Seth Waugh won’t have the opportunity to enjoy a soft landing in the corner office at PGA headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
His first official day as CEO of the PGA of America will be Sept. 24, the Monday of Ryder Cup week. He’s already involved in television negotiations and discussions about a possible relocation of PGA headquarters.
In an interview with Golfweek, however, Waugh said his top priority will be to foster better livelihoods for the 29,000 PGA members.
“I want to make their lives better. That would be the most fulfilling part for me,” Waugh said. “I got the job maybe because of my golf and business background. But I took the job so that I could make a difference in people’s lives.”
Waugh, 60, certainly has an impressive business pedigree, including 10 years as CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas. Most recently, he has been a senior advisor at Silver Lake, a large investment firm focused on technology.
Over the years, Waugh has been active in golf, whether through Deutsche Bank’s past sponsorship of the PGA Tour stop in Boston or his service over the past three years on the PGA’s board of directors. He occasionally has been mentioned in connection with other top jobs in the golf industry.
Waugh’s credentials are not in question. But he accepted the job as CEO of the PGA knowing the golf industry faces some fundamental problems.
Numbers going in wrong direction
Nationally, rounds played are steadily declining and golf-course closings have far outnumbered openings over the past decade. In addition, some golf facilities don’t feel the need to hire a PGA professional. Those factors often put the squeeze on PGA members, both young and old.
Waugh said he is concerned about the member “who’s 40-something years old, his kids are going off to (college) and he’s concerned about how to pay for tuition. There’s a real economic part of this that we have to get at.”
The bigger problem, however, might be the aspiring pros trying to break into the business. He said he’s heard these stories from friends of his son Clancy, a collegiate golfer who is now pursuing a professional career.
“I’ve had friends of my son go to (Professional Golf Management schools), go through their internships, and come back to me and say, ‘I don’t see a path, Mr. Waugh. I love what I’m doing, but I’m looking at 30-year-olds who are hoping the phone rings so they can get a bigger job,’ ” Waugh said. “So I’ve seen it in real time.”
Waugh talks about the “four pillars” for the PGA chief executive: business matters, such as TV negotiations or the current discussions about moving the PGA’s headquarters; his PGA staff; the state of the game; and the association’s 29,000 members.
Those members, he said, will be his “primary focus.” He noted that his predecessor, Pete Bevacqua, left the PGA in a strong financial state, with the likelihood soon of a lucrative new television contract.
PGA pros aren’t sharing in success
Those are all positives. Waugh’s concern, however, is that those successes don’t necessarily trickle down to members.
“It’s great that the PGA has done as well as it has, but the pro somewhere in the middle of the country hasn’t seen the benefit from that,” Waugh said. “That’s a little bit of a reflection of the whole country, where the wealthy are getting wealthier and a lot of the country is being left behind.”
That appears to be one of the reasons why he plainly is intrigued by the idea of creating a new PGA campus that could serve as a “laboratory of golf.” The PGA has been mulling a proposal to move its headquarters to Frisco, Texas, a booming suburb north of Dallas.
He’s cognizant of the stress such a move would put on the PGA’s staff, but he likes the idea of a centrally located campus that PGA members could reach via a direct flight, gather information, study best practices and apply those lessons when they return to their facilities.
“The nice thing about Frisco is that it’s a blank piece of paper that we can mold into whatever we want, because it’s raw land and it’s available and we have partners there who are as into it as we are in terms of this concept,” Waugh said. “Having something in Frisco or somewhere (else) that is that lab makes all the sense in the world. Whether that’s headquarters or not remains to be seen. We need a place for the members to come to.”
Creating the future in Frisco
In theory, such a “laboratory” might help forge a closer connection between the national association and the members who are on the front lines. Waugh said the members might not always appreciate that they are the top priority for the staff back in Palm Beach Gardens.
“I think there’s historically been this – resentment might be a little strong – but here’s the guy sitting back in HQ, and does he really know what we’re doing?” Waugh said. He said some members might be thinking, “‘They’re doing victory laps around the Ryder Cup or the PGA Championship, but what’s in it for me?’ I want them to feel that they’re aligned with us and we’re doing the best we can to make their lives better.”
Ultimately, Waugh will be judged on the health of the game and the state of his membership. Golf and some other sports – Waugh cited football and its safety concerns, and baseball and its aging demographic – are facing what he calls “existential moments.”
The number of total golf participants was nearly 30 million at the turn of the century. It’s trending toward 20 million within the next few years. How do you reverse that negative trend? Waugh doesn’t have a silver bullet, but he suspects part of the answer might be found in the lessons of his childhood, when he learned the game with his buddies, playing barefooted with a half-set of clubs. Now, he said, “It’s become more elitist.”
That might sound like an odd observation coming from a man who long has traveled in golf’s most exclusive circles and played at the game’s finest private clubs. But Waugh is insistent on the need “to make it a more diverse game and one that kids think is cool.” That, he believes, is important for the long-term health of the game.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it cool if we make it harder and have it take longer,” he said. “Or if there are too many parents involved and you can’t figure it out on your own. That’s not cool, right? … We have to make golf look more like the country rather than the country look more like golf.” Gwk