MEMBERS
USGA Members Program Turning 40! March 31, 2015 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By David Chmiel

Arnold Palmer led a USGA contingent that honored President Gerald R. Ford as the first USGA Member. (USGA Archives)

In 1975, the fall of Saigon led to the end of the Vietnam War. “The Godfather Part II” won the Academy Award for best picture. Marvin Hamlisch earned the Grammy for Best New Artist of the Year, and McDonald’s boasted a new sandwich made with “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.”

In golf news that year, Lee Elder became the first African American to play in the Masters. Jack Nicklaus claimed his fifth of six Masters victories and also captured the PGA Championship, at Firestone Country Club. Lou Graham won the U.S. Open and the USGA unveiled a mechanical golfer named “Iron Byron” to launch golf balls at a specified set of launch conditions to measure their distance.

And Elbert S. Jemison Jr. had a big idea about helping the game.

Jemison, the insurance man and amateur golfer from Birmingham, Ala., was treasurer of the USGA’s Executive Committee. He created the Associates Program to help connect a nation of golfers to the USGA. By Dec. 18, Volunteer National Chairman Arnold Palmer was in the Oval Office, bestowing President Gerald R. Ford with the first Associate’s bag tag.

Nearly 40 years later, Palmer remains the only chairman of what we now know as the Members Program. Palmer continues to serve as a tireless advocate for the Members to have a voice in the game. Millions of golfers have faithfully paid the fee that earns them membership benefits that include their personalized bag tag, copy of the Rules of Golf and access to USGA news and programs. In exchange, their support of the game they love helps fund the Association's work, everything from honoring and preserving the game's history and traditions to worldwide governance in Rules, handicapping and equipment standards to make the game an equitable test for players of all abilities and conducting 13 USGA Championships for the world's top amateur and professional golfers. In addition, the Members Program represents an audience dedicated to the sustainability of the game for generations to come.

“The Members Program is a testament to the responsibility our Members feel for the game they are so passionate about,” said Fiona Dolan, senior director, Members Program. "While USGA Members represent golfers from all skill levels, they also share a common bond in their support of the USGA's mission. This is evident when you see them proudly display their bag tags to show their commitment to the game."

Prior to launching the program, Jemison faced internal obstacles getting it off the ground. Today, his grand idea is validated by the program’s current enrollment of approximately 700,000 Members. Jemison, who received the USGA’s Ike Grainer Award in 1995 and 2001 for his service to the Association, died in 2010 at the age of 90. In 2005, he told a story of that Oval Office visit.

“I remember President Ford kind of pulling me aside and asking: ‘How many do you think will enroll in this program? So far we have you and myself, and none of us have paid yet.’”

Decades later, Dolan remains inspired by Palmer's commitment to the Members Program. "In 2003, after I had first assumed stewardship of the Members Program, we met to update Mr. Palmer on the progress of the Program," she said. "The only disappointment about our meeting is that each and every USGA Member couldn't have joined me at the table and listened to him talk about the Program. He encouraged us to communicate directly with our Members, in any format we possibly can, as often as we can, to keep all Members interested and involved. We are proud to honor Mr. Palmer's commitment and want the Member Clubhouse to become the communication tool that delivers Members the information and inspiration that reflect their passion for golf." 

To commemorate the program turning the “Big 4-0”, the Member Clubhouse will spend 2015 celebrating your stories and accomplishments, and building on a vibrant future. Stay tuned!

David Chmiel is Manager, Members Content, for the USGA. Email him at dchmiel@usga.org.

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