Former USGA President James R. Hand, the Grand Old Man of Golf, turns 99 on Jan. 12. He continues to hold that rare perspective as both a competitive and recreational player who brought common sense and a common touch to golf administration.
Now walking with a cane, he’s 100 percent in every other respect. Over dinner last weekend in Vermont, he talked sharply about the American economy, Jordan and Rickie (“good guys”), internet technology, Hillary and Trump (“neither”), photography, his drivers license that just got renewed to 103, USGA politics and the new Alexander Hamilton book by Ron Chernow he’s currently reading. “I have to ask,” I said, “did you know Hamilton?” He replied, “Actually I knew his father.”
Hand still looks like the trustworthy New York financier he was. Born on Long Island, studied to become a Catholic priest until he decided it wasn’t for him, drafted into the Army, met his late wife Gus in England, returned home from World War II to a career in public relations, and worked his way up the ladder to become a bank president. His game was characterized by the term “junk golf”—what the British writer A.C.M. Croome once described as “three of them and one of those counts four”—and he has many trophies to show for it. He was active in caddie scholarships and eventually served as USGA president 1984-’85. Former executive director David Fay always referred to him as “our greatest USGA president,” owing to his unique understanding of the game and handling of people.
One example: When Hand officiated in his first U.S. Open, in 1975 at Medinah, the notoriously difficult Tom Weiskopf had had a rules dispute with another USGA official in the first round. Hand was assigned to Weiskopf’s group for the second round. Typical of his certitude, Jim went out on the course to inspect the situation from the previous day to make sure he was fully briefed. “I saw it and thought he got the right ruling,” Hand says. “On the first tee—I had not met him before—[Weiskopf] said to me, ‘Did you hear that I got a bad ruling yesterday?’
I said, ‘I heard you got a ruling yesterday, and I happen to agree with it.’ He turned to me and said, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a bad day.’ I said, ‘That’s purely up to you, Tom.’” The incident was forgotten and they’ve enjoyed each other’s company on many occasions since.
Hand now splits his time between Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vt., and Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. What’s he working on these days, I asked him? “Good posture,” he said. “My trainer told me not to pull back my shoulders, but to push my fanny forward. It changes your center of gravity. Imagine that. I’ve been doing it wrong all these years.” Not much has Golf’s Grand Old Man done wrong.