ORLANDO, Fla. – Dick Rugge has a one-way ticket to this week’s USGA annual meeting, on Feb. 1-2 in San Diego. When everyone else heads to the airport after the gala dinner, he’ll simply drive home. By that time, the sun will have set.
“When I realized the annual meeting was being held in San Diego, it seemed meant to be,” Rugge said. “I can say goodbye to a lot of people.”
Rugge, 65, is calling it quits this week as the USGA’s senior technical director. He was an executive at TaylorMade when the USGA hired him to oversee golf equipment testing procedures, and led a team of 18 full-time employees that tests more than 2,500 clubs and golf balls a year. To do so, he uprooted his family from Carlsbad, Calif., but he always hung on to the family house with a promise to return someday. His wife committed to 10 years in New Jersey. They stayed for nearly 13. “I’ve been working on borrowed time,” Rugge told me.
Over the years, he has been generous with his time. You never needed to contact a media official to schedule an interview. He returned phone calls. He answered candidly, including this memorable exchange I witnessed with Phil Mickelson. While Rugge and I didn’t always agree, our conversations were always enjoyable, and he delivered pithy quotes.
On my frequent visits to Far Hills, he broke away from work to have lunch at his favorite restaurant at the local train station. No menu was required. The waitress knew to bring him the grilled chicken sandwich and a glass of iced tea. I’ll miss those lunches. But before he drives off into the sunset, we met at the PGA Merchandise Show for one more interview and touched on a wide-range of topics.
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Schupak: What are you most proud of from your tenure at the USGA?
Rugge: The only thing I came to the USGA to do was to get that department running better. I’m proudest of how well the staff is doing. Frank Hannigan interviewed me early in my tenure. My final title at TaylorMade was vice president of product creation. He asked me, ‘What did you create?’ He probably thought I was going to say the bubble shaft or something like that. I said, ‘I built a damn good staff.’ That’s my claim to fame here, too. I built an environment where my staff could shine.
Recently, I was at a meeting with manufacturers and they were quite appreciative of the relationship that they and the USGA now have. They were praising me for that. When a guy is going out the door, they feel they can say that. I always say, ‘They only like you as much as your last decision.’ That can change quickly. In general, we’re getting along much better and communicating much better. I think that’s good for the game of golf. That’s not to say we’ve been easy on them. I saw a recent quote attributed to (Acushnet’s) Wally Uihlein where he said that this period of time is the most aggressive time of rulemaking in the history of golf. To have them feel that the relationship is greatly improved during a time we did more than we ever did, I think that’s pretty damn good.
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Schupak: What was the conversation like about your decision to retire?
Rugge: I started this conversation with David Fay (who since has retired as the USGA’s executive director). So when Mike (Davis) took the job over, the first time he and I talked I made it clear that I wasn’t here for the long term, and he needed to know that. Because of that, I’ve been working with my staff to make it a seamless transition.
The time is right for me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is I speak at a lot of places and I learned that you stop your speech before they really want you to, and I think that’s what I’m doing with the USGA. It’s a much better way to stop, and I have a wonderful replacement in John Spitzer (who was promoted from Rugge’s assistant). Not to sound like a broken record, but if there’s anything I’m proudest of, it’s how strong my staff has become. When I’m gone, I don’t think anyone will even notice.
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Schupak: I don’t know. You will be a man down for giving daily tours of the Research & Test Center to the public.
Rugge: (Laughter) You’re right. I’ve given my last tour. We’ve been giving tours for four years. We track that sort of thing in terms of who on the staff gives them, and I asked my assistant to go over that four-year period to see who gave the most, and you know what? It was me.
Speaking of the test center, my staff gave me a little luncheon recently. It was just the testing folks. At the end of the little speeches, they said, ‘C’mon down to the lab; we have something to show you.’ We have the mechanical golfer robot – the old Iron Byron has been retired and we have a modern version – and people always ask, ‘What’s the name of this one?’ Well, the staff named it the ‘Iron Rugge 2000.’ It’s engraved in metal with a plaque permanently mounted. I was quite taken by that. I don’t expect that name to stick quite like Iron Byron, but it blew me away.
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Schupak: Where do we stand on the USGA’s study of the golf ball? Is that something you feel you’re leaving left undone?
Rugge: The goal of the ball study was to become better prepared to make a rule change based on knowledge, in case that was ever needed. The USGA is much better prepared, with much more knowledge of golf balls in many ways today than when it started out. In that sense, that mission has been accomplished. It never was about should we change the rules about golf balls.
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Schupak: Why has nothing from the ball study ever been made public?
Rugge: First of all, why should we? That’s not meant to be a sarcastic comment. That’s a real question. We always ask ourselves why do we want to publish whatever it is we do. What’s the purpose of doing that? We look at publishing information we’ve learned as preparation for making a rule change. If we think there is a reasonable chance of making a rules change, we start publishing information to get people understanding the knowledge we’ve gained and perhaps how we may go forward.
That’s exactly what we did with grooves. We published reams of papers. We were on track to make a rule change, and we told people that. I think that’s a model of how we’d do the ball study. As of now, there is no plan to make a rules change. They may change the philosophy. That was my philosophy. I didn’t want the industry or the golfers to be whipsawed back and forth by that. And what if we published and then nothing happened? Then we’re the boy who cried wolf.
There may be some times when there is a reason to publish a basic thing to the world. I’ll tell you one that we did publish at least on our website. A lot of people believe the long hitter gets an extra benefit. We did a comprehensive study that came to a clear and strong conclusion that that was not the case. All of that is published on the website. It didn’t lead to a rule but was just some important information. I’ll give you another one. There was a video going around YouTube of a golf ball getting squashed at 150 mph. I can’t tell you how many emails we got asking, Is this real? It was a soft rubber ball that looked like a golf ball. We didn’t just say no. We published a real ball hitting a plate at 150 mph. The result was markedly different. We published that for a reason.
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Schupak: Several years ago the USGA relaxed the rules for adjustability. This year it seems like every company is touting adjustability in its driver. What do you make of that?
Rugge: It’s exactly what I expected. We did it for a particular reason. It’s good for golfers. It gives them some of the same opportunities tour players have. It gave the manufacturers something else to work on besides trying to get around our rules on distance. I think it has been successful. That’s one of the primary things being sold now. It’s taken longer than I thought. We first started talking about this in 2005. We sent a letter; it was largely ignored. When it was approved, some were opposed to it. I was defending it, which seems crazy in retrospect. I think it has turned out to be a positive for golfers and the industry. It is not jeopardizing the game at all. It just helps people get fit better. I remember custom fitters were calling me and saying, ‘You’re going to ruin our business.’ It hasn’t happened. In fact, I think the opposite has happened.
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Schupak: What is your retirement plan?
Rugge: No. 1 is to straighten out my garage. When you move from New Jersey, where you have a big basement, back to California, to a house with no basement, you’ve got a problem – especially since all the stuff in the garage is my stuff. It’s floor to ceiling with boxes. It’s going to take a long time to sort out. I’m not kidding.
I’m going to do the things I wish I had time to do. I have an old car I want to work on. It is a bright orange ’73 Saab Sonett. That’s a two-seater sports car. I’ve had it for about eight years. It’s in great shape. I bought it on eBay. Only has about 36,000 miles on it. It runs great, but it needs a clutch. That’s a huge job, especially for someone doing it for the first time.
I’ve already been taking some classes at iTunes U. They’ve got history classes from Yale on there. I love it. I’d like to go take some in person, too. They let an old fart like me audit a few classes. I’ve also got an invention. It has nothing to do with golf. It has to do with wine. I’m not going to tell you what that is because I don’t want to lose the patent on it, but I’m going to work on it. I should say, ‘I have an idea.’ Whether it becomes an invention or not, I’ll let you know.