David Eger On Frank Hannigan

I'm going to randomly post remembrances and some old Frank correspondences going forward.

Some of the luminaries who have posted here and here have told some great stories.

And there's this from former USGA Director of Rules and Competitions, David Eger:

When I started work for the USGA in 1992, Frank's too infrequent visits to Golf House always included his faithful black lab, Sparky & an invigorating conversation in my office (which was P. J. Boatwright's during Frank's tenure). He persuaded me to bring a putter and golf balls from home so he could practice putt while we solved golf's problems.

My first round of golf with Frank was where we both belonged--Somerset Hills. I complained that some of the tees were in poor condition. His response was that because I could tee up my ball and had a perfect lie, there was no reason to bitch.

When Frank was working for ABC Sports, I stopped in the broadcast booth early one Sunday morning. He was always interested in the European Tour and told me that Padraig Harrington had just won that week's event. I then reminded him that I'd beaten Padraig in the second day singles at the '91 Walker Cup Match at Portmarnock. Frank's response--"He's a much better player now!"

I spoke with Frank just after he returned home from surgery about a month ago. His wife was screening his calls. I remember thinking, after we ended our 35 minute conversation, he valued our friendship of 31 years by insisting with her, to speak with me. My real purpose was to ask a favor. Of course, we touched on all the trigger points of golf. Even in his frail health, he was happy to help.

I really think P. J. Boatwright appreciated Frank being his boss. Frank's presence allowed him to do not only what he loved but, what he did best--the Rules & running the competition inside the ropes. My sense was that Frank understood how to manage & support his staff.

In '72, when a contestant complained about parking at Pebble Beach, Frank's response to him was that he was worried more about his newly planted tomato plants back in New Jersey than where players could park.

R.I.P. Frank Hannigan

It's with a heavy heart that I have to report the passing of Frank Hannigan. I'll be collecting some thoughts on this great man and occasional contributor to this site.

Letter From Saugerties: Tim Finchem & Anchoring Edition

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan saw PGA Tour Commissioner's appearance on Sunday's WGC Match Play telecast and felt compelled to analyze the tour's surprising decision to not support the proposed ban on anchoring putters. You can read Frank's past letters here.


Letter from Saugerties                                                                                    February 27,2013

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem gets away with murder.

During his endless interviews throwing the USGA under the bus last weekend on the anchoring issue, nobody asked him the right question: when did you first know that the USGA was moving in the direction of a ban on anchoring and what did you say in reaction?

The PGA Tour is represented at USGA Rules of Golf committee meetings by an employee named Tyler Dennis. It is surely his job to tell Finchem where the USGA is heading. My point is this: Finchem last year, long before the USGA made known its position on anchoring, could have stopped the movement cold by telling the USGA and/or the R&A at the British Open that he did not know how his members would react to a ban on anchoring.

The USGA exists to offer a set of rules that it believes make sense, accompanied by an argument that the game is best served if those rules are broadly accepted. Nobody has to buy that argument but virtually everybody does.  As former USGA Executive Director David Fay once said, "We govern by all the power not vested in us."

Albeit unhappily, the USGA recognizes that the influence of the PGA Tour is enormous because golfers think what they see on television is the genuine article. This has been so since the 1960s when the Tour was first invited to participate in the rules making process.  The consequence has been worldwide uniformity, a most unlikely achievement given the money and egos of modern golf.

The USGA would never have moved to ban anchoring had it known the Tour would diverge. The average male golfer has about a 17 handicap and struggles to break 100.  Do you think the USGA cares what method he uses to putt?  Hypothesize that anchoring had somehow caught on in everyday golf but was used by no Tour players. There is no chance the rules would have been changed.

Finchem evidently misread his members - who are his employers. That can happen. He's dealing with 300 relatively young people who have a lot of money and very insular views of the world. Few of them have ever done a lick of work other than hit golf balls. It's a pure recipe for fickleness.

Meanwhile, the USGA is hardly blameless. Given their policy of rules uniformity as the Holy Grail, they should never have gone where they did without an iron-clad agreement from the Tour. Instead, they end up with golf's version of sequestration.

Since the ban was not to take effect until 2016,  along with a 90-day period inviting comments, I figure the USGA was racked with internal dissension. Finchem could have made it easier for them to back off by voicing the opposition of the players quietly - even last week. Instead, he opted to go as public as possible, accompanied with wild specious arguments such as claiming  20% of amateur golfers are anchorers. Evidently he got that number from his new best friends at the PGA of America. Why he chose to play it as he did, whereby there must be a winner and a loser, is beyond my comprehension.

I see much of the USGA clumsiness as a consequence of systemic foolishness. All power is granted to a volunteer executive committee of 15.  Some are golf sophisticates. Some are golf ignorant. The USGA by laws say that the president of the executive committee, who lives nowhere near headquarters and already has a full time job, is the CEO. The same by laws refer to the USGA staff as "clerks."  The executive director of the staff of some 300 has no job description.

But let's suppose that the president happens to be a gem, a genuine prize. (As USGA Executive Director I was lucky enough to have three).  USGA presidents serve two years and then depart. (The USGA has had only one one-year president. That was Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of US presidents, in 1935.  I have no idea why he bailed out early.)

Has anyone ever heard of a viable institution that has a bona fide winner as CEO and then dumps him after two years? Even college presidents hang around for four or five years as their agents search for higher paying jobs.

Letter From Saugerties, Bifurcation Edition

The latest letter from Frank Hannigan, former USGA Executive Director, responding to the recent talk of bifurcating the rules.

Dear Geoff,

From During a recent exposure to the press tour commissioner Tim Finchem mused about the occasional benefits of bifurcation-, that awful word-, citing instances when the Tour went off on its own, presumably to its benefit.  Specifically, he cited grooves and adoption of what is generally called the "one ball rule."
 
U-grooves were introduced into the Rules of Golf by the USGA in 1984. Finchem's predecessor Deane Beman was obsessed with grooves. He felt the U-grooves changed the essence of the game. The USGA did not agree.     
 
The Tour announced it would ban U grooves. Ping, the first manufacturer to adopt U grooves, sought and received an injunction restraining the Tour. Ping first sued the Tour and a little later the USGA which had ruled that the Ping version of U-grooves alone did not conform to the Rules of Golf.
 
Ping charged the Tour with 9 violations of the law. The case was heard by a federal judge in Phoenix, Ping's home. The judge ruled from the bench that the Tour had acted so outrageously that it was guilty per se of  one of the 9 charges. As a consequence, if the case came to trial the jury's only role on that count would be to determine a dollar amount representing damage done to Ping.
Since it was an anti trust case that amount would be automatically trebled.
 
The jury would consist of 6  local citizens trying to stay awake during a lengthy trial on an arcane matter.   They would have surely have been aware of one factor:  Ping, with about 1500 employees, was good for the economy of Phoenix.Might they have been influenced on the remaining 8 counts by the judge already having labeled the Tour as bad guys?  I think so.
 
Karsten Solheim, the owner of Ping, opted to settle.  The key point in the settlement was that the Tour would not ban U grooves.  Quite simply, the Tour lost. I can think of no other instance  in which a professional sports entity is legally prohibited from determining what its equipment will be.  It's as if major league baseball could not ban metal bats.

The other settlement terms were not announced I have always assumed the Tour had to compensate Solheim for his considerable legal fees. As for Beman, the late Leonard Decof,  Solheim's lawyer, once boasted to a group of anti trust lawyers at a Chicago meeting "He'll be gone soon."      

Ping's suit against the USGA was also settled. No money changed hands, I know that because I was named with others in the USGA hierarchy as an individual defendant and therefore had to sign the settlement. The USGA relented on an important point. All Ping clubs made up to a specified date  would be grandfathered eternally under the Rules of Golf. Solheim, however, changed his grooves on  the same day  so as to conform with USGA rules,  which he had vowed never to do,

The Tour, to this day, flinches when it hears a threat of anti trust behavior.  

As for the one ball rule,  it was enacted with the concurrence of the USGA. It was directed at the use of balls performing differently in different conditions. The 2 piece balls of the 1970s had a distance  advantage depending on the angle of launch.  This advantage peaked at about 19 degrees, 5 ironish. (Incidentally, the two piece ball also putted longer.  A stroke producing a roll of l0 feet with the 2 piece ball would roll 9 feet with the softer balata ball).  
 
It was also a time when Acushnet was producing a different version of its Titleist balls.  Seve Ballesteros used the one with larger dimples driving downwind as he won his first British Open at Lytham. He reverted to a  traditional ball on the other holes..  
 
I once had a conversation with Tom Watson when he expressed outrage about ball changing. He had ripped a 3 iron, using a balata ball, to the green of a hard par 3 hole.  Watson said he then watched in dismay as  fellow competitor Rik Massengale unzipped  his ball pouch,  pulled  out a Molitor, and used  a 5 iron successfully.

The USGA felt that the choice of different brands of balls during a round should play no part in the outcome. But it wanted to know what the players felt. So we sent a letter to every member of both the PGA Tour and the LPGA (having obtained the mail addresses from both organizations). The players were asked if they would favor or oppose a local rule which would limit them to use of but one brand of ball during a round,   

Remember, this happened during the days of snail mail. Tour players were not famous for being correspondents.  But they reacted in large numbers.  Overwhelmingly, including those who had taken to switching brands during rounds, the players favored adoption of the one ball rule.
 
During this episode the USGA said not one word to ball manufacturers. The USGA didn't give a damn what manufacturers felt. They are involved in golf for the purpose of making money. The USGA exists in an attempt to preserve a game.
 
Those who favor bifurcation never explain what it is they want to happen. They are in the business of golf, and the golf business is bad.  So they blame the USGA, defining it as a totalitarian entity that does whatever it feels like doing without any concern for or interest in what the rest of golf thinks.   The head of the Taylor Made outfit recently predicted the absolute demise of the USGA, a death which would presumably cause golf to glow again.  I took that to mean that Addidas, the sports equipment colossus that owns Taylor Made, is not thrilled with its subsidiary's performance.
 
In point of fact,  the rules-making process is remarkably democratic.   There are 5 members of the committee proper  drawn from the USGA executive committee. They have no axes to grind.  They are influenced and to some extent educated by the USGA staff. Additionally, there are 4 advisory members representing the PGA Tour, the LPGA, the PGA of America and the country's regional golf associations.  They matter.  I can't conceive of the 5 regular members shoving a rules change down the throats of the advisory people.
 
The Tour representative, named by Finchem, especially matters. For better or worse, the Tour has come to have something close to veto power,particularly when it comes to equipment. If there is a discussion about a rules change and should the Tour's man says "We will not play that rule," the discussion is over.

Frank Hannigan
Saugergties, New York

Letter From Saugerties: USGA Ball Testing In Canada

After this site revealed a few details about the USGA's golf ball testing (noted by the Wall Street Journal with a USGA/Dick Rugge response), the former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan filed this letter in response to the news of rolled back ball testing.


You remember those "short" balls the USGA asked manufacturers to make in limited quantities about 4 years ago?  They just re-surfaced at, of all places, the Canadian Tour where players are being paid by the USGA to hit the balls on days following their events.  Two tests have now taken place.

The USGA, predictably, will say nothing beyond admitting tests in Canada are happening. The results will never be revealed unless there is a rules change, says USGA technical chief Dick Rugge.  He also says they need to protect the "process." A "process" is measuring how far golf balls go?  Please.

The USGA, which gets its funds from the public, and shamelessly accepts 501c3 tax status, has one hell of a nerve in trying to shut down a discussion of a distance rollback, the most critical issue in golf for many of its sophisticates.

The issue is what would golf feel like, be like, if the ball went--pick a number--10,15,20 yards shorter for tour players than today's ball. The point of these tests is not where the balls go, it's how the players feel about what they've done.   

"Would it make any difference to you if everybody had to play the ball you used today?"

As for the outcome, you can be assured these balls have already been tested to death on the USGA's super-hip indoor driving device  which, essentially, can predict the outcome of any hit.  The balls were also carefully sprinkled around in exalted golf circles. Peter Dawson gave one to a low handicap friend of mine to play on The Old Course.  My friend say he couldn't tell the difference.

So what's going on?  Rugge is a very status quo guy, especially when it comes to his salary, which is not short.  He doesn't need a fight about distance rollback while he's dealing with the consequences of his dramatic groove change this year.  It was billed as a game changer.  So far, on the Tour, it has changed nothing. Worse, there will come a time when amateur golfers will be asked to buy new clubs with new grooves that mean absolutely nothing.

Rugge says all players must play with the same grooves lest we have bifurcation. Really?  So what about the "one ball" rule, a condition I was involved in with the USGA, which permits committees to limit players to one brand of ball throughout a round.  That condition is considered essential on the PGA Tour.  It is virtually never used in amateur golf.   So is that bifurcation and, if so, what's wrong with it?

My wild guess is that there are members of the USGA Executive Committee who don't want to give up on the issue of distance and have ordered Rugge to do these tests so they can say that with X ball the average driving distance on the Tour would drop by 15 yards--something Rugge already knows.

I would also guess that the PGA Tour knows what's going on. The USGA and R&A can't touch equipment without the consent of the PGA Tour.

This is not a matter of science.  BP could surely make a proper shorter golf ball.  The matter is political with perhaps some litigation tossed in.  All throughout golf,  the people who know it best think the ball goes too far.  At the British Open annual dinner for former champions at St. Andrews the champions beat up on the R&A about distance. The R&A listens but will do nothing.

What a deal.  The people empowered to manage a game can do nothing about the game. It's as if in baseball the major leagues were forced to convert to metal bats.

Open Observations From Saugerties

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan shares a few observations after two rounds of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

  • The amount of attention paid to the preparation of the Open course is  astonishing   It’s as if the USGA’s Mike Davis, a most capable young man, can control the very essence of the game. He can’t. Setting up a golf course is not onerous work.  Essentially, all the USGA can do is attempt to put a premium on accuracy as opposed to power.  The only way to do that is to penalize the inaccurate by growing heavy rough and establishing very firm greens - which do not accept shots played from rough.
  • So the Open favors a Curtis Strange, who won twice, and three-time winner Hale Irwin. It was brutal for Seve Ballesteros,  a bad driver.  You could make an argument that since Seve was a flat out genius the Open courses should have been prepared to accommodate him.
  • Tiger Woods overcomes the USGA set-ups. I conclude that he has been so good at every other aspect of the game he can overcome wild driving. Most of all, like Nicklaus, he thinks he is supposed to win.
  • I am sick of hearing  analyses of hole locations on the Golf Channel.  There is no data to tell us how hole locations affect outcomes.  Obviously, they influence overall scoring. But just suppose all holes were cut in the centers of greens. Scores would be lower. But would this mean the identities of the winners would vary dramatically. I think not. Jack Nicklaus was going to win four US Opens no matter where the holes were located.  And he was destined to win six Masters in an era where the principles of course set up were opposite to those of the US Open - when Augusta had no rough at all and anybody could put the ball in vast fairways.
  • Perhaps I carry on like this as a means of praising my late colleague, PJ Boatwright, who set up most Open courses of my time. He didn’t get a lot of attention, but he knew what he was doing.
  • The best Open I ever saw? Easy. 1971 at precious Merion. The two best players in the world, Nicklaus and Trevino, tied for first at level par with Trevino winning the play-off.
  • The spreading notion that today’s Opens are more brilliantly conceived and therefore of greater validity is nonsense.
  • The Tiger Woods harsh comments about the greens at Pebble Beach were petulant and without  meaning. His disparagement  is  cruel on the workers at Pebble Beach who have gone though hoops in a futile attempt to draw an understanding, if not kind, word from Woods & company. Excuse me, but Tiger Woods has never done a hard day’s work.

Q&A With Frank Hannigan

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan was part of the first three U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach and kindly answered a few questions on the eve of this year's event.


GS: It's hard to fathom today that it was a leap to take the Open to Pebble Beach in 1972. Was it really that risky?
 
FH: The USGA had played US Amateur Championships at Pebble Beach.  The place was virtually empty.  Odd, but it seemed remote and inaccessible.   So we inserted a clause in the agreement stipulating we would get $250,000 as our share of admissions no matter what. In 1972 $250,000 felt like real money.  The attendance turned out to be fine.


GS: Besides Jack's 1-iron shot Sunday, what else do you recall from the week?
 
FH: Bing Crosby's brother called to ask for a cart for the great man.  Grace Kelly may not have been able to say no to Bing Crosby, but I could. On Sunday two anti-Vietnam war protesters chained themselves to a tree in the drive zone on 18. They just sat there.  

A marshal on the tee with binoculars informed the players.  So Arnold was seen on television using the binoculars and some idiot called in to say that Arnold was using an artificial device and should be penalized.   


GS: In 1982 you were in the booth with Peter Alliss on 17 when Watson chipped in. Is that correct? And what was your role with the USGA at that point?
 
FH: I was then the assistant director, the #2 bureaucrat. I sat in a booth with Peter supposedly to say pithy things.  Crazy.  It was like putting a hack with one piano lesson to play with Horowitz.

 
GS: You were with ABC in 1992, what was that like when Monty came in and Nicklaus told him he had it won and just about everyone else thought he had the thing wrapped up?
 
FH: Nicklaus congratulated Monty on winning the Open while we were in a commercial and then Monty told everyone in the  press tent what Jack said. Nearly half the field was still on the course. I did not regard it as a prediction but rather Jack sneering that everybody else was choking so badly that Monty's score might hold up.

Letter From Saugerties, Wally Uihlein Edition

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan emailed this letter in response to Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein's recent interview with John Huggan. I emailed Mr. Uihlein to ask if he wished to respond but have not heard back as of this posting.

What a week of glory it was for Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein!

First, he gives an interview to the always entertaining golf site, "Golf Observer."  What it amounts to is a tribute to himself and his company.  It is longer than "War and Peace."

Then, better yet, the man accused of blackmailing David Letterman wears a Titleist cap in various photos that surfaced. The whole world sees "Titleist" and it doesn't cost Acushnet a dime. (By the way the USGA handicap processing system shows one Joe Halderman, a resident of Connecticut, as bearing a 16.8 at the Longshore Golf Course,  a muni in the posh town of Westport).   

Wally is special.  He would like it thought that he was found in a manger outside the door of the dean of the Harvard Business School.  In fact,  he was a left-handed New England golfer with a modicum of talent who became somebody's assistant pro.  The USGA welcomed him back by granting him reinstatement to amateur status.  He jumped over to Acushnet where he displayed a tremendous ability to sell stuff.

His company owns more than 50% of the golf ball market plus Foot Joy shoes and a couple of lines of clubs.   It is now more than a billion dollar operation.  Wally is not satisfied.  He thinks he should BE golf.  There is nothing he is unwilling to foresee. He predicts there will be no more successful incursions into the golf equipment business by outsiders.  That's an expression of resentment toward the late Karsten Solheim and the late Ely Callaway who came from nowhere to dominate the club business and kick Acushnet's butt in the process. 

I will now present an abbreviated list of items worthy of comment from the interview:

  • On the prospect of rolling back distance,  he says any change is bound to be good for some tour players and bad for others.  How come he didn't weep for the prospective losers when he dramatically changed his ball to the HD line in the early 2000s?
  • Wally says there is no precedent for rolling back performance - not in golf or any other sport.  Excuse me, but in 1931 the USGA changed the minimum diameter of the ball in its rule to 1.68 inches - up from 1.62 inches. Writing in the late 1930s, Bobby Jones reckoned that the 1.68" ball was about 5 yards shorter than the ball he played with during the 1920s.
  • He says the distance explosion is due in part to bigger and stronger people.  Look, distance was stable on the Tour between 1980 and 1995.  It then shot up every year until 2002 when it again became stable - after the horse left the barn with an overall driving distance increase of about 9%.  For the size of people to matter, you'd have to believe that something dramatic happened to the species for an 8 year period only.  Darwin wouldn't buy that.
  • He hints at the possibility of litigation on the heels of any equipment rules change by the USGA. That's odd because a few years ago he told me personally that suing the USGA is very bad for business.  Wally said that both Ping, which did sue, and Callaway, which threatened to sue, were singed.

Is the USGA frightened by threats of an anti trust suit?  Perhaps, even though I make them about a one touchdown favorite in such a clash.

What does scare the USGA is the fear of general non-support, which would render the USGA irrelevant. Just suppose the USGA did muster up the courage to do what it knows is right - roll back distance.   If that were to happen I am sure that Wally and other manufacturers would continue to turn out today's balls.   What would the customer do - buy the ball announced as being shorter?   Sure, the pro shops at Seminole and Cypress Point might only carry the new ball.   How about WalMart?  I can't envision the boys from Arkansas acting on the basis of what the USGA says is good for the game.  There would, for a time at least, be chaos, the exact opposite of the uniformity prized above all by the USGA.

The ongoing tension between equipment makers and the USGA is both sad and unnecessary.  It wasn't always so. I remember the day when an earlier CEO of Acushnet, John Ludes, came into my office at the USGA bearing a $10,000 check as a gift for a USGA building fundraiser.  Mr. Ludes understood that the USGA had created a climate in the sport that put all manufacturers on a level playing field and was doing so without any ax to grind. Naturally, I could not accept the check.    

Equipment gets nearly as much play as instruction in commercial golf media because of ad budgets.  Nothing gets the attention of a publisher quicker than a message saying, "You didn't give us enough space last month.  My money is itching to go elsewhere."

So the consumer is led to believe that his or her search for a driver counts more than the choice of a spouse. The truth of course is that equipment does not determine outcomes in golf on every level of the game. If it were otherwise you would see only one brand of ball in use on the Tour. Hostility is meaningless in that equipment simply doesn't matter.  By that, I mean that the choice of equipment on all levels of golf does not determine who wins or loses.  The performance of today's clubs and balls is remarkably similar with minute variations that are almost impossible to discern.   Why is it you never see blind test results in golf?  Because even the greatest of players can't tell one ball from another if the markings on the balls are wiped out.

For reading this far, I reward you with a tip.  The plastics used in modern golf balls do not decompose.  So if you are in a pro shop that has used balls in a bucket for $1.25 each, don't hesitate to reach down for a few. As for the decay issue,  I do not fear climate change.  My fear is that eventually the surface of the earth will consist of nothing but Pinnacles.

Uihlein says no Tour player will use equipment he does not favor. Right on. Tour players are influenced by how much they can extract in endorsement fees.

Remember when Tiger Woods turned pro in the fall of 1996?  He quickly scored a deal with Acushnet granting him $4 million per year.  In no time at all he was recognized as the best player in the world.  Fast forward a few years.  Nike, which dwarfs Acushnet, snatched Tiger away by doubling or tripling Tiger's fee. Tiger remained the best player in the world.  The same would happen if he developed a yen for Callaway or Taylor Made or whatever.    
 
It's astonishing how much attention is paid to equipment now.   The truth is if Acushnet was gobbled up tomorrow by Nike or Adidas nobody would care other than the players on the Titleist staff.

We have to put up with manufacturers since the game requires clubs and balls. But we shouldn't pay much attention to them and it surely doesn't matter which of them prosper and which fail.

Frank Hannigan
Saugerties, New York

Letter From Saugerties, Jimmy Cannon Edition

After a number of recent posts, Frank Hannigan files this Cannonesque "Nobody Asked Me, But..." Letter from Saugerties:

Dear Geoff,

There are no words to express my gratitude for your posting of The Crazy Swing of a man in Egypt.  I wonder what happens when he finds himself in a bunker?

Peter Thomson ran for the Australian equivalent of our Congress. His politics? Let's just say he was not a man of the left. He came here in 1985 to play on the senior tour for only one reason: to beat Arnold Palmer like a drum. He told me not to pay much attention to his scores since "we are playing from the ladies tees."

He is also memorable for his speaking the ultimate truth about instruction which is that neither he nor anyone else could teach a newcomer anything useful other than how to grip the club properly and to aim. Peter once covered a US Open at Oak Hill in Rochester for an Australian newspaper. I asked him what he thought of the course. "It's too good for them" was his response.

Slow play by the women in the Solheim Cup, with 4-ball rounds approaching 6 hours, could be cured immediately by the simple device of sub-letting the role of the committee to officials not employed by the LPGA or the European women's tour. I would put USGA alumnus Tom Meeks in charge and tell him that if any given round takes 4 hours 45 minutes to transpire that he would not be paid.

Corey Pavin's average driving distance on the Tour today is 260 yards, or 8 yards longer than he was in 1999. You figure it's the mustache?

Comparisons of some other short drivers: Jim Furyk 278 now, 268 then. Paul Goydos is up 12 yards in a decade to 276, Billy Mayfair has become a brute at 284 but was only 269 a decade earlier.

In the early 1990s I was a consultant (unpaid) for a golf course project at Liberty State Park - the site of this week's Tour event. It required the blessing of then New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, herself an enthusiastic golfer.

She wouldn't help us because the mayor of Jersey City said that golf was inherently elitist and that none of his city's precious land should be wasted on the rich. Never mind that the land in question was poisonously polluted. My idea was for a daily fee course supplemented by renting the course out once day a week for huge fees from Wall Street firms who would arrive by boat. What's happened is the creation of a $500,000 private club that is out of the reach of anybody who isn't loaded.

Liberty National is a design of the architectural pair of Tom Kite and Bob Cupp who survived the misfortune of designing a 2nd course at the Baltimore Country Club. It's adjacent to the wonderful Five Farms course created by AW Tillinghast. There were to be 36 holes as routed by Tillinghast. Because of the Great Depression the second course was put off for 50 years. The contrast between the two courses? Let's just say that the Kite-Cupp course concludes with a double green.

I twitched whenever I heard the name "Solheim" on television last week. Remember the great U groove wars of the 1980s when Ping sued both the USGA and the PGA Tour? There were endless meetings in attempt to resolve the matter without litigation. One took place in our USGA offices in New Jersey. Karsten sent one of his primary technicians. The man recorded the meeting secretly with a device hidden in his briefcase, hoping I or my colleague Frank Thomas would be caught saying something that might be useful to Ping in the suit to come.

Never mind how we found out. The tapes are stored in Mayer Brown, the USGA's Chicago law firm. Pity the
meeting did not take place in New York where such bugging is a crime. Anything goes in New Jersey.

Frank Hannigan
Saugerties, New York

Letter from Saugerties-USGA Annual Report

From former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan. Past letters of his can be viewed here.

Geoff,

I once sat in a meeting room full of corporate executives who advertise in Fortune magazine. The speakers were Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. After bragging that Gates personally taught him how to get online, Buffett fielded a question about his annual report. Buffett said he regarded his annual report as vital, that he spent much time on it, that it contained nothing he did not regard as true. All one had to do to know what was happening at Berkshire Hathaway was read its annual report.

The recently published annual report of the United States Golf Association is the converse of the Buffet attitude. It is a monument of obfuscation and self praise.

The governing body’s report contains two principle sections. There is a 3-and-a-half-page hunk of prose signed by current president James Vemon. Then comes the financial statement for 2008. Let’s consider the money part first.

There was revenue of $155,814,000. Expenses were $155,747,000. So the “profit” was a pittance of $67,000. In 1997 USGA revenue was only $136 million. Financially the USGA is like a hamster on a wheel. No matter how hard it runs it can’t catch up to itself.

If the USGA wants to have more money the answer is simple – spend less. Concerned, Vemon says they are now reviewing the expenditure of every nickel and dime. Expense reports are to be examined with a new fervor.

That’s not going to get it. Just like the federal government the USGA is eventually going to have to deal with entitlements. Examples:

Expenses for championships and broadcasting are line-itemed at $80 million. There is no breakdown of what was spent when or where although they maintain distinctions internally in finite detail. Most of that money has to be ascribed to “US Open” given it doesn’t cost much to run the Senior Amateur Championship. A person familiar with tournament expenses, anonymous because of ongoing dealings the USGA, says “US Open expenses are completely out of control.”

I wonder where they hide the cost of a private jet to ferry members of the Executive Committee to sites of USGA activities where they are not needed. Perhaps they have dumped the jet in emulation of Citi Group and other corporations – out of embarrassment. You can’t know because it’s a verboten subject.

Denied all detail as to championship expenses, I nevertheless conclude they could be cut by $5 million or more and nobody in the audience would know the difference.

The USGA gave away $3 million in grants via its own Foundation and another $3 million as a gift to The First Tee effort. Vernon points out in his text that the USGA has been the biggest giver to The First Tee. He omits mention of the PGA Tour whose creature is The First Tee. The omission tells us Far Hills does not love Ponte Veda. Probably vice versa too.

Since these gifts have accomplished nothing in terms of “growing the game” (golf is either flat or in decline) I say get rid of them. But if the USGA can afford to and wants to give away money, send it to where it can do some good – to Darfur, the Mississippi literacy program, or the Western Golf Association for caddie scholarships.

I shudder on reading that the combined expenses of its “communications” and “digital media” operations were more than $10 million. The USGA seems to think that if you just throw enough stuff online the result will be that everyone will love you. What difference can it make if the USGA is held in high or low esteem so long as the Rules Of Golf are accepted by golfers everywhere? Achieving uniformity in the rules, in accord with its partner the R&A, is the primary triumph in USGA history. And it happened before anyone owned a computer.

Vernon writes they spent $20 million to redo the Museum and Library. As a former curator of the USGA Museum (I got a D because I misplaced items), I remain a fan of the museum but not $20 millions worth. When the museum reopened in June, admission was charged for the first time. It now costs $7.50 if you want to see The Moon Club.

You will search in vain for museum attendance figures. That’s because even golfers can look at the moon itself – for free. Apparently attendance is limited to elderly people on busses who thought they signed up to catch a matinee at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn. They are startled when the bus passes Milburn and keeps going west on I-78.

The Vernon message is replete with odd usages. He seems to think the USGA began about five years ago when contracts were signed with four corporate “partners” and that NBC is an ally. That alliance consists of NBC giving the USGA about $30 million as a rights fee along with the understanding NBC will never criticize the USGA on air.

The US Open is described as “the most rigorous examination in golf.” Translation: “We want high scores and we get them.”

He enthuses about a 14-point course philosophy. Amazing, but Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus each managed to win four US Opens absent 14-point philosophies.

He enthuses over the introduction of graduated rough. US Opens had graduated rough when Bob Jones was playing. They have introduced a third cut of rough. But, although they surely have numbers they don’t say what effect, if any, the third cut has on the competition.

Vernon cites using different yardages for the same hole among recent inspirations. Excuse me, but alternative tees were used in the 1967 Open at Baltusrol. In all, setting up a course is one third art, one third agronomy and one third guesswork. Fourteen points was what President Wilson tried to pull off after World War I.

It wouldn’t be a USGA annual report without claims of being newly “relevant,” which is what happened when the Open was played on Torrey Pines (where they gouged the City of San Diego.) Each of the four corporate partners were “relevant” to USGA priorities. The automobile sponsor contributed 13,000 “car nights” . When you were a kid, did you beg dad for two “car nights” this week?

The ailing economy sharply reduced the value of the USGA investments. So what? That happened to everyone. The amount of loss should be specified in the president’s message. Instead, you have to hunt for the numbers in the fine print of the financial statement. I doubt it would be there at all but for a legal requirement. Transparency is not a USGA virtue.

We learn that both junior championships this year will be played on courses owned by Donald Trump. Now that does exemplify a new and different USGA. I find it hard to picture historic USGA figures like Richard Tufts, Bill Campbell, Sandy Tatum and Joe Dey hanging around with Donald Trump.

Staff resignations, early retirements and plain old firings in the last two years are not mentioned. It could be argued that staff turnover doesn’t matter so long as the USGA runs splendid championships and nurtures the Rules of Golf. The workers on Henry Ford’s assembly lines were not wild about their jobs but kept on churning out Model Ts.

On the other hand, the USGA is an institution of human relations. It is not Google. The USGA is having people troubles both at home and away.

Only recently there were four exceptional US Open sites in the New York metropolitan area. Now there is one – Bethpage, where this year’s Open will occur. The Shinnecock Hills Open of 2004 was a debacle. It ended with the two parties spitting and hissing at each other. Baltusrol has switched to become a PGA Championship host. The members of Winged Foot last year voted overwhelmingly not to put up with another Open.

Those losses, Mr. Vernon, are relevant.

 

Frank Hannigan

Saugerties, New York

Letter From Saugerties--July 10, 2007

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan sends another of his thoughtful letters, this time he's reacting to the recent USGA staff firings spearheaded by Walter Driver and rubber-stamped by the Executive Committee. Hannigan tells us what they mean for the organization and the game.

Dear Geoff:

I can’t convince you, because of your youth, there was a time when the USGA was generally regarded as the most effective, efficient and logical body of sports in this country. When I was chief operating officer of the USGA and feeling sour about something we’d done I would turn my mind to the US Tennis Association and immediately perk up.

Alas, I agree with your low estimation of today’s USGA which is no better than the USTA, the NCAA, the AAU, the US Olympic Committee or, I suppose, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation.

The barrage of media criticism of president Walter Driver is both unprecedented and deserved. It’s also simplistic. The USGA began to behave strangely more than 10 years ago. The greatest failure was to pull back from what would have been a stupendous conflict had the organization attempted to do the right thing about distance.

Knowing full well that they should have risked the farm with anti-distance legislation, they instead have announced a ban on U grooves starting in 2009, saying that the game has been totally changed by grooves so that there is no longer any correlation between accuracy on the Tour and success. This they say in a year when Fred Funk, Scotty Verplank, Paul Goydos and Zach Johnson are gobbling up tour titles, not to mention the Masters.  All bunters.

Internally, the USGA is grim.  President Driver has ousted two senior staff members.  The first was Tim Moraghan, a specialized agronomist who worked with the superintendents at championship courses. The second, not yet formally announced, is Marty Parkes, the USGA’s long time director of communications.  Parkes was #4 on what has become a perhaps too large staff of more than 300.

The firings, of course, are termed “resignations.” Both of those leaving accepted bonus packages including a provision they would not speak ill of the USGA or talk about their separations.  I find that a very sleazy way for a public entity to act. The USGA insists on its privacy, which it legally holds, but it has no problem avoiding federal taxes. It even accepts 501c3 status as a “charity” which means that volunteers like Driver can deduct their USGA expenses.

Moraghan, I would say, has been fired retroactively for whatever part he played in the course debacle of the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills.  Driver was then chairman of the championship committee and had to endure humiliation.

Marty Parkes is gone, as I and others see it, because he could not prohibit negative print media and blog stories (like this) about Driver. There was the notorious Golf World magazine cover story headed “Can the USGA Survive Walter Driver?” But then Washington Post golf writer Len Shapiro labeled Driver “the most disliked USGA president ever.” Driver’s partners at Goldman Sachs do not know what Golf World is, but they are certainly cognizant of the Washington Post.

You would think Driver, having a major post in what is likely the world’s most successful financial concern, would know a bit about money. Instead, he has a strange idea  about the USGA being endangered financially.  He points out that the USGA “lost” $6 million in operations in 2006 and has budgeted a $5 million loss for 2007.  The 2006 “loss” was the first in the history of the USGA, which commenced in 1895.  It was also the first year of Driver’s two as president.

Meanwhile, the USGA investments have a street value close to $300 million. Even a financial ignoramus like myself could churn $15 million or more out of that without going near the principle. The “loss” he’s talking about does not take into account the growth in value of the investments.

He says the USGA, were it a business, would be in big time trouble.  Excuse me, but the USGA is NOT a business.  It is a non-profit service organization. The American Cancer Society would be in trouble as a “business.”

He points to the fragility of the USGA’s television income, which is hidden but likely pushing $25 million a year. The contract with NBC runs through 2014.  President Driver says who can possibly tell what will happen with TV money after 2014.   Nobody, can. But you know what?   If it’s so scary the USGA could easily get an extension of its NBC contract right now, especially after the success of the Open at Oakmont.

Marty Parkes is after my USGA time, which ended in 1989. I have had no professional dealings with him, but we were cordial when I ran into him. As is my want, I would tease him by saying one expected more of a graduate of the London School of Economics than being a USGA publicist.  I read him as being an exceptional manager of projects and people but uncomfortable cozying up to golf media giants.

The USGA set-up is truly strange. It gives complete power and authority to its volunteer executive committee of 15. The president is labeled in the by-laws as chief executive officer but his powers are limited to presiding over meetings and appointing the members of the many sub committees. He can’t even hire, that power being given to the executive committee as a whole. (The by-laws say the committee can hire “clerks.”).

Parkes may also have been fired because when Driver and his colleagues slashed staff benefits in January, Parkes sent an email to Driver asking for or demanding an explanation.  This caused Driver to fly to New Jersey from Atlanta and address a surly staff.

This must be said for Driver.  He did not use the USGA’s leased jet when he flew to Newark for this meeting.  (He correctly notes that he inherited the jet program from his predecessor Fred Ridley-- which is not the same as saying he could cancel it in these financially perilous days.) You will search in vain in the USGA financial statement for a line item about the jet or for that matter the cost of entertaining members of the executive committee and their wives at championships, where they are not needed.  For the staff, which can truly run golf tournaments, these people are heavy maintenance.

Since Driver does not have the kind of power a corporate CEO has it follows he must have the approval and backing of the executive committee. What are they thinking?  I think they are thinking about getting re-appointed.

How about executive director David Fay, who followed me in that role? I have no idea where he is at. It’s easy for me to say 16 years after the fact, but if the executive committee ordered me to fire someone from what I regarded as MY staff, I would have reacted by saying you can fire anybody you want but that means I go too.

For all I know, David may have fought heroically to save Marty Parkes, and was central in a negotiating process (Marty wisely had got himself a lawyer) whereby Marty got out with an excellent deal.

The USGA is now a grim place.   Nobody thinks that Driver & Co. are finished firing.

I wonder how much it matters save for the exercise of egos.  The USGA is a service entity with a mix of components. It does not follow that terrible leadership causes these to fall apart.  Example:  two years ago my up-state club, 9 holes, was visited by a USGA agronomist. He too was after my time.  I purposely stayed away on the day of his visit but the club people sent me a copy of his written report. It wasn’t just good.  It was superb. The recommendations were followed and resulted in much better turfgrass.

I’m sure the same can be said of other USGA departments, e.g., handicapping and perhaps management of the Rules of Golf.  (The USGA, if known at all to casual golfers, is understood to be the US Open and Rules of Golf.  Many people think I worked 28 years for the “PGA”.)

There is no provision for impeachment. By tradition, Driver will be gone in six months.  I have been saying for years that the USGA is badly in need of an infusion of democratic procedure.  There needs to be a contested election. It doesn’t happen because the average golfer cares only his futile attempt to make a good swing. 

The decline of the USGA did not begin with Walter Driver.  I would label it as beginning in 1995 when one of Driver’s predecessors hired Kenny Rogers for $30,000 to sing at a USGA birthday party.

Kenny Rogers is as appropriate for the USGA as Jenna Jameson would be at a conclave of the College of Cardinals.

Frank Hannigan
Saugerties, New York 

 For some past letters from Hannigan, check here.

Letter From Saugerties, March 6, 2007

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan shares his thoughts on the ramifications and politics behind a possible U-groove rule change:

The recent USGA announcement proposing to get rid of U-shaped grooves contained every self-congratulatory cliché except “Mission Accomplished.”
 
Dick Rugge, USGA senior technical director, said “These proposals represent the comprehensive, deliberate and thoughtful nature of the USGA’s equipment research.”       

It’s Rugge’s own work.
 
Whatever happened to modesty?
 
The reality is that the USGA, unable or unwilling to do anything about the surge in distance that has polluted the game, is trying to pretend it is giving birth to an elephant. In fact, it’s not even a mouse.
 
Rugge correctly observes that "the skill of driving the ball accurately has become much less important in achieving success on the Tour than it used to be.”  From there comes his quantum leap in logic that by reverting to V grooves the rich, wild and famous will get so much less spin and loft from “the rough” that they might as well leave the Tour and look for jobs.
 
The balls used on the Tour, sure enough, are predominantly urethane covered, softer than the rocks used by the rest of us, and therefore spin more. Our balls, with surlyn covers, will not be affected, so the USGA says it has discovered a win-win situation.
 
Back in 1986 the USGA, with Frank Thomas as its technical director, published a massive “Groove Study”.  It said that soft-covered balls, with balata then in use, spun some more out of short rough  when struck with U-grooved clubs, but not enough to make any difference. The key word was “insignificant.”

Rugge & Co.  say “posh” to the original groove story. The difference they say matters a hell of a lot.

Alas, they provide no specifics.  Like so:
 
1.  The average score on the PGA Tour is stuck on 71.2.  If  U-grooves matter so much the average score then must surely jump come 2009, assuming the PGA Tour accepts the proposal.  I hazard the prediction that unless the Tour modifies the way it sets up courses the average score will stay the same.
 
2.  The USGA posture seems to be that the wrong people have been winning.    One wonders who they might be.  Surely not Tiger Woods,  who shares with the USGA a deep love for business deals with American Express.
 
3.  What is “rough” and what strains of grass are we talking about?  Is it what the announcers at The Masters are required to call “the second cut.”  It surely can’t be the USGA’s own famous “primary rough” because the grooves don’t get to the ball out of 5 inches of grass.
 
4.  U-grooves became permissible under the Rules of Golf in 1984.  So how come the tilt toward power on the Tour did not cause brows to furrow until the late 1990s?

5.  The USGA has a vast archive of television tapes.  How about pulling up about 6 shots that show the perfidious results of U-grooves and offering them as a display?

Almost nobody disagrees with the USGA observation that distance matters too much now.  That’s because the USGA blew it to the extent that the average distance per measured drive on the Tour is 289 yards, nearly 30 yards up since the early 1990s.         
 
The Tour has scrambled to stabilize scoring by making courses much harder today.  But  the power hitters benefit disproportionately.  Imagine it’s 1990 and a big hitter is 180 yards from the hole while his fellow competitor, an average hitter, is 210 yards from the hole.  Fast forward to 2007.  The  big hitter is now 150 yards away and the average hitter 180 yards distant.   I contend the difference between the two in what they score on the hole has widened in favor of the big hitter.
 
If the USGA is serious about restoring the virtues of accuracy all it has to do is roll back the fail point in its vital Overall Distance Standard test. Banning U-grooves is merely a way of pretending to do something.  The proposals for change are likely to sail through because they don’t bother anybody.

The USGA can declare victory, or at least until the end of the 2009 season when it becomes understood nothing has happened.

Frank Hannigan
Saugerties, New York

March 6, 2007

To read other Hannigan letters, here was his previous piece on the grooves story, his commentary on the recent USGA-AmEx deal, his thoughts on the USGA's private jet package and his take on USGA President Walter Driver's views on distance.