June 10, 2008

Voice Of Reason

The buttoned-up man behind the scenes at the USGA, shows he no stuffed shirt

'Technology should not get the upper hand on skill. Over the past 20 years or so, I think it has.'

'Technology should not get the upper hand on skill. Over the past 20 years or so, I think it has.'

__As executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, the bow-tie wearing, meek-looking David B. Fay usually stays in the background. The head of the USGA's 200-person staff based in bucolic Far Hills, N.J., sometimes is referred to as the governing body's "chief bureaucrat." He leaves the limelight to those he (technically) works for: the ever-changing volunteer members of the USGA's 15-member Executive Committee. But don't underestimate Fay. When controversy moves the USGA to the foreground -- whether it's about a disputed hole location or a clubhead's "springlike effect" -- Fay articulates the USGA's position in a way that is both convincing and disarming. __

A former caddie, Fay comes from a publinx, liberal background that clashes with the USGA's blue-jacketed, blue-blooded image. Staff members, while lamenting Fay's legendary parsimoniousness, praise his evenhandedness and juggling of the three key constituencies of the USGA: the staff, the Executive Committee and the past presidents. If he's known to the public, it is as the USGA's on-air rules interpreter on Open telecasts, a role that displays his expertise but rarely his self-deprecating wit.

This year's Open at Bethpage Black outside New York City is especially near and dear to Fay. Much as his predecessors hatched the idea of taking the Open to remote Shinnecock Hills 20 years earlier, Fay championed the concept of bringing the Open to a truly public facility. Fay discussed the Open at Bethpage and a variety of USGA hot-button issues in two lengthy interview sessions. No matter the topic, he demonstrated a shrewd ability to size up and see all sides -- and not take himself too seriously.

Golf Digest: You're the head of the USGA staff, and yet you've said that baseball is the best of all games. How do you explain that?

Fay: I just love every aspect of the sport. I happen to think that baseball, more than any other sport, is timeless in a positive way. I'm amazed that the creators of the game had the genius to establish standards such as 90 feet between the bases and 60 feet 6 inches from the mound to home plate. Even as people have gotten bigger and stronger, those still seem to work.

You're also known for your bow ties. Where did you come up with that trademark?

I'd gotten to the age where I was dripping stuff on my ties. As my wife pointed out, it's one thing to wash a shirt -- most of mine are wash-and-wear -- it's another thing to get a tie cleaned. It's expensive. I didn't know how to tie a bow tie and she said, "Learn -- or think about wearing a bib."

What's your first memory of the U.S. Open? Were you at the '67 Open at Baltusrol?

That was my first Open. My uncle had given me a pass for the week as a Christmas gift. I was there each day from the moment the gates opened until dark. I collected about 125 autographs, including Hogan's. It was a great week.

Leaving the premises on Sunday after Nicklaus had won, I spotted an armband that had been dropped in the mud. It was blue with red lettering: USGA. I had seen some old guys in ties and blazers wearing these on the course. I snapped it up, thinking, "Great souvenir." I had no idea about the USGA. I had about as much interest in golf officials as I had about who was calling balls and strikes at Yankee Stadium. USGA, PGA ... it was one big alphabet soup. It's unrealistic to expect rank-and-file golfers to keep them straight. The game and the players are the thing.

__Your first U.S. Open working for the USGA involved a famous incident with the planting of the Hinkle Tree at Inverness [near the eighth tee after the first round in 1979], to prevent Lon Hinkle and others from using an adjacent fairway. What was your involvement? __

I had to buy it. No, I take that back. I had to pay for it.

How much?

A hundred and twenty dollars. Still have the receipt somewhere. Picture this: It's 5 a.m. on Friday morning, and Bob Yoder [greens chairman] from Inverness walks in with a big smile, and he drops the receipt down on my desk for a pretty mangy looking black-hill spruce. I thought it was a joke -- some kind of rookie hazing thing.

Who's decision had it been to do that?

Sandy Tatum, the USGA president at the time.

I guess Tatum gets the credit or blame.

Let's just say he gets the notoriety. P.J. [Boatwright Jr., then the USGA's executive director] didn't like it, but I don't know if he made his views known.

There was a tree sequel the next year at the Women's Open. P.J. saw Beth Daniel hitting down a parallel fairway during a practice round and walked out and moved the tee markers forward about 10 yards. He told me in that droll way of his that he was saving the USGA about a hundred bucks in Christmas-tree costs.

Early in your USGA career you were the starter on the first hole of the Open. Any memories stand out?

Oakmont in '83. Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros were the last pair to tee off. I had an earpiece on, and Terry Jastrow of ABC was saying, "Let's hold them for three minutes." I pass this along to the players. They ask why, and I tell them. Seve is not happy at all, asking, "What gives?" Tom stuck a little needle in him by saying, "Seve, I'm glad you got here on time; we wouldn't want a repeat of what happened at Baltusrol, would we?" [Ballesteros was late for his tee time in the second round in 1980 and was disqualified.] You could just about see the smoke coming out of Seve's ears.

Any other memories of players in that moment before the big moment?

Sure, you'll see a bit of cotton spitting, but let's face it, if the players aren't in a good mood on the first tee of the Open, they're not in a good mood, period. Players at the front end of a round are understandably far more tame than in the 18th-hole scorer's tent. At the Senior Open at Lake Tahoe in '85, I was staffing the scorer's tent, and I had to break up a shoving match between Jack Fleck and Tommy Bolt.

Over what?

Over themselves. From what I saw, they didn't much care for one another. Unbelievable scene, really. Here I am in my nice tent by the lake, and in come Jack and Tommy. Tommy looks up at me, juts out his chin and says, "Mr. USGA official, let me tell you something: If I'm ever paired with this no-good s.o.b., I don't care if I'm leading your tournament by 10 shots, I'm withdrawing." Then Fleck says something like, "You want to settle it like we did in Australia?"

I mean, where is that one coming from? And of course, being the great peacemaker, I said, "Break it up, fellows. The next group's coming in. Go take it somewhere else." For all I know, they did.

Quirky pairings?

Quirky? Sometimes. Interesting? Oftentimes. Of course, you never messed around with the competition, and there were only a few such groupings every year. But if you could have some fun ...

I quit doing the Women's Open pairings when I paired three people who were all considered head cases. The players didn't make the connection, but I knew I'd gone over the edge. That was when I realized it was time to stop. And no, I'm not divulging the players, or the year.

One other little quirk you're known for: your fondness for listening to bootleg tapes of sports figures going off on profanity-filled tirades. What are some of your favorites?

Mostly baseball guys, and yes, the language is blue. I've gotten a couple of those tapes from your colleagues at Golf Digest, by the way. My favorite is one where former Cubs manager Lee Elia is caught after a tough loss, and he rails on for four minutes about the good-for-nothing Cubs fans who have nothing better to do with their lives than come out to day baseball games. It's a classic.

You know, after a particularly stressful day in the office, I'll pop in the Elia cassette, and all my concerns evaporate. I never fail to bust out laughing. It beats a top-of-the-line massage for soothing the body and mind. And it's cheaper than professional therapy.

The way this interview is going, I have a feeling I'll be listening to one of those tapes going home from work tonight.

With the Open this year going to its first truly public facility, how much of the decision is symbolic versus going to a great golf course?

I think it's a truly great course. If it weren't, the issue of public versus private would be a non-starter. For the golfers growing up as public-course players in the New York area, the Black has always been the gold standard. Publinx players would say, "You can take your Winged Foots and Baltusrols and Quaker Ridges, and we'll match the Black up against 'em all, straight up."

But sure, it's a symbolic move. Symbolism can be a good thing. I'm not saying let's uproot all of the great Open sites. That would be a mistake, and it won't happen. But if the Bethpage Open results in other communities and public facilities dreaming high, that's a good thing. I'm not sharing any state secrets in saying that Torrey Pines [in La Jolla, Calif.] certainly feels that way.

__There has always been a suggestion of a "Northeast bias'' with the selection of Open courses. Three of the next five will be in the New York area, with Bethpage followed by Olympia Fields outside Chicago, then Shinnecock [Southampton, N.Y.], Pinehurst in North Carolina and Winged Foot [Mamaroneck, N.Y.]. __

How can you disagree with that? The record shows that more Opens are played in the Northeast than any other quadrant of the country. The bias, if you will, is to play the Open on the best courses possible.

I think we do an OK job of moving the Open around. We go to the middle part of the country. But will the Open be played in Florida or the southwest desert in mid-June? Not likely at all.

If we were to play three Opens in a row in the state of California -- something which isn't an impossibility -- I doubt we would be accused of having a California bias. You may see that the next offering of U.S. Open sites may make you move your watch back three hours to West Coast time.

How did the Open come to Bethpage?

If I were to point to a trigger, it would have been letters I received in '93 or '94 suggesting we take a look at the Black. In the spring of '95, I sent a memo to about 10 staffers saying, "I have this idea, and it may be nutty." My plan was to have a bunch of us show up unannounced -- even to the point of picking someone to sleep in the car overnight for a tee time, if need be.

So of course the state was there to greet us. The long and short of it is, everyone came away raving about the place, despite the fact that it was in very poor condition. That's not a fault of the people maintaining it; it's just a matter of budget. So the decision was made, knowing that we'd probably have to spend anywhere from $2 million to $3 million to get the course in shape.

What was the final figure?

Well, it's still going on. But it's in excess of $3 million.

__Was it important to the USGA to lock in the green fee, so that the state will not take the Open and market it, tripling the green fees from $31 during the week and $39 on weekends? __

That was made very clear right up front. Yeah, there's going to be some movement, but you don't want to see it go up to $70, because then all the people who are the core supporters, the people who play there day in and day out, they're not going to be your supporters at all. You're going to be hanged in effigy. Because of my publinx roots, I was very sensitive to that.

Do you still relish the Open's image as the world's toughest tournament?

I was raised with that idea. I'd hate to see it change. That said, we have to be damn careful not to trick things up just to keep scores high.

What's your worst fear going into an Open? Bad weather, bad course conditions or a bad leader board?

Those are my options? Bad weather, of those three, hands down.

I don't trouble myself with the so-called "good leader board." The leader board is the leader board. Some might have felt that ours last year at Southern Hills [Retief Goosen outlasting Mark Brooks in a playoff, followed by Stewart Cink and Rocco Mediate] wasn't particularly strong, but I thought it was fine.

Bad course conditions resulting from bad weather is something everyone has to deal with. But course conditions for other reasons are unlikely, because the skills of today's course superintendents and their crews are remarkable.

The conditions at Bethpage, by the way, are going to be superb. I'm mildly disappointed in that. I might be the only person who feels this way, but I'll admit I was hoping for scruffier conditions.

Not wall-to-wall grooming?

Exactly. And I wasn't troubled by that at all. The players have that sixth sense that it's not cool to complain about less-than-perfect conditions. Even when they go to Torrey Pines, they're not going to go crazy on the conditions, because they understand it's a public facility.

Back to your three options, bad weather is a worry. More specifically, lightning is my greatest weather fear. And obviously security is the No. 1 concern. I'm not going to share what we're doing, but I feel very good about the security precautions. But in your best years, no matter what you do, if there is an incident, the conclusion will be that you didn't do enough.

Has the USGA softened its course setup? You don't hear the moaning and groaning over Open setups like you used to, say, during the '74 Massacre at Winged Foot.

The setup for a typical tour stop is much closer to a U.S. Open than it would have been 30 years ago, so the Open setup isn't as much a shock to the system of the players as it might have been 25, 30, 40 years ago.

You used to get a Don January or somebody who would get so worked up he would swear off ever playing in another Open.

You're still going to get complaints, but not nearly as many. Some of the older players had the idea that the USGA was a bunch of clueless amateurs who wanted to embarrass them. Yes, you can say the Massacre at Winged Foot, '74, was in response to Oakmont [Johnny Miller's record 63 in the final round of the '73 Open]. Those within the USGA who were there at the time say no. As a fan, I think it was. And clearly it was.

When things go over the edge, such as the Friday hole location at 18 at Olympic in '98 or the 18th green last year at Southern Hills, it's the USGA that feels embarrassed.

Haven't you taken more control of the Open setup so that you're no longer subject to the whims of club members who want to protect their golf course?

We make it clear that we set the ground rules. The "big, bad wolf" attitude still exists at some courses, but it's been years since clubs have directed grounds crews to tinker with the height of greens mowers in the middle of the night.

Who did that? That really happened?

Yeah, it happened more than once in the '80s. I don't want to name names.

What about the 18-hole playoff format for the Open? Our recent poll of readers showed that people prefer the sudden death of the Masters, or the three- or four-hole systems of the PGA and the British Open.

I'm not surprised. Our society wants fast answers. But if the Masters had a succession of Monday-morning carry-overs [continuations of playoffs that didn't finish by nightfall on Sunday], fans might feel differently. But using last year at Southern Hills as an example, I wouldn't have wanted Goosen and Brooks to go out shortly after the train wrecks on the 72nd hole and play a portion of a round to decide the national championship.

Are you sorry that the USGA is abandoning tradition this year by sending players off both the first and 10th tees on the first two days?

Nope, not at all. Going to a two-tee start on the first two days will get us about two hours of additional daylight. It's downright embarrassing when we run out of daylight just because the pace of play is so slow.

Why does big-time golf get slower and slower?

I sense that the bad habits are formed at the college level now. It seems a preshot routine is a necessary ingredient of all big-time sports. Every game it seems is getting slower.

It's unfortunate that some of the leading players in the game, beginning with Ben Hogan after World War II, have been the leading culprits. I understand Hogan once told Joe Dey [former USGA executive director] that he wasn't going to speed up, and that if the USGA didn't like it, they could go ahead and penalize him. We should have taken him up on his offer.

Aren't you lengthening some of your holes on Open courses in reaction to the increased distance players are hitting the ball?

Yes. Some of the par 4s at Bethpage will be close to 500 yards. And Bethpage is basically at sea level. And yes, this is in response to the increased distances the best players are hitting the ball. Unless I've missed something, there's no rule that a hole can't be a par 4 if you have to hit something more than a middle iron into the green.

Equipment regulation seems to be a hot-button issue. Has that become the USGA's Achilles' heel?

It has been our Achilles' heel since I've been on the staff. Call it our Black Hole of Calcutta. It is a thankless job to regulate golf equipment. It costs plenty of money, operating in a litigious environment, and yet without an impartial voice -- and who else could be impartial? -- I think you could see chaos.

What do you see happening in the equipment area in the next 10 years?

We've long held to the philosophy of allowing skill and technological advances to co-exist. We may have to re-evaluate this laissez-faire approach. Technology should not get the upper hand on skill. Over the past 20 years or so, I think it's had the upper hand.

At the tour level?

Yes, at the men's tour level. There was a time when we thought the so-called game-improvement clubs and balls were just for guys like me -- the less skilled players. It turns out that the best players have taken the greatest advantage of the improvements in equipment. As a result, there's a growing talent gap between the very best players and the rest of us.

It may not happen on my watch, but I believe we'll have to accept the fact that the elite game will have some specialized equipment rules. The devil will be in the details -- where do you draw the line? Will the rules apply only to the men's tour? How about the LPGA or senior tours? What about leading amateur events? One's club championship?

You're talking about the Nicklaus solution, adopting a tour ball.

Yes, possibly a ball -- which conforms to the Rules of Golf -- which is less lively and perhaps has a greater potential to curve. They might be a bit larger. They might be a bit lighter. But these balls wouldn't be limited for use for one group of players. Anyone could use them if they wished. Just like I'm free, today, to use the clubs and balls used by the best players on the men's tour.

Let me be clear in saying that I don't believe we've reached the crisis point yet. But if a commissioner of the PGA Tour were concerned that his product is losing appeal with the fans, he might take action. That's what happens in other sports when the entertainment value begins to erode. David Stern [NBA commissioner] changed the restriction on zone defense because he saw empty seats and lower TV ratings. Baseball commissioners move fences in and out when they feel the public is losing interest in the product. These decisions aren't about the purity of the game. They're about the potential economic impact.

What grade would you give the USGA on its equipment regulatory capacity over the last 10 to 20 years?

The answer depends on what one wants out of the regulator. If you want rollbacks, then we'd get a failing grade. But let's clear up a big misconception: The USGA has never been in the business of rolling back the performance of golf equipment. Look at the facts. A case in point is the ball test. When we introduced the ODS [Overall Distance Standard] in 1976, we wrote the standard around the longest ball at that time, plus a generous tolerance. In hindsight, too generous.

But to your question, I'd give us a B-minus over the past 10 years in a "class" where A's are damn near impossible. In terms of regulating the game, I think we had our lowest grade in the '80s, when there were so many changes in equipment that caught on in the marketplace. Things like metal woods. Perimeter-weighted irons. Exotic shafts. Different dimple patterns on the ball. Square grooves. Long putters. In the '80s, I think our equipment-regulatory grade was a D.

Some of your past presidents have certainly been advocating a rollback.

That's true. And some express their opinions publicly with some frequency, which is their right, I guess. But so far, their opinions haven't carried the day, publicly or privately.

You may have a pat answer to this one, because it's asked all the time: Why are the Rules of Golf so complicated?

Because the game is played over a large expanse of land where funny things can happen to a ball that gets behind a tree or a rock or in an animal's mouth. Crazy things can happen on a golf course. But that's a fundamental appeal of the game.

Some people say the out-of-bounds penalty and the spike-mark rule should be changed.

In American golf, people follow the Rules of Golf selectively. And if you're playing on a public golf course and you lose a ball or you hit one out-of-bounds and you haven't played a provisional and there are four groups waiting on the tee, you're not going to march back there -- you're going to end up with a fist in your mouth. So that sort of works itself out. If you were to tap down spike marks, you would just make an already slow game slower.

You have come out in favor of golf in the Olympics, which is a reversal of the USGA's historic position that pointed to the existence of the World Amateur Team Championships and other factors. Why are you in favor of it now?

I'd turn it around and say, why shouldn't golf be in the Olympics? It's the most popular sport worldwide that's not in the Olympics. You've got 130 countries where golf is played. You've got 60 million people playing the sport. If you're really looking to promote the game globally and you've got a potential audience of a billion-plus Chinese, the Olympics would be a great place to start.

Will it happen for 2008?

We'll find out in 2003. We're cautiously optimistic, even though the International Olympic Committee is concerned about the growing size of the Games. But for those who would say, "Don't have golf in the Olympics," I say, "Don't watch it."

Why did the Olympic golf proposal involving Augusta National fall apart in the early 1990s?

The IOC never officially announced that golf would be on the program. Golf's leading groups -- including the USGA -- prematurely announced that golf would be played in the Atlanta Games and that it would be played at Augusta National. Suffice it to say that the IOC took a dim view of this premature announcement. Plus they looked at the proposed site -- Augusta National -- and said, "There are no women members," and that was that.

Does it surprise you that there hasn't been more pressure on Augusta to take in women members?

I see where we're heading with this one. I'm not taking the bait on anything with respect to Augusta National Golf Club or the Masters. It's a wonderful golf tournament.

Is it true that you cannot play a USGA championship at Augusta, because the club doesn't conform to the USGA policy on nondiscrimination?

We wouldn't be invited, probably, but we wouldn't be able to hold one, because of the membership policy.

Do you still belong to Pine Valley?

No. I resigned three years ago.

I was going to ask how you reconcile the USGA's position versus being a member of a place that has no women members.

That's one question you can't ask anymore.

You resigned because of the membership issue with women?

To a large degree.

__I should include the R&A as a similar male-only club. Are you a member of the R&A? __

I am presently.

Is that honorary?

Oh, no. I pay the full American dues.

Have you tried to use your powers of persuasion to get them to add women members?

No, I haven't. Chalk it up to professional courtesy. One can argue that there's a long history of single-sex golf clubs, both men and women, in Great Britain. In the USA, I don't believe there are currently any women's-only golf clubs. But is the right of choosing with whom to associate -- whether it be in the USA or somewhere else -- altered if a private golf club conducts and profits from an annual, open-to-the-public, world-renowned golf tournament? I believe it is.

How much golf do you play, and how well do you play?

Anywhere from 25 to 30 rounds a year. I have this wild range of more than 20 strokes. Not too many years ago I was invited to Augusta National. It was April, right after the Masters. I had a nifty 45-46 -- 91 in the morning. That afternoon I went 34-38 -- 72. Same guy.

The USGA handicap system is no friend of David Fay. Because of the way it's structured, counting the best 10 out of the last 20 rounds, you wear those low rounds around your neck -- you can't get rid of them unless you play a lot, and I don't play a lot.

So what's your number?

It's 8-point-something. In the past few years, my course handicap has bounced back and forth between 6 and 11 or 12.

If there are 20 million to 30 million golfers in this country, how many of them have handicaps?

Five million.

How come it's such a low percentage?

If someone could answer that and come up with a solution to slow play, then there might be a nice little award for them in Stockholm called the Nobel. I would welcome any suggestion on how to get more people to have USGA handicaps. If a person doesn't have a handicap, in my obviously biased opinion, I'm almost questioning whether they are truly a golfer.

The public may know you best for your role in the TV booth interpreting rules during USGA events. What's that like?

It's interesting, and it keeps me out of trouble. I'm up there as a continuation of what Frank [Hannigan] did for us for many years. Your role is to try to be instructive to the viewers in the event of a rules matter, and to keep your eyes open for problems.

__What's your relationship with Hannigan these days? You were once his protégé, __

but he has been pretty critical of the USGA's direction in recent years. Frank has played a very important role in my professional life, and he was a very close friend. Sadly, we've drifted apart. My fault more than his. Like a hero of his, H.L. Mencken, Frank's a contrarian, and his comments, while often incredibly insightful and on target, can sometimes come across as shrill and acerbic. And when the target becomes the USGA, well, I pretty much decided after a time to tune him out.

You know, it was once said of Mencken that he 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.

__The USGA has accrued big money over the last decade, approaching $150 million in its endowment fund. How has that changed the organization's basic mission? __

Once we started to amass some money, it was logical that we would have a more liberal approach to the notion of promoting and conserving the best interests of the game. Prior to the '90s, as Dylan would say, when you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. So we didn't have to really think about ways to broaden the appeal of golf -- at least if the ideas required money. Well, now we can't use poverty as an excuse.

__How can you be sure the First Tee grants and other "For the Good of the Game" programs are actually doing some good and not just making people feel good? __

Good question. The answer is, you can't be sure. But I believe that our foundation structure, involving the use of our USGA fellows -- young folks, right out of college -- is a good one. And our fellows have become very skilled in doing the due diligence on program proposals and have become adept in smelling out weak programs and the occasional scam. For me, the worst are the feel-good programs that do nothing other than trot some kids out for a day to hit a few balls, have some photo-ops and a hot dog and then bus them back home. The next day, the kids wake up and wonder, "Where's the golf?"

We've supported the First Tee to the tune of nearly $9 million. And our For the Good of the Game program is a 10-year, $50 million commitment to make golf more accessible to more Americans.

But it's tough to measure results. I'm not one of those who believe that golf is a sport for everyone. It's hard, it's expensive and it's time-consuming, and for a kid, it can be lonely to go it alone. And it's not an urban-friendly sport. You can't go down the street and play golf like you can go shoot hoops or play stickball or street hockey.

I imagine only a small percentage of the kids we touch will stick with the game at an early age. Other sports will catch their eye and interest. But my hope is that when these kids get to the age where they have a job and some disposable income and some free time, they'll gravitate back to the game. So we're planting the seeds now and may have to wait 15 or 20 years for the harvest.

Speaking of money, you're personally known for your frugality.

I'm not a cheapskate. To me, a 20-percent tip in a restaurant is being cheap. Waiters and waitresses live on tips.

OK, I guess I'm frugal with others' money. Like the USGA's money. But personally I don't think I'm cheap. I don't handle the household finances.

Your wife takes care of it?

My wife manages all of the bills, and I mean all of them. I couldn't tell you my mortgage payment. All I said to her is, "I don't want to be in a position where I go into a store and use a credit card and have it rejected."

Trey Holland [former USGA president] told me about your expense report from the 1995 U.S. Amateur at Newport in Rhode Island. He said you drove up with a friend, ate all your meals in the USGA's tent and stayed at the club, but submitted expenses for the week for 75 cents for a muffin you bought. Why bother?

It probably was a lousy muffin, and I wanted my money back.