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.
He has been off and running ever since. He knows that Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods (32 majors between them) are in favor of the ban. But Bishop has Tim Clark and Adam Scott! (Almost one.) Bishop polled Lee Trevino on the subject when he happened to be seated next to him on a flight from Dallas to Orlando last week. (Trevino to Far Hills: Let the belly be!) This week, the PGA expects to release another poll of its pros, about whether they support bifurcation, two sets of rules, in the case. If Bishop sees you at your neighborhood Starbucks, he’ll poll you. The man’s poll-crazy.
Just the other day he signed up Amy Wilson and Stacy Hoffman, and their hubbies (Mark and Charley) don’t even anchor. How’d he do it? He looked into their future. Did you know that nearly half the players on the Champions tour anchor? Do you realize your husbands are about 15 years away from the big five-0? Do you think the future of the Champions tour would be jeopardized if some of its great players couldn’t play without anchoring?
You could argue that’s crazy talk, that Bernhard Langer would figure out a way to putt no matter what you made him use, that Freddie’s shaky even when he bellies, and that the senior circuit could survive if Mark Wiebe, with his colorful vocab and his split-gripped putter, never made another C-tour start. Still: Ted’s been on a roll for a while, and his excellent adventure continued last week at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. He was everywhere, except at the annual outdoor Demo Day, where pros and other industry insiders get to sample the year’s new toys. It’s a colorful scene. “The USGA is worried about how anchored putting looks,” Davis Love III said last week, “and everywhere you turn there’s a white club with racing stripes on it. Is that look protecting tradition?” This from the man who on Feb. 2 is being honored with the USGA’s highest prize, the Bob Jones Award.
Bishop missed Demo Day last week because he was flying back from a one-day trip to San Diego for the Tour players’ meeting there. Now that had to be interesting. Davis was there to talk to the players about the proposed ban. Bishop, who as PGA president has a spot on the PGA Tour policy board, attended the meeting with the PGA of America’s new CEO, Pete Bevacqua, who in an earlier life spent 11 years at the USGA.
Bishop and Bevacqua were having dinner at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines when Davis and Glen Nager, the USGA president, asked if they could join them. The four talked for the better part of an hour about their many shared interests: speeding up play, increasing junior participation, making golf more accessible to disabled players, water usage, the many people they know in common. Henry Kissinger likes to say that history is dictated by personality, and it’s possible this amicable hour of golf chat will prove to be significant. But not likely. Two days later, when referring to a Golf World story about Davis and Nager that ran under the headline Trail Blazers, Bishop was almost smirking. He doesn’t think they are trailblazers. Of course, Nager and Davis don’t see themselves as trailblazers, either. They are trying to defend challenge as an essential golfing value. And for Bishop, that’s where the conflict arises.
There’s something funny about PGA presidents. Very few of them have had a high profile in the game beyond their organization. USGA presidents serve for two one-year terms, yet a good number of them have become names you might recognize: Sandy Tatum, Trey Holland, Buzz Taylor, Walter Driver, Fred Ridley, Judy Bell among them. Arnold Palmer (who is strongly in favor of the anchoring ban) said last week he could name only one PGA president who really had a major impact on national golf: Leo Fraser of the Atlantic City Country Club, the PGA president in 1969–70 who helped pave the way for the Tour pros who broke away from the PGA of America and formed the PGA Tour in late ’68. Bishop could be the next Fraser.
This anchored putting debate, in its own weird way, is probably the most important issue the PGA has faced since the breakaway, not counting the 1990 Shoal Creek debacle. That was rooted in social progressiveness. This one gets to the heart of how the game is played, administered and governed. It would have been a big issue without Bishop, but he has made it much bigger and he has been comfortable through it all. He looks as if he has stood in front of rolling cameras all his life. “He’s comfortable because he’s prepared,” Love says.
The real issue in the debate goes much deeper than whether the butt end of the putter depresses human flesh. Bishop believes that if the ban goes through without a major hitch, it will empower and embolden the USGA. “I think their next step will be to try to slow down the golf ball,” Bishop said last month in his pro shop at Legends. A lot of people, of course, think that would be a good thing, but Bishop is not among them.
Asked if the USGA has any plans to try to slow down the ball, Davis declined to talk about it, and a USGA spokesman, Joe Goode, issued this statement: “Distance remains a subject the USGA continues to monitor as part of our joint governance of the game worldwide. While distance at the elite professional and amateur levels has stabilized, we continue to review the relevant science, data and research that are available to us, and engage the broader golf community on the subject. The USGA continues to study the golf course footprint beyond the playing of the game, exploring a wide range of factors to determine how reducing distance and modifying course size could impact the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the game.” Take a minute to parse that statement if you feel the urge. It did use the phrase “reducing distance.”
Based on his comments last week, both in San Diego and Orlando, Finchem indicated that even if the USGA bans anchored putting, the PGA Tour could decide not to abide by the ruling. If that happened, the balance of power in the game would change markedly. Bishop thinks it already has. He believes the PGA Tour is the real power base for golf in the U.S. The Tour, he says, sets the tone for how American golf is played. If Tour players anchor, why wouldn’t the rest of us? Tour players plumb-bob and so do we, even though we don’t know what we’re doing.
As for the USGA and the PGA of America, they govern differently. “We govern from the bottom up,” Bishop says, meaning that the PGA takes its cues from its 27,000 men and women professionals, and those professionals take their cues from the golfing needs of what Bishop calls their “amateur customers.”
The few dozen key volunteer USGA committee members as well as the organization’s professional staff members are a group of men and women steeped in the game who make decisions about rules, equipment and the handicap system by which millions of us play. In other words, they govern from the top even though they were never elected. Still, their motives are pure. That can’t be overstated. Resort owners, Tour players, teaching pros, publishers of golf magazines, they’re all trying to make money from the game. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the chase for money has a long history of clouding judgment. The PGA Tour is a nonprofit outfit in name only. All sorts of people are getting rich through it. The USGA is a true nonprofit. It’s a think tank and a university. It’s a church. To be relevant, it needs believers.
Which leads to this question, the same one the PGA Tour will ask itself: If the ban goes through, will the 27,000 men and women PGA professionals support it? The answer to that is partly dependent on what the PGA Tour does, and partly dependent on what Bishop and the PGA leadership encourage them to do. Bishop knows what we all know, that golf without a codified system of rules would be bedlam. But in these tense and interesting times can the USGA continue to be the beacon on the hill for how we play? At the very least, Bishop is urging 27,000 men and women professionals to question authority. Damn rabble-rouser. Along the way, he’ll either help make the USGA stronger or be part of its demise. If that happens, then say hello to Joe Ogilvie, the first chairman of the PGA Tour Rules Committee for Lost Amateurs, sponsored by Verizon. Slogan: Joe O. rules the game; Verizon rules the air.
For the PGA, and maybe for everybody, the secret weapon in this whole thing is Bevacqua, who joined the PGA of America in November, hired by a committee on which Bishop sat. (Bishop also was instrumental in recruiting Dottie Pepper to the PGA board of directors; eliminating the catchphrase “Glory’s Last Shot” from the PGA Championship marketing playbook; and initiating a thorough examination of the PGA’s TV contracts.) Bevacqua knows the culture of the USGA, and he also knows the sensibilities of regular-Joe golfers who get up in the dark to play the better public courses, because he and his dentist father were among those people. Bevacqua is a legit break-80 golfer who was a club caddie in New York through high school, college (Notre Dame) and law school (Georgetown). He likes the lively debate on the subject of anchored putting, but he also knows that golf thrives on consensus. At the PGA Merchandise Show he convened a Friday morning state-of-the-game panel that was unusually interesting. He expects it will be an annual event.
Outside the Orange County Convention Center there was nothing but bright sunshine, but inside, in the extreme dark of a backstage area, enclosed by black curtains, various movers and shakers in golf were preparing to step on the stage. Country rap was playing, if such a category exists, and Sir Nick Faldo, in a black T-shirt, was hanging around. So were the various panelists, including Finchem, Pepper and Mark King, the TaylorMade CEO. Bishop was on stage, and Bevacqua sat with the spectators, a lot of them club pros and teaching pros and others with intense interest in golf’s welfare. Can such a forum produce news? Not usually. Depends, of course, on the participants and what they say. Can it make you see things in a new way? A good panel discussion can, and this one proved to be a good one. Is it a way of bringing people together? Of course it is.
Bishop is a planner and a worrier and a man of considerable ambition. He has been basking in the positive response to the naming of Watson as Ryder Cup captain, and why wouldn’t he? It was his idea, it was original (Watson, 63, will be the oldest Ryder Cup captain ever), and he pulled it off. Could the bright lights blind Bishop? He will have to be careful—he’s kind of a show-off. In the meantime Bishop and Bevacqua were eager to have a representative from the USGA on the panel, since anchored putting would surely be discussed. (It was, extensively.) They hoped for Davis or Nager. The USGA passed, to Bishop’s frustration. He wondered what would be the appropriate response should someone ask why the USGA did not have a representative. Bishop is nothing if not a planner.
He decided the best answer would come from the USGA itself. Julius Mason, a PGA of America communications official, contacted Goode, who sent this response by e-mail: “The USGA has a number of senior leaders in attendance at this year’s show. Mike Davis, however, is preparing for the Association’s Annual Meeting.” During the proceedings, Mason wrote Goode’s response in a reporter’s notebook, ripped out the page and handed it to the panel’s moderator, Damon Hack of Golf Channel. Nobody asked about the USGA’s absence, and the statement was never read. A lost opportunity all the way around.
Was Bishop being political in proceeding as he did? Practical? Sensitive? Most likely all three. He’s an unusually insightful and observant man.
Your neighborhood PGA professional is not typically a modernist. Bishop—married to Cindy for 36 years with two daughters in the golf business—is. Before assuming the PGA presidency he hired Inga Hammond, the former Golf Channel broadcaster, for intense media training, paying for it himself. Before Watson was named Ryder Cup captain, Bishop again hired Hammond to work with Watson, himself and Bevacqua. When Watson was asked about his relationship with Tiger Woods, he had a canned answer all teed up. The basic message of Hammond’s coaching is to encourage her clients to be open. It seems to come naturally to Bishop.
He really is out of the ordinary. On the PGA of America website, Bishop has his own blog, called One Shot at a Time. Some of the writing is truly interesting, as when he describes the Ryder Cup team flying from Atlanta to Wales in 2010. Most people in that position would be petrified to make any sort of public observation of Woods in private, no matter how benign it might be. Bishop wrote about how Woods showed up 30 minutes before the flight, dressed in black from head-to-toe, and seated himself next to Jeff Overton, who had never met Woods. As Bishop described it, Woods tapped Overton on the shoulder, whereupon the Ryder Cup rookie turned around and exclaimed, “It’s Tiger Woods!” It was good stuff. There were people within the halls of the PGA headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who urged Bishop to cool it with the writing. Didn’t work. In ’10 he made eight entries. In ’11 the number was 29. Last year it was 44. Apple wishes it could report such growth.
For this year and next, Bishop will be the president of a blue-collar trade association. Just two years. He refuses to look at his term as a ceremonial, same-old, same-old stint with a rubber stamp in hand. Bishop is not built for that. At the PGA Merchandise Show, Bob Joyce, a lifer club pro from Long Island, put it plainly: “His job is to do what the members want him to do, and he’s doing it.” Others, surely, don’t like Bishop’s style, but you cannot beat his agenda: protect jobs, raise salaries, improve working conditions. Give me that old-time religion. Bishop doesn’t want to be the president who presides over the decline of the 27,000 number. He reminds you repeatedly that the average salary for a PGA pro is $62,500, a nice sum that isn’t enough when you have two in college and a third playing girls’ lacrosse. Last week, at the robust PGA Merchandise Show, Bishop said again and again, “If we lose even one player because of a ban on anchored putting, that’s one player we can’t afford to lose.” He has his eyes on the prize. The prize, he says repeatedly, is to “grow the game,” for himself and his 26,999 brothers and sisters. That sounds sort of grand, but it is not. In different costumes, his fellow club pros are school teachers and nurses and plumbers. What’s unique about Bishop’s constituency is that they’re trying to do it on the back of a crazy, impossibly challenging game that drives its parishioners to such extremes they will stick putters in their bellies and will go down swinging in their attempt to defend their right to do it.