New leadership: PGA's search for Bevacqua

Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA of America, in his office in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA of America, in his office in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The picture window at Pete Bevacqua’s office at PGA headquarters overlooks the Squire Course at PGA National Resort & Spa. It’s a dreamy view. But don’t ask the new, 41-year-old CEO of the PGA to identify what hole it is. He doesn’t know.

“You know, I wish I could tell you, but I haven’t had the chance to find out,” he said. “It’s around-the-clock here right now, as it needs to be and ought to be.”

Bevacqua was announced as the PGA’s third CEO, replacing Joe Steranka, on Nov. 12. To avoid media attention, the search for his successor was conducted under the strictest of secrecy. It wasn’t until days before Bevacqua’s public unveiling that his name emerged here on Golfweek.com.

Now, after several interviews conducted with Bevacqua, PGA president Ted Bishop, a member of the PGA’s search committee, and others with intimate knowledge of the process, the story of how Bevacqua emerged as the best man for the job can be told.

Like many industry observers, Bevacqua was caught off guard in April by the news that Steranka planned to resign at the end of 2012. “I was shocked,” Bevacqua said. “I thought Joe would be here for a long time -- through at least 2016 -- but obviously he felt he had done what he needed to do.”

Bevacqua and Steranka had forged a friendship over the years traveling to majors and sitting on the World Golf Foundation board during Bevacqua’s more than decade-long tenure at the U.S. Golf Association. He said Steranka called him shortly before he went public with the news. "What an unbelievable role," Bevacqua said he thought to himself. “I loved what I was doing at CAA (as head of the golf division). We were gaining momentum. I wasn’t looking to leave. Having spent so much time on the entity side of golf, being on the other side was refreshing. The pace was different. Working with blue-chip companies to explain why golf was where they should invest was something I believed in. But I love the game. I gave the job a little bit of thought, but not a lot of thought.”

That is until he received a call in midsummer from Joe Bailey, managing director of global sport practice for the PGA’s search firm, RSR Partners. Would he be interested in interviewing for the PGA’s CEO job? Bevacqua didn’t hesitate. He had worked at Bedford (N.Y.) Golf & Tennis Club, first as a caddie, beginning at age 10 through the completion of his first summer at law school when he was 23. Few jobs stirred Bevacqua’s soul as much as this one. “That’s an unbelievably exciting opportunity and something, quite frankly, I think I’ve been groomed for,” he told Bailey.

Bevacqua met with Bailey at RSR’s Greenwich, Conn., headquarters, and the courting began. A few weeks later, he was invited to meet with the PGA’s search committee, which consisted of current president Ted Bishop, past presidents Allen Wronowski and Tom Addis III, vice president Derek Sprague, ex-NBA star and former independent PGA board member Junior Bridgeman, and marketing executive Steve Aiello, a longtime PGA consultant, who sat in on some of the meetings. The question-and-answer session persisted for nearly two hours and covered a wide range of topics.

Bevacqua observed there was room for improvement in better engaging the membership.

“Pete talked about his perception of the disconnect that existed between the rank-and-file membership and PGA headquarters staff,” Bishop said. “I thought that was very insightful. For someone from outside the PGA to be aware of that and make that observation, I thought was unique.”

Bevacqua heard from the search firm a few days later that he had advanced to the second round for a more detailed and intensive interview in Minneapolis, where the PGA officers had gathered for a leadership conference.

Bevacqua prepared for the meeting by bouncing ideas off his inner circle of leaders from the sports and business world, including Fred Ridley, an attorney and former USGA president; his former USGA colleague Barry Hyde, now with Wasserman Media Group; CAA president Richard Lovett; NBA executive Heidi Ueberroth; Jeff Holzschuh, a Morgan Stanley executive and president of the Metropolitan Golf Association; as well as a series of conversations with former USGA executive director David Fay, who was one of Bevacqua’s references.

“Never forget whom you are there to serve,” Bevacqua said Fay advised. “Don’t lose sight of your role to the 27,000 members. Always consider how your decision will impact that universe of people.”

Armed with what he called “great advice” and a litany of ideas for the job, Bevacqua drafted a 90-day transition plan, which he carried with him to the meeting at a Minneapolis hotel. He said he never handed it out, but referred to it often.

“It was all about what we needed to do in those first few months to get the energy going, to make the transition smooth, to put a new leadership team in place, and how strongly I felt about the need to have a new chief operating officer. If you look at how this organization has grown and the complexity of the issues we deal with, there’s a need for someone like Darrell Crall.”

Crall, who was spearheading Golf 2.0, was the PGA’s top internal candidate. At this point, it was becoming increasingly clear that it was a two-horse race for the job. Bevacqua had been a finalist for high-profile positions in golf before, including the post as USGA executive director that went to Mike Davis.

To observers, it came as little surprise that Davis was elevated to USGA executive director.

Bevacqua and Davis were friends. They had gone on golf trips to Scotland together. Davis possessed the background in rules and championship management – the same hallmarks that made Joe Dey and David Fay successful in their long reigns. Those skillsets gave Davis a leg up for the job. As one former USGA staff member put it, “Once Davis expressed interest, the job belonged to him.”

After Bevacqua departed his second-round interview with the PGA, Bishop said a thought struck him. He commented to the search committee: “The obvious home run here would be if some way we could have both of these guys lead the association.”

Bishop had done his own homework on Bevacqua. He spoke to Charlie Robson, longtime executive director of the Metropolitan PGA section, who had extensive dealings with Bevacqua over the years, particularly when the U.S. Open was held at Bethpage, and with Tom Watson on Oct. 9 in Kansas City. Watson, a CAA client, seconded Robson’s vote of confidence. Before the search, Bishop said he had never met Bevacqua, let alone heard of him. Now, he was impressed. At the same time, he didn’t want to lose someone of Crall’s talents. The search committee pondered Bishop’s idea for a moment and agreed.

“It was the perfect marriage,” Bishop said.

But would the two key figures embrace the opportunity to work together?

“I remember when we first approached Pete with the idea there was a sense of relief on his part and he said, ‘You know what? I think this could be the greatest thing we could do. I support it 100 percent.’ Some might not have wanted the No. 2 guy around, might have seen him as a threat. Not Bevacqua. He recognized the talents of Darrell. And Darrell welcomed the opportunity to work with Pete (Crall was promoted to chief operating officer).”

On Oct. 25, Bevacqua had his final interview in Manhattan. He, Bishop, Sprague and their wives met for dinner at Capital Grille. They retreated to a private room. Here, they had a chance to get to know one another in a social setting, and they spoke for three hours. Bevacqua shared intimate details about his family, including the death of his father in 1997. A dentist in their hometown of Bedford, N.Y., Bevacqua’s father loved the game and dreamed of his son becoming a PGA pro, said former Bedford Golf & Tennis pro Tony Chateauvert. Bevacqua’s father had just departed a golf shop parking lot after dropping off Bevacqua’s clubs to be regripped as a Christmas present. The road was framed by fresh snowfall and slicked with sleet and ice. His father was riding in Bevacqua’s old Nissan Sentra from his law school days when he collided with a teenager who lost control on a patch of ice.

The story struck Bishop cold. “I was touched by the remorse he felt for the kid,” he said. “It was a devastating loss to Pete, but he reverted back to how badly the family felt for the other driver. That really spoke to the kind of person he is.”

Over dinner, the discussion drifted to Bevacqua’s relocation to South Florida, home of PGA national headquarters. The Bevacquas, who have two young children, had just moved into a new home in Katonah, N.Y., in July.

“We were still in boxes,” Bevacqua said. “Even though it was our dream house, it was never a difficult decision when the job was offered to me.”

Bevacqua didn’t have to fret long. The next morning the full search committee, via conference call, broke the news that they had selected him to lead the PGA into the future.

“I was just floored,” Bevacqua said. “I said, ‘It would be a thrill of a lifetime.’ I told the search committee this wasn’t something I envisioned for two years or five years. My expectations are, I’m going to do this for as long as they will let me do it.”

Chateauvert’s reaction to the news: “It was like hearing your brother was elected president of the United States,” he said.

The job offer, of course, was subject to full board approval. That was a mere formality on Nov. 10.

Bevacqua received an even bigger thrill a few weeks later. His wife and kids were going to move down in June after their daughter finished kindergarten. But those plans soon changed.

“We found out around Thanksgiving that we have baby No. 3 on the way,” he said, a smile stretching his face. “So everything has been expedited. They’ll be down by March.”

Bevacqua’s office at PGA National already is a hive of activity. For now, he’s taking a late flight each Friday back to New York to be with his family, and catching a Monday morning nonstop to West Palm Beach. In between, he has plunged head first into developing short-term and long-term strategic plans.

“If you take over a head coaching job,” he explained, “you can’t say in 10 years we’re going to win a national championship, but between now and then who knows? Maybe that first season the offense gets better. Then the next the special teams improve. You’re building toward that national championship. If you’re (Notre Dame head football coach) Brian Kelly, you can do it in three seasons.”

Bevacqua, a proud Notre Dame alumnus and former walk-on to the football team, made the remark with a sly smile – and before his team got crushed by Alabama in the title game.

He continued: “You have to have the patience and the discipline. My biggest struggle right now is, I want to do everything right away. I have to remind myself, you know, it takes time. What can I do right away, and what needs time to bake, to percolate? We’ll get to it all, but you can’t do everything in day one. If you try to, you’re going to fail.”

It helps that Bevacqua has Crall to show him the ropes, and the full support of Bishop, who is in the first year of his two-year reign as association president. It was Bishop who demonstrated a willingness to stray from the script by pursuing Tom Watson as U.S. Ryder Cup captain. Expect more bold decision-making from the PGA’s new dynamic duo.

“Pete and I are similar in that we are two guys not afraid to get out of the box,” Bishop said. “We’re not afraid to be change agents, and I think we’re a good combination for each other.”

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