golf writer in Michigan. "He was just a solid, good guy. When he'd think of things he'd like to have done, he got them done."

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McMasters also was an accomplished player, qualifying 12 times for the Michigan Amateur, in which he was co-medalist twice. He played in six USGA championships, including the U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Senior Amateur, and the U.S. Junior Amateur.

Less formally, he'd go around the state, teaming with Chuck Kocsis, one of the greatest players in Michigan history, and the duo was very successful. McMasters grew up caddying for Kocsis, who died in 2006.

In 1996, McMasters became the first Michigan resident to be elected chairman of the Western Golf Association, allowing him to hand the $360,000 winner's check to Tiger Woods in 1997 after Woods won the Western Open outside Chicago, beating Frank Nobilo by three strokes. (Woods also won the 1994 Western Amateur, also run by the WGA, in Benton Harbor.) In 1999, he was elected to a one-year term as president of the Golf Association. McMasters worked with the GAM for 25 years, founding the Michigan Mid-Amateur championship. In 2003, the GAM gave him its Distinguished Service Award. In 2002, he was elected to the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, and in 2019, he was elected to the National Caddie Hall of Fame.

Bob McMasters, then chairman of the WGA, presents Tiger Woods with the winner's check at the 1997 Western Open outside Chicago.

Earlier this month, McMasters made a financial donation to the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame to help create a historical-records collection for the organization's website.

"In Michigan, he was just a giant in the game," said Robinson, who five years ago became the second Michigan man to become chair of the WGA, "not only for his prowess as a player, but his dedication to the Evans Scholarship, the Michigan Golf Hall Hall of Fame and the Michigan Golf Foundation is just indelible.

"He was just a true gentleman, a wonderful man."

Other interests included his church and the Boy Scouts; both of McMasters sons became Eagle Scouts. The family regularly traveled north to a lake-front cottage in Gaylord that McMasters had built in 1966. Bob and wife of 65 years, Leverne, moved there full time in 2019.

McMasters is survived by Leverne, his high-school sweetheart; their three children, Robert, Laura and William; 11 grandchildren; and their 12 great-grandchildren.

Visitation is Wednesday from 2-8 p.m. at A.J. Desmond & Sons, 32515 Woodward Ave., Royal Oak. A service will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, at the funeral home, and livestreamed on the funeral home's website.

The family is asking in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Evans Scholar Foundation.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984