David Fay will be missed by the United States Golf Association, probably more than it realizes. Fay was the long-time executive director of the USGA and was the organization’s purpose, its voice and face to the public.
I have always been a big fan of Fay’s. He helped change the perception of the USGA — as much as that’s possible. Before Fay, the stereotype of a USGA official was an old-school, hard-lined, gruff blue-jacketed rules aficionado. I forget who once described USGA types as stuffy blue jacket-wearers with dandruff — probably semi-hilarious writer Dan Jenkins — but that unflattering image stuck for quite a while. Fay wasn’t like that at all during his 21-year run as the leader. He was personable and passionate, an avid and pretty decent golfer who all but gave up playing the game due to the demands of his job. That’s a sacrifice that did not go unnoticed.
We played a round of golf together at Baltusrol as part of the U.S. Open media day before the 1993 Open there. I finished birdie-birdie to shoot 73, which I remember only because Fay was gushing in his praise, and made a point of announcing it during the subsequent scheduled press conference. He pooh-poohed his own game, but he was clearly a player who could shoot in the 70s if he could find some free time to get out on the course and knock off the rust.
In a statement issued by Fay with his resignation, he explained that he turned 60 two months ago and that, as a cancer survivor, a milestone like that takes on a new importance.
Fay has done a lot for golf and for the USGA. It was enough. It was Fay who helped bring the USGA into modern era by taking the U.S. Open to new, more accessible venues. During his watch the Open went to Bethpage Black, a municipal course in New York that ranks as one of the great turnaround projects of the last century. The Open went to Pinehurst for the first time, a long-overdue visit to the South. It went to Olympia Fields, a club with one of the last great caddie programs. It went to Torrey Pines, a spectacular municipal course near San Diego that resulted in an unforgettable Tiger Woods highlight show.
The Open has been booked at new public courses such as Erin Hills near Milwaukee and Chambers Bay near Seattle. Fay believed it was important to upgrade the U.S. Women’s Open and the Senior Open and take them to great venues more often, and he helped make that happen. Just look at the men’s U.S. Open over the last ten years — it began with a championship for the ages when Tiger Woods won at Pebble Beach in 2000 and ended with another memorable event at Pebble last summer. There were bumps along the way, like the controversial conditions at Shinnecock Hills and a rain-drenched quagmire at Bethpage, but it was a pretty good decade for the Open.
The image of golf as a game played on exclusive and exclusionary private clubs took a hit in the ’90s and Fay was a leader in the movement to make the game and its championships more open to all. He also played an integral role in golf returning to the Olympic Games, an effort that took the better part of two decades. Whether golf is a success as an Olympic sport is less important than its Olympic influence on expanding the game globally, an explosion that was already in progress even before the Olympic deal was inked.
Fay has appeared on NBC’s U.S. Open telecasts as a rules expert in recent years to help clear up any questions that arise during play, and he did a reasonably good job at that while coming off like a well-informed and interested fan, not some stiff, awkward talking head.
The last time I talked to him at length was a few years ago at the U.S. Senior Open championship at Whistling Straights in Kohler, Wis. I was writing something about Erin Hills as a potential U.S. Open site — the USGA made it official last summer, announcing the ’17 Open will go there — and he was even more enthusiastic about the course than I was, which I didn’t think was possible. His excitement was catching. He talked about its proximity to “the great Chicago-land,” as he liked to call it, and how he was mesmerized by “the haunting edifice of Holy Hill, a Catholic basilica on high ground a few miles away that is the area’s unmistakable landmark.
I happened to be wearing an Erin Hills logo shirt when he chatted about the course in the Whistling Straits parking lot. He wondered if the shirt was made from that then-new performance fabric. I said it was and not only that, I had just picked it up from a half-price sale table in the Erin Hills golf shop. I mentioned that I was going back for another look at Erin Hills that week and I could score a shirt for him if he wanted, so he quickly dug into his wallet, handed me a pair of $20s and a few days later, I delivered a shirt.
He was just another golfer, smitten by another new course and another new logo — a golf junkie, just like you and I.
Fay made a small joke in his farewell statement, saying that the USGA is in great hands and a lot of good things have been accomplished and that he should “leave on a high note, as Seinfeld would say.”
Not many other prominent USGA leaders would quote Seinfeld, ever, or get excited about a golf shirt on a sale table or play many rounds at public-accessible courses. The USGA is going to miss Fay. With him around the last two decades, it never appeared so, well, normal.