When Ian Poulter, eyes blazing, stuck his index finger in the chest of then-USGA CEO Mike Davis on the driving range at the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Jason Gore thought his brief career with the USGA might be over. Hired only three months earlier to be the association’s first player relations director, Gore coaxed Davis out to dance among the wolves on the Monterey Peninsula. The pair just so happened to come across one of those who howls the loudest.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t have to unpack my things anymore,’” Gore recalled recently with a laugh. “‘I’ll see you guys later.’”
What actually ensued, however, is exactly the reason Gore was hired. Davis and Poulter ended up having a measured, civil, thoughtful conversation. Later, Gore summoned the Englishman to the trailer serving as his temporary office. Poulter wasn’t sure if Gore was going to shake his hand or throw an uppercut. “I looked at him and said, ‘Poults, do you feel better?’ Gore says. “He goes, ‘yeah.’ And I said, ‘Go play well this week.’
“All of a sudden, the guard is down. You just have to realize we’re not out to ruin everybody’s day. We love the game.”
Sometimes, the most obvious solutions stand right before your eyes. The USGA has existed for more than 120 years, governing the game and staging national championships. But it did so in an uneasy space when it came to the professionals who work at the highest levels, because while its rules and equipment decisions affect all golfers, it had few relationships or bonds with those who play for their finanical livelihoods. It stages four professional events a year—the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open most notably—and if anything goes sideways in those championships, for instance a course-setup snafu, the USGA gets roasted for being a “bunch of amateurs” influencing who takes home one of the game’s most coveted trophies.
Any misstep, particularly in the age of Twitter, left the USGA appearing clueless or, even worse, intentionally villainous, despite its intent of identifying a worthy national champion while putting the brightest light possible on what makes the game equally beautiful and confounding.
If you don’t think the harsh assessments greatly pain those who go to work each day in Liberty Corner, N.J., you’d be wrong.
John Bodenhamer, who started at the USGA in 2011 before assuming the title of senior managing director of championships in 2019 (and succeeding Davis in overseeing the setup for the U.S. Open), had pondered that disconnect for some time. When another high-profile dustup happened in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where players ripped Saturday’s baked-out conditions and Phil Mickelson was so angry with the hole position on the 13th that he—to everyone’s shock—swiped at his ball as it rolled.
Tweeted Poulter: “Did Bozo set up the course?”
Late in the evening, Davis tweeted: “It got too tough today in some areas. If we got a mulligan, we would have slowed the greens down this afternoon.”
Poulter shot back: “You don’t get mulligan’s [sic] in business at this level. how can this team keep doing this without consequences.”
As Gore says dryly now, “Social media always wins.”
That was it, the last push Bodenhamer needed to move to address the USGA’s lack of a true line of communication with the players. His resolve was only augmented by a conversation he had that winter with former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, who told Bodenhamer, “The USGA’s biggest problem is that the players think you don’t care about what we think.”
“That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Bodenhamer says. “But we got it. We needed somebody who could instantly walk onto the practice green and have that dialogue.”
Enter Gore. There were other candidates for the job, probably, but Bodenhamer had admired Gore as a person and player since his victory at the 1997 Pacific Coast Amateur when Bodenhamer was CEO of the Pacific Northwest GA. Gore possessed all of the qualities the USGA was looking for in regard to the professional respect earned over nearly 25 years (when he claimed a record seven Korn Ferry Tour wins and one on the PGA Tour). It didn’t hurt that Gore rose to prominence in the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where he became the story by reaching the final group on Sunday, only to collapse with an 84.
Jason Gore pumps his fist after a birdie putt on the 18th green in the third round of the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
But anyone who has spent more than two minutes with Gore understands the intangibles, too. He is a barrel-chested everyman with a boisterous laugh, quick smile and a deadly dry wit who can … well, put Davis and Poulter in a small ring and emerge with no blood on his hands.
“He has a gift,” Bodenhamer says, “the gift of approachability. He’s just a warm, genuine person. I’ve not met anybody who dislikes him. He’s a good family man. He’s grounded in strong values. He just puts a human face on it. He just cares about you, whatever level you’re at.”
When Gore, 48, first got the call in early 2019 from the USGA’s Jeff Hall, with whom he’d formed a relationship when Gore played on the 1997 Walker Cup, the golfer thought he was being asked to recommend others for the player relations gig. Then it became clear he was the target. At the time, Gore was selling insurance—“it seemed like what all the cool people do”—and dealing with terrible back pain, while still on a bit of a golf high after contending into Sunday on a sponsor’s exemption, at the previous November’s RSM Classic.
Gore pondered what the life-changing move would mean for his two children and his wife/high school sweetheart, Megan, who offered him four words that meant everything: “This is all you.”
“It’s funny how these things pan out,” Gore says. “I think, deep down, I’m glad I didn’t win the RSM. When I came [to the USGA], I told them that ever since I touched golf clubs, I wanted to make a difference in the game. At my funeral—I know this sounds morbid—I want people to stand up and say that this guy left the game better than when he got here. I had my 15 seconds to do that with my golf clubs. Who knew I’d I have this chance as an administrator with the USGA?”
“Administrator” is such an uninspiring title for the man who serves roles as learned sage, team captain, cheerleader, mediator and therapist. Heading into his fourth U.S. Open next week at The Country Club, Gore has walked quite the precarious line between delivering the USGA’s values and points of view, while convincing his former competitive brethren that he’s there for them and hasn’t completely gulped down the Kool-Aid.
Explains Gore, “There’s a lot of people who didn’t know anybody at the USGA. I knew Jeff [Hall] and if I had questions, I’d call him. It was human to me. But for a lot of people, they’re just scared of the USGA. There was no human element to it. And sometimes it’s OK to say you were wrong. There are mistakes the USGA has made, but it's not out of spite or because we don’t like you. We’re looking out for what’s best for the game, with the best intentions. There is a method to what we do.
“A lot of people don’t see that. It’s, ‘Oh, here they go again.’ You have this preconceived notion about what you think we’re doing. There was just no communication and there were few relationships. I’m not here to change the way they think or feel, but I want them to know the truth. We care about what you think and feel.”
He compares the work to being a major-league umpire: “They don’t have to love us, but they have to respect us.”
Jason Gore smiles during the media day for the 2022 U.S. Open at The Country Club.
Gore sometimes catches flak for his job, but he’s won over more than his share of cynics. “Yeah, trust me, I bust his balls about it all the time,” says PGA Tour journeyman William McGirt of his friend’s position.
Kidding aside, McGirt says, “I think the biggest thing is we know they’re listening now. I’ve talked to [Gore] four or five times about certain things, and I get the ‘Hey, I know where you’re coming from. I agree with you. You gotta give me some time. I’m working on things.’”
In real terms, Gore’s impact was almost immediately felt. At Pebble Beach in 2019, he became part of the four-man team that worked on the course setup—the lead person being Bodenhamer, along with Hall and Darin Bevard, the USGA’s director of championship agronomy. They had their first disagreement about a pin placement on the par-5 14th hole whose tilted green has always thrown players into fits. Bodenhamer was considering a pin that if a shot was missed by the slightest of margins, or spun a tad too much, the ball might roll 40 yards back and off the green.
“I wanted to listen and learn, but I had to say something,” Gore says. “I’ve played Pebble Beach 200 times.” His concerns ultimately prevailed.
“Setting up a golf course that’s really brutal is easy,” Gore says. “We can have a 260-yard par 3 and tuck the pin on the left, three steps behind a bunker. But you just left me no thought process. I’m going to hit it short right. Instead, tempt me to do something unnecessary. At what point is the Superman cape going to come out and I think I can hit this close. If you do, great shot. If you don’t, you’re busy.”
“It felt like our opinion didn’t matter. It was, ‘This is how we’re gonna do it, and you guys show up and be happy you’re playing.’ … So I think Jason has been a great mediator in that aspect to help them understand what’s going on.”—Brandt Snedeker
Said Bodenhamer of Gore’s contributions on the setup side: “It’s been huge. He’s got a sixth sense. He’s good at it and he has a player’s eye.”
Nine-time tour winner Brandt Snedeker believes Gore has been an admirable middleman between the USGA and the players.
“It felt like our opinion didn’t matter. It was, ‘This is how we’re gonna do it, and you guys show up and be happy you’re playing,’” Snedeker says. “We’re like, ‘Y’all are making $100 million off this week. We have no say in what’s going on? That’s not right.’ So I think Jason has been a great mediator in that aspect to help them understand what’s going on.”
The USGA appears to be taking this path earnestly. Gore heads a team of six others—“my sherpas through this”—that includes Liz Fradkin, who is his equivalent on the women’s side, and Robbie Zalzneck, a 23-year USGA manager who oversees four people who work in player relations at the combined 15 USGA championships.
The goal, Bodenhamer says, is to create a “player’s journey” through the various levels of competitions, from the Junior Ams to U.S. Opens, while establishing early bonds between competitors and the USGA. He cited Zalzneck’s long-standing relationship with the DeChambeau family in being able to quickly orchestrate a television feel-good moment via video in the aftermath of Bryson winning the COVID-hampered U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2020.
“That all started when Bryson played in the U.S. Junior and the U.S. Amateur,” Bodenhamer said. “That’s the strategy. We build those relationships, and they can come to us, they can help us. We’re just at the beginning of that.”
For an organization that seems so old, so much seems fresh. The key, Gore believes, is to carry the USGA forward without leaving indelible marks.
“We should hand off the game to the next generation and take out fingerprints off it,” he says. “It’s not about us; it’s not about changing the game. We just want to make it better.”
—With reporting from Dave Shedloski