2004: Past presidents set USGA agenda
Presidents of the U.S. Golf Association are given a lifetime exemption, if you will, into the spheres of power in American golf.
These past presidents control the composition of the Executive Committee, the 15-member body that makes all decisions for the USGA. Each year, a past president chairs the Nominating Committee, with the authority to determine who is ousted from the Executive Committee and who fills the openings.
Past presidents historically have been a tight-knit, somewhat-secretive group, conducting their
business out of the public eye. More recently, some critics have thrown back the curtains, portraying the cadre of past presidents as an ideological mafia who are experts at twisting arms and minds.
Marvin “Vinny” Giles III, a former U.S. Amateur champion, characterizes the past presidents as “elderly gentlemen who have not recognized we are in the 21st century.”
The 12 men who comprise the Advisory Committee of Past Presidents range in age from 54 (Trey Holland) to 87 (James R. Hand). Their average age is 73.4 years; it's 75 if Holland, the only committee member in his 50s, is not figured. Some exert more influence than others.
More from Giles: “The game has changed, issues have changed. The past presidents need to recognize this. By letting the inmates run the asylum, the game has suffered. And so has the USGA.”
Nowhere is this criticism more assertive than in the words of Wally Uihlein, president and chief executive officer of Acushnet Co., which encompasses the Titleist, FootJoy and Cobra brands.
“Wally Uihlein,” says former USGA executive director Frank Hannigan, “has become the most powerful individual in golf.”
If this is true, any showdown between Uihlein and the USGA’s past presidents might have all the trappings of Wrestlemania, with some of golf’s most commanding figures battling for supremacy.
Uihlein, taking exception to such an image, offers a prologue to any analysis of the USGA: “Golf equipment makers get up each day and voluntarily produce millions of units (balls and clubs) that conform to the rules of golf. I make this point to dispel the idea that somehow the ruling bodies and golf equipment manufacturers are at war.
“Quite the opposite. Both sides, as a rule, seem to both know their place in the grand scheme and remain committed to the game’s preservation. Historically, relations between the regulatory bodies and the golf equipment manufacturers is an excellent work in process.”
Then Uihlein addresses his biggest concern: the past presidents.
“As long as the past presidents of the USGA continue to use the Executive Committee and
more particularly the Nominating Committee to circumvent, if not subvert, the necessary due process that needs to exist between regulatory bodies and those that they regulate, there will always be the potential for a breach in relations between the golf equipment manufacturers and the regulatory bodies,” Uihlein says.
Frank (Sandy) Tatum was USGA president in 1978-79. A San Francisco attorney, Tatum often is regarded as the single most persuasive of the past presidents. He isn't shy about outlining their duties.
“We do exert a good deal of influence,” he acknowledges. “You might call it power. We control the nominating process. We evaluate people (Executive Committee members) based on their performance, attitudes and what the organization needs.”
David Boyd is a retired insurance executive from Atlanta who served on the Executive Committee from 1993 through 1996 and was twice on the Nominating (1990 and 2000). Boyd is candid about his experience.
“The Nominating Committee is totally controlled by the past presidents, and it is a waste of time and money for other people to be on it,” Boyd says. “The problem with that control is that you so often have Executive Committee members who are afraid to speak up. To get to the top of the USGA, you have to be very political and you cannot make the past presidents mad.”
Tatum and others remain firm in their conviction that the past presidents are neither overbearing nor dictatorial.
“Everything we do is done in a way that is not intrusive,” Tatum says. “Bill Campbell (the acclaimed amateur player and former USGA president) and I dually for 15 years have been involved in this golf ball issue. The ball goes too far, and everybody knows it. We exert whatever influence we’ve got. But nothing has happened (in terms of shortening the golf ball).”
Says Hannigan: “If you ask me what the USGA’s position on distance is, I couldn’t tell you. If this is a reflection of the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the Executive Committee, I will tell you that all kinds of institutions have problems selecting their boards. But I unequivocally do not accept that the behavior of the past presidents has caused this mess. Others, including the USGA technical department, have contributed greatly. The USGA should have seen all this (thin-faced drivers and aerodynamic golf balls) coming, and it didn’t.”
Former USGA president C. Grant Spaeth has been ostracized by his own group of past presidents, yet still defends the role of the group.
“I’m not embarrassed for my work as a past president,” says Spaeth, a lawyer in Palo Alto, Calif. “The system has worked pretty well for more than 100 years, and it is designed for those who have given their lives to examining and understanding the issues. Is there room for change? Of course. But somebody has to make the decisions, and these are the people who are qualified to do it.”
The Advisory Committee of Past Presidents does not include two former presidents – Spaeth and Judy Bell.
Spaeth agreed to step down from the committee after becoming associated with a firm that competed with the USGA for handicapping services. Even though Spaeth said he would recuse himself on any handicapping issues, at least one other past president wanted him off the committee.
Bell withdrew from the advisory committee after becoming a paid employee of the USGA Foundation. She said she wanted to avoid any conflicts of interest. The only female president in the 109-year history of the USGA, Bell has grown accustomed to being something of an outsider. For example, all USGA presidents are rewarded by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, with an R&A membership. Instead of a membership, Bell got a brooch from the all-male R&A.
The past presidents don’t always support each other. Some have been privately but strongly critical of outgoing president Reed Mackenzie for failing to take a more aggressive stance on golf ball distance. It is likely that the golf ball will be at the center of any future confrontations between the USGA and the golf industry.
Adding his perspective on what has turned into an Executive Committee soap opera, Uihlein said: “As long as the past presidents continue to dominate both the nominating and the strategic direction of the USGA, there will continue to exist a ‘cold war’ climate between the golf equipment manufacturers and the regulatory bodies. As we know from past experiences, an ongoing cold war climate always has the capacity for explosion, particularly when one side attempts to exert its political will on the other.”
Says Tatum: “What is best for the game and the people who play it? That’s the question. To those who seem determined to portray the USGA as a wretched, mean-spirited, stupid organization, I ask them to take a closer look. The USGA has been badly misrepresented.”