Glen Nager left little doubt about his commitment to pace of play when the second term USGA President finished his 4220 word speech in 28 minutes, well before the 6:00 p.m. projected finish. The resulting domino effect had USGA old-timers craving an extra half hour with the USGA's open bar, but left them shocked when the ringing dinner bells signaled a traditional 30 minutes with the hors d’ouerves--veggies, dips, Kobe sliders, jumbo shrimps, humus and pita. The revised USGA Annual Meeting Time Par meant the dinner--mixed greens and butternut squash soup, fish/pork ribs on a bed of veggies finished off ambitiously by out-of-season diced strawberries for dessert--wrapped up at the record early hour of 9:11 p.m.
America’s best volunteer rules officials gathered at the legendary Hotel Del Coronado to discuss all things governing body. With the added tension of the PGA of America and PGA Tour questioning the wisdom of recent actions by the USGA to ban anchoring, the specter of looming fights over the future of the game did nothing to discourage Nager from delivering a strongly worded speech featuring pointed rebuttals toward USGA critics.
Before I get to the highlights of Nager’s speech, a word for you shareholders about the particulars of the meeting, where words like proxy are thrown about, seconds are asked for and departing committee members are giving parting gifts.
Treasurer Diana Murphy reported a USGA war chest of $274 million, with $22 million gained from 2012 investment income, a “realized net” of $6.3 million from operations, and a 4% rise in membership dues. The numbers all badly missed analyst projections, with some of Wall Street's finest suspender wearers predicting $5.4 in operating profit, $12.1 million realized from investment income, and no increase in membership due revenue. However, a projected operations margin fall from 3% to 2.5% in 2014 caused the USGA stock price to plummet 20% in Saturday evening trading.
Former president and nominating committee chair Walter "Presidents only travel by private jet" Driver announced the latest committee nominations and did his best Goldman man job of demonstrating complete indifference by mangling names and home clubs. Committee member Condoleeza Rice managed to get out of the annual meeting, making her two for two since going on the nominating committee. Driver also missed a nice opportunity to announce Rice’s home club as Augusta National. Maybe next year.
As for Nager’s impressive speech, you can read the key bifurcation highlights here as noted by Mike Stachura. (Wally Uihlein will be pleased because the "unification" word came up.)
I’ll try to highlight all of the many meaty portions that stood out to me and most likely to the audience of 250 or so. First off, there will be a surprising new role for the Green Section as part of Nager’s announced pace of play agenda.
We will expand its educational services to include specifically the various aspects of golf course management that impact pace of play. The Green Section will also offer a specialized on-site visit that can evaluate the playing quality of a golf course – of which pace of play is a central component.
Nager also said the slow play study currently overseen by the test center’s Matt Pringle will include a refinement of the USGA’s Time Par system, but unfortunately there was no commitment to introduce the effective system to the US Open because of the apparent shock to the system it would deliver to the PGA Tour’s extremely sensitive professionals.
Time Par – that it should take to complete each hole. With the insights gained from the Test Center’s modeling project, our Handicap Department will be working to refine and enhance the Pace Rating System. Ultimately, we intend to make the system more dynamic, allowing us to better customize the Pace Rating of individual courses.
My favorite part of the speech is next, though I would love to see these kinds of initiatives backed by some form of incentive to courses to offer financial perks or blocks of tee times for those who choose to play faster alternate formats:
We will also work to encourage alternate forms of play – such as match play, foursomes, and Stableford – that are popular in other parts of the golfing world and that are known to take less time to play than the standard American four-ball. We can also better educate recreational golfers on the benefits of equitable stroke control, so that they understand that their Handicap Index will not be adversely affected by picking up when appropriate
Maybe the PGA of America could chip in some of its millions for some green fee rebates?
Coolifying nine holes is also a priority:
So we must work to promote the nine-hole round as a complete and enjoyable golf experience. Contrary to some beliefs, a nine-hole round is fully compatible with having fun and with both the Rules of Golf and the USGA Handicap System. If there are any stigmas associated with a nine-hole round or a nine-hole course, we must identify them and work to overcome them. We must also help golf facilities understand better the benefits of offering a nine-hole option to their customers.
And in the important-but-concise statement department:
Lack of time is a real challenge for the game. We all need to join together to address these issues, and the USGA is firmly committed to leading the charge.
Nager pivoted at this point and delivered 1500 words pointed squarely at bifurcators and in particular the PGA of America, who honored him the day before as an honorary life member.
The argument that “easier is better” is premised on concerns about recent economics – and that fact alone should cause us to pause. There certainly are important issues for the golf industry to address, including economic issues, but revenue concerns arising during a broad economic slowdown should not lead us fundamentally to alter our approach to writing the Rules and defining the game. It is our obligation as a governing body to keep our eye on the long-term good of the game and to hold firm to what we know to be true about the essence of golf.
The underlying logic of “easier is better” is inexorably contrary to the game’s very nature. Golf is a unique game of skill and challenge. The need for skill and the elements of the challenge are what define golf; they are in fact what have caused us to love the game for the past 600 years. The game tests us, vexes us, humbles us, and thrills us – so that, when our rounds are finished, we can’t wait to tell our tales of triumph and woe; so that we search endlessly for the skills that will allow us to improve; so that we can’t wait for our next chance to play; and so that we stand in awe of those who can play better than we can. For centuries, golfers have fervently embraced and celebrated the challenge of the game.
I question how much this bifurcation argument resonates much with core golfers:
The analogies to rules in other sports also ignore a crucial difference that makes golf unique. In football, baseball, and similar sports, competition takes place in a contained league; players participating at one level generally do not play simultaneously at another level. Golf is wonderfully different: a single amateur golfer may simultaneously participate at virtually every level of the game. He or she may play in a national open alongside leading professionals; in elite national, regional or state amateur events; in school leagues or events; in club or inter-club championships; and in casual competition with players of the same or entirely different levels of ability. To create multiple sets of Rules for all these various levels of play would create confusion for competition organizers, players and officials alike, and would serve no purpose. Golf is a single game; that is part both of its unique appeal and its ability to grow as a global sport.
This, on the other hand, does probably resonate with a lot of people:
In the end, some advocates of an easier set of Rules for amateurs seem to believe that recreational golfers do not care about whether they are playing the same great game that they watch on television and are merely looking to have a generalized form of casual “fun” that is unconnected to the game’s great traditions. Well, I am a recreational golfer, and I could not disagree more. Like many recreational golfers, I strive to master the skills of an elite golfer, which is why I take so many lessons, pound so many golf balls on the range, read every golf magazine and instructional manual I can find, buy the latest equipment and golf balls promoted by professional players, and savor the well-struck shot and occasional birdie so much more than my total score. I want to play the great courses that the legendary champions have played, in order to compare my performance with theirs – treasuring the fact that, on any given stroke, using the same equipment and following the same Rules, I may play as good a shot as the most elite player.
And if the ball was rolled back or a limit placed on PGA Tour driver size as part of a one-ball condition type clause, the core golfer would still follow the professional's lead and the Rules would live, no?
Now, this last part is where it gets complicated because as you hear this part, it’s easy to agree and also easy to say, “uh, the USGA helped inspire a lot of these bad habits with their course setups!”
…the game of golf is facing real and complex challenges. But the answer is not to change the game. We should instead vigorously address the factors that we already know discourage golfers from enjoying or taking up the game – such as long golf courses that are unduly expensive to maintain; rough heights that make it difficult to find golf balls and slow down play; putting greens that are set up at speeds that are expensive to maintain and that slow down play; and indeed slow play itself.
That lone awkwardness aside, it was exciting to hear an urgency to take action from the USGA and at least for me, that supersedes any quibbles or double standards that may arise in such a powerful speech.
You can live or relive the evening with John Mummert's photo gallery here.