Monday, July 9, 2007

The USGA Slips Up

What’s going wrong?
Bring in John Feinstein!
by Charlie Leck [9 July 2007]

It’s pretty exciting for me to write this blog every few days, knowing that there are now dozens of regular readers. I know most of you are not golfers, so I hope you’ll forgive me for writing occasionally about this passion of mine. This is one of those occasions.

Something is rotten in Denmark!
Make that Far Hills – as in Far Hills, New Jersey! Something is rotten in Far Hills and I do not like the smell of it.

The USGA – the United States Golf Association – is one of the most important organizations in the world to me. Something isn’t quite right. It’s in air. That is, the smell of it is detectible – even obvious.
What’s going on?

Walter Driver is in charge these days. This, I think, is not a good thing. The pundits are calling him “Non-conforming Driver!” That’s kind of inside! If you’re not a connected golfer, you might not get the joke.

My membership in the USGA has been one of the most important “connections” in my life. This has been a great and an important organization to those of us who love golf. From a distance, the USGA has always been an organization to admire and appreciate. It has always been strong and decisive in protecting the game. Even in moments of controversy, the association has been a pillar of decency and unquestioned high ethics. No one ever supposed that a bottom line, or a matter of profit, might be more important than doing what is absolutely right and required for the good of the game of golf itself.

Now the air is changing. The aroma of something not quite fresh and clean drifts in over the game and that worries me. It began with the cut-back of benefits to staffers (employees) of the USGA. We members have always felt that the staff – the grunts who do the daily work and carry out the decisions of the lofty and temporary members of the Board – were the heart and soul and the future of the USGA. Now, questionable messages have been sent to them. The rumblings are not loud because USGAers are not that way; however, they have been quietly clear.

Word comes now that a couple of significant staffers have been sent on their way. Maybe the firings are justified; yet it has not been done well. The USGA is now operating in that corporate world attitude that declares: “We don’t have to explain anything to you!” It comes across in the press as more of a gutting, once again for financial reasons. Outsiders realize that Walter Non-Conforming Driver is a bottom line guy. What members want is a top-drawer guy. We are the stock holders – we who send our bucks in every year – we who’ve bought shares in the USGA – and we want to know what’s going on.

Selena Robert, writing in the NY Times, verbalized a worry that many of us have about Walter Driver and his modus operandi: “He is the corporate cowboy with luxury tastes who is forcing a Wall Street approach on a nonprofit organization. … The U.S.G.A.'s grassroots slogan is ‘For the Good of the Game.’ Yet Driver projects what's good for him as a member of at least three private clubs with reputations for discriminatory practices: Pine Valley in New Jersey, Augusta National and Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta. Why join one cabal of bias when you can learn secret handshakes at all three?” [Selena Roberts, NY Times, 16 June 2007]

I’ve been in Tim Moraghan’s company a few times and had one very interesting and helpful, long conversation with him a few years ago. He’s one of those guys – and there are dozens of them at the USGA – who reek of loyalty and commitment to the integrity and health of the game of golf. Now Moraghan has been trimmed away. I didn’t know Marty Parkes, who has also been fired, but people do speak highly of him, too. Now there are murmurs about David Fey going next. This is the guy responsible for the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, one of golf’s greatest and most memorable moments. He is an extraordinary spokesman for the USGA and for the game of golf. He is a great favorite of the membership and presents the right feel and message about the importance of the game above everything else.

Members will be watching closely, ready to make bottom-line decisions about whether or not they will continue to mail in their bucks in support of bottom-line guys who don’t get it about the spirit and life of the game that is more than a game to us out here looking in. One of the fearful things is that the USGA doesn’t need its membership any more. Membership dues seem now to be just a tiny slice of the pie chart that demonstrates bottom-line profits. TV, corporate sponsors and championship event income is much more important. “A typical United States Open is estimated to net more than $25 million for the association,…” [Bill Pennington, NY Times, 11 June 2007]

Here’s my suggestion. Let’s bring John Feinstein in for the investigation. Let him dig into the USGA and it would make one of his finest books – a real thriller like Hamlet.

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