Outgoing president Glen Nager left his mark, but can the USGA still help golf prosper?

Glen Nager tried to change the USGA's management structure, but his term as president will end in February.
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On these pages, when we speak of activist presidents, we are discussing not the First Golfer but the sitting presidents of the PGA of America and the USGA, Ted Bishop and Glen Nager, respectively. An ordinary golfer can go years and even decades without knowing who serves in either position, but that hasn't been the case with these two men, with their broad, ambitious agendas. This fall Nager pushed the boldest initiative yet.

Which is saying something, because Bishop, an Indiana club pro with another year left on his two-year term, has been pretty bold. He brought us Tom Watson as Ryder Cup captain. He endorsed the prospect of playing the PGA Championship overseas. And he oversaw a protracted, but unsuccessful, fight against the anchored putting ban.

Nager's eventful term, which concludes in February, has been marked by the approval of the anchored putting ban and the signing of the USGA's 12-year, $1.2 billion TV deal with FOX. Yet had another power play gone his way, those moves could have looked like a warm-up act.

That's because, according to five people familiar with the discussions, Nager tried this fall to change the management structure of the USGA so that it would be run not by its executive director but by a CEO based at the organization's headquarters. Four of those people said Nager, a Washington lawyer, sought that position for himself. One said it was not that clear. Nager did not respond to interview requests.

In any event, for weeks Golf House in Far Hills, the horsey New Jersey burgh where the USGA is based on a sprawling estate that looks like a college campus, was atwitter about the proposed change, and what it would mean for the organization's 300 employees, most notably Mike Davis, its executive director. Multiple sources said Nager was orchestrating an effort to persuade Davis to quit.

In the end, the hubbub amounted to nothing, at least for now. That's because the USGA executive committee rejected Nager's proposal. The committee, faced with the choice of backing Davis or Nager, overwhelmingly sided with Davis. The incoming president, Tom O'Toole, has a long-standing and close-working relationship with Davis.

Still, the notion of a CEO running the USGA has come up before and will surely come up again.

The very idea of a major management change raises deeper questions about what the USGA is and what it should be. And the answers to those questions directly impact the game as millions of golfers play it.

The stronger the USGA is, the more effective it can be in putting its stamp on the game. But how strong the USGA is right now, relative to the PGA Tour, the PGA of America and the collection of equipment manufacturers, is open to debate.

The USGA's executive director, who tends to serve for long periods, takes direction from the board president, who typically serves for only two years. The executive director — including such familiar names as Joe Dey, Frank Hannigan and David Fay — is traditionally steeped in golf administration and its slow-and-steady culture. The president is sometimes in a hurry to leave his mark. And that has caused clashes.

Nager argued that the professional overseeing the USGA should be a person who knows golf but also has a broad business background in management, marketing and contract negotiations. Nager, a former general counsel to the USGA and a rules expert who took up the game in his 30s, is not widely regarded as being steeped in golf, not by Far Hills standards. Tim Finchem would most likely fulfill Nager's vision for a USGA CEO, but he already has a job, as PGA Tour commissioner, where he makes approximately $6 million a year. The executive director of the USGA makes about one-tenth that.

The most essential, and daunting, issue for the USGA is to figure out how it will shape golf. That task is far more difficult for the organization than it once was. For decades, the USGA was, by far, the most powerful organization in American golf. Players including Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Mickey Wright, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were deeply identified by their ties to the USGA, and those bonds helped assure the organization's status. American society in general was more paternalistic when those players were in their heydays. The USGA's blue-blooded authority over the game was unquestioned.

But in the past quarter-century, the PGA Tour has become, by far, the dominant influence on how golf is played in America. There are no Tour stars with prominent ties to the USGA. Tiger Woods, with his nine USGA titles, has shown far more interest in his own foundation and charitable tournaments, and you'd be hard-pressed to name anybody from the USGA who plays an intimate role in his life. You could say the same for other PGA Tour stars including Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Davis Love, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and, to a lesser degree, Annika Sorenstam, the three-time Women's U.S. Open champion.

Over the past eight years, the USGA has developed corporate deals with American Express, Rolex and others, and the players can be excused for no longer seeing the USGA as a temple of golfing purity. Along the way, its authority has been diminished.

During the discussion of the proposed ban on anchored putting, had the Tour announced that it would simply create its own rule book for its competitions, that would have been devastating to the USGA's authority. That could have easily happened.

The anchored putting debate turned into an unseemly fight between Bishop and Nager, and, by extension, the PGA of America and the USGA. In fact, it was the USGA trying to do what it thought serves golf best, and, along the way, trying to hold on to its traditional role as the one U.S. golf organization that acts in the best interests of the game.

But does the USGA still have the juice to tell us what to do? Will amateurs stop anchoring their long putters? Behind the failed Nager CEO initiative is a more fundamental question: Is the modern USGA basically a think-tank for golf that operates important national championships? Or is another cog in the business of golf? The staggering amount of money the USGA will be receiving from the FOX deal suggests it is much more of a business than it has ever been. But do we want a bunch of businesspeople telling us how to play and enjoy our game?

Augusta National, in the Billy Payne era, has asked itself if it is content to just put on a lovely golf tournament every spring. Or does it want to have a broad influence on the game? Payne has chosen the latter, and the decision seems to be serving the game, the club and the Masters tournament well.

Nager, in a recent Golf Digest story about the USGA's deal with FOX, referred to how the Masters is now perceived as golf's most important tournament.

This was surely not always the case. If you have a frank conversation with Arnold Palmer, who considers his membership at Augusta National one of the crowning achievements of his life, to compare his one U.S. Open win, in 1960, with his four Masters titles, it's no contest. In Palmer's era, the pinnacle of golf was the U.S. Open. That was still true when Curtis Strange won his second consecutive U.S. Open, in 1989.

But Ben Crenshaw's emotional win at Augusta National in '95, Greg Norman's collapse in '96 and Woods's 12-shot romp in'97 gave the Masters an appeal that went far beyond the audience of dedicated golfers. The USGA, through its marquee event, has been playing catch-up ever since.

The USGA has always been reticent to speak about certain aspects of its agenda. Its officials never speak publicly about the organization's desire to roll back the ball, yet USGA employees will take shorter-flying balls the organization is developing to golf courses and, under secretive conditions, have players report on their experience with the balls with different dimple patterns, among other modifications.

To take the U.S. Open to a classic but short course like Merion, where the 2013 U.S. Open was played, at least half the holes endured significant changes to make the course more challenging and make a potential winning score of even par more meaningful. Yet the USGA never acknowledges its desire to "defend par." The folly of this approach is that virtually all of the changes the USGA imposed on Merion are now being reversed. That alone is almost proof that there is bifurcation in the game — a game played by elite players and a game played by the rest of us — but the USGA rejects any such notion.

The USGA survived an activist president who is leaving in less than glorious circumstances. Whether the FOX deal is good for viewers, the USGA and golf remains to be seen, and that will be a central part of Nager's legacy. It would be easy to dismiss his failed coup as an overreach after getting a seat at the head table and liking the offerings there. It certainly seemed ungentlemanly, a move straight out of a corporate boardroom and foreign to the tweedy culture of Golf House. But the truth is that golf's culture of grace is dying if not already dead.

The biggest challenges facing the game — the time and expense it takes to play, the amount of water and energy necessary to maintain a course — are staggering. Mike Davis and Tom O'Toole are steeped in the game. The ultimate question for that duo, and for Ted Bishop and Tim Finchem and leaders of the game everywhere, is this: In a culture where money is god, where self-interest is rampant and power is measured by eyeballs and clicks, can they help our niche game prosper? Can the game's future be as great as its past?