By Brad King
Robert Linville knows the highs and lows of competitive golf better than most.
An All-American golfer at Guilford College, where he won All-Carolinas Conference recognition four times and All-NAIA District 26 honors three times, Linville moved to Florida following graduation with his sights on the PGA Tour.
Battling on the mini-tours weekly, Linville found himself regularly in contention. He won an event at Spruce Creek, near Daytona Beach, Fla., shooting 65-68 during the weekend, and recorded numerous top-10 finishes.
While still competing, he and his young family returned to Greensboro in 1984, when Linville was named co-head professional at Forest Oaks Country Club, which at the time was the site of the PGA Tour’s Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic.
In 1986, during the final stage of the PGA Tour’s grueling qualifying school, Linville birdied the final hole to make the four-round cut. There, he faced John Inman and David Thore — fellow Greensboro products — and the trio were tied after 72 holes.
“David and I went out and shot 76,” Linville said. “John shot 66 and got his tour card. We just went back to work.”
His on-course playing experience is a big part of the reason Linville — who was inducted into the Guilford County Sports Hall of Fame this fall — has carved a niche as one of the state’s most successful instructors.
Linville went on to coach Greensboro College to its first NCAA title in any sport. Today, he instructs a wide range of golfers around the state including Champions Tour player Mike Goodes, LPGA player Katherine Perry, and decorated amateurs Scott Harvey and Josh Nichols, as well as numerous high school and collegiate golfers.
“Robert’s selection to the Guilford County Sports Hall of Fame simply identifies him as one of the truly remarkable athletes and coaches in the history of sports in this area,” said Kim Strable, who served as athletic director at Greensboro College during Linville’s tenure as golf coach, and is now the deputy director of the Greensboro Sports Foundation.
Linville, who founded both Precision Golf School in Greensboro and the bourgeoning Peggy Kirk Bell Girls Golf Tour, joined an esteemed class that also included Inman’s older brother, Joe, an All-American at Wake Forest.
In 1995, Strable tapped Linville to serve as the head men’s golf coach at Greensboro College. Creating one of the most successful programs in the country, the Pride won the 2000 NCAA Division III championship — defeating perennial powerhouse Methodist College by a single stroke — and finished in the top five for six consecutive seasons, including a pair of runner-up finishes. Linville was named NCAA national coach of the year in 1999 and 2000, and USA South Athletic Conference coach of the year four times. In addition, he coached a USA national collegiate team to victories over Japan in 2000 and 2006.
When he was athletic director at Greensboro College, Strable recalls numerous instances following the golf team around the course during the NCAA national championships. Strable got a first-hand view of Linville’s keen sense of knowing when a player needed him — and when they preferred to be left alone. “He expected a lot of his team leaders in particular and (the player’s) body language more times than not told the story,” Strable said.
“Robert had a real eye for talent,” added Strable. “He has an easy-going nature coupled with a strong commitment to excellence. This allowed Robert to attract players who wanted the quality teaching as well as the ‘be your best’ type of inspiration.”
Linville has earned the praise of his peers as one of the most respected instructors in the Southeast. In 1993, the members of the Carolinas PGA recognized him as the teacher of the year, and in 2008 Golf Digest selected Linville as one of the “Top 10 instructors in North Carolina.”
Three-time Guilford College All-American Chris Haarlow has partnered with Linville at Precision Golf School for the past two decades. Together, they founded the Triad Youth Golf Foundation in 2000.
“Robert is humble and soft spoken, but he’s very competitive,” Haarlow said. “He wants to win at what he does. He’s true, he’s honest and he’s gracious. But he does not like to lose. That’s who he is. He takes utmost pride in his teaching and his coaching. You look up the word ‘coach’ in the dictionary and there should be a picture of Robert. He knows when to pat a player on the back and when to tell them they’re not doing what they should do.”
Combined, Linville and Haarlow have instructed more than 60 high school state champions, while more than 200 of their students have gone on to play college golf — which translates to north of $12 million in college scholarships.
“We’re more like an old married couple. We probably spend more time together across the (teaching) bays than not,” said Haarlow, who remains one of the most accomplished players in the Carolinas PGA. “Robert’s best students mirror and model themselves after him. You talk to Mike Goodes and he’s going to deflect how good he is. You talk to Scott Harvey and he’s going to deflect how good he is. And that’s what Robert has been to me, too.”
Linville also founded the Peggy Kirk Bell Girls’ Tour in 2007, along with director Mike Parker, after realizing that there weren’t enough quality opportunities for junior girls looking to play competitive golf. Now in its second decade of existence, the PKB tour schedule has grown to nearly 100 events from Florida to Pennsylvania, and more than 1,000 yearly participants and counting — while 62 percent of the former PKB members have gone on to play college golf.
“The PKB Girls’ Golf Tour is a huge reason why I’ve been able to reach my dreams of playing professional golf,” said Perry, a Cary native who went on to star at the University of North Carolina. “Robert is an incredible instructor, but he’s also a great person.”
Perry started working with Linville about 12 years ago, after she went through a brief slump while competing on the PKB Tour. “He’s been helping me grow as a golfer and a person ever since,” she said. “What I remember most from my first lessons is laughing a lot and having fun trying to improve. Robert has always placed a bigger emphasis on the process of improvement rather than just results. That’s helped me try to focus on each event being an opportunity to improve. I would not have gone to UNC or made it to the LPGA without him.”
Perry decided before the 2016 LPGA qualifying school that she would quit golf if she didn’t retain her Tour card. So, she called Linville to caddie for her during the final stage. Years of encouragement, gentle pushing and swing improvements came down to the final hole of qualifying, where Perry had a 15-foot birdie putt to finish inside the top 20 and earn her card.
“He read the putt perfectly, I made it, and we knew that I had just made it to the LPGA,” she said. “The excitement of that moment is hard to describe.”
Perry has earned four top 20’s and one top 10, along with making two U.S. Open appearances in her professional career. She said Linville has been there for nearly all of her most memorable moments.
“When Robert is coaching, you know he cares more about the person than the scores they’re producing,” Perry said. “He takes time out of his incredibly busy schedule to come to events, and watch and cheer you on.”
Linville, who stays on the cutting edge of golf technology and constantly studies statistics, describes his job as “golf performance coaching.” He estimates spending 75 to 80 days a year on the road, watching various players compete. “Just seeing what I can pick up from patterns and consistencies,” he said. “Seeing what they do, whether it’s body language or specific things that they do in tournaments that they’re not aware of. There’s a correlation between how they do in practice and how they do in competition. It boils down to how you prepare as much as anything.”
“To me, everything is about ‘why?”’ he added. “I’m always asking tournament golfers, ‘What’s your why?’ From a coaching standpoint, if I’m going to suggest a change or we need to do something, I need to have my why, of why are we going to do this. Not just because I want it to look a certain way or you hit a specific shot, I want to know why we’re doing this.”
While many of his family and friends were on hand for Linville’s most recent Hall of Fame induction, two of his favorite coaches were at the forefront of his thoughts. His coach at Guilford, Jack Jensen, a member of the Golf Coaches’ Association of America Hall of Fame, passed away in 2010. His mother, Ruth Linville, passed away in June 2018 at the age of 101. During her 37 years as a teacher, mostly at Kernersville and East Forsyth High Schools, Ruth coached all sports — “she even coached football one year,” Robert said — but was most noted for her four state championship titles in basketball.
“I was fortunate to play for Coach Jensen at Guilford,” Linville said. “He was great with people. He didn’t know anything about golf, but he knew people. I was real young when my mother was coaching. I’m sure what I got from her was patience and keeping people focused on doing the best we can do.”