Jim Popa wins Yancey Ford Award, adding another chapter to a full life in golf

For as long as he can remember, golf has been Jim Popa’s life. It has been the family game and the family legacy for the Popas, bringing as many memories in services rendered as rounds played. Jim Popa has left his mark primarily in the former way.

Popa, 69, not only led both the Ohio Golf Association and the Columbus District Golf Association, but was the longtime Executive Director of the Society of Seniors. Despite all that, Popa, now fully retired, never imagined himself a candidate for the Yancey Ford Award, annually presented by Golfweek to an individual who has made significant contributions to senior-amateur golf.

When Ford himself called to tell Popa he was this year’s award winner, Popa was speechless. Near the beginning of Popa’s 24-year tenure with the Society of Seniors, Ford was president of the organization. The two men have remained friends since.

“He’s a wonderful human, he’s a great old Virginia gentleman who just epitomizes what you would hope all golfers would be,” Popa said. “Gentle, competitive, nice guys who just really reflect what we’d like to have as models for senior amateur golfers.”

Jim Popa (Courtesy Ohio Golf Association)
Jim Popa (Courtesy Ohio Golf Association)

Jim Popa (Courtesy Ohio Golf Association)

Popa and Ford had shared a vision for the Society of Seniors, and Ford was in Popa’s corner when it came to Popa’s rise to the role of Executive Director. Notably, the two men worked to raise money for and launch a scholarship fund for the sons or daughters of full-time employees of the golf courses where the Society of Seniors hosted its events. To date, nearly 20 scholarships have been awarded.

Popa, an Ohio native, followed in his father Nicholas Popa’s footsteps as the executive director of the Ohio Golf Association, taking up the reins after his father’s death in 1993. In 1998, Jack Hesler, an original member of the Society of Seniors who knew Jim Popa as a board member of the Ohio Golf Association, asked Popa to attend a Society event and provide some feedback. Once there, it took Popa all of five minutes to realize he wanted to be a part of it.

Popa took over as Executive Director in 2014 but maintained the executive director role for both the Ohio Golf Association and Columbus District Golf Association for the next few years. After the summer tournament season in Ohio, he would often take his help on the road in the winter to run the Society’s events.

“I was very honored to have that job,” Popa said of his work with the Society, even though it kept him busy.

The Yancey Ford Award follows Popa’s induction into the Ohio Golf Hall of Fame earlier in 2023. He also has been awarded the Southern Ohio PGA Lifetime Achievement Award in and the USGA’s Ike Granger Award for longtime commitment to golf.

Clearly, Popa’s contributions to golf have been great, even though he didn’t originally intend to make it his job. After graduating from high school, and having done drafting and layout work for his father’s ad agency in Columbus, he enrolled at Ohio State to study commercial art with aspirations of becoming a cartoonist. Upon learning he’d need to take a few chemistry courses when he transferred into the fine arts program, Popa – not a science guy – decided instead to take some time off. He spent the next two and a half years caddying on the PGA Tour, most notably for his brother-in-law Ed Sneed, whose four Tour victories included the 1977 Tallahassee Open with Popa on the bag.

With Sneed, Popa had the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the game’s greats in that era, including Arnold Palmer, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Weiskopf and Jack Nicklaus. He gathered enough stories for a lifetime – or a least a thick memoir.

And when it was all over, he landed back in Ohio, once again with golf as his north star.

“After I came back to town, I went to work for my father doing layout work,” Popa said. “One thing led to another, and pretty soon I was going to tournaments with him. We had other people to run the advertising agency, and he and I sort of started running golf in Ohio.”

Jim Popa (Courtesy Ohio Golf Association)
Jim Popa (Courtesy Ohio Golf Association)

Jim Popa (Courtesy Ohio Golf Association)

Popa and his wife Martha – who Popa describes as the “great woman” behind his story – raised three children as Popa guided golf in Ohio for three decades. With that service largely behind him, Popa now reserves a place for golf in his life with a weekly game that’s strictly for fun.

“Golf is the greatest game of all,” he said in reflecting on the game to which he gave so much. “I’m convinced that it’s a game where we have taught the young players to be gentleman on the golf course, to shake hands, to wear their hats forward, have their shirttails tucked in. They respect the game, they respect the traditions, that’s what I always try to impress on the young people in my tournaments.”

“When you get to the senior level, these guys, this is the life they’ve led and it’s second nature to them to just be that courteous to each other and to respect the rules and the golf course and respect the people who run the tournaments. That’s what I like the most about the Society.”

He has done more than his share to shape it.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek