Man of the People

Yes, Golfweek's Jim Achenbach says Walter Driver's speech in Atlanta demonstrates that the new USGA president may just be a man of the people after all. Despite memberships in ultra-private clubs that don't admit women while whizzing around in a private jet at the USGA's expense (where he's already logged plenty of hours as vice president), man of the people doesn't quite come to mind.

But I didn't get to see his acceptance speech.

Driver made an apparently heroic leap for mankind by stepping away from the podium to talk to the jury audience. I've already heard from two people present who found it to be a cheap ploy.

But not everyone felt that way...

ATLANTA – To gain an appreciation of how Walter Driver thinks, consider this: The U.S. Golf Association is 112 years old, and Driver is believed to be the first president in USGA history to deliver a formal acceptance speech from the middle of his audience and not from a podium above them.


Driver, one of the most prominent attorneys in the United States, descended from the stage where the podium was located. He walked into the crowd of 500 and gave an emotional and thoughtful speech. It was easy for an observer to imagine Driver in a courtroom, displaying his skills. Driver, 60, is considered an expert in the field of international banking and finance.

For the record, Driver recently left his position as chairman of the law firm of King & Spalding to become Chairman-Southeast for financial conglomerate Goldman Sachs.

Once a chairman, always a chairman.

Oh, and it gets more maudlin.

Driver's message was one of appreciating the people who are mentors and friends in our lives. He focused on golf, of course, humanizing it by introducing his parents and a lineup of golf buddies who have enriched his life.

That was the point of this address: Golf and the people who play it are responsible for making our lives richer and more rewarding, and we should honor the game and all who play it.

And I'm sorry, what does this have to do with the job of the USGA Executive Committee at arguably its most critical junction?

Let's read between the lines in analyzing Driver.

If Driver takes golf to the people, he will counteract the widespread notion that the USGA is run by rich white men who are out of touch with ordinary golfers.

As the longtime chairman of King & Spalding, Driver established a stellar record of hiring minority lawyers. It is no coincidence that Bill Lewis, a high-powered investment banker and an African-American who is a golf fanatic, joined the USGA Executive Committee on the same day that Driver ascended to the presidency.

What this has to do with protecting the integrity of the sport, I have no idea. (And if you want read an alternative take on King & Spaulding's hiring record, head here.)

There is another reason that Driver's presidency is considered crucial by many people: The USGA is considering whether it should change golf ball rules and regulations. Some powerful USGA ex-presidents, among others, have lobbied diligently for a shorter golf ball to preserve the integrity of older, shorter golf courses and eliminate the need for newer mega-length layouts.

A decision on the golf ball is not expected this year but could come in 2007, which would be Driver's second and final year as president.

At the annual meeting, as Driver walked through the audience and talked about the joys of the sport, the world of golf seemed at peace.

But, with major challenges lying ahead, this was misleading. If Driver is to become golf's great communicator, if he is to deal effectively with golf equipment manufacturers, he may need divine, as well as human, accommodation.

"That's why we have presidents," someone said respectfully as the crowd bumped its way out of the Grand Hyatt ballroom.

And that's why they call it groupthink!

Ron Sirak at Golf World also found the speech "moving," but he wasn't as mesmerized as Achenbach. Sad to say, but ten years from now people will be writing the same columns about the USGA needing to diversify.

But more importantly, in ten years will we be wondering if that will be the year they actually address issues impacting the game?