SERVING THE GAME
Long-Ago Connection Comes Full Circle for Dey Award Recipient January 31, 2018 | Midlothian, Va. By Andrew Blair

USGA Joe Dey Award recipient Gib Palmer has a passion for the game, whether it's playing or giving back as a volunteer official. (USGA/Jonathan Kolbe)


List of Joe Dey Award Winners

Gib Palmer won’t soon forget the first time he met Joe Dey.

His father, Russell, the former executive director of the Connecticut State Golf Association, had taken his sons Gib, then 31, and Curt, 26, to the 1984 Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland. Russell strode up to say hello to a handsome, well-dressed man with deep eyes. It was Dey, whom Gib later learned was a longtime friend of his father.

Dey, the USGA’s executive director, took an interest not only in Russell, but Gib and his brother.

“I still have a vivid recollection of that conversation with him,” said Palmer. “I think it’s for a couple of reasons: One, he was the first high-ranking person in golf that I had been introduced to, so that alone would make it memorable. But secondly, he couldn’t have been more pleasant and more of a gentleman. He was a very kind person and didn’t appear to be in a hurry to get away from us.”

Now, some 33 years later, Palmer will step onto the stage at the USGA’s Annual Meeting on Feb. 3 in Miami, Fla., to accept an award named in Dey’s honor. Presented annually since 1996, the Joe Dey Award recognizes an individual's meritorious service to the game as a volunteer. Dey served as USGA executive director from 1934-69 and later became first commissioner of the PGA Tour.     

Palmer, of Midlothian, Va., has served as a Rules official at 26 USGA championships. He’s witnessed many interesting and memorable moments both on the course and behind the scenes. That said, nothing could have prepared Palmer for when the USGA informed him of this latest honor.

“I was stunned,” said Palmer. “I am extremely grateful and also humbled by it because I know so many people who are deserving of this award. That somebody felt I was worthy of it is almost beyond belief.”

It’s a safe bet that Dey, who was born in Norfolk, Va., would have approved of Palmer’s selection. Dey knew his place as an official was to take an I’m-here-if-you-need-me approach. Likewise, Palmer appreciates that players should be front and center, not referees or administrators.
 
“Being associated with Joe Dey and his reputation for integrity and for respect for the game – I can’t think of anybody I’d be more honored to be associated with than him,” said Palmer, who is a director of broker development and administration for Anthem, a nationwide healthcare company.

Not bad for a kid from West Hartford, Conn., whose introduction to the game at age 7 entailed sneaking a persimmon headed 3-wood out of a neighbor’s garage. Palmer got his first set of clubs in 1964 at age 11, and spent his summers playing until dark at the nine-hole Boothbay (Maine) Region Country Club and listening to the unmistakable hum of Ned Martin’s voice calling games on the radio for his beloved Boston Red Sox.

Palmer’s love for the game inspired him to start volunteering at Virginia State Golf Association championships and USGA qualifiers in 1993. It turned into a healthy addiction.

That eventually led to him being chosen to serve on the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship Committee, which involves helping to conduct sectional qualifiers and serving as a Rules official at the championship.

“He is an outstanding volunteer. He is a veteran on our committee, oftentimes mentoring new committee members,” said Greg Sanfilippo, the USGA’s director of the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. “Honestly, we couldn’t be prouder to be adding him to the list of Joe Dey award winners.”

Over the years, Palmer has seen many competitors transition from the Junior Amateur to professional stardom, a group that includes 2015 U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth and PGA Tour winners Brian Harman (2003 Junior champion), Adam Scott, Camilo Villegas and Aaron Baddeley. But it was a teenager who wasn’t having such a good day that made an indelible impression on Palmer years ago. The competitor had no chance of making match play, much less winning the championship, but it was apparent that the round wasn’t going to define him as a person.

“He was the most positive, supportive player of the other two players [in his group],” said Palmer. “Instead of being miserable, he was great. And he was hitting the ball sideways. But he knew what he was there for. He was appreciative of the opportunity and didn’t want to affect other players’ games. I thought that was pretty remarkable.”  

At an administrative level, Palmer rose through the ranks of the VSGA and served as its president from 2014-15. His tenure was far from ceremonial. He was instrumental in developing a long-range strategic plan with VSGA Executive Director Jamie Conkling, along with many other stakeholders and constituents. Palmer led the charge to streamline the organization’s structure and ensure that women had a larger role and clearer avenue to board election.
 
Palmer’s enthusiasm for the game’s history spurred an idea he’d long considered: establishing a hall of fame to recognize Virginians who had achieved excellence on and off the course. Palmer knew a brick-and-mortar structure wouldn’t be practical or feasible, but conceptually thought that developing a virtual presence could work if done tactfully and tastefully.

“When I started thinking about the history of golf in Virginia, we didn’t have a place to celebrate it,” Palmer said.

So he spearheaded a committee to undertake the project and, importantly, established a deadline for its implementation. In 2016, his vision met reality when the Virginia Golf Hall of Fame launched (www.virginiagolfhalloffame.com), with an accompanying ceremony at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. The inaugural class was comprised of longtime VSGA Rules Chairman Clyde Luther and USGA champions Vinny Giles, Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins, as well as golf legends Sam Snead and Chandler Harper.

“If a golf course has a signature hole, the Virginia Golf Hall of Fame is my signature accomplishment,” said Palmer.

And if Palmer ever needed any affirmation about its importance or effect, it came this past December via a text message from Keith Decker, the record-holder for VSGA titles.

“He sent me a photograph of a framed display of the Virginia Golf Hall of Fame booklet, his nametag, the invitation and the medal,” said Palmer. “He said, ‘This is the best Christmas present that I’ve ever received.’ I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.”

Palmer considers his volunteer efforts as his give-back to the game, but he never expected or set out to be recognized. 

“People don’t volunteer because they’re looking for accolades or awards, and I’m certainly in that category,” said Palmer. “We do it because we love the game. The quality of the people in the game of game of golf is unparalleled.”

In all likelihood, Joe Dey couldn’t agree more.

Andrew Blair is a freelance writer from Glen Allen, Va.