Hlas: Golf tycoon Bob Parsons got the bug in Cedar Rapids

Billionaire GoDaddy founder now makes the clubs Zach Johnson uses

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A gravelly growl pours from the telephone during an interview with Bob Parsons.

There’s no pulling of punches in answering questions. He answers bluntly and without concern of editing his comments. But there’s also no lack of laughter.

He makes a first impression, and a lasting one. The Cedar Rapids area found that out decades ago. Parsons’ impact on the metro area endures though he left town almost a quarter-century ago.

The GoDaddy Inc., Internet domain name-registration business Parsons founded in 1997 employs several hundred people in the Cedar Rapids metro area. The address of its Hiawatha office is 1 Parsons Drive.

Parsons came to Cedar Rapids in 1984, selling office equipment leases for a few years. He was very successful at it, but that was never going to be enough for him.

He moved here after working for five years in Moberly, Mo. Soon after his Cedar Rapids arrival, he founded Parsons Technology in the basement of his house. Ten years later, his computer software company had about 1,000 employees.

Parsons sold that company to Intuit, Inc., for $64 million. He wasn’t retired, but moved to a popular retirement area for wealthy types. In the warmer climes of Scottsdale, Ariz., he started GoDaddy.

“You know the one thing you need to work on in Cedar Rapids?” Parsons asked. “Winter.

“Cedar Rapids has a lot to offer, but I’m like a snake. I like to lay out on a rock in the sun.”

That’s not quite true. For the 66-year-old Parsons, relaxing doesn’t come from being sedentary. That’s not how he got to be ranked 803rd in Forbes magazine’s most-recent list of the world’s richest people, with his net worth estimated at $2.7 billion.

He sold GoDaddy in 2011, but retained 28 percent of the company’s stock. Retiring, however, was an option he spurned.

There were considerable real estate holdings to oversee. There is a charitable foundation. Like billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Warren Buffett, Parsons has signed the Giving Pledge. That means at least half his money will go to philanthropic causes when he dies.

Parsons and his wife, Renee, have already donated over $120 million to nonprofit organizations that serve things like homelessness, veterans’ needs, and a Phoenix shelter for at-risk LGBT youth.

There are motorcycle dealerships to run in Mississippi, Tennessee, and close to home. His Harley-Davidson of Scottsdale, is billed as the world’s largest Harley dealership. It features a lingerie boutique, a wedding chapel, a 48-seat movie theater and a tattoo studio. Parsons likes tattoos, has them on both arms.

“You do what you like to do, right?” he asked. Which brings us to golf.

“I was never a great athlete,” said Parsons. “As a kid, I used to play Little League baseball. The only time I got on base was when I got hit by a pitch, and I was so excited to be on base that I’d get picked off.

“My father said ‘Son, the world needs spectators, too.’

“But in golf there’s no certain level you have to play at, so I started playing with some guys in Cedar Rapids who took up the game together. I was terrible, but I started getting better. I got addicted to it.”

“Addicted” is a severe understatement. “Addicted to golf” typically means playing a lot, hitting hundreds of balls per session on a driving range. For Parsons, it eventually meant buying Golf Club Scottsdale, renaming it Scottsdale National Golf Club, and spending $35 million in improvements and additions.

For Parsons, it was paying what he has said was up to $350,000 a year on golf clubs, testing and trying anything and everything.

For Parsons, it was founding a golf club-manufacturing company in January 2015 called Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG) to pursue a goal of making what he wants to be the world’s best golf equipment.

“As a brand, we’ve established ourself as quickly as any brand ever in the golf industry,” Parsons said.

“We make some good stuff, brother.”

Parsons hired some of the top golf equipment designers in the industry. He said the budget he gave them was “unlimited.” He began selling full sets of clubs for almost $5,000.

“Golf is one of my big avocations,” he said. “Owning a golf country club, running a golf equipment company — I do it because I love doing it. I’ve become so infatuated with it.

“My father said if you love something you pay close attention to it and it tells you all its secrets.”

Parsons grew up poor in Baltimore. He freely talks about being a lousy student. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17, and touts his time as a Marine as a positive life-changer. His tattoos are USMC-related.

He served in the Vietnam War. He stepped on a mine’s tripwire, took shrapnel in his arms and legs. He was awarded an honorable discharge and a Purple Heart.

“After my Vietnam experience,” Parsons told Golf Digest last year, “nothing really worries me.”

He came home with a different attitude toward education and earned a degree in business from the University of Baltimore before setting out in the world. He became an accountant in northern California’s Silicon Valley. There, he started dabbling with computers and developing software.

That accelerated after he moved from Moberly to Cedar Rapids, which he said “was like going to New York City,” Parsons said. “We couldn’t believe how much there was to do there, how wonderful the town was. It wasn’t culture shock, but it was culture surprise. In a good way.”

After playing golf at the Cedar Rapids Country Club one day, his clubs were cleaned by someone who he would again cross paths with a couple decades later.

“I met Zach Johnson when he was a kid working in the bag room,” Parsons said. “I didn’t think he’d win a British Open or a Masters. I thought he had a lot on the ball, though.”

They met again a couple years ago. Parsons said Johnson remembered the irons Parsons used back at the CRCC. Johnson liked the clubs Parsons had created, and surprised a lot of people in January 2016 by switching from the Titleist clubs with which he won a dozen PGA Tour events to PXG’s.

“He hit our clubs and thought they were pretty special,” Parsons said.

At this week’s U.S. Open in Wisconsin, Johnson will join fellow former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and 2016-17 PGA Tour tournament-winners Pat Perez and Billy Horschel in the field. They, four other PGA Tour pros, and nine LPGA pros (including majors-winners Lydia Ko and Brittany Lang) use PXG clubs.

“It’s been a real pleasure getting to know Bob better since I joined the PXG team,” Johnson said via text message. “His passion for golf is undeniable and his commitment to building the best equipment and the resources he puts behind it is incomparable in my opinion.”

Parsons exudes alpha-male confidence and competitiveness. But he acknowledges one area in which he can’t be a Master of the Universe. He is a 10-handicap golfer, and he bows to those who are the best in the game.

About Johnson, he said “He’s grown up to be a fine individual. I’m proud to be associated with him and Cedar Rapids has to be proud. His accomplishments are far more difficult than mine.”

When someone who built a billion-dollar business by himself says that, you know he loves golf.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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