Meet Jim Hyler, The New USGA President

'He’s one of the most humble, down-to-earth people I have ever met'

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Jim Hyler, the consummate southern gentleman, was a founding member at Old Chatham Golf Club in
Durham, N.C. (John Mummert/USGA)

Feb. 5, 2010

By David Shefter, USGA

Raleigh, N.C. – There’s something presidential about the individual standing in front of a roomful of reporters on the day before the start of America’s national golf championship.

The words emanate in a steady stream of confidence, each sentence carefully outlining the USGA’s U.S. Open setup philosophy. But the performance doesn’t come off as scripted.

Meticulously prepared for this moment, Jim Hyler talks to this assembled mass in a soothing tone. His knowledge of the subject matter is impressive. He tackles each question with aplomb.

 

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 Like a great hitter, he can handle all pitches – fastballs, curves and changeups. Like a skillful pitcher, he’s in perfect control of the situation.

 

Those who know Hyler aren’t surprised.

“He ought to get into politics,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions.

Well, it might be Golf House over the State House, but Hyler knows he’s entering the domain of public office. On Saturday at the USGA’s Annual Meeting in the Village of Pinehurst, N.C., the 62 year old officially became the Association’s 61st president, succeeding Jim Vernon. In customary fashion, the two oldest past presidents - Will Nicholson and William Campbell - led Hyler to the podium during the ceremony.

After joining the Executive Committee in 2004 and serving four years as chair of the Championship Committee, Hyler has rapidly ascended to the highest rung on the USGA leadership ladder.

It seems to be a natural role for the affable Hyler, although the retired banker is quick to point out that being comfortable in front of the public took plenty of practice and hard work.

But it’s a labor of love. Just mention championship setup and a gleam comes to Hyler’s eye. And one can safely assume that same passion will carry over into Hyler’s new role.

Leading the 14 other Executive Committee members, as well as some 1,600 committee volunteers and 300-plus USGA staff members, is no easy task. Information, ideas and opinions come from all angles. Sometimes egos need to be appropriately massaged and directives delivered with a calm demeanor. Hyler has all those attributes.

“He’s one of the most humble, down-to-earth people I have ever met,” said Jon Wagner, who was the managing director of Pinehurst Championship Management when Hyler served as the chair of the President’s Council for the 1999 U.S. Open. “He has no ego. He’s all about building a consensus, asking the right questions, getting the right answers and then making the right decision for the association or group or whoever he’s associated with.

“He’s one of the few people in my life, to this date, that I have never heard anything negative [about]. He’s a genuine article. They don’t come any better than him.”

Rising To The Top

What makes Hyler unique over recent USGA presidents is that he didn’t come from a golf administration background. He never served a state/regional golf association, nor was he on any championship committee or other USGA-related committee.

The first seeds were planted in 1991 when Pinehurst No. 2 was hosting The Tour Championship. Hyler, then the president of the family-controlled First Citizens Bank, had purchased corporate hospitality for the tournament. It was then that Hyler befriended Wagner and later Pinehurst President Pat Corso. Not long after Pinehurst had been awarded the 1999 U.S. Open, Hyler was on a sales call at Pinehurst when Corso mentioned his angst over selling corporate hospitality. Pinehurst had promised the USGA it would assume all the risks after paying an up-front rental fee. Quietly, critics believed Pinehurst was not an ideal Open venue from a logistical standpoint – too rural, not enough corporate backing and too few hotel rooms.

Hyler told him that the entire state needed to get behind the championship. It was a chance for North Carolina to puff out its chest to the nation.

Thus the President’s Council was created with Hyler as its point man. Through his duties at the bank, Hyler had contacts with some of the state’s business leaders. He knew government officials as well, and while the governor at the time, Jim Hunt, didn’t play golf, he understood the magnitude of the U.S. Open coming to North Carolina.

“He was big-time behind it,” said Hyler.

The 1999 U.S. Open turned into one of the most successful championships in the competition’s history. So many companies had stepped forth for corporate hospitality that Pinehurst had a waiting list. And the championship produced a memorable finish with Payne Stewart holing an 18-foot par putt at the 72nd hole to hold off Phil Mickelson by one stroke.

Through this U.S. Open experience, Hyler met key representatives of the USGA, including Davis and Executive Director David Fay. Davis and Hyler immediately hit it off and a kinship was born. A few years later, Stuart Bloch, the chair of the USGA’s Nominating Committee, had mentioned to a few key USGA staff members that he was looking for someone in the southeast U.S. for the Executive Committee. Davis had the ideal candidate – Hyler.

“He was one of the most impressive volunteers I had ever worked with at any championship,” said Davis. “I made the suggestion and then I was out.”

Hyler was stunned when Bloch called in the spring of 2003.

“Are you sure you have the right person?” Hyler asked Bloch after answering the phone. “There was just silence. He said, ‘We really want to talk to you.’”

Hyler flew to Chicago and interviewed with Bloch during the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields Country Club. By the fall, he had been nominated to the Executive Committee.

When Hyler arrived for the Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla., in February of 2004, he felt a bit lost. He knew virtually no one.

Craig Ammerman, now retired from the Executive Committee, had phoned Hyler to prep him. Incoming USGA President Fred Ridley had also called to welcome him. He also had been introduced to fellow new committee member Loren Singletary during an orientation at Golf House. But Singletary was a past president of the Texas Golf Association and the other new Executive Committee, Irv Fish, had served on the USGA’s Communications Committee. Hyler had done none of that.

“Loren and I were sort of like kids in the candy story,” said Hyler. “We were like deer in the highlights.”

For the first year, Hyler recalled sitting quietly at Executive Committee meetings, trying to absorb information. Ridley then appointed him and Fish to head up the newly created Marketing Committee, which looked into bringing corporate partners under the USGA umbrella.

But it was in the fall of 2005 where Hyler found his calling. Incoming USGA President Walter Driver asked the group for their committee preferences and Hyler asked to be involved with the Championship Committee. The opportunity to be a major player in the setup of the U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Amateur heavily piqued his interest.

The appointment to chairman of the Championship Committee coincided with Davis taking over as the senior director of rules and competitions from Tom Meeks, who had recently retired from the post.

Davis had some fresh ideas to spice up the championship setup, which included graduated rough and moving around tee markers. Hyler loved the changes as long as they didn’t interfere with making the U.S. Open the toughest challenge in golf. If anything, they enhanced player strategy and created more excitement.

In 2008, that philosophy was achieved with a sterling finish – Tiger Woods posting a birdie at the 72nd hole to force a memorable 18-hole Monday playoff with underdog Rocco Mediate, a playoff that would need 19 holes to decide the final outcome.

“When he heard about the concept of graduated rough or moving around teeing grounds, or when he heard about making Sunday more exciting than maybe Thursday and it doesn’t have to be harder … he asked a lot of questions,” said Davis. “He wanted to know why. After I explained things, he thought for himself, ‘You know what, that makes sense to me.’ I’m sure he heard a lot of chirping in his ears from the old guard. Once he was convinced, he said let’s do this.”

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In the spring of 2003 Jim Hyler received a call by the
USGA's Nominating Committee. Hyler asked if they were
sure they had the right person. (John Mummert/USGA)

Finding The Game

The son of a World War II veteran – his dad was an airplane mechanic in the European theater but rarely ever talked of the experience – Hyler grew up on a tobacco farm near the southern rural Virginia town of Danville. His parents didn’t play golf. While Hyler had clubs as a teenager, he focused on more mainstream sports, playing baseball, basketball and football in high school. But he did watch the 1960 U.S. Open on television and Arnold Palmer’s dramatic victory at Cherry Hills remains a seminal moment for Hyler.

Once he enrolled at Virginia Tech, he quickly realized he could no longer participate in team sports. “Too short and too slow,” he said with a laugh. On the edge of campus was a nine-hole golf course. Hyler gravitated to it and quickly fell in love with the game.

After graduating in 1970 and joining the accounting firm of Ernst & Ernst (now Ernst & Young) in Winston-Salem, N.C., Hyler and a few colleagues would often head to the local municipal course near the office and play 18 holes in two hours. They’d get the first starting time at 7 a.m. and be in the office by 9:30.

“The more I learned about the game, the more I loved it,” said Hyler, whose 31-year-old son, Brad, became an accomplished golfer at the University of North Carolina and qualified for the 1998 U.S. Amateur Championship. “I just loved to play.”

One of Hyler’s main clients happened to be Wachovia Bank and that led to landing a position at First Citizens in Raleigh. By 1988 he was the president and chief operating officer. He became vice chairman in 1994 before taking over as the chief operating officer. In 28 years, Hyler became the face of First Citizens.

But he wasn’t a member of the Holding family, who controlled the bank. As Hyler described it, he filled a void in a generation of Holdings who ran the institution. And when Frank Holding Jr., the nephew of longtime CEO Lewis “Snow” Holding became ready to assume the position in January of 2008, Hyler retired from the bank.

Leaving the bank, however, didn’t mean complete retirement. Hyler isn’t the type to sit home and simply relax with his feet up on the patio. In fact, he might be busier today than he was two years ago. Besides his USGA obligations, he serves on the board of three privately owned companies and one publicly owned company. He also serves on two hospital boards and works with a private company as a consultant.

His appointment book mirrors a complicated matrix.

“I am busy,” said Hyler. “But I love being busy. I’ve been able to put together a great portfolio of things to do that allows me the flexibility to be this engaged with the USGA.”

A voracious reader, Hyler doesn’t go a day without digesting the Wall Street Journal from cover to cover. He also loves indulging himself in books, specifically anything to do with the great leaders of World War II. His heroes include Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and George Marshall, Adm. Chester Nimitz and George Patton.

“I like reading about extraordinary people,” said Hyler.

Hyler certainly is a North Carolina success story. He helped found The First Tee chapter in Raleigh, the first to be opened in the state. He is a past chairman of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, the North Carolina Chamber and the Raleigh Durham Airport Authority. He is a past chairman of two state government fiscal reform committees, positions he held at the request of North Carolina’s governor.

He’s a founding member of Old Chatham Golf Club, a Rees Jones-designed course on the outskirts of Durham that opened in 2001, and was the greens committee chairman for five years. He also served on the boards of North Ridge Country Club and at The Country Club of North Carolina, which will host this year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, and was president of both North Ridge and Old Chatham.

Now he’s ready to step into the next chapter of his life.

“He’s a real people person,” said Vernon, who has involved Hyler in all aspects of the process the past two years. “He’s very cognizant of the need to have relationships and that rolls right into listening and giving everybody an opportunity to express himself.”

And nobody questions Hyler’s intelligence. He’s already achieved a 95 on the USGA Rules Test – a 92 is required to work the U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Amateur – and he’s comfortable serving as a walking Rules officials at championships. His business acumen makes him invaluable when it comes to financial decisions.

The extra travel shouldn’t bother Hyler, either. Being on the Championship Committee not only required visits to current-year sites, but also to future sites to ensure proper preparations are being made for those upcoming events. Last year alone, he visited Pebble Beach, Erin Hills, Sahalee, Chambers Bay, Congressional, Olympic Club, Merion and Bethpage.

For Hyler, it’s all about being prepared.

“Jim just seems very presidential to me,” said Davis. “He really cares only about what is best for the USGA and everything we do. I see example after example that Jim Hyler is in this for all the right reasons.”

David Shefter is a USGA staff writer within the Communications Department. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.

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