Bob Parsons ambles up to the first tee of the 18-hole course at his lavish, multimillion-dollar Arizona golf club, Scottsdale National. The stocky 66-year-old is wearing a pea-green shirt, untucked, with “U.S. Marine Corps” over the left breast. In his left ear is a large black earring that’s etched with the letters “PXG,” the acronym for his golf equipment brand, Parsons Xtreme Golf. He tees up his ball and turns to his playing partner for the day, Ryann O’Toole, a 30-year-old LPGA pro who is sponsored by PXG.
Tim Pannell for Forbes
Parsons at Scottsdale National.
“Ryann, sweetheart,” he says in a gruff voice that booms across the desert. “I hope you brought your wallet.” And with that, his curt but effective swing sends the ball straight down the fairway.
Parsons, the founder of the Internet domain-name registrar GoDaddy, did not reach his station in life by being subtle. He is, after all, the man who put GoDaddy on the map in the mid-2000s with racy Super Bowl ads, featuring Playboy model Candice Michelle and Nascar driver Danica Patrick. (When he first met Michelle years ago, Parsons asked, “Are they real?” Michelle, without missing a beat, answered, “Yes. Real expensive.”)
Parsons has been called zany, outlandish and a renegade—none of which he disputes. But he is much more than that. Scratch below the surface and you’ll find a self-made billionaire who is also outrageous in his generosity.
Except on the golf course.
Parsons and O’Toole are playing “Sweat” today, a skins-like game that he co-created. With $400 on the line, O’Toole has given Parsons, a 10-handicapper, 14 strokes—something he takes full advantage of on the front nine, building a solid lead. Hustling, as it turns out, is something Parsons has been doing from a young age.
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He grew up poor in inner-city Baltimore. His mother was a homemaker, his father a furniture salesman for Montgomery Ward. Both parents were hard-core gamblers. “Cards, horses, bingo—you name it,” Parsons says. “You don’t have a lot of money if you’re a gambler, particularly if you don’t start with lots of it.”
When Parsons needed something—a ball, a baseball glove—he had to figure out how to buy it. One of his most successful schemes involved selling newspapers in an unconventional way. At a popular bus stop, he would arrive early, pop a quarter into the newspaper vending machine and take all of the papers. When the bus arrived, he’d sell those papers—at a markup—to the passengers. Once he sold out, he’d pocket the profit and put the rest of the money back into the vending machine.
School was not exactly a refuge from his home life. So while failing 12th grade, Parsons enlisted in the Marines. He was sent to Vietnam in 1969 during the height of the war. On his first day there, at a treacherous spot called Hill 190, he sat on a wall and gazed at the valley below, certain he was going to die. “I made two decisions sitting there,” he recalls. “I was going to do everything I could to do a good job, and I was going to do everything I could to make it to mail call the next day.”
Parsons ended up with a Combat Action Ribbon, a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and a Purple Heart. He credits his time in the Marines for all the success that followed. “It taught me to believe in myself and be responsible and disciplined,” he says. “When you’re in the middle of nowhere and you see something moving in the jungle, you’re forced to become a creative problem solver.”