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.