In the 1940s and early '50s, a young Robert McMasters could only dream of college. The son of working-class parents, he knew the value of a dollar and worked at his neighborhood golf course, Red Run Golf Club, shagging practice balls and as a caddie. But in 1952, a state high school golf championship and subsequent Evans Scholarship changed his life.
Today, a successful business owner and dedicated family man, that same Bob McMasters is leading the organization that fulfilled his dreams 44 years ago. He was elected 1996-97 president of the Western Golf Association, which administers the Evans Scholars Foundation.
Headquartered in Golf, Ill., McMasters is the first president selected from outside the Chicago area since 1953 and is only the second Evans Scholars alumnus to lead the organization.
"Bob McMasters career accomplishments and dedication to serving the Western Golf Association exemplify the spirit of the Evans Scholars program," said WGA Executive Director Don Johnson. "He's been a tireless leader for our program in Michigan and nationwide."
McMasters attended the University of Michigan as an Evans Scholar, graduating in 1956. Since then he's been an active organizer for the program, spearheading building and renovation projects at both the U-M and Michigan State University chapter houses.
For him, the WGA presidency has a special meaning.
As a boy, McMasters remembers junior golf being reserved for the "idly rich," but his work at Red Run, which was two blocks from his Royal Oak home, introduced him to the game and allowed him to develop his golf skills.
"There were a lot of kids who were caddies that played at that time, because the caddies always got to play on Mondays," he said. "I played in caddie tournaments and The Detroit Times" annual Hearst Junior Tournament, which was a 72-hole stroke play event at North Hills (a public course which now comprises the North Course at Oakland Hills) and once finished third in that."
Although McMasters caddied for nine golf seasons, it wasn't until May of his senior year in high school that he learned of the Evans Scholarship program.
"The pressure to go to college in the early '50s was not as great then as it is now, and I had not applied to go to any school at that point. Why would I have applied to go to Michigan or Michigan State when there was absolutely no way I could go there financially? I thought I might go to Michigan Tech in the U.P. because I could live with my grandparents up there," he said. "But a golf coach at the University of Michigan saw me play in the state high school tournament and asked if I'd be interested in coming to Michigan. He asked if I had heard about the Evans Scholarship."
Coincidentally, that same year, the WGA had begun to "colonize" its program and was forming a chapter at U-M, so McMasters applied in June 1952, went to Chicago in July where he was interviewed by a WGA committee that included scholarship founder and famed amateur golfer Chick Evans, and in September, he became one of 16 charter members of the U-M chapter of Evans Scholars.
At U-M, McMasters played on the golf team for three years and was team captain in his junior and senior years. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration.
"The theory of the scholarship, was in 1930 and is in 1996, if you give a student a place to sleep and pay their tuition, they'll find a job to pay for their meals, have spending money and buy books. And it works," he said.
McMasters currently is president and co-owner of McMasters-Koss Co., an industrial distributor in Royal Oak. His business partner, Martin Koss, also is an Evans Scholar who graduated from Michigan State.
And while his collegiate academic experience may have taught him about business, McMasters' caddying and Evans Scholar experience gave him a solid foundation in golf.
He has competed in five USGA national events, including the 1985 U.S. Senior Open and 1993 U.S. Senior Amateur. He was a semifinalist in the 1960 U.S. Public Links Championship. At Red Run, where he is a member and past president, he won the 1990 club championship and seniors championship at age 55, and has won the club's seniors championship five of the last six years.
He also is a vice president of Golf Association of Michigan and has held national leadership positions with WGA since 1982.
He and his wife, Leverne, have three grown children, of whom he is extremely proud.
Throughout his adult life, McMasters has never forgotten the opportunity the Evans Scholars program gave to him.
"Somebody gave me something when I needed it, and my goal was to do the same for someone else when they needed it and when I had something to give. Someone threw me a lifeline and I decided to help others. While not everyone totally feels that way, our alumni group as a whole has donated $11 million to the program and it keeps going up each year," he said.
The WGA has an annual budget of about $6 million, with all of its money coming from contributions and endowment income, except for approximately $500,000 in profits from the Western Open. Since 1930, more than 6,300 caddies nationwide have graduated as Evans Scholarships. Approximately 15 percent of them are women.
"I can't do anything about my ancestors, but I sure can about my descendants, and all these caddies are just like me," McMasters said, "kind of like my descendants."