American golf is in an interesting, tense place, more so than you might realize, sitting at home on the Barcalounger, and it’s not because the U.S. lost the Ryder Cup again. The cause of the tension is that three men in critical leadership positions have competing agendas. One of them is Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, who has been around forever and is signed up through 2016. Another is Mike Davis, the USGA executive director, an uncommonly measured man who came up through the USGA ranks and looks to have a long future at headquarters in Far Hills, in the heart of the Garden State’s horse country. Then there’s the third guy, Ted Bishop, the president of the PGA of America. He’s the outlier.
Bishop, more Hoosier than Larry Legend, is 59, healthy and energetic and living on borrowed time. He became president in November and he’ll serve, in accordance with his organization’s bylaws, one two-year term. Unlike Finchem and Davis, Bishop isn’t making a dime for this sometimes bruising gig. In the meantime he’s living large, golf-style. We’re talking nights at the Plaza Hotel, early morning snacks in the Today show green room, running a press conference on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building, long chats with Jack Nicklaus, being in the team room at the Ryder Cup, breaking bread with Mark Steinberg at the Links Club on the Upper East Side at a dinner hosted by Jerry Tarde of Golf Digest. Living large and loving life.
But when the clock strikes 12 at the PGA’s annual meeting in November 2014, Ted Bishop will again be able to devote all of his time to his day job, as owner-operator of a public 45-hole complex—the Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind.—where revenue is down, rounds are flat and the club’s Chapter 11 restructuring got a big write-up in The Indianapolis Star.
Finchem’s view of the world is shaped by what his bosses, the Tour players, want. He hasn’t said anything definitive about anchored putting because his players haven’t said anything definitive. Neither, for that matter, has the USGA. The comment period for the proposed 2016 ban concludes on Feb. 28, and the USGA and the R&A plan to make a final decision on the matter in the spring.
Davis’s view is shaped by what he and his colleagues feel are in the best long-term interests of the game, and that’s why they proposed the ban. The USGA, with the R&A conjoining, believes that a fundamental element of golf is a stroke played with two hands holding a club that swings freely. Yes, it took them nearly 25 years to finally come out and say it, but the Far Hillsers take a long-range view. The game has been played for 600 years and they’re planning for the next 600. Viewed that way, a 25-year mistake is barely a blip.
And then there’s Bishop. He’s an analytical man, a jocky wonk. His Tom Watson file, which he assembled to successfully make the case that Watson should be named the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, has about 70 sheets of paper in it. It is loaded with handwritten data assembled by Bishop and includes summaries of interviews, some of them amazingly direct, that deal with issues like Watson’s history as a drinker (he has stopped) and how involved Hilary Watson would most likely be as the Captainess (more so than Robin Love, who did her work behind the curtain, and less so than Lisa Pavin, who practically stole that soggy 2010 Ryder Cup).
Bishop thinks anchored putting is good for golf, though he is neither a belly man nor a broomsticker himself. He came to golf after years of schoolboy baseball and basketball, he can break 80 on a hard course from the back tees and he uses an elongated putter without anchoring. Bishop says he has heard Davis talk about USGA polling that has shown that golf’s inherent challenge is the single-most appealing thing about the game. Bishop dismisses that. He believes people find golf too challenging, and that is one of the biggest impediments to growing the game.
Despite his personal support for anchoring, Bishop wanted to have a position on the proposed ban that the PGA of America could present and defend publicly. So he did like the pols do. He ordered a poll, a do-it-yourself job.
On the day before Thanksgiving the 27,000 men and women PGA professionals received an e-mail signed by Bishop with this message:
“The PGA recognizes and respects the critical role the USGA plays in writing and interpreting the Rules of Golf and understands that the Rules are a fundamental aspect of the game we all serve. However, we also recognize that our roughly 27,000 PGA professionals are on the front lines of the game and that the PGA exists, in large part, to grow the game.”
From there the pros were invited to put a check beside one of the following two sentences:
• I would favor a ban on anchoring a golf club.
• I would not favor a ban on anchoring a golf club.
By the Sunday after Thanksgiving the results had been tallied: 4,200 pros responded (about 16%) and roughly two thirds of them opposed the ban. Would George Gallup have signed off on the wording? Probably not, not with that leading-the-witness preamble. Is the sample big enough? Hard to say. Still, Bishop took it as a major indicator of where his men and women stood. It was a tipping point.