Letter From Saugerties--January 8, 2009

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan has penned another of his letters after reading Tuesday's golf.com story on the financial state of the USGA.

Dear Geoff,

Michael Bamberger's piece commiserating with the USGA because the street value of its investments dropped from $300 million to $200 million during 2008 was misleading in the extreme.

What possible difference can it make whether the USGA has $300 or $200 million stashed away so long as verges on the impossible for them not to take in more money than they spend in any given year? So long as the US Open exists the USGA can't avoid being an extremely profitable 501C3 entity.

Only once since the USGA was founded in 1895 has there been a year when the USGA spent more than it took, that happening a few years ago under the hands-on management of the most misguided president in USGA history - one Walter Driver, who moaned about money as he was leasing a corporate jet to shuttle members of the USGA executive committee to places they weren't needed.

If the USGA is cutting back on its contributions to other golf entities, the reason is likely a belated understanding that they have simply blown a lot of money. During the period of the USGA messages to "really, really love golf" and "for the good of the game," precisely nothing has happened. And nothing began happening a long time before the economy went in the tank last year.

As a recreational activity, distinct from playing for unGodly sums of prize money, golf teeters on the edge of obscurity. The game has been no better than flat for at least a decade in terms of rounds played or golf balls sold. Economic downfall or not, more courses are shutting down than closing.

Sure the USGA has been the primary giver to the PGA Tour's First Tee program. So what then has the First Tee accomplished other than the spin that the PGA Tour is a generous operation. At random, of course, there have to be First Tee centers that do good things, like the one nourished in San Francisco by former USGA president Sandy Tatum whose virtues and skills are such that one wishes he had devoted himself to things that matter, such as running the CIA.

Giving a lot of money to the First Tee has also kept the heat off the USGA about US Open prize money, a pittance compared to the money earned by athletes in team sports, about 15% of the gross compared to more than 50% in the National Football League.

What might the USGA have done? For openers it should have been shrieking that golf was being wrecked by the wicked and unnecessary growth of maintaining courses, which have shot up faster than the cost of health care or college tuition. The promotional ads on USGA telecasts, of tremendous value, should have been devoted to ONLY the matter of golf course maintenance. Those two morons we see every year saying they will renew playing when it stops raining should have been dumped into a septic tank.

Meanwhile the USGA spends $16 million to overhaul a museum nobody will ever attend. And it starts charging admission on the grounds that visitors will reject free admission because that leads to "an assumption that there’s nothing of value there.”  That's like saying the Yankees would have serious attendance problems if they let everyone in free.

When I first stumbled on the USGA headquarters in 1972 it never occurred to me that people would wander into the Museum in numbers. Far Hills, New Jersey was and remains remote. And there were not a lot of folks in the neighborhood, what with Far Hills then having the most restrictive zoning ordinance in the United States - 10 acres per new house.

As the then Assistant Director of the USGA I had no stated authority but I could sure sell those executive committees. I put on a dog and pony show with photos of that building, with what many felt was the single best rendering of a hanging staircase in America, to die for.

It's hard for me to even imagine, but it is so, that the USGA, in that setting with 62 acres to die for, is regarded as an unhappy place in which to earn a living. Many people of quality, who thought they were on a mission working for the USGA, realized dumb things were happening (see above). Some quit; others were fired.

Those left should blame me for having to be miserable in Far Hills. I wanted it because the main building was the work of a great American architect and it was remote enough so that some staff members might be able afford to play golf. Above all, though, was the existence of decent public schools for our kids less than 20 minutes away.