The Failed Coup At The USGA

Corporate guys vs. golf guys: Glen Nager's out, and Mike Davis wins

Ron Sirak

HAPPIER TIMES: President Glen Nager (left) and executive director Mike Davis at USGA headquarters.

January 2014

After losing a power struggle to bring broad organizational changes to the United States Golf Association, including what sources say was a bid to create a long-term chief-executive position, president Glen Nager will leave the organization for good when his second one-year term expires Feb. 8, Golf Digest has learned. "I have been involved with the USGA for eight years," Nager said, "and after I leave I won't be a part of it again."

Nager's plan, presented in September during the Walker Cup at the National Golf Links of America, not only failed, but its audacity unified a group not unfamiliar with political infighting and coalesced support for USGA executive director Mike Davis and incoming president Thomas J. O'Toole Jr., both of whom would have had diminished roles under the proposed restructuring.

According to sources, Nager, who described himself as a "lame duck" in an interview with Golf Digest, wanted O'Toole removed from the 15-person Executive Committee and passed over as president, and he wanted Davis to report to a chief executive. A high-ranking USGA official says Nager wanted to bypass O'Toole because he considered O'Toole too close to Davis, a longtime USGA ally, to work effectively under a chief executive. "Tom and Mike are almost the same person," the source said.

Other sources say it was Walter Driver—the chair of the USGA Nominating Committee who served a contentious term as president from 2006-'07—who said to Nager, "You are not going to do this." Added another source: "The current board just didn't want to hear anymore from [Nager] on this idea and shut him down completely. He had some very radical ideas, and he got nowhere." (One former member of the Executive Committee, when told of Driver's role in standing up to Nager, said: "Gee, I might have to change what I think of him.")

"I am maintaining my commitment to confidentiality—apparently others haven't," Nager told Golf Digest. "I hold myself to a higher standard. It is not appropriate for me to discuss this while I am still in office. The issue that needs to be discussed is what makes for a great organization as opposed to a mediocre organization. I am trying to be as dignified and gracious as I can. Not everyone loves me. But leadership is a lonely responsibility."

In an earlier email, Nager couched his take in the language of a lawyer, which he is for the Washington, D.C., firm Jones Day, arguing before the Supreme Court 13 times after clerking for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at age 24. "Good organizations regularly discuss and assess their structure, strategies and leadership," Nager said. "I have tried to promote such discussions at the USGA. But to encourage candor in the discussions, I have also asked that our discussions be kept private among the participants. In this spirit, I prefer to avoid comment on this story, regardless of any inaccuracies in it."

As an ex-president, Nager, 55, stood to remain in an influential position in the USGA, if past protocol had been followed. In two years, he would have become vice chairman of the five-person Nominating Committee, and in four years he would have chaired that committee. But that was before Nager's idea to take the power away from the Executive Committee and give it to a long-term chief executive—perhaps himself.

"Some say they heard him say he wanted it, some say they heard him say it in jest, and some say they never heard him say it," says one source close to the situation, who is among those who never heard Nager say he wanted to be the chief executive. Another says flatly: "He wanted it," a sentiment with which several others agreed.

Says Nager: "I would be unqualified for that position. I have been a partner at Jones Day since 1990, and if you look back at my [USGA] inaugural speech you will see that I made a commitment to my mentor and this law firm to return after two years. If you put one and one together [the two one-year terms as USGA president], you will get your answer. Look, when people don't like the message, they attack the messenger. Frankly, I find that offensive."

"The USGA can't get to Tom O'Toole fast enough," says one longtime insider, describing the mood at the Far Hills, N.J., headquarters as O'Toole prepares to succeed Nager as president beginning with the organization's annual meeting in February. According to another source, Nager had lost the support of the USGA Nominating Committee, Executive Committee, staff and many past presidents, a startling slide so soon after a string of successes that included prevailing over the PGA Tour and PGA of America on banning the anchored putting stroke and negotiating a $1.1 billion TV deal with FOX. The FOX deal was announced Aug. 7, a month and a day before the Walker Cup ended.

"Glen's ideas were heard at the Executive Committee and Nominating Committee levels," says a senior USGA official speaking on the condition of anonymity. "While his proposal didn't gain any real traction this time, there seemed to be an appreciation by some that good governance requires a continuous review of the status quo."

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