Robert Saleh had no idea at the time that he needed an escape.
He was 29 and living his dream as an NFL assistant coach, newlywed to his wife, Sanaa, and felt like he had life by the scruff of his neck.
Saleh had no idea what golf could ever bring him.
Then a series of kismet moments – starting with Sanaa’s insistence – brought Saleh to the game and he never looked back, an addicted man like many of us.
The only shame for Saleh, 43, is that he’s too busy right now – leading the Jets as second-year head coach and continuing to build a life for his six children – that he hasn’t. not enough time to play as often as he wishes.
NFL head coaches have a very small window of time off between season, draft, free agency, OTAs, minicamps, and training camp.
The current period is only a window, between the final minicamp and the training camp (which starts in a few weeks), and Saleh, on a wet summer day last week, took the time to play 18 holes with me at the Suburban Golf Club in Union, New Jersey
Of course, we talked about football, talked about the exciting offseason acquisitions the team made, the unknowns on which of these players could become stars, and the kingpin that second-year quarterback Zach Wilson and third-year left tackle Mekhi Becton are at the Jets’ Success.
But we mostly talked about golf. What brought him to the game. Personal milestones. Coolest courses he’s played. The greatest chills. How he became such a golf addict that he became a course rater for Golf Digest.
Jets fans, you already know from what you’ve seen of Saleh how passionate he is as a coach and about making your team a winner.
Saleh is also passionate about golf. There were several times during our game where he singled out the brains of Suburban head pro Mark McCormick over the golf swing.
“Everyone needs a vice,” Saleh said. “It’s an opportunity to get away from it all, to be alone on the course or to be with people you like to be with. I also took the opportunity to bond with the children. I’m going to take the kids out of school and take one every day to play nine holes. It’s kind of a getaway, it’s a hobby, a pleasure, just something I like to do.”
Golf is Saleh’s escape.
Being a head coach in the NFL is stressful. Being the head coach of the Jets, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2010 and whose last Super Bowl appearance was in 1969, is even more stressful.
That’s where those late afternoon nine-hole sessions with his kids come in handy to soothe the soul.
Saleh did not play as a child outside of Detroit. He started the game when his wife saw so many of his fellow coaches playing in their spare time and pushed him to join them.
Saleh recalled Sanaa once asking him what the other coaches do in their free time and Saleh replied, “They probably play golf.”
“Well, why don’t you take up golf?” she asked him.
“And the following week, the last OTA practice, we had a bowling outing with [Texans head coach Gary] Kubiak and I got the highest score among the coaches,” Saleh recalls. “Thanks to this, I won a $300 gift card to a golf store. My wife had encouraged me to play as a way to network with other coaches and colleagues, so I took that as a sign of getting into golf. That’s how I started golf. I blame my wife.”
Saleh smiled at that last line, because what he was really doing was thanking his wife.
Saleh used that $300 gift card to purchase a set of Cleveland clubs. Then he invested in some lessons.
“The very first lesson I ever had, I was frustrated – I just couldn’t hit the ball straight – and the pro stopped me and said, ‘Hey Rob, I’m going to give you your first piece of advice on golf: You’ll never be good enough to be angry, so just enjoy the game,” Saleh recalled. ‘So from that day on it was just about going out and enjoying the game. It’s a getaway, so if I spend time being frustrated, I don’t enjoy the game. That’s the attitude I took with it.
“The second I hit a flush, it was over for me, I had the bug.”
Saleh, whose handicap is hovering around 10 at the moment, had it as low as 6.
“I remember the first time I broke 90 – it was when we were fired in Houston as defensive personnel. [in 2010]”, Saleh recalled. “It was the day after we got kicked out and I had nothing to do and I was like, ‘I’m just going to play on my own.’
“I don’t remember when I first broke 80, but I remember when I broke 70. I shot a 69.”
It was during the COVID shutdown and he was training in San Francisco. He took his eldest son, Adam, to play an afternoon at Almaden Golf and Country Club in San Jose.
“I was just going to play nine holes, but I shot a 34 on the front nine – I was on fire – and I was like, ‘You know what? I have to continue like this,’ Saleh said. “We went around and I kept playing well and shot 69. It was the best round I’ve ever played. It was pretty awesome.”
How much of a golf nerd did Saleh become?
When he was coaching in Houston, Saleh met a man at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club in Michigan who rated courses for Golf Digest, and Saleh immediately wanted to get involved.
“I was getting ready to play and another gentleman comes out of the course and he has all these very nice course bag tags on his bag,” Saleh recalled. “We struck up a conversation and he told me he was part of the golf course valuation process. I told him I was interested and gave him my card.
The man helped him get into the process and now Saleh has been involved in evaluating some of the best courses in the country.
“I became so obsessed with golf and course rating that it actually helped me in the game with things that you wouldn’t otherwise know as a casual golfer – the things that they teach you to look for like golf course architecture, conditioning, bunker placement, shooting values,” he said.
Saleh bought a bag for each of his children. At his new home in New Jersey, he has a golf room, where he keeps his golf memorabilia, a USA-Canada bubble hockey table, and a popcorn machine for movie nights with the kids.
There is also a rack where he keeps a logo ball from each new course he plays. As soon as we finished our round, his first task was to purchase a Suburban logo ball from the pro shop for his collection.
“My goal is to reach 1,000 classes,” Saleh said. “I’m in the 400s somewhere now.”
So what’s next in golf for a guy who’s already played Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Shinnecock Hills, National and a number of other top rated courses in the world and beat 70 playing with his eldest son ?
“I just like to play,” Saleh said. “I really don’t have a goal.”
“Obviously Augusta would be nice,” he continued. “But I feel like we have to win here first to be able to do that. Just being in New York and having the privilege of interacting with fans and season ticket holders…this place is going to go crazy when we flip it. It’s going to be cool.”
So will his first trip around Amen Corner at Augusta National.