Rarely do golden years guarantee retirement bliss, yet rarely is a freshly minted senior so relieved to remove a decade-old bull’s-eye from his back.
Make no mistake, Tom Meeks recalls his nine years as the U.S. Golf Association’s point man for U.S. Open course setup in hushed and nostalgic tones. But when you’ve been pounded like a range ball for so long, it’s easy to embrace retirement as a refuge.
Officially, he won’t get his gold watch until Sept. 30. That’s the for-the-record day when Meeks will step down as the USGA’s senior director of Rules and Competitions. Deep within his Midwestern heart, however, Meeks knows next week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst will be his swan song.
There have been, by his own estimate, 150 USGA championships he has overseen since joining the association in 1975. Yet U.S. Opens – for better or, more often than not, worse – are Meeks’ legacy.
The idea always has been to test the world’s best players at an Open venue. The actual practice of that philosophy is akin to balancing on a razor one of those elephants that seem to be buried in a few of Pinehurst No. 2’s greens.
Meeks took over as senior director in charge of setup from David Eger at the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. From the outset, the second-guessing descended upon the former science teacher.
At one of his first meetings with the media, a writer asked if Meeks would consider allowing the field to play under lift, clean and place rules. A simple yet resolute “no” was Meeks’ reply. The writer pressed, asking what would happen if the only way to finish the round was to do it by playing the ball up.
“I said if the only way we can play is to play lift, clean and place then we won’t play,” Meeks said.
From that relatively mild encounter, controversy became as much a part of Meeks’ tenure at the USGA as his homespun drawl and easygoing demeanor. Setting up Open courses was never going to be easy, a tenant he realized early.
“I wish that I could tell you that this job is possible to do without ever making a mistake but I really don’t think it is,” says Meeks, who turns 65 in August. “If you do what we do and do it in the manner that we want to do it, I think you’re going to stumble. When that happens, you have to be able to accept criticism.”
His approachable style and self-deprecating sense of humor likely helped soften what otherwise would have been drop-you-to-the-canvas blows from his detractors.
“What I respect most about Tom is that he’s always talked to us,” Paul Azingers says. “He’s never tried to hide when things have gone bad.”
That easy smile, however, couldn’t smooth over every edge.
At The Olympic Club in 1998, a back-left pin placement at the 18th hole in Round 2 turned the nation’s Open Championship into a circus. Birdie putts nearly raced off the green, Tom Lehman four-putted and Kirk Triplett was so disgusted he stopped his ball from rolling with his putter.
To his credit, Meeks makes no excuses. Yet few people not named Greg Norman pine for more major “do-overs.”
Meeks concedes the Friday pin position at Olympic worried him from the start. And a fairway that started some 280 yards from the tee on No. 10 at Bethpage Black still haunts him, three years after the fact.
“I had no idea that the players from that tee were going to have a hard time reaching that fairway,” he says. “I never intended that.”
Davis Love III is among the players that have questioned setups by Meeks and the USGA.
“I think he’s . . . um . . . what’s a good word . . . (pause) very testing,” said Davis Love III. “He wants you to be tested. The only problem the USGA has is that they think we’re better than we are. You can’t make everybody carry it 280. You can’t make everybody hit a high 3-iron to a hard green and expect it to stay on. They’re really worried about par. . . . Part of it is an attitude, and I think it’s coming around.”
Criticism reached a crescendo last year when wind and lack of water made Shinnecock Hills’ par-3 seventh green virtually unplayable on Sunday.
“There’s no way I wanted what happened to happen,” Meeks says. “Big, big, big lesson. Probably the biggest lesson of all is Shinnecock.”.
Above all else, Meeks – who will try his hand as an on-course analyst for ESPN later this year at the PGA Tour’s Bell Canadian Open – is a realist. He knew the lightning rod came with the gig.
Yet for all of his high-profile gaffes, it was a simple slow-play warning that Meeks lists as his most surreal Open moment.
“Having to go and tell Payne Stewart he had a bad time on the 12th hole in the final round at Olympic was tough to do,” Meeks says. “David Fay had a radio and he said, ‘Tom, you know the whole world is watching you time Stewart right now?’ He was right. The whole world was watching me but I’ve got to do my job.”
As a result of that encounter, an unlikely friendship blossomed between the late golfer and Meeks. It’s a relationship that will make his week at Pinehurst, the site of Stewart’s dramatic 1999 U.S. Open victory, even more emotional.
“I learned to not only respect his ability but also to enjoy him as an individual on a few occasions,” Meeks says. “I also think he learned to respect me a little more. It was a neat relationship for much too short a period of time.”
It’s those types of memories, not the reams of negative press filled with barbed comments from players, that Meeks will take with him.
He’s so enamored with the idea of retirement that he’s feathered a cozy nest for himself and his wife not far from where he grew up in Indiana.
From his kitchen each morning, he marvels at the sunrise over the Morse Reservoir before heading to his home office in the front of thehouse, away from the tranquility of the reservoir and back on the Open hot seat. But only for one last time.
“Some people may want to say that because of these things that have happened in my career that I’ve done a lousy job. If they want to say that, I guess they’re entitled to say it. I don’t look at it that way,” Meeks says. “I hope people don’t judge me on those few errors.”
– Jeff Babineau contributed