A Conversation with Jeff Rivard, One of Golf's Good Guys
You don’t know Jeff Rivard but if you’re a golfer, you probably know someone like him. He is retiring after 22 years as executive director of the West Penn Golf Association, the organization that serves golfers in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania.
The WPGA is one of a few dozen regional golf associations that handles the real business of grass-roots golf--overseeing handicaps, course ratings, amateur competitions and more. Every regional golf association has had its own Jeff Rivard along the way, if it’s lucky, someone who’s passionate and driven toward the game.
Rivard, 71, has whitish-gray hair, a distinctive baritone voice and a hearty laugh. He is a walking encyclopedia of all topics golf, from major championship history to regional esoterica and as a former English teacher, he has excellent grammar and thinks you should, too.
Rivard grew up in greater Detroit and later West Branch in northern Lower Michigan, earning his teaching degree at Central Michigan University. An English teacher at heart, he walked out of a math class he was teaching one February day at North Branch Junior High (Mich.) and knew he needed a different calling. Five years and a second bachelor’s degree and a masters degree later, he broke into the golf business and never looked back. Rivard’s stops included New Mexico’s Sun Country Golf Association; the LPGA Tour as a rules official; the USGA as liaison for regional golf associations; the Golf Association of Michigan’s director; and the West Penn Golf Association, where he has been a fixture as executive director for more than two decades.
I started our interview by asking him to sum up the last 40 years in one sentence. He laughed at my joke, then answered, “I won the lottery.”
I got to do what I liked to do for a living. It just took me 10 or 12 years to get into golf after college, including four-and-half years of teaching. I wanted to be a teacher and a coach. I guess I watched too much "Mr. Novak" (a 1960s TV series about a teacher) when I was a kid or some damn thing.
My dad was a sound technician who did everything from sports to music. So I met famous people from the time I was 10 years old. One time, my dad took us down to Detroit for a weekend to see the last Tigers game of the season, the Lions’ first game and the Harlem Globetrotters. We stayed in the Globetrotters’ hotel, where I met founder Abe Saperstein. I also met Ed Sullivan there. Sullivan shows up in the hotel lobby and my dad immediately walks over to talk to him. He’d done work for Sullivan in the ‘30s. Well, when they were done, Sullivan comes over to my two brothers and me, who are sitting on a porch bench, and says, "I just want you to know that your dad is as good at what he does as anyone I’ve ever worked with." For us boys, that was unbelievable.
One of my dad’s favorite sayings was, "Why do they call it common sense when so few people seem to have it?"
I taught English and a little Spanish in my teaching career. I had the Dominican nuns to thank for that. They were awfully good at grammar. I had one little sawed-off nun when I was about 12. She said, "Are you planning to go to college?" Yes, Sister. "You’d be the first one in your family to go to college?" Yes, Sister. "You know, you’re not going to get there just because you want to. They start keeping score on your grades now so you’d better get going. You can do it." It registered. I did a lot better in high school after this tiny little nun told me, 'You’ve got to work, not just show up.' Thank you, Sisters.
My brother was in the army and got an early out so he went back to Michigan State and I did, too. I was 27, he was 24. Why wouldn’t you go back to school when you’re 27? It’s great! I got a job at the local golf course, MSU’s Forest Akers, and he got a job at the most popular bar in East Lansing. So we’ve got all the beer we can drink and all the golf we can play. Life is pretty good.
The Sun Country Golf Association’s first full-time employee was me. When I started in Albuquerque, it had $3,000 in the bank and 3,000 members. When I left, we had 16,000 members. I felt pretty good about that.
The LPGA Tour used to come to Albuquerque with a dozen or so players for a two-day pro-am and I was the rules guy. The LPGA’s Hollis Stacy comes up to me and says, "Do you want to live in Albuquerque the rest of your life?" I said, 'Hollis, I like it here.' She said, "Well, we’re going to have at least two rules vacancies on our staff next year. You ought to give Betsy Rawls a call." Betsy ran the tour. So I called Betsy and she flew to Albuquerque and had lunch with me at an airport hotel, where she offered me the job. I said I needed to think about it. She said, "Take your time." Two weeks later, I have to make a long, boring drive from Albuquerque to Hobbs. I was three hours into a seven-hour drive when I pulled off the road, found a pay phone, called Betsy and said, "When can I start?"
In one of my first LPGA events as rules official, JoAnne Carner hits a ball in the water hazard on a little par 3 I was watching. So she tees up another ball and hits it eight feet from the hole. She walks by the pond, looks at the ball and decides it’s playable. JoAnne comes over to me and says, "That’s my provisional ball up there by the hole. I want to play the first ball." I said, "JoAnne, there is no provisional ball from a hazard. You’re lying 3 up there. This ball is dead." She said, "Well, you looked new. I thought it was worth a try."
I remember when JoAnne won in Hershey, Pennsylvania. At the awards ceremony she told everyone, "I switched putters about two weeks ago. I was putting awful. Then I got this putter and started making everything. I like this putter so much, I’ve been sleeping with it for a week. My husband, Don, is out there in the audience--hey Don, tonight is your night!"
At one LPGA event in Kansas City, we had to paint blue lines to define the fairways because all the grass died. I did a course visit in July to Brookridge Country Club and the place was perfect. I get there the week before the tournament and the whole place is dead. The greens were tolerable but they lost all the fairways to disease, heat and humidity. Try going into the pressroom and explaining that. Our tour had the occasional glamour moment. The event at Turnberry Isle in Miami was a pretty good stop for us. I walked through the lunch line, looked up and Cheryl Tiegs was standing next to me. That was pretty exciting.
Pat Bradley, a future Hall of Fame golfer, once complained to one or our rules officials, Ed Gowan, saying, "I haven’t gotten a good ruling from you guys all year." Ed said, "Well, your definition of good is favorable. Our definition of good is correct. What you’ve had, Pat, is a series of unfavorable but correct rulings." That kept her quiet for a while.
I got a job offer from the USGA to work for them with the state and regional golf associations. I was engaged, I wanted to get off the road so I wouldn’t have to travel as much so I took it. When you go from 225 days a year on the road to only 100, it seems like a vacation.
One thing I learned about getting things done at the USGA: It was always better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.
Michigan ran the biggest state amateur championship in the country that didn’t have qualifying when I arrived as director at the Golf Association of Michigan. They played foursomes on two courses and had 380 players with a double shotgun start. It wasn’t a golf tournament, it was a buffalo hunt. I put together an entry form with eight to 10 qualifying sites around the state. It was a big change. Well, we had 680 players sign up the first year. The Michigan Amateur is annually among the country’s biggest state ams now.
For years, Michigan used Belvedere Country Club in Charlevoix as the site for the State Amateur. It wasn’t Augusta National but they thought they were. We normally paid them $10,000 to use the course for the week. After the qualifying expanded the tournament’s popularity, the club asked for $25,000. I asked Tom Chisholm, the championship’s chairman, what we should do. He said, "Let’s go shopping." We did and were able to line up the Country Club of Jackson in Dave Hill’s hometown; Meadowbrook Country Club, a good club on Detroit’s west side; Michaywe, a really good course near Gaylord; and the North Course at Oakland Hills. When we put out a press release announcing our sites for the next four years, the Belvedere guys called and said, "Hey, that $25,000 was just a negotiating ploy." Chisolm told them, "How do you like negotiating now?"
I’ve worked 60 national championships as a rules guy, almost half of them U.S. Mid-Amateurs, and seven U.S. Opens. At the 1979 U.S. Open at Inverness, I was posted at the seventh green and the eighth tee on the Saturday morning that the USGA planted a new tree. It was dubbed Hinkle’s Tree and it was installed by the tee to stop Lon Hinkle--and others who followed his lead--from driving down the adjacent 17th fairway as a shortcut to reach par-5 eighth green. It was pretty exciting. Some players still tried to take the shortcut anyway. I remember Tom Purtzer tried it on Sunday and made a triple bogey that knocked him out of contention. All weekend, whenever a guy teed it up and looked like he was thinking about challenging Hinkle’s Tree, the fans there turned into a football crowd and chanted, "Go! Go! Go! Go!" It was just wonderful.
On Sunday at Inverness in ‘79, I was stationed at the 18th hole. Bobby Clampett, still an amateur, had missed the cut so he was chosen to play as a marker in the first group out with David Edwards. Well, Clampett could do some amazing trick shots and on the ninth tee, he hits a tee shot from his knees about 220 yards. He starts clowning around and the gallery egged him on. The USGA asks him to stop and Bobby doesn’t so they escort him off the golf course. I go out to the 12th green to walk in with Edwards and keep his scorecard. When I get there, I ask Dave what he thought of Clampett’s act. He says, "Jeff, I’m 3-under par right now but if I was 3-over, I would’ve strangled the son of a bitch."
Sandy Tatum was the chairman of the championship committee in 1979. I went into the clubhouse for a quick bite to eat after Edwards finished and Sandy has Clampett in the back of the locker room. Sandy is from San Francisco so he knows Clampett pretty well. He says, "Bobby, I really wish you hadn’t done this but there will be no repercussions. You’re still on the World Amateur team and all that. One thing: ABC comes on TV in about 20 minutes and Hale Irwin has a four-shot lead so I suggest you get the hell out of here." And he did.
When I was 14, I started playing golf. I was never a good player but I could usually break 80 most of my life. A lot of people would be happy with that. I’m one of them.
The West Penn Open is a good local tournament that dates back to 1899. I’m always surprised how many guys who win the West Penn Open know that four U.S. Open champions have their names on the trophy--Arnold Palmer, Lew Worsham, Sam Parks and Ed Furgol--plus Jock Hutchison, who won a British Open and a PGA. How many local Opens can say that? For half a state, Western Pennsylvania has had a spectacular group of golfers. One thing I’m pleased about is how well our West Penn Golf Hall of Fame initiative has been received. We’ve got so many good players to pick from, at least 30, that we can’t screw it up. All we’re debating is the batting order for induction.
We wanted to have a Centennial dinner to celebrate 100 years of golf in Western Pennsylvania. So we negotiated with Doc Giffin, Arnold Palmer’s right-hand man, to see if Palmer could attend. Doc said, "When do you want to have this dinner?" I said, "Doc, you’ve got this backwards. Tell me when Arnold is available and we’ll get the room for that date." We’ve asked Mr. Palmer to attend only two functions—the Centennial dinner and the opening Hall of Fame dinner. He graciously came to both and other than golf, those nights remain the most important and memorable events during my term.
I’m not going away, I’m just not going to be in charge anymore. I’ll spend part of the winter back where I started in Las Cruces, N.M., but I’ll still officiate at the West Penn tournaments next summer, work on the Hall of Fame and do some writing and special projects. Why go anywhere else? Pittsburgh is a great place for golf.