Nonconforming Driver

Walter Driver's presidency has boldly and profoundly changed the way the USGA operates. Is the association better off as a result?

Jun 8, 2007

On the 36th floor of 1180 Peachtree, a sparkling office tower in the heart of Atlanta's Midtown district, you'll find the world headquarters of the pre-eminent law firm in the southeastern United States. There, in the office of the chairman of King & Spalding, along with views of the city's skyline and the stately executive décor, stands one highly inconsonant tchotchke: a fire hydrant--a genuine, old-fashioned, 200-pound cast-iron plug. Attached is a small plaque that reads: "Being chairman of King and Spalding is like being the only hydrant on a block full of dogs." Over the years the chairmen of the firm have come and gone, but the hydrant remains, a sturdy testament to both the brush fires and dog days of managing hundreds of lawyers worldwide.

Walter Driver Jr. retired as chairman of King and Spalding in 2005. "Retired" is probably not the word. Driver traded in a career of putting out fires and promptly took up the hobby of starting them. By day, Driver has continued on the establishment path. After cultivating K&S from a highly respected old-line Atlanta firm with a cozy 40-lawyer office into a cutting-edge international powerhouse with more than 800 attorneys, the strapping Texan parlayed his stature into the chairmanship of the southeast region for alpha investment bank Goldman Sachs. But more importantly, at least to golfers, he is serving his second and final year as president of the USGA, pro bono arsonist in chief.

Driver is as reserved a gentleman as you will find. His friends use terms like "quiet," "smart," "a man of few words" and "curious" to describe him. For a man of his imposing frame and good looks, he is surprisingly soft-spoken, almost shy. He speaks with painstaking, lawyerly attention to each word. Ask a simple question and you get a simple answer, generally accompanied by a legal waiver. Something along the lines of:

"Nice weather we're having, isn't it, Walter?"

"In the eyes of some, perhaps many, yes, but I would caution you against using current measurements to predict future performance."

And therein lies the mystery of Walter Driver: How does a man so apparently traditional, so reserved, so seemingly introverted, find it in himself to take a respected--even beloved--112-year-old, nonprofit entity and stand it on its ear?

Proponents of Driver say he has single-handedly shaken the USGA out of a slumber induced by the influx of cash the USGA fell into when it reconfigured its television rights contracts in 1994. They say he has tried to inject into a bloated USGA some badly needed business principles (the title of Driver's speech at the USGA's annual meeting in San Francisco last February was "The USGA As An Organization And A Business"). Detractors, many of whom see the USGA as a charitable organization first, say Driver has imposed his will on its culture and that his administration has disenfranchised everyone from Golf House staffers (those who work at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.) to equipment manufacturers to the organization's once-revered past presidents.

"I would say his effort to instill a new level of business-like procedure at the USGA has been important," says Reg Murphy, USGA president in 1994-95 and the man who authored the association's lucrative TV move from long-time partner ABC to NBC in 1994. "He's tried to create a more business-like organization. There are people who resist that idea, by the way, that the USGA ought to operate like a business."

Asked if some of those steps have rattled the culture, Murphy replies, "There's not any question about that."

Many in USGA circles, most notably the tightly controlled 15-member executive committee, support Driver, but his tactics and style have led to the greatest period of cultural tension and employee unrest the organization has known. From unprecedented micromanagement by the executive committee to the cutting of staff benefits to confusing internal and clumsy external communication, Driver's decade with the USGA has been increasingly uneasy. Throughout his tenure, which began as USGA general counsel, critics have questioned his initiatives, whether in the minefield of equipment regulation or in the heated debate over the USGA's recent partnering with corporations. While subsequent championships have been well-received, his arid course setup for the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills (he was chairman of the USGA's championship committee at the time) was an embarrassment. With rounds played (a key indicator for the game's health) softening and more golf courses closing than opening last year, the game's growth has stalled. Even those who judge the USGA solely as a business--by its financial performance--have found reason to complain.

Driver has been cast as the heavy, a job for which he has seemingly been groomed: Nothing like herding hundreds of lawyers around the world if you want to get in shape for a little conflict. Since volunteering with the USGA in 1997, he has taken on some of the most contentious and controversial issues facing the organization and the sport at large. Only two months into his role as general counsel, Driver received a call from then-technical director Frank Thomas notifying him there was a nonconforming driver on the market.

"I said, 'Why don't you call the company and tell them that it's nonconforming and that you're going to send them a letter of nonconformity,' " recalls Driver. "That was on a Wednesday and on Friday they had filed suit against us."

When asked if he then began to wonder what he had gotten himself into, Driver responds, "It crossed my mind."

If Driver's honeymoon wasn't already over, it came to a screeching halt one year later when the USGA, less than a decade removed from a bruising battle with Ping over the grooves in its irons, was forced to address the trampoline effect in oversized drivers--which led to the infamous coefficient of restitution (COR) debate--and the threat posed by rapidly advancing ball technology. Almost uniformly, the association's critics accuse the USGA of adopting a defensive posture on these issues, rooted (they suggest) in the agonizing case over grooves regulation.

On COR, Frank Hannigan, who began working for the USGA in the 1960s and was its executive director from 1983-89, says, "They could have done the right thing: establish COR at the [level of the] best performing metal drivers of the 1990s, say Callaway drivers. This would have angered manufacturers and golfers and a lot of other people, but it would have been the right thing to do."

Many believe that by ultimately setting COR at .830 the USGA had seemingly recognized its mortality: If the USGA got too tough on trampoline effect, millions of golfers who were enjoying newfound distance would simply ignore them. In fact, Hannigan claims that with regard to COR one recent former USGA president told him, "We thought we were betting the franchise on it."

If the view that the USGA should have fought to the death on COR can be described as idealistic, Driver's view is correspondingly pragmatic. He explains that the clubs in question were manufactured and bought in good faith and had earned the USGA's seal of approval. If the USGA had gone back even further on COR, he says, "I don't know whether we would have had the resources to buy all those clubs or to compensate the manufacturers for relying on the letters that we sent out.

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