Like an actor determined to stretch his range, the USGA took center stage in all sorts of ways in 2013.
President Glen Nager and executive director Mike Davis never avoided a difficult script if it meant playing a rewarding role. The result -- despite plenty of controversy and conflict -- was that the USGA did some of its best work ever, and an organization criticized in recent years for losing its relevancy instead enhanced its stature and leadership in the game.
The ruling body's bravest risk was vindicated when, after nearly 30 years of ambivalently tolerating long putters, the USGA and R&A in May jointly banned anchoring effective Jan. 1, 2016. The battle had meant overcoming public opposition from Ted Bishop of the PGA of America and Tim Finchem of the PGA Tour -- one leader concerned with how the ban could hurt participation, the other with how it might cause a revolt among his players. But after stoically enduring a bruising 90-day comment period, the USGA issued a 40-page release as detailed as one of the appellate briefs Nager -- a high-powered Washington, D.C., attorney -- has presented to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was case closed.
Also fraught was the USGA's cold-blooded decision to end its 20-year partnership with NBC as the broadcaster of its championships in favor of new suitor -- and television golf novice -- Fox, beginning in 2015. Nager said he wanted the U.S. Open broadcast to recapture the unofficial title of premier golf telecast from the Masters, and ultimately accepted Fox's stunningly high bid of $1.1 billion over 12 years. While NBC and Golf Channel executives were wounded and the USGA was roundly called mercenary, Nager focused on the practicality of the windfall, having said in January, "What we are trying to do is make sure that we have the resources to invest in the game of golf."
Going to the veritable bandbox that is Merion for the U.S. Open certainly wasn't easy, nor was Davis' decision to make the rough on the 6,996-yard design masterpiece some of the most penal ever. But the championship's rousing success, both as a competition and a model of community cooperation overcoming confining logistics, made it a landmark Open. "Championships," said Davis, "especially when they are held at special historical places, do help grow the game." The USGA built on that theme with poetic weeks at historic Brookline for the U.S. Amateur and seminal National GL for the Walker Cup.
The USGA even avoided the easy way on smaller decisions. The announcement in February that the men's and women's U.S. Amateur Public Links championships will end next year tempted plenty of outrage, but it never came when the events were replaced with new four-ball championships that actually put the organization more in touch with the way amateurs play. The USGA also stepped up its efforts to problem solve amid the portentous and unwieldy issues of water usage, slow play and accessibility.
Why the big risks, the big conflicts, the big move?
Very simply, both Nager and Davis believe golf is in a crucial period, and they are compelled to meet the moment. The USGA has to be more than just about making rules and running championships; it must actually stretch to become more of a caretaker for the game.
"There is a consensus that the way the game exists today can't sustain itself," Davis said in January. "There are so many problems to solve, and I look around and wonder, 'If we don't do it, who will?' It has to be us."
Davis weighed the words carefully, knowing they tempt critics who have sometimes seen the USGA as presumptuous and condescending while still ineffectual. And an impression of attempted empire building gained traction late in the year when Golf Digest learned that Nager in September initiated an aggressive attempt to change the leadership structure of the USGA to a CEO model, which would have diminished Davis. After the 15-person Executive Committee voted the idea down, Nager said that when his two years as president end in February, he will leave the USGA.
Taking the high road, Davis emphasized how much he learned from Nager and how well they teamed. As a USGA veteran who is expected to have a long reign as executive director, Davis is looking forward to working with incoming president (and friend) Thomas O'Toole to strengthen some of the USGA's relationships with golf's leaders that might have suffered in the last two years.
"Sometimes we will want to lead, but more often we will want to collaborate," says Davis. "Through the process of talking through a lot of issues, I just feel the board of directors and the staff are aligned and energized like I've never seen. I feel better about the USGA right now than I've ever felt in my 25 years. We are in a great place."
More than ever, center stage.