Making game more accessible among USGA's goals

New USGA president Thomas O'Toole Jr. during the USGA's annual meeting Saturday in Pinehurst, N.C.

PINEHURST, N.C. –– Welcome to the new U.S. Golf Association. Looking ahead to the 2014 golf season, the USGA will attempt to become more relevant, influential and helpful in the sporting lives of golfers in the United States.

This was revealed with conviction Saturday evening as Thomas J. O'Toole Jr., a 56-year-old St. Louis attorney, became the new USGA president. Following historical precedent, he will serve two one-year terms.

"The game has a significant legacy of exclusion and elitism that we must collectively work to overcome," O'Toole admitted in his acceptance speech at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club. "We must take responsibility for our own shortcomings as an organization, both past and present, but we must not be limited by who we have been. The opportunity – no, the obligation – exists for us to make a difference, and we must embrace and seize each and every chance for us to do so."

The USGA was founded in 1894. From the beginning, it was dedicated to serving two primary functions: 1. organizing and conducting national championships; 2. formulating and writing the rules of the game.

Under the new O'Toole administration, a third responsibility will be greatly emphasized in 2014. In a word, it is accessibility. O'Toole talked about increasing the number of golfers, making the game more enjoyable, and revitalizing the economic health of the sport.

According to USGA executive director Mike Davis, golf in the United States is losing about one percent of its players each year. Davis has joined O'Toole in declaring war on golf's shortcomings.

O'Toole reinforced his intention "to enhance services that support the game by making it faster to play, more affordable, while opening golf to new audiences. And, for anyone who is wondering, this is where we will dedicate our resources."

For the record, O'Toole and the other 14 members of the USGA Executive Committee are unpaid volunteers. Their power in golf is enormous, and they issue formal approval for all USGA plans and actions.

Davis and a paid staff of about 300 carry out these directives. As the two most prominent faces of the USGA, O'Toole and Davis will work together closely.

During his remarks, O'Toole made a point of reaching out to golf companies: "If we fulfill our mission to provide a strong nucleus for the game, by being concerned with the game's health, we optimize the chance for the golf industry that surrounds it to grow."

Then he returned to the subject of individual participation in golf. "We are formulating a task force," he acknowledged, "comprising Executive Committee and staff leaders, thought-leaders from across the golf industry, and thought-leaders from beyond golf, to identify and prioritize the best opportunities for opening up the game and enabling greater participation by minorities, women, juniors and golfers with disabilities."

More reflections on 2014:

• The USGA, along with the R&A, headquartered in St. Andrews, Scotland, will try to simplify the rules, or, in O'Toole's words, "to demystify the complexity of the Rules of Golf."

• The USGA and R&A also are pursuing a global handicap system that would foster equitable competition among golfers around the world.

• A pace-of-play study, a favorite project of outgoing USGA president Glen Nager, is continuing. Nager was adamant about lowering the time required for golf while promoting the smooth flow of play.

• There appeared to be bad news for PGA of America president Ted Bishop and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who have tried to convince the USGA to establish a grandfather period for amateur golfers choosing to anchor their putters.

"We said we would implement it (the ban on anchoring) on Jan. 1, 2016," O'Toole reiterated. "That has been our (only) announcement. When we went through this long and what was a polarizing issue to some people, we followed a very mindful and thoughtful process internally and externally with people in the game.

"We're looking past that journey we went through on anchoring. We think the game is embracing it (the ban), and we're looking forward to implementing it."

In conclusion, O'Toole turned once again to accessibility.

"The game frankly is not welcoming," he said. "We will spend significant resources to address this issue of accessibility. Opening up the game is very important to the USGA."

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