PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

Portrait Of A Man Who Shook Things Up

June 01, 2014

Illustration By Riccardo Vecchio

Frank Hannigan's singular intellect was a force of nature in golf over his 82 years of argumentative rigor that ended quietly in Saugerties, N.Y., on March 22. His withering opinions and persuasive writings influenced generations of golf administrators and people who have a passion for the game.

His most famous accomplishment was bringing the U.S. Open back to Shinnecock in 1986, but that understates the way he left the game shaken, stirred and better off.

Like his predecessor, Joseph C. Dey Jr., who came to run the United States Golf Association after a brief career as a sportswriter, Hannigan was a golf columnist for the Staten Island Advance before joining the Governing Body as public-information manager in 1961 and eventually rising to become its senior executive director, 1983-'89.

He arrived on the national scene at the same time as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, so it's not an exaggeration to say that his fingerprints and prejudices were visible on every major issue of modern golf. Frank's greatest edge was his literary wit; perhaps only Peter Thomson among contemporaries was both a doer and a writer of his equal. Hannigan managed the game with honesty, integrity and humor—what was popular or expedient never entered the equation.

He believed in jazz music, the Rules of Golf and the joy of friendship—and those three principles guided his life. After a career in governance, he became the on-air rules expert for ABC Sports, where his stuttering eloquence did what no one else had done before: explain the rules on television and prevent stupid mistakes, although even he had a pragmatic sense of right. I remember asking him once about rules official M.T. Johnson calling Denis Watson for allowing his ball to linger too long before it fell in the hole, a penalty possibly costing him the 1985 Open. Would Frank have called the penalty, I asked? "I would have made sure I was standing where I couldn't see what happened," he replied.

He invented the coincidental pairings at U.S. Opens—putting together three pros with the same alma mater or, more creatively, three major champions who had won the favors of the same woman. He relished afflicting the comfortable. It delighted him to see the ramrod-straight USGA Vice President Bill Williams introduce Fuzzy Zoeller as the Bob Jones Award winner: "That's an intriguing four-ball pairing."

When Greg Norman blew a six-stroke lead in the final round to lose the 1996 Masters, Frank left me a voice message: "We're not good enough people to deserve this." He once told me why he refused to cut a swath of short grass through the rough between the teeing ground and the fairway at U.S. Opens: "I like to see them get their socks wet. I want them to be reminded every step of the way that this is the U.S. Open."

He loved to drop the names of his famous friends. Nick Brady was a neighbor and golf buddy. He referred to him as "the Secretary of the Treasury" on second and third references as if I had forgotten who he was. He liked his progressive Congresswoman, Millicent Fenwick (of Doonesbury fame), because, "when asked how she's feeling, Millicent says, 'Rotten.' "

He enjoyed identifying friends and relatives who had married above their station. His daughter-in-law, "the amazing Sondra," lawyer to Michael Jordan, sat on the highest pedestal of jurisprudence. Frank also revered the actress Anne Archer, no doubt because she overshadowed her husband, his boss, golf producer Terry Jastrow. Long before David Fay succeeded him as executive director of the USGA, Frank told me David married a woman (Joan) who, in his estimation, "will make more money in the next 10 years than he, you and I combined." Luckiest of all, Frank realized, was himself, whose wife of 50 years, Dr. Janet Carter, raised their two kids, Keith and Susan, taught political science at Lafayette College, ran a philanthropic foundation in New York, and ultimately took care of him at a co-housing community in Saugerties, where he spent the last decade-plus of his life. "In the end, he loved his wife, his dogs and the PBS NewsHour," Susan said.

He was my mentor in the early years of my career, once talking me out of leaving Golf Digest for the television business in the early 1980s. "What, are you crazy?" I remember him saying. Frank became a columnist for Golf Digest for many years and most recently wrote intermittent "Letters from Saugerties" for

Before email, he typed on coffee-splashed, green-colored paper with a roving left margin and his secret code of ellipses and X-outs, but it arrived like a present in the mail, because the recipients knew they were in for a treat—a smorgasbord of juicy insights, criticisms and asides. "You're not anything in golf if you don't have at least two conflicts of interest," he liked to say.

On occasion he was even blasphemous, but to know Frank was to know this as well. He proudly shared with me in 1991 his breathtaking response to a rules letter written by a Catholic priest. "Bless me father, for I have sinned," he started. "It's 46 years since my last confession, and I got a touch nervous a month ago when I had a little stroke. But the combination of the return of 100% mobility, allowing me to turn like Couples, along with your letter, reaffirms my faith in lapsing. In fact, as soon as I finish this letter, I'm going to send a whopping check to Planned Parenthood."

No friend was spared. "Played Pete's Casa de Campo last week," he once opined. "Overrated. There was no way of avoiding very special holes along the ocean, and he managed not to screw those up. The inland holes are indifferent, or worse. Parts of some greens are just silly." This also was Frank.

His monthly critiques of Golf Digest in long letters to me were characteristically acerbic. He would dissect each article, ranging from "good, keep it up" to "your Nicklaus-Watson drivel." About an inspiring story on disabled golfers, his response was: "Screw the disabled." Then he'd conclude with a single line: "Overall, the May issue is not good." These critiques were educational for me, sometimes about the subject but always about human nature. In the manner of the Black Irish, Frank and I had a falling out and a return to friendship; then another estrangement and a return, back and forth through the years, but fortunately respect and mutual affection in the end. This was the way with all his pals. As David Fay once said in this magazine before the two reconciled: "H.L. Mencken regarded the world as a statue and himself as the pigeon. I think Frank regards himself as a pigeon and the world of golf as his statue."

Frank and I were frequent golf partners: Our greatest achievement was winning the big member-guest in 1986 at his beloved Somerset Hills, where our names remain on a clubhouse plaque. What stands out in my memory is nothing about our march through the field like a devouring flame, but the fact that I had left in the locker room my sneakers, which is what I played golf in in those days, like Mickey Wright. This became an instructive moment for Frank.

"I hope to get to SHCC and find your shoes this weekend," he wrote in a letter. "The only time I ever played San Francisco Golf Club, I put down my lifetime, quadruple-weave, navy cashmere sweater in the locker room and went somewhere to have a drink. When I returned 15 minutes later, some bastard had swiped my sweater. I told [host Sandy] Tatum that if he had left an overcoat, spun of gold, on a hook in one of the two crappers at Somerset Hills in October, he could safely bet his life that it would be there when he returned next Easter. (We'll see)," he wrote. And sure enough, my sneakers were returned.

He enjoyed detailing accounts of his weekend matches. One stands out in my archive for the way he described a particularly galling match. "I holed a bunker shot on 2 for a birdie, also made 3 on 5, and my partner was playing nicely. After 11 we were 5 up, I having hit a 6-iron 2 feet with my 3rd. Anyhow we are 4 up playing the 14th. I've made 5; one guy has it in his pocket; the other guy has knocked it out of a bunker to 18 feet, and my partner, the f---ing #4 person at Johnson & Johnson, is [putting for birdie] 25 feet from the hole." Johnson & Johnson rolls it to 2½ feet.

"My guy, like a maniac, rushes up to his ball and addresses it," he continues. "In a flash I think the following: If I yell at him, make him stop, I'll be thought of as a pompous pedant, not a reputation I care to cultivate over there. Moreover, my guy will be embarrassed and more likely to miss it after waiting. Third, these guys won't call the stroke back [as the rules allow] when he makes it because (1) they are decent guys and (2) they don't know any better."

In painstaking detail, Frank then described the inevitable miss, losing three of the next three to square the match and then losing in extra holes when he smothered a five-footer. Despite all the championship golf Frank officiated, he had a U.S. Open passion for his $2 nassaus. And that explains everything. Life is all the richer for the passionate game that Frank Hannigan played from beginning to end.