2006: Straight shooter, Walter Driver

Atlanta

Does Walter Driver Jr. ever smile? The cynic’s answer: Never in public and only when he hits a 300-yard drive. Although the stern, intensely private Driver is 60, he frequently smashes 300-yard drives. So three people at a time have the pleasure of seeing him smile. Whatever is said about him, the new U.S. Golf Association president lives up to his name. He is a storied driver of the golf ball, earning him the distinction of the best golf name among the 57 men and one woman who have led the USGA in its 112-year history.

“In college, he hit the ball farther than anybody,” recalled Bob Bouchier, Driver’s former teammate on the Stanford University golf team. “With that name, he had to.”

“He still hits it a long way,” said Driver’s close friend Danny Yates, the two-time U.S. Walker Cup captain. “He loves to play the game. Walter and I have been out there in every kind of weather known to man. Nothing stops him.”

Driver admits to posting “somewhere around 50” scores in 2005. His current handicap index is .2 at Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta.

OK, enough smiling. The USGA is all about blue blazers and the serious business of governing golf. And Driver seems to possess a laundry list of superlative qualifications – intelligence, decisiveness, fairness, thoughtfulness and the ability to listen – that could make him one of the USGA’s most effective presidents.

If so, it couldn’t come at a better time. The USGA, in concert with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, is battling to contain the influence of 21st-century technology on golf clubs and balls.

“He is without question the right person for the job,” said O. Gordon Brewer, two-time USGA Senior Amateur champion and former member of the USGA Executive Committee. “I would call him brilliant, and he has good common judgment.

“Some people say he is hard to read. That’s because he gathers a lot of intelligence before he talks. He doesn’t shoot from the hip. He doesn’t declare his position prematurely.

This will serve him well as USGA president.”

Driver, who took office Feb. 4 at the conclusion of the USGA annual meeting in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead, has an impressive pedigree.

As a golfer, he participated in two U.S. Mid-Amateurs and two British Amateurs.

As a lawyer, he worked 35 years for the 121-year-old law firm of King & Spalding in Atlanta. He joined King & Spalding at 25 after graduating from the University of Texas law school. He was made a partner at 30. By 45, he was chairman.

King & Spalding boasts more than 800 attorneys. It is well known for hiring minorities out of law school. The firm’s annual revenue exceeds $500 million. Driver’s specialty was international banking and finance.

In 2005, Driver told his partners at King & Spalding that he could not be chairman of the firm and also president of the USGA. About the same time, he was courted by investment banking and securities giant Goldman Sachs. Advised by his wife, Bettie, to accept only the second job of his life, he is now chairman-Southeast for Goldman Sachs.

“It’s a combination of excitement, and, sure, I’m a little bit nervous about a new career,” Driver said. “I’m going to work with Goldman Sachs to develop their position and reputation in the Southeast, and increase the level of business they do in the Southeast.

“It will be a dramatic change in my life. My wife says it will keep me young and active. I think she told me not to come home.”

Yes, he smiled at that last comment.

As a member of the USGA Executive Committee and former chairman of the USGA’s Equipment Standards Committee and Championship Committee, Driver already is known as a penetrating thinker. He established himself as the Thomas Jefferson of the USGA, if you will, by penning the Joint Statement of Principles in 2002 and the comprehensive set of U.S. Open guidelines that appeared after the hectic 2004 Open at Shinnecock Hills.

The Joint Statement states how the USGA and R&A will evaluate the health and well-being of the game and react to meaningful changes in golf equipment and the performance of golfers. The U.S. Open guidelines declare precisely how the USGA will deal with golf course setup during the national championship.

“If you are a lawyer, you learn to write,” Driver said, simplifying his gift for transforming thoughts into words.

Driver grew up in El Paso, Texas, the son of a real-estate developer. Walter Driver Sr., a lifelong tennis fanatic, played tennis at the University of Texas and won an NCAA doubles title. He later served on the executive committee of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now the U.S. Tennis Association).

Young Walter was expected to become a tennis player. This he did until a broken right arm ended his tennis career and turned him to golf at 14.

“I broke my arm playing football, and it didn’t heal right,” he said. “I was the second- or third-best junior tennis player in the southwest, but I quit playingbecause my right elbow didn’t work properly.”

The elder Driver still is a regular at El Paso Country Club, where the younger Driver learned to play the game. EPCC will celebrate its 100th anniversary in November, and Walter Jr. has been invited to speak at the ceremonial dinner.

“He was a tall, skinny kid,” said longtime EPCC member Don Van Pelt. “He had a great swing. He went away to Stanford, and we temporarily lost track of him.”

Driver was influenced tremendously by his father. It was his dad who steered him to Stanford. Young Driver went there without ever visiting the campus.

“If you live in El Paso, it’s a long way to anywhere else,” he said. “You don’t go too many other places.”

At the University of Texas law school, he met a fellow student, Bettie Willerson, who would become his wife. Bettie practiced law in Atlanta for a short time, but eventually settled into a role as mother and family organizer. The Drivers have three children: Eleanor, 31; Anna, 28; and Walter III, 23.

To get an idea of the importance of golf to the Drivers, consider that family reunions always take place at the Walker Cup.

“We have all these Walker Cup memories,” Driver said. “It is really wonderful.”

Driver has many ardent admirers in the USGA hierarchy. He seems to have no enemies. He may have butted heads with Tom Meeks, the former senior director of rules and competitions for the USGA, during the topsy-turvy Open at Shinnecock Hills, but even Meeks said gleefully, “I think everybody did a damn good job of saving the championship under very difficult and unpredictable conditions.”

Shinnecock went from almost perfect on Saturday to nearly unplayable on Sunday as unexpected winds dried out the course.

“There was pressure on everybody,” Meeks said. “I haven’t said this before, but you don’t know how close I came to saying to Walter Driver that we should cancel the round and start over the next day.”

For his part, Driver remembers that Open with mixed feelings.

“It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind to have the walkie-talkie crackle in my ear at 9 o’clock on Sunday morning saying that I should consider stopping the U.S. Open, and then to go out there and conclude that this was true,” he said.

So Driver stopped the U.S. Open, ordered the greens to be watered periodically for the rest of the day, then restarted play.

The 6-foot-4 Driver is tall and fit with an enduring boyish look. He is an imposing figure who can talk and act with authority, something the USGA undoubtedly will need in its relations with golf equipment manufacturers.

In a lengthy interview before he assumed office, Driver talked about issues facing golf and the USGA. He clearly is a man of passion, with golf emerging as a major beneficiary of that fervor.

“For the last seven or eight years, the manufacturers have been much more aggressive in their (advertising) and their attempt to sway public opinion,” Driver said. “To my knowledge, they had not done this aggressively before.

“They created a whole new atmosphere, where people wanted to engage in a more public debate over the issues and therefore have more communication about them.

“(In response) the USGA has changed its form of communication to put out a quarterly newsletter that is designed to be more substantive about the issues. Our last newsletter focused on the evolution of golf equipment and technology.”

Still, Driver said he realizes the need to understand the position of golf equipment companies.

“If we aren’t familiar with every single aspect of every single issue, then we’re not doing our job,” he said. “From manufacturing considerations to inventory, we have to be aware of every different perspective.”

Driver does not duck questions, but there is the famous Walter Driver pause. It means something like, “I’m formulating an answer that will blow you away, sir.”

What golf clubs do you belong to outside Atlanta?

(The famous Walter Driver pause.)

“Augusta National, Pine Valley, Seminole and the R&A.”

The last two USGA presidents (Fred Ridley and Driver) have been Augusta National members. Some have suggested that the club has the ear of the USGA.

(The famous Walter Driver pause.)

“Augusta National makes its own decisions without consulting any other organization, including the USGA. The fact that we may have some overlap doesn’t mean those decisions are made by the same people or in the same way. It is not the job of the USGA to conduct the affairs of its member clubs.”

Driver first was involved in golf administration as general counsel for the Georgia Golf Association. Steve Mona, now CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, was executive director of the Georgia organization at the time.

“He had an uncanny ability to cut right through all the talk to what was the essence of the issue,” Mona said. “He wouldn’t say anything. He would just listen. Then, all of a sudden, he would say maybe 20 words, and they would be the best 20 words anybody could use.”

Following the advice of a friend, Driver sent a letter of inquiry to the USGA about becoming general counsel. He was not invited for an interview.

The next year, another friend insisted he try again. He did, and this time he interviewed and got the position. It was 1997.

Driver went from general counsel to membership on the 15-person Executive Committee, which makes all final USGA decisions. He staunchly defends the procedure that requires Executive Committee members to pay most of their expenses, including travel and housing.

“The way the system currently works, there is a tradeoff,” he said. “We get people who have the time to devote and the economic resources to pay their own expenses. These people are very dedicated to the game, and they serve because they love the game. All of them are making a sacrifice to do this.

“I would guess the least amount of time spent by any member of the Executive Committee is about 40 or 45 days a year.

“Some organizations pay the expenses of their boards. Sometimes these roles are viewed more as a joy ride than a commitment to the task at hand. If USGA Executive Committee members didn’t have to make the commitment, then the question is: Would we really know much about what is going on if we spent only 10 days a year doing it, or would we be devoted to the game if somebody else picked up the tab?”

With modern golf technology as Driver’s jousting partner, many golfers are wondering about the outcome. Will new rules be formulated to curtail the performance of golf clubs and balls?

(Another famous Walter Driver pause.)

Then he answered: “We will follow the Statement of Principles. We will look at every situation and study it, and strive to understand all the factors. We will be vigilant in guarding the game as we feel is appropriate.”

He was not smiling.

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