Ron Philo is chasing his daughter again. It’s mid-morning, and Laura Diaz is where she’s usually found, on the golf course.
Philo wants to finish up a phone call before running out to catch her. “I’m pulling into the course now, actually,” he says into the phone.
Then, 10 minutes later, “I need to go figure out which hole she’s on.”
Few things hold Philo’s attention like family. He’s one of the top golf instructors in the country. He’s made a life around the game, going back and forth between Florida and New York three times in a long career. But now that he’s inched past his mid-60s, Philo has decided to settle in North Carolina for one reason – family. He lives in Roaring Gap, but spends much of his time in Winston-Salem with Diaz and her growing family. Diaz is one of Philo’s three children, and she’s also an LPGA star and former Wake Forest University standout.
She’s been Philo’s top student for more than 30 years. And she’s also the mother of Philo’s grandchildren.
They were neighbors – dad and daughter – in Amelia Island, Fla., until this past summer. That’s when Diaz’s husband, Kevin, was hired as the assistant women’s golf coach at Wake Forest. That’s when Laura told her dad she was moving to Winston-Salem, and that’s when Ron told his daughter that he and her mother, Cheryl, were coming, too.
On top of granddad duties and teaching Diaz, Philo will start giving private instruction at Country Club Golf Center in Winston-Salem. Wherever they’ve been, the Philo family has been one of the top golf families in their area – dating back to when Philo’s dad owned a golf range in New York. Now, they’ve brought generations’ worth of golf experience here to the Triad.
“From what I’ve seen so far, I would say that the golf enthusiasm here is probably as high as any place I’ve ever been,” Philo says. “The Amelia Island experience was a retirement community and resort. It was isolated to the island, the community around the resort. Around here it seems like there’s a much more active working group of golfers.”
Philo’s approach to teaching is more holistic than technical. It’s an approach he’s used his entire life. It’s what he’s used with Diaz. It’s what has worked.
“It’s not about being very analytical,” he says. “It’s much more about feel, and some people never experience that feeling. All the equipment we have today makes people want to be more analytical. Learning to be a good player is something you learn to do mostly on your own. People think it’s always taught. When you put someone’s golf swing on a screen and you break down the parts, they’re not learning anything about feel. It’s the feel and the touch that makes you the player you are. If you don’t have that, which you learn on your own, then all the analytical part of swing technique is worthless.”
Philo learned how to swing early in life. His father worked at General Electric in upstate New York. At the time, the company owned a golf club for its workers.
Philo’s father won just about every type of local championship – member champion, member-guest, county, two-man, all of them.
“He was everything to the community in golf,” Philo says.
Philo’s father then found a defunct driving range in upstate New York. He bought it. He spent all winter fixing it up, and then, at 42 years old, he quit GE and became a golf pro.
His sons followed him into the game. Ron’s older brother now owns a golf store near Myrtle Beach, and the year he turned 50 he won both the senior division and junior division in the Carolinas PGA Section championships.
Ron went off to college at Florida State. He and Cheryl started their family while they were still in school. Not long after he graduated, Ron became an assistant pro at a golf course in Jacksonville before making his way back home to New York to take over the driving range. Ron worked there for 17 years, where he and Cheryl raised their kids. It wasn’t until their youngest child – Laura – was preparing to go college that Ron decided to look for something different. He found opportunity in Florida again, where his son – Ron Jr. – was working as a club pro. Ron Sr. moved down and the two opened a golf school at Amelia Island. They ran it for 20 years together.
When Laura graduated from Wake Forest in 1997, she moved down to Amelia Island, too.
Somewhere during all of this, Ron Sr. and Ron Jr. hired a young former college athlete named Kevin Diaz to work at their golf school. Within a few years, Kevin and Laura were married.
“I was the last one to know they were in love, I think,” Ron Sr. says now, laughing.
Laura, now 37, gave birth to Cooper in 2006 and Lily in 2010.
Ron Jr., now 47, lives in Vermont working as a golf pro. And the Philos’ other daughter, 44-year-old Kim, lives in New York.
Now, Ron Sr. and Cheryl spend most of their days chasing around their two grandchildren.
Professionally, Laura Diaz is preparing for a full season on tour. Her father promises big things this year. He still works with her nearly every day, using that same method of instruction he’s been using for years – the same method he’s taught his son and son-in-law, the same method that’s worked for Laura, and the same method he hopes to use teaching people at Country Club Golf Center.
“You never know which one of those folks is going to be a superstar golfer, or which will become just someone who breaks 100 for the first time,” he says. “When someone hits the ball effectively for the first time, it’s like magic goes through their body. It’s like a dream to see that. Then they find out they can actually do this.”