Achenbach: O'Toole recasts mold of USGA president
Before entering the Orange County Convention Center to attend the PGA Merchandise Show, the next president of the U.S. Golf Association removed the sling from his left arm.
“I separated my shoulder playing squash,” said Thomas J. O’Toole Jr., the 56-year-old St. Louis attorney who is about to become the 63rd president of the USGA. The coronation is scheduled for Feb. 8 at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort, site of the USGA’s annual meeting. Under protocol dating to the 19th century, O’Toole will serve two consecutive one-year terms.
“I may be a better squash player than golfer,” he said.
To which USGA executive director Mike Davis deadpanned, “He may be a better golf administrator than lawyer, although his law partners don’t want to hear that.”
It was a lighthearted day in Orlando, a far cry from the melancholy that seemed to stalk the USGA in recent months.
A controversy developed after USGA president Glen D. Nager, who leaves office Feb. 8, asked the USGA Executive Committee to consider creating a new position – chief executive officer, whose power effectively would supersede that of Davis and the USGA president.
The Executive Committee declined to endorse Nager’s request, and any acrimony finally seems to have faded, thanks largely to O’Toole and his calm and optimistic demeanor.
“Oh, my gosh,” said Ellen Port, the six-time USGA champion and captain of this year’s U.S. Curtis Cup team. “I moved here (St. Louis) after college in 1983. I had no idea who Tom O’Toole was. It didn’t take me long to find out. He is off the charts with what he has done for golf in the St. Louis area and individual golfers such as me. He is one of those larger-than-life characters.”
No one is applauding louder than Jim Holtgrieve, the U.S. Walker Cup captain in 2011 and ’13 and O’Toole’s longtime friend.
“I knew he loved the game, but I never knew exactly how deep it was,” Holtgrieve said. “Not until he didn’t get the nod (nomination) for the USGA Executive Committee. He called me, and he was sobbing. This was not a bad thing. It was a reflection of how much he cared.
“I told him, ‘Tom, if you feel that deeply about it, and obviously you do, don’t give up. Keep going. Keep working on it. We all know how political something like the Executive Committee can be. You would be a fantastic choice. It will happen.’ And, of course, it did.”
O’Toole joined the 15-member Executive Committee in 2008 and moved seamlessly into various committee duties, aided by his extensive golf background. He served four years – twice the length of the typical term – as chair of the Executive Committee that selects courses for all USGA events.
Holtgrieve has remained O’Toole’s biggest supporter. “He is the older brother I never had,” O’Toole said.
Over the years, they continued to pursue golf adventures. In 1976, O’Toole first caddied for Holtgrieve. O’Toole was about to start college, while Holtgrieve was emerging as one of the country’s top amateurs.
“I’ve got this golf-crazy kid,” the caddie master at Westborough Country Club told Holtgrieve, who is 10 years older than O’Toole. “I think he can carry the bag and help you out.”
Three years later, in 1979, Holtgrieve made his first Walker Cup team. “Unbeknownst to me,” Holtgrieve said, “the kid showed up at Muirfield, Scotland, to watch me play. Eventually, he became my good friend and my attorney. It seemed like fate.”
Their golf odyssey would take them, player and caddie, to the 1978 U.S. Open, 1983 and ’84 Masters, and nearly a dozen U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Mid-Amateurs (including the 1981 U.S. Mid-Am, won by Holtgrieve).
“Very serious, very smart, a guy you can always count on,” Holtgrieve said.
After O’Toole graduated from St. Louis University School of Law, Holtgrieve posed an important question: “Tommy, what if I got you involved with the USGA?” Quickly it was a done deal, and Holtgrieve introduced his young friend to Tom Meeks, then-senior director of rules and competitions for the USGA.
“Meeksie taught him the rules,” Holtgrieve said, “and Tommy became one of the foremost rules officials in the world (officiating at every U.S. Open since 1990). This didn’t surprise me at all.”
O’Toole was a major figure in the formation of the Metropolitan Amateur Golf Association that serves greater St. Louis.
“He will be one of the first USGA presidents to learn the game from the very foundation,” Holtgrieve said. “He caddied; he started a golf association; he did all the work; he got up at dawn to mark golf courses; he learned everything from the very ground floor.”
Said Davis: “He will be a fantastic president. He’s my friend, but let’s go beyond that. I don’t think, in my time at the USGA (24 years), we’ve had a president come in with the knowledge Tom has. He literally has done it all, starting at a grassroots level.”
O’Toole, a member of Old Warson Country Club in Ladue, Mo., carries a handicap index of 7.2. “I’d love to say the USGA ruined my golf game,” he said, “but I knew the commitment going in. I assure you, I used to play better.”
O’Toole, who specializes in real estate and corporate law, was so consumed with his career and golf that he never married until he was 52. He has a son, Zach, now 14.
A second son, P.J., was born in August 2013 with a heart abnormality. Four days after birth, he underwent successful surgery.
O’Toole is regarded by many in golf as a long-overdue populist USGA president, willing and able to confront the game’s 21st-century challenges.
“We have to encourage more people to play the game,” O’Toole said. “We have to figure out why golf isn’t growing. We have to be worried about the future of the sport. This is serious. If we are going to be leaders – if we even have a game to govern – we have to focus on the game’s health.”
Jim Hyler, the USGA president in 2010-11, tried to place O’Toole’s dedication in perspective: “For 25 years, he has volunteered much of his time to do a lot of great things for golf. It is very fitting that he has gone through the ranks. He is someone who defined himself early and has remained incredibly passionate about golf.
“He has a rich history, and we are lucky to have him.”