Bishop, PGA's 'maverick,' succeeds by being bold
Monday, August 12, 2013
FRANKLIN, Ind. -- Ted Bishop waited until the top of the first inning before he phoned Willie Dunn’s Grille. That’s the restaurant at Okemo Valley Golf Club in Ludlow, Vt., where Bishop’s friend and fellow PGA colleague Jim Remy is the vice president and general manager. Remy is a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, and Bishop might as well sleep in New York Yankees pinstripes. It was 2004, and the bar swelled with fans for another playoff showdown between the arch rivals.
When a waitress answered, Bishop introduced himself with the alias “Jack Bartlett of the Vermont department of communications.” He informed her that Okemo Valley was receiving an illegal cable feed and commanded: Turn off your TV sets or be subject to substantial fines.
The waitress set the receiver on the counter.
“I could tell the exact moment she turned the TVs off,” Bishop says, “because all hell broke loose.”
When the club demanded written proof, Bishop faxed an official-looking letter that sent Remy scrambling into the basement. That’s where he stood when he figured out the ruse. At the top of the faxed letter, a boilerplate tagline read, “The Legends Golf Club.” Remy saw red: That was Bishop’s place!
“You son of a gun,” Remy exploded over the phone.
Bishop howls as he recounts the prank that he masterminded that day, revealing a side of himself that few have seen since he took office in November as the 38th president of the PGA of America. Almost immediately, he became embroiled in the anchoring debate, thrust into the spotlight as the voice of the PGA’s controversial stance opposite the USGA and its proposed Rule 14-1b. He has been portrayed mostly as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense maverick who delights in going against the grain – for example, when he unexpectedly chose Tom Watson as the next Ryder Cup captain. Of the characterization that he likes to go rogue, he says, “I’ve heard that about me.”
Then he chuckles. What’s closer to the truth is, Bishop is a down-to-earth guy, a deep thinker devoted to his profession (and a devout Democrat), who lives and breathes the golf business. In June, Bishop spent 25 days on the road in his unpaid role as PGA president. Some of that included perks such as golf at Pine Valley. He has learned to manage his club by BlackBerry. When he is there, Bishop is so involved in its day-to-day operations that he has been known to put reporters on hold while ringing out customers at the cash register. Yet he squeezes in rounds with the Saturday morning men’s club and drinks his beer straight from the bottle. If he appears a little too serious about the anchoring ban’s threat to golf participation, well, he contends he has just cause.
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Bishop, 59, has lived through the boom and bust of the golf industry, and he’s hellbent on using his two-year tenure as PGA president to plant the seeds to grow it again. As an owner-operator, his livelihood depends on it. Which is why it galled Bishop that the rulesmakers would impose legislation that might drive golfers from the game. In the past, the PGA rarely questioned such governance. But no more. Bishop isn’t the type of president who blends into the background of photo ops; he’s willing to be seen and heard, unafraid to step beyond perceived boundaries and break free of what he calls the PGA’s institutionalization. When he first took the helm, Bishop says he heard the hesitant refrain – “We have never done that before” – much too often.
It’s beyond difficult to change an entire organization’s culture, but Bishop believes he’s just the man to be the PGA’s beacon for change.
What shaped such fortitude? Let’s begin in 1970, during the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, when his passion for the game was kindled working at Rolling Hills Golf Course, an 18-hole par-3 course in his hometown of Logansport, Ind. After graduating in 1976 from Purdue with an agronomy/turf management degree, Bishop accepted a job as the pro and superintendent at a municipal course in Linton, a coal-mining community in southwest Indiana, where a season ticket cost $65.
Bishop ran Phil Harris Golf Club for 17 years until he found 390 acres of farmland just southeast of Indianapolis that became The Legends. The daily-fee course opened in August 1992 and logged 38,000 rounds a year while turning away 5,000 potential customers in the process. Bishop hired a receptionist because the counter staff couldn’t handle all the calls. He gave her a ledger book – “The Turn-Away Book” – to record the overflow golfers they couldn’t accommodate. That pent-up demand prompted construction of a third nine and an 18-hole par-3 course in 1996. Yet, such prosperity proved to be short-lived.
“Little did we know that 24 courses would be built here in central Indiana,” he says. Rounds at the 27-hole regulation-length complex dipped to 32,000 last year, plus 8,000 at the par-3 facility.
His encounter with market saturation – which has led to course closures exceeding openings for seven consecutive years in the U.S. – forced him to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for The Legends in 2010.
Bishop has served in a leadership capacity at the PGA section and national levels since 1989. He has earned the unflinching support of many of the PGA’s most influential figures for his willingness to communicate with his constituencies and take a stand on their behalf.
“I think he’s the best thing to happen to the PGA in years,” says Pat Rielly, PGA president in 1989-90. That assessment comes from a man who didn’t vote for Bishop the first time he ran for national office.
“My mistake,” Rielly says. “I had to check him out. What he said and the way he said it, I had a hard time believing it at first, but he’s the real deal. He’s an in-the-dirt guy.”
Bishop also receives high marks from his predecessors in office for the selection of Watson as Ryder Cup captain, a move that Roger Warren, PGA president in 2005-06, terms “courageously different.” Bishop conducted his own feasibility study on the 63-year-old Watson and compiled an 85-page prospectus that examined everything, seemingly, but his dental records. It won over the board in support of a choice that didn’t conform to the PGA formula of a
late-40s/early-50s former major winner with Ryder Cup playing experience.
To Bishop, the system wasn’t producing victory on foreign soil.
“It’s like that definition of insanity,” Warren says. “You can’t keep doing the same thing over and expecting a different result.”
Bishop has adopted the same philosophy to tackle the game’s most pressing concern. He has become the chief cheerleader for the PGA’s grow-the-game initiatives. “He gets that golf needs to change to survive,” says PGA chief executive Pete Bevacqua. With the clock ticking on his tenure, Bishop has found a kindred spirit in Bevacqua, a details man with the imagination to execute their vision.
For Bishop, there are no hard feelings over the USGA and R&A decision pertaining to Rule 14-1b, just the bruise of frustration. He tried in vain to pitch a compromise to secure an extension for amateurs until 2026. He plans to invest the political capital he has gained toward weightier matters, such as ensuring that a rollback of the golf ball doesn’t come to pass. He is proud that a once-shaky relationship with the PGA Tour grew stronger amid their shared resistance to the anchoring proposal, and senses a renewed potential for collaboration among golf’s leadership.
“The perspective I’ve had over the years is that golf is fragmented in many ways,” he says. “Each of us sets about on our own agenda, and sometimes they’re overlapping because we don’t solicit the help or the input and we fall short of what we want to accomplish.”
According to Bishop, such a scenario surfaced again with the USGA’s recent attempt to address slow play.
“I commend the USGA for being as public as they have been about pace of play being a problem, but the PGA professionals are the ones who . . . this is what we do every day. We deal with this issue,” he says. “It’s interesting that we haven’t been invited to the table on this particular issue.”
Which means Bishop might once again need to use his winsome charm to gain an audience with the USGA’s executive director. Mike Davis, there’s a phone call for you. It’s Jack Bartlett on Line 1.