Throwback ThursdayDecember 17, 2015

How Arnold Palmer and Gerald Ford made golf history with a simple USGA bag tag

It has become a tradition of sorts for me. Some time early each year, a padded manila envelope with a USGA label arrives in my mailbox, and I’m already opening it before I get back to the house. Inside I find two rather ordinary items that, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, quickly become prized possessions: a red, white and blue USGA golf bag tag with my name on it and a hat with that year’s U.S. Open logo on the front and the word “Member” written on the back.

My excitement is only slightly tempered by the fact that the hat inevitably arrives crushed, the envelope not ideally suited for transporting its cargo. “That’s the non-profit part of us,” says Fiona Dolan, the woman indirectly responsible for my yearly gift, with a laugh, by way of explaining the minimalist packaging.

Dolan is the senior director of the USGA’s Members Program, which celebrates an impressive milestone this week. Forty years ago Friday, on Dec. 18, 1975, Arnold Palmer delivered a USGA bag tag to the program’s first “associate” (the term used initially) member—President Gerald Ford. (The U.S. Open hats became a reward given out to paying members more recently.)

Courtesy USGA Museum

Since its inception, the Members Program has had 3.7 million participants, with slightly more than 700,000 currently registered. I first signed up as a member after taking up the game in earnest in the early 1990s. My longevity is nothing, though. According to Dolan, there are 10,874 people who have been registered all 40 years.

That members hail from all 50 states shouldn’t be a surprise, the game certainly having a national following. That they come from 72 countries, however, is interesting considering the USGA is golf’s governing body for the U.S. and Mexico. This, contends Dolan, speaks to the essence of the program itself.

“We have members who don’t even play the game, but just believe in the USGA and its mission,” Dolan says.

The Members Program was the idea of Elbert S. Jemison Jr., who was treasurer of the USGA Executive Committee in the mid-1970s. As such, finding ways to help fund USGA initiatives was often top of mind for the Birmingham, Ala., resident. With an initial minimum fee of $16 per associate (today it’s an even better bargain at $10), the collective dues would help the USGA do work in the best interest of the game.

More importantly, the Members Program allowed the USGA to give those passionate about golf a forum to express themselves and let their voices be heard. “The USGA at the time was an association of member clubs, and [Jemison] felt there was a huge opportunity to have that connection directly with the golfer,” Dolan says.

Forty years later, the Members Program remains a link between the governing body and everyday golfers, a way for those charged with overseeing the game to have a better understanding for what it is they are trying to preserve and protect.

With membership comes privileges. In addition to the bag tag and hat, members receive a copy of the Rules of Golf and access to USGA news and programs. Initially that meant a subscription to the USGA’s in-house magazine, Golf Journal. Today, it’s access to the online Members Clubhouse and a newsletter.

Dolan says that throughout the Members Program’s history, the USGA has used the group as a sounding board for issues of relevance with the game. The interactivity between Members and the USGA has increased with the ability to communicate electronically. Surveys and polls have given members “a real voice” on any variety of issues facing the game, that voice now heard in real time.

USGA senior director of the Members Program, Fiona Dolan, greets participants in attendance at the U.S. Open. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

A continued mainstay of the Members Program has been Palmer, the national volunteer chairman since its inception. Palmer’s personal relationship with President Ford, a avid golfer, helped the USGA gain instant attention for the program through its charter member.

I can’t explain why I look forward to getting that envelope each year, but there is something that intrigues me about it. Call it my small part in trying to help the game.

Meanwhile, if Dolan and the rest of the USGA hierarchy truly are listening to its members, perhaps they might hear my small (and slightly petty) request: Can you splurge on mailing the hats in a cardboard box? Imagine how excited members would be if their hats weren't crushed before arrival!


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