A USGA news release arrived last week announcing that James F. Vernon of Pasadena had been nominated to be the next president of golf’s governing body. This was pretty big news, especially considering that the coming year could include an unprecedented USGA ban on U-grooves that, if implemented, will set a regulatory precedent by rolling back previously approved equipment and eventually impact every golfer on the planet. Yet no one in the golf world seemed to care.
Vernon’s nomination failed to generate a single link at any of the major golf websites. Nor did it rate a mention in most American newspapers of note. By contrast, the day before the Vernon news, the USGA and R&A announced a yawner of a rule change — beginning in 2008 a golfer will be allowed to lift a ball, for purposes of identification, in a bunker or a water hazard — and the story was picked up internationally by the papers and on the Web.
In an online posting I wondered if the apathy toward Vernon was a sign that the group responsible for the rules of golf, equipment testing, turfgrass research and the operation of 13 national championships had become irrelevant in the eyes of golfers and the media. In response one prominent journalist e-mailed me this: “In two years some other clown will be in charge — another lawyer with multiple private-club memberships who is wholly out of touch with the rank and file and real-world scenarios.”
Admittedly, the USGA has made it tough for golfers to get behind the organization. It has discontinued its classy magazine, butchered U.S. Open setups, imposed corporate sponsors on the U.S. Open and failed to please any side in the technology debate. Problem is, golf still needs a relevant and respectable USGA, especially with so much at stake in the coming years.
Thankfully, Jim Vernon may be the right guy to begin a turnaround.
To be sure, his bio is chockablock with the prerequisites in which only elitists or blue bloods longing for an earlier century put stock: the prominent middle initial, the residence in a WASP haven, the law degree from Stanford and the memberships at two swank clubs (Lakeside Golf Club in Burbank, Calif., and Monterey Peninsula Country Club at Pebble Beach). But also buried in that bio is hope. After all, he left the legal profession to run the family business (Frank Vernon Diamond Brokers) and serve countless hours as a volunteer for his regional golf association (Southern California GA). And unlike the past two USGA presidents, he is not part of the Augusta National good ol’ boys network.
The modest Vernon also looks to be a welcome contrast to Walter Driver, an aloof BlackBerry addict who was caught by SI cameras at this year’s thrilling British Open taking a peek at his PDA while Sergio Garcia’s bid for a winning par slipped past the 72nd hole. Not exactly tough shoes to fill.
Many people who have met Vernon believe he is the one person who can fix many of the USGA’s problems and do what’s best for the game. And if he succeeds, maybe someone will actually notice that he’s on the job.
Geoff Shackelford is the author of The Future of Golf. He blogs at geoffshackelford.com.