2004: Presidential whims
Jack Vardaman is a longtime lawyer and senior partner at Williams & Connolly, one of the nation’s most prominent law firms. Rarely does he find himself taken by surprise. It is an occupational necessity that he be ready for any variable, and he is regarded as one of the best litigators in the land.
But Vardaman, a 63-year-old Alabama native, was in no way prepared for the news he received after competing in a tournament at Shoal Creek Country Club last October. First, he learned that his good friend and frequent playing partner, Eric Gleacher, had not been nominated for another annual term as secretary of the U.S. Golf Association or as a member of its 15-person Executive Committee. Then Vardaman – a former general counsel for the USGA, a member of its Executive Committee and vice chairman of the all-important Implements and Ball Committee – discovered he had been passed over for an officer’s slot in favor of two people whom a number of golf insiders believe to be much less qualified.
“I was very surprised,” Vardaman said. “I was very unhappy that Eric was out, and I didn’t like being passed over myself.”
News of Gleacher’s ouster and Vardaman’s snub reverberated throughout the industry and the clubby world of golf administrators. The volume increased days later when Vardaman informed the USGA that he would not continue in his other positions with the association. The motives behind their departures are sure to be a hot topic Feb. 7 during after-hours conversations at the USGA Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla.
To learn what happened and why, Golfweek interviewed more than 30 people who have been associated with the USGA and are familiar with its personalities and its committee system of governance. Most would speak only on the condition of anonymity, expressing concerns about jeopardizing their standing with the USGA.
By nearly all accounts, this latest episode of USGA politics has exacerbated a credibility issue that has dogged the organization for years. It comes at a time when the issue of reining in “hot drivers” seems to have been resolved, but efforts to put the brakes on golf balls may be gaining momentum. Equipment manufacturers, obliged to abide by rules set by the USGA, are troubled by the seemingly capricious method of selecting the organization’s leadership. They argue that there is too much at stake, and the issues of technology and performance are too complicated for USGA decision-making to hinge on a buddy system.
The golf public, meanwhile, generally remains confused about the Rules of Golf as they pertain to equipment performance. Even longtime USGA supporters have become embarrassed by the
organization’s public relations ineptitude and inability to control the game’s destiny.
Many USGA watchers worry that unless drastic changes are made in the management of the USGA – where power is concentrated largely in the hands of the association’s past presidents – and the way it selects and promotes its leaders, it is doomed to irrelevance.
The case of Gleacher and Vardaman underscores the fate of USGA officials who lose the support of past presidents.
“Eric and Jack are great golf guys, and what has happened to them is terrible,” said one industry veteran. “They are smart, articulate, and they can both play. They are also very dedicated individuals who worked hard for the USGA and not only loved the game but understood it as well.
“And now they are gone.”
What is indisputable is that the departure of Gleacher and Vardaman has had an impact. Many believe the image and prestige of the USGA has been badly damaged.
The first to go was Gleacher, a 63-year-old mergers-and-acquisitions specialist from New York. In the business world, he is best known for his involvement in a number of Wall Street mega-deals over the past two decades. Gleacher was the investment banker for Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. when it orchestrated the infamous “Barbarians At The Gate” takeover of RJR Nabisco in the 1980s.
In golf, he is regarded as a fine amateur player who has won club championships at several Metropolitan (N.Y.) Golf Association clubs – among them Shinnecock Hills and National Golf Links – and played in the British Senior Amateur and U.S. Senior Amateur. More significantly, however, is his reputation as the man who built the USGA into the financial behemoth it is today, flush with nearly $200 million in assets. That’s more than double the amount when Gleacher joined the Executive Committee eight years ago and quickly took over as head of the Finance Committee and the newly formed Investment Advisory Committee.
At that time, the majority of USGA holdings sat in money market accounts. But Gleacher appointed professional money managers and had the association employ a budgeting method developed by his investment company to handle the organization’s general finances. Those steps swelled USGA coffers and enabled the organization to give out millions in grants through its “For the Good of the Game” program.
Gleacher received considerable praise for those successes and other initiatives, such as playing a prominent role in the USGA’s decision to hold the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y., the first true municipal layout to play host to the event. In 2002, he was rewarded with an appointment to secretary of the Executive Committee, which sets all USGA policies, and there was a strong sense that he was in line to become president of the USGA.
Last March, an association insider said, a past president asked Gleacher if he would be willing to stay another six years with the organization and devote even more time to it, the implication being that he would ascend to the top job. Gleacher said he would.
Only seven months later, however, the USGA’s Nominating Committee (see page 34), chaired by past president Stuart Bloch, decided it was time for Gleacher to go. Suddenly and surprisingly, he was out as secretary and as a member of the Executive Committee.
When the news was released in November, Gleacher attributed the shake-up to what he feels is an archaic concentration of power among past USGA presidents. He has since declined comment.
Many close to the game are quick to offer their own theories. Some said Gleacher has an aggressive, and sometimes abrasive, personality that rubbed too many Executive Committee members the wrong way. The most commonly held view is that Gleacher was not afraid to challenge USGA policy, making him too independent for some past presidents.
“He might have also been regarded as too high profile in some circles,” one source said. “Perhaps Eric was too successful a businessman, maybe he belonged to too many clubs, or perhaps he wanted the top job too much.”
Several also felt there was a fear among past presidents that they would not be able to control Gleacher as he rose in the ranks.
Others speculate that Gleacher’s promotion of the USGA’s $16 million purchase of the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan mortally wounded his stature. A plan to convert the landmark restaurant into a USGA learning center and museum fell through last year because of miscalculated renovation costs and city government bureaucratic hurdles. But the theory that Gleacher’s reputation was tarnished by the incident is disputed by insiders who say the deal was a good diversification of the organization’s assets and that the USGA actually will realize a profit of several million dollars from the impending sale of the building.
USGA past presidents and officials who were contacted by Golfweek deferred comment to Bloch, the USGA president in 1992-93. But Bloch offered little insight.
“Eric was on the (Executive) committee for eight years, which is longer than a lot of people usually stay,” Bloch said, “and it was time to bring some others along. He did a fine job as custodian of the USGA’s financial investments and made a great contribution. Remember, secretaries and treasurers don’t necessarily become president. Some make it, some don’t, and that is the way it has long been with the USGA.”
Nominating Committee member Carol Semple Thompson, however, had this to say: “Eric is a very talented person with a different personality. The USGA tries hard to do the right thing, but sometimes there are personalities that go in different directions.”
Vardaman acknowledges that Gleacher is strong-willed, but he defends his friend’s behavior as well-intentioned.
“He was not afraid to speak his mind, and he believed in doing what he thought was right, no matter what the past presidents thought,” Vardaman said. “He did not do or say things with an eye toward playing politics. Rather, he acted in what he always thought was the best interests of the game, and of the USGA.”
Gleacher’s fate prompted Vardaman to reassess his own future with the organization.
“I immediately thought of what had happened to Eric two years ago when (Executive Committee member) Walter Driver got moved ahead of him to become a vice president,” Vardaman said. “A lot of people encouraged Eric to ignore the slight and stay on, which he did, only to get burned this time around. I did not want that to happen to me, but more importantly, I knew I could not be effective if I did not have the support of the past presidents and the prospect of long tenure.
“Understand that, as I&B chairman, you have to deal with the R&A, the manufacturers and the PGA Tour, and you have to have a certain stature to be effective. And a lame duck does not have that stature.”
It seemed obvious to Vardaman – who said he is speaking out on the subject partially to set the record straight and also because he cares deeply for the association – that he did not have that support. After all, the USGA had promoted two individuals – Jim Reinhart and Emily “Missy” Crisp – to secretary and treasurer, respectively, while passing over Vardaman, who not only was serving as vice chairman of the Implements and Ball Committee but also was head of the Handicap and Audit committees and a member of the Championship and Amateur Status groups.
“I mean no disrespect to either Jim or Missy, but Jack’s credentials and experience with regards to the USGA far exceeded theirs, especially when you look at the critical committees on which he sat,” one golf industry veteran said. “Yet they were promoted ahead of him. It made absolutely no sense.”
Two days after he had informed incoming USGA president Fred Ridley that he would be stepping down, Vardaman received a call from Bloch. It was the first time the two had chatted since the changes in the Executive Committee 444
had been announced, and Vardaman used the occasion to explain why he was leaving. He told 444
Bloch he was especially concerned about running the I&B Committee if he did not have the backing of the past presidents.
According to Vardaman, Bloch heard him out, then called back that afternoon, proposing to make changes in the 2004 Executive Committee and make Vardaman an officer.
“I said I would do it, and Stuart said he would get back to me in the morning,” Vardaman said.
But the next day, Bloch told Vardaman he had to renege on the offer and asked if Vardaman would instead reconsider his decision to leave. Vardaman said he would not.
(Bloch recalls a slightly different scenario, one in which he told Vardaman he would only “think” about making him an officer for 2004. Bloch said he never made a definitive promise.)
Many people in golf believe Vardaman’s departure is a major loss.
“Jack’s a bright, bright guy who worked his ass off for the USGA and immersed himself in the important issues of the day,” said Marvin “Vinny” Giles, a legendary amateur player and longtime agent for touring pros such as Davis Love III and Tom Kite. “On the equipment issues alone, he had really dedicated himself to learning all the intricacies of ball and club technology, and he had established a reputation among equipment makers as being someone with whom they could carry on a reasonable dialogue. He was living in the present and thinking about the future instead of living in the past and thinking about rolling back.”
In Giles’ view, it was that sort of attitude that doomed Vardaman.
“Jack was not a ‘yes man,’ and he was not someone the past presidents could control,” Giles said. “I think the perception of the association after this is, ‘Who cares?’ Most people I’ve spoken to recently have little or no interest in supporting it after these incidents.”
Some observers have speculated that some USGA past presidents wanted to purge Vardaman all along and used the time-honored practice of insult and humiliation to induce his resignation.
Some past presidents, however, are known to be upset at Vardaman for departing.
“We very much wanted him on the Executive Committee,” one past president said. “He was invited to take on the chairmanship of the I&B Committee, which is one of the most important responsibilities in the entire organization. He undoubtedly would have done a great job. He probably would have ended up as USGA president. But he was impatient. He wanted to be an officer right now. I am sorry about this. He’s a gifted individual, and it’s our loss.”
Many of Giles’ conversations have taken place at the venerable Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., where five past USGA presidents and several other past and present USGA officials are members.
Barry Van Gerbig, who for 13 years was president of Seminole, told The Palm Beach Post: “I’ve always been a big supporter of the USGA, but not anymore. The sad part is, they’ve lost credibility not so much with the mainstream players, but with the true amateurs and tournament players who care so much about this game.”
Animosity toward some past presidents seems to be running high in the wake of the Gleacher-Vardaman affair, as illustrated by behavior during a tournament late last fall at Seminole. Gleacher and Vardaman had entered the Allan Ryan Cup as a team well before their USGA departures. They spent much of the weekend fielding condolences and expressions of support from fellow players.
The reception for Bloch, however, was quite different. Several sources said the 70-year-old former financial services executive from Wheeling, W. Va., had to endure a number of rebukes from fellow Seminole members regarding his work as Nominating Committee chairman, and Bloch and his partner played the entire two-day event with a marker.
Perhaps most vexing to those who have become disenchanted with the USGA is the feeling that the 12-member Advisory Committee of Past Presidents, which includes men who led the organization as long ago as the mid-1970s and attend only a handful of USGA committee meetings per year, wields far too much power, especially as it relates to the selection of officers and Executive Committee members.
For example, the five-person Nominating Committee is new every year and always is chaired by a past president. The other members of the committee typically accede to the wishes of its chairman and other behind-the-scene power brokers. One 2004 committee member, Tom Loss of Seattle, admitted that he “was not very active” and said that none of the people he “advanced” got on the Executive Committee. Another member, Dick Bennett of Anoka, Minn., said only that “Stuart Bloch was much more involved in the process than I was.”
Conversations with several association insiders revealed that Ridley, Driver and USGA executive director David Fay all tried to get the decisions involving Gleacher and Vardaman reversed, but to no avail.
“What does that tell you about the organization and the way it is run?” asked Giles.
And what does it mean for Ridley and Driver as they try to guide the organization in the years to come, or to anyone else who rises to a USGA leadership position?
“I think people on the Executive Committee have at times been somewhat reluctant to speak out in front of the past presidents in the past, and after what happened to me and Eric, I fear that will only get worse,” says Vardaman.