U.S. Golf Association presidents commonly arrive on the train from nowhere, and golfers outside the USGA’s inner circle know little or nothing about them.
In the era of the titanium driver, here’s what we knew about USGA presidents as they assumed office: Judy Bell had been a national-class golfer who was brassy enough to play politics with the boys and thus became the first female president in the USGA’s 100-year history; F. Morgan “Buzz” Taylor was a businessman who introduced the self-correcting Polara ball to golf before he crossed back over from the dark side; Trey Holland was a physician who didn’t smile much; and the newest president, Reed Mackenzie of Chaska, Minn., is a lawyer who doesn’t smile much.
Smiling, it seems, is incongruous with the responsibilities of being captain of the cruise ship USGA as it heads into dangerous waters. Those icebergs out there are named Wally Uihlein, Callaway Golf, Iron Byron, coefficient of restitution and driver clubhead size.
Mackenzie, 59, took office in February at the USGA’s annual meeting, held this year in Colorado Springs, Colo. In an environment that seemed to be begging for a legal fight over golf ball testing or driver standards, he quickly established himself as a no-nonsense leader.
On the contentious issue of spring-like effect in drivers, Mackenzie orchestrated the compromise between the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, that was announced May 9.
“I think Reed absolutely was the key player in the compromise,” observed Ron Drapeau, chairman and CEO of Callaway Golf. “Reed Mackenzie could do something like this just like Richard Nixon could go to China. Everybody knew Nixon didn’t believe in communism, yet he opened up China. Well, everybody knew Reed was very outspoken about his position on distance off the tee (the ball goes too far) and that golf should be one game and that traditional values are important. Yet he found a way to allow his intellect to come into effect on this issue.”
Mackenzie the great compromiser is also a great defender of the USGA.
“The overwhelming majority of golfers believe there should be rules,” he said in accepting the presidency. “The USGA has no financial interest in the outcome of any rules decision. We are concerned only with the best interests of the game as played by our constituents – amateurs, professionals, the skilled and the unskilled. We need to draw the line somewhere. There is no science that says the diameter of the hole should be 41⁄4 inches.”
Earlier, a funny thing happened on the way to the podium: Mackenzie actually allowed his personality to emerge. If smiling isn’t in these days, then wit and intelligence certainly are. Like Holland before him, Mackenzie appears to possess a brilliantly dry sense of humor.
Heading into the great hall to formally take the USGA reins, Mackenzie noticed that the auditorium door wouldn’t shut.
“Where is the I&B Committee when you need them?” he quipped, referring to the USGA’s Implements and Ball Committee that is deluged with the technical ramifications of golf equipment in the 21st century.
Mackenzie is a bear of a man, large of body and fierce of countenance.
“You do not judge Reed by first appearances,” Holland was quick to say. Indeed, this bear has learned to tread lightly and inquisitively in a golf world that sometimes appears ready to explode with controversy.
“I want to learn everything I can,” Mackenzie said of golf equipment. The USGA is seeking to update golf ball testing (with the return of the ball-whacking robot, Iron Byron) and change the regulations regarding drivers (with a maximum clubhead size of 470 cubic centimeters). Mackenzie comes well-equipped for the task, having served 10 years on the I&B Committee, including four years as chairman.
Some see the Mackenzie years as the most crucial presidency in the history of the USGA. Courses, particularly those that want to host the USGA’s centerpiece championship, the U.S. Open, are being lengthened in what has been called a wholesale submission to modern driving distances. On the other hand, influential companies such as Callaway and Titleist (and Titleist’s outspoken CEO, Uihlein) frequently have criticized the USGA’s motivation and protocol in trying to halt the distance parade.
If Mackenzie is to establish peace, he must bring his highest negotiating skills to the golf table – skills honed as a medical malpractice lawyer, an arena in which most cases are settled before they ever reach court.
“It’s an awkward place we’re in,” Mackenzie said. “I hope one of the things we can do over the next two years (a USGA
president normally serves two one-year terms) is try to minimize the differences with manufacturers. I’m not sure it’s possible, but I’ve seen some things happening that convinced me maybe there is some hope.”
“Not any secret things,” he said. “Any time you make a ruling that deals with equipment, you can expect there are going to be some people who aren’t going to like it. But there have been some congratulatory letters from manufacturers. There have been comments that the USGA is listening to them and making rational, justifiable decisions.”
While the USGA has been accused of waffling on golf ball testing and driver head size, Mackenzie defended his organization.
“We listened,” he said. “That’s what they said they wanted in the first place, and that’s what we did. Based on what we heard and what we discovered in our research, we changed our minds. In rulemaking, you now have an industry that moves faster than it did in the past in terms of its ability, with technology, to crank out new products and different products. That conflicts with rulemaking, which historically has been slow and deliberative. I think the process of being more open – manufacturers to us and us to manufacturers – is part of the way we have to move forward.”
Ironically, Mackenzie the peacemaker has spent much of his golfing life contending with the reputation of Mackenzie the clubthrower.
“He is an interesting man,” said Warren Rebholz, the former Minnesota Golf Association executive director who, 25 years ago, convinced Mackenzie to become a volunteer. (All USGA committee members and officers are unpaid volunteers.) “On one hand, he patiently listens to everybody on all sides. I’ve seen it time and again; he doesn’t make decisions hastily. On the other hand, everybody knows about his little temper tantrums when he is playing golf. He’s snapped a few shafts in his day. He’s whistled a few clubs.”
Mackenzie maintains his club throwing is a thing of the past.
“I am no longer a serious competitor,” says the man who once qualified for the U.S. Amateur, citing his current 5.4 handicap index as evidence. Regardless, the stories persist.
Rebholz is fond of telling the one about a club-throwing contest.
“We played in a tournament,” he said, “and afterward they had a club-throwing contest. All the golfers were lined up. When it got to be Reed’s turn, the man who was running the contest told him he wasn’t eligible. ‘This is only for amateurs,’ he said. Everybody thought that was hilarious.”
Mackenzie and his wife, Jane, have lived since 1986 in a house beside Hazeltine National Golf Club. The residence formerly was owned by Totton Heffelfinger, president of the USGA in 1952-53 and a mentor to Mackenzie. In 1991, Mackenzie was general chairman of the U.S. Open at Hazeltine, won by Payne Stewart.
For some insight into the character of Mackenzie the traditionalist, consider his love of walking.
“I was invited to one of the press days in 1991 to talk about the club,” he said, “and I made a point of saying we took great pride in walking – that’s the way the game is meant to be played. I kind of laid it on a little bit about the way we frowned on people who like to ride in golf carts.
“At the end of the day, I saw this fellow from one of our state newspapers and he looked a little tired. He said to me, ‘Well, I did it. I haven’t walked 18 holes since I lost my leg.’ He had a below-the-knee amputation and a prosthesis, and he walked the entire 18 holes. That wasn’t exactly what I intended. I just have a strong belief that able-bodied people should walk.”
Mackenzie admits he didn’t gave up his favorite Joe Powell persimmon driver until the mid-1990s.
“I held out until then,” he said. “I still take it every once in a while and polish it up.”
He joined Hazeltine before he started law school, when it was a new club and dues were $25 per month. Now, almost 40 years later, he ponders his status as a golfer formerly known as a player.
“I could go over every day and hit balls, but I don’t,” he said. “You have to make a choice at some point whether you’re going to be a player or whether you’re going to be involved in some other way. Sometimes I miss playing, but most of the time I’m satisfied with what I’m doing.”
John Harris, the former U.S. Amateur champion, has been a longtime friend of Mackenzie.
“He was very, very competitive in the Midwest for many years,” Harris said, “but I think he’s always been focused on giving back to the game. I think he would like to play the game at a much higher level, but he decided to channel his energies to the administrative level. It’s very unselfish, really, and it’s why the game is as great as it is.”
Mackenzie was introduced to golf at age 8 in Eau Claire, Wis., by his stepfather, and later led his high school team to the Wisconsin state championship. Besides golf, his other sustained four-letter passion has been jazz. He was a primary organizer of a celebrated gathering called The Jazz Party in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
These days, though, Mackenzie is immersed in the business of golf legislation.
Is he up to the task? To answer a question with a question: Does a bear look for his golf ball in the woods?
Absolutely. And he growls if he doesn’t find it.