Back To Basics

By Ron Sirak Photos by USGA
February 08, 2010

According to Hyler, "Many of the standards by which we construct and maintain our courses have become, quite simply, unsustainable."

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Stereotypes serve no one well. They shortchange not only the offended but also the offender. Simply put, there is no shortcut to knowledge other than the truth, and understanding is not a road easily traveled. In recent years, it has become far too easy to pigeonhole those folks in the navy blue blazers from Far Hills, N.J. as the bad cops setting limits on trampoline effect and driver-head size as well as rolling back grooves. But the USGA is more than the governing body of the game, it can also be the game's heart and soul.

As USGA committee members gathered last week at the historic Pinehurst Resort for its annual meeting the association was once again prominent on the game's radar screen, put there by the war of words between Phil Mickelson and Scott McCarron about the groove rule and grandfathered wedges. But for anyone who was at the meeting, certainly for anyone who heard Jim Hyler's passionate acceptance speech as 61st president of the USGA, it was clear the group is about much more than spring-like effect and grooves.

Certainly, there is much about the USGA that perpetuates stereotypes. By its very nature as a volunteer organization, the Executive Committee and lesser committees are top heavy with members from some of the most exclusive private clubs in America. And to use the groove rule as an example, there is a horse-is-already-out-of-the-barn feel to it that leads some to think it is an action now designed to repair inaction in the past. But those are debates for another time.

What Hyler did in his speech Feb. 6, appropriately given at a place that has played a significant role in the growth of the game in the Unites States, was identify the much broader role the USGA plays in golf -- the role above and beyond the rules. "The time has some to refocus on the essential mission of this organization, to protecting the ideals which our forefathers like Dick Tufts celebrated, and to work with a renewed emphasis on the game itself," Hyler, a 62-year-old retired banker from Raleigh, said.

In redirecting the discussion, Hyler focused primarily on the environment and noted that course maintenance practices that are environmentally friendly are also cost efficient, a crucial consideration for the survival of some courses in these economic times. "Many of the standards by which we construct and maintain our courses have become, quite simply, unsustainable," he said.

When it comes to stereotypes in the game of golf, Hyler placed one of the most common on center stage: The notion that a great golf course has to blind the eye with greenness. "I believe that our definition of playability should include concepts of firm, fast, and yes, even brown, and allow the running game to flourish," Hyler said, stressing that these are his opinions. "We need to understand how brown can become the new green."

Now this is where one of the least understood and least appreciated aspects of the USGA comes into play. The association's Green Service staff issued a report last year -- in the teeth of the recession -- titled: "Dollars and Sense: Making It In A Tough Economy". The piece details 14 different areas in which courses can be more cost-efficient, including water use.

So when Hyler directs the focus to the environment he is not so much leading the USGA into new territory as he is reminding USGA members that these are activities in which the association is already involved. He calls the Green Section "our best-kept secret" and says "that will be changing."

But there is no question that some attitudes will need to change as well. The Green Section report urges reducing the total amount of water applied to golf courses and also suggests reducing the areas of the course that are irrigated. This saves water -- and clean water is an increasingly precious resource -- and reduces the maintenance cost.

And if it means learning that knock-down stinger with a hybrid off the tee that runs hard on a firm fairway, well, what's wrong with that? Ernie Els once said of American golf courses: "The only shot you need to succeed on the PGA Tour is the high shot with spin." That's not a shot that works really well in the wind of the European Tour, where Els cut his competitive teeth, or on its firm, fast fairways.

There is a way in which accepting brown as the new green is going back to the water-starved roots of the game and revisiting the way golf was originally played -- on the ground as well as in the air. That Hyler is advocating this approach at this juncture is both timely and wise. And it could also turn out to be an important initiative in growing the game.

Water use is a volatile political issue in many parts of the country and golf is sometimes seen as the enemy. That can be fixed. Golf can partner with environmentalists and emerge not as an abuser of open space but as a protector of the land. This may involve some attitude shift on the part of players, but it will result in a game that is healthier financially, more responsible environmentally and more fun competitively.

"A more natural game that is sustainable can be promoted as a more responsible philosophy for maintaining golf courses anywhere," Hyler said. "It is certainly not our aspiration to become the game's environmental police, but we can and will develop and encourage best practices relating to sustainable turfgrass management for all clubs and courses to consider."

The good thing about bad times is that they force us to rethink virtually everything in ways that that can lead to great accomplishments. If one of the things that emerges from this troubled economy is a different, more responsible, philosophy of golf course management, then the suffering won't have been for naught. And it seems as if Jim Hyler fully understands that opportunity.