Jim Hyler (front row, center) took over as the USGA's 61st president at the Association's Annual Meeting on Feb. 6 at the Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort. (John Mummert/USGA)
Q&A With The New USGA President
On Feb. 6 in the Village of Pinehurst, N.C., 62-year-old Jim Hyler of nearby Raleigh was installed as the 61st president of the USGA. First noticed by the Association for his work as chairman of the President’s Council for the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, Hyler was nominated to join the USGA Executive Committee in 2004.
Hyler went on to serve as chairman of the Championship Committee from 2006-09 before being chosen to succeed Jim Vernon of Pasadena, Calif., as USGA president. Now retired from the banking industry, where he spent 28 years at First Citizens Bank, Hyler remains active as a board member for one publicly owned and three privately owned companies. As he prepared to assume the highest position on the Executive Committee, Hyler sat down with USGA staff writer David Shefter to discuss his new role as well as other topics:
Question: What excites you about being president of the USGA?
Hyler: For me it’s working with the volunteers. The USGA is all about the volunteers who conduct our championships and serve on our committees. One of the great things about this involvement is getting to meet a lot of people from all over the country and the world. Just the opportunity to continue to work with these people, these dedicated [and] loyal volunteers, is really special.
Question: On the flip side, is there anything that concerns or scares you about being the president or the current state of the USGA?
Hyler: I have concerns about the economy, and the continued impact of the recession on corporate hospitality and spending, and on future broadcast revenue. Then I come back to what I call the ‘specialness’ of the U.S. Open. Are we going to be able to really
dedicate ourselves to saying the U.S. Open is different? It’s special. It’s going to be a very difficult test of golf inside the ropes, and outside the ropes we want really minimal, limited commercialism and still have it be a great experience. We want a clean, uncluttered look.
Question: Now that the grooves rule has been implemented on Jan. 1 for elite players and for everyone else by 2014, what other key issues can you expect to be addressed by the USGA over the next year?
Hyler: On the equipment side, we have seen the driving distance on the PGA Tour stabilize for the last six years. We need to digest the impact of the grooves change and see how that impacts play, including distance. And then we’ll be in a monitoring posture to see where all this leads. I don’t think there is anything [else] imminent on the equipment side. For us at the USGA, we’ll continue to focus on some of our internal operations to make sure we are as efficient as we can possibly be. We’ll focus on the ‘specialness’ of the U.S. Open and how we can optimize and enhance the Open. It’s our Super Bowl. It’s by far our major branding opportunity. One very valuable asset we have is our Green Section and the service we give our member clubs. We want to promote responsible turfgrass management from a financial and environmental standpoint. Water is a limited resource. There needs to be a reset of the way we look at golf courses in the United States. We cannot have lush, green, well-manicured courses that maybe we would like to have, simply because of water issues. And I actually think that’s good for the game. We need to get to a point where we say brown is beautiful. Playing golf on firmer, faster surfaces to me is a better game.
Question: How much have you leaned on outgoing President Jim Vernon for advice?
Hyler: Jim Vernon has been incredible. He has involved me in virtually every issue that we’ve faced. He’s been so open in welcoming thoughts and ideas that I feel like it’s been a partnership. I feel like I am in pretty good shape on the issues we’re facing. We talk on average a couple of times a week. We exchange e-mail and he’s always asking my opinion about things. We’ve had a wonderful relationship that I hope to continue for a lifetime.
Question: Upon becoming chairman of the Championship Committee in 2006, the USGA made some bold steps in its course setup philosophy, introducing graduated rough and utilizing multiple teeing grounds, which appear to have been a huge success and a clear change in what the USGA did in the past.
Hyler: We were on board with the whole idea to spice up the Open. We wanted to make the Open very hard and fair, but also add some excitement to it; that it wasn’t just guys grinding out pars. So the graduated rough, moving the teeing grounds around led to more strategy and risk/reward for the players. We came up with the idea that on Sunday afternoon, we wanted to see some more birdies. If you really went back and looked at the setup at Torrey Pines (2008) and Bethpage (2009) for the fourth round, you will see some real scoring opportunities. [At Torrey Pines] we kept moving the tee on 18 (par 5) until an average-length player, if he hit a drive in the fairway, would at least think about it (going for the green in two).
Question: Since joining the Executive Committee, do you have a favorite U.S. Open?
Hyler: You would have to say Torrey Pines because of the competition between Tiger [Woods] and Rocco [Mediate]. But when I look at the total Open – and there are several aspects here – I’d have to say Bethpage with the challenge of the rain. Mike Davis’ leadership during the five days of competition was incredible. I have never seen a better example of leadership. That we were able to finish on Monday at 1 o’clock was an incredible feat. From the setup, going into the week with setup plans and then having to do things on the fly during the week, and then to have the finish we did – and it was pretty good drama with [Phil] Mickelson, [David] Duval, [eventual champion] Lucas [Glover] and Ricky Barnes – I would say Bethpage. That was a remarkable organization effort to get that Open finished.
Question: I give you a choice of setting up a course for a USGA championship or working as a Rules official at that championship. Which do you take?
Hyler: I am so into the setup. That’s the thing for me. Even though I have achieved the [qualifying] number on the [Rules] test, I am not an experienced Rules guy. And I know that. I understand that. I’m a Type A – my wife would say a Type A-plus-plus – personality. In my own life and the way I do things, I’m very competitive. So I love the competition. To be able to migrate that love of the competition to what goes on inside the ropes and how the setup impacts the competition, I just have a real passion for that.
Question: What kind of hobbies do you have away from golf or business?
Hyler: I love history, particularly World War II history. I have read a lot about some of the great leaders of that era like [Winston] Churchill, [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, [General George] Patton, Admiral [Chester] Nimitz, General Douglas MacArthur and [George] Marshall, who created the Marshall Plan after the war.
Question: How has someone like Churchill impacted your leadership style?
Hyler: Churchill is of particular interest to me because of the way he was able to rally the English people. To not fold, to fight on. To really focus on victory. He had been a voice in the wilderness in the ‘30s, continually talking about the threat of Hitler, and he was a lone voice. Everyone thought he was nuts. But when he became prime minister, his will I think is one of the unbelievable leadership stories in the history of mankind. First of all, he took on unpopular positions and he was so convinced of where he stood on the issues that he did not back down. And history proved him to be correct. Sticking to your guns when it can be unpopular I think is one lesson I take from that. It’s the same for the USGA. We have to do what’s right for the game. In equipment issues, there is some dynamic tension between the manufacturers and the governing body. But what is right for the game? I think that’s the perspective we do take on these matters. They might not be the most popular for some constituencies, but it’s what you think is best for the game.
Question: Being a history buff, were you into golf’s lore before becoming a member of the Executive Committee?
Hyler: Absolutely. I have read a lot about Bob Jones’ career. I have a lot of respect for him, and what he did by staying amateur spoke volumes about his career. Another person that I am fascinated with is Ben Hogan. His life story is almost unbelievable. What he went through as a child with his father’s suicide, being a caddie, growing up very poor and always being compared to Byron Nelson [was tough]. His game struggles [at the outset of his pro career], then he gets it together [by winning the 1948 U.S. Open] and has a [near-fatal] automobile accident [in 1949] and then he comes back [to win the 1950 U.S. Open]. What he did in 1953 in winning three of the majors; going to the Open Championship one time at Carnoustie and winning. That’s remarkable. It shows you the importance of practice.
Question: Speaking of practice, everyone says you are meticulous when it comes to preparation. How much planning do you put in for USGA matters?
Hyler: For [U.S. Open] media day or the Open press conference on Wednesday, I spend a lot of time reviewing information about the golf course and I listen to Mike [Davis]. I’ll bet it is five or six hours. I’ll think about questions that could be asked. Even for the Executive Committee meetings, I’ll spend six to eight hours preparing for that two-hour [Championship Committee] meeting. Repetition leads to familiarity.
Question: Did you envision spending this much time on USGA matters when you first joined the Executive Committee?
Hyler: Now-retired Executive Committee member Craig Ammerman found me in Charlotte (N.C.) having dinner and called me. He gets me on the phone and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Did they tell you how much time this is going to take?’ I said about 35 to 40 days and he just laughed. There’s no way you can understand it until you experience it. As you get more engaged, the Championship Committee chair or Rules of Golf Committee chair spends a lot of time [volunteering].
Question: Has your golf game been affected since coming onto the Executive Committee?
Hyler: People think because you are on the Executive Committee you play golf all the time. My index has actually gone from a .9 to a 5.9. And I don’t play anywhere near to that.
Question: What is your fondest memory in golf?
Hyler: Caddieing for my son, Brad, at the 1998 U.S. Amateur. It’s the highlight of my golf [career]. I was actually on a golf trip to Oakland Hills when he qualified. My wife [Natalie] called me and said, ‘Brad is going to the U.S. Amateur.’
He played really bad his first qualifying round [on the East Course] and then in the second qualifying round he shot 65 [on the West Course]. Then he got beat his first match [by Mauricio Muniz of Puerto Rico, 2 and 1]. It was a lot of fun. We played with Danny Green and Bob Gerwin [in stroke play]. Bob and I see each other now and he remembers. Brad made it through local qualifying for the 1999 Open. We went to the sectional at East Lake. I caddied for him there. Thirty-six holes. He was playing at UNC (University of North Carolina) and the NCAAs wrapped up that Saturday at Hazeltine [outside of Minneapolis] and we flew to Atlanta on Saturday night. We played a practice round on Sunday. Then we go to Monday. He played really well in the morning and just ran out of gas. He played with Morris Hatalsky who put on a short-game clinic.
Question: Have you ever tried to qualify for a USGA championship?
Hyler: No. Even when I had a low handicap, I was a decent club player. I won a club championship at North Ridge Country Club in Raleigh. That’s the extent of it.
Question: What’s your favorite golf course?
Hyler: Pinehurst No. 2. It’s [Donald] Ross’ genius of design. The angles he gives you off the tee and then for your approach shots are genius. And then the green complexes. I don’t think there are any like them in the U.S. I just think it’s an incredible challenge. I just respect the way Ross messes with your head. You go there one day and play really well and you go there the next day and you just feel like an idiot.
Question: What course or courses do you want to play that you haven’t experienced?
Hyler: Northern Scotland courses such as Royal Dornoch, Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay, Nairn. I’m already thinking about the 2011 Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen. I am really looking forward to that.
Question: What’s your lowest 18-hole score?
Hyler: Sixty-five. Blowing Rock Country Club in North Carolina. My best round here [at my home club, Old Chatham in Durham, N.C.] is a 68.
Question: Anything on your non-golf bucket list?
Hyler: I want to get to all 50 states. I think I am sitting at 43. Northern Scotland. For the golf and to see it. Other than that, I don’t have any bucket-list travel stuff. I know my wife is looking forward to going to Argentina this October for the World Amateur Team [Championship].
Question: Being a Virginia Tech graduate, do you get back for many football games?
Hyler: I usually go to one game a year. It’s a four-hour drive. [But] I love all sports, especially college football, the NFL.
Question: How cool is it that you’ll become the USGA president at Pinehurst?
Hyler: It’s pretty special. I have [USGA Executive Director] David Fay to thank for that. It’s nice symmetry.