Emotional Vernon Exits Presidency

Outgoing USGA President Jim Vernon studies his final speech in a quiet corner of The Carolina Hotel. (John Mummert/USGA)

Feb. 6, 2010

By Ken Klavon, USGA

Pinehurst, N.C. – Two years ago in a Houston hotel lobby, Jim Vernon relaxed on a black leather sofa hours before assuming the USGA presidency.

The svelte Vernon, now 60, came across as calm and purposeful. Entering his sixth year on the Executive Committee  – a term that had already included two years as vice president and four years as chairman of the Equipment Standards Committee – Vernon was about to embark on the twilight of his service to the Association, well aware of the challenges ahead.

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Now two years later, as he ended his final closed-door meeting as the 60th president on Friday, Vernon spoke just a few words before choking up. Executive Committee members Christie Austin and Pat Kaufman both said there “wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” Incoming president Jim Hyler stood and picked up where Vernon could not. Hyler thanked Vernon and outgoing Executive Committee members Jim Bunch and Irv Fish for their contributions. Then Hyler’s eyes welled up.

 “Jim said that he had a great seven years and then he got emotional,” said the 62-year-old Hyler. “Jim Vernon has been a great leader for the organization. He was a leader fit for the right time, had core Association interests at stake and took the organization far.”

Nothing seemed to get past the detail-oriented Vernon. His primary focuses were on championships, equipment, aggressive Internet growth and preserving the game’s history, in addition to leading the Association's professional staff and 1,400 volunteers who serve on more than 30 committees. A tireless volunteer himself, Vernon put Association interests first.

Moreover, he was approachable and lent a listening ear no matter the issue. Never was a decision made alone. Perhaps his strongest traits – developed thanks to engineering and law degrees at Stanford – were rooted in his ability to assemble a multitude of viewpoints, with an aptitude to understand issues deeply.

“There was nothing, nothing, nothing territorial about Jim Vernon,” said Fish. “He has been a calming influence; he was a listener, compassionate and absolutely transparent. He would build consensus and he had a pleasant way – when the time came, if it came – of saying, 'This is the direction we’re going.'”

Over dinner in West Hollywood, Calif., nearly three years ago – shortly after being nominated to succeed outgoing president Walter Driver – Vernon was asked what legacy he’d like to leave when his tenure ended. Vernon poked at his salad, paused and responded circumspectly.

“What matters most is how the Association evolves,” said Vernon.

His wife, Gail, who was present at the dinner, joked then how she’d be husband-less for the next two years. Even Vernon, during his first official speech as the USGA president, made light of the travel, saying, “Honey, see you in two years.”

As the time went by, Gail would watch as her husband devoted much of his time to the USGA. In order to see him, she’d attend championships or go along on other USGA-business travel. “He was so focused, so involved every day in his office or while he was in town, at home,” said Gail Vernon. “But he wanted to make communication a key and his purpose was to see that grow.”

As Vernon ended his final Annual Meeting speech Saturday night, he again couldn’t contain his emotions. He thanked his wife for allowing him the opportunity to pursue Association matters, reminding everyone of what he had said two years prior. “I’m only hoping she’s looking forward to seeing me [now],” he joked.

In addition to owning and operating Frank Vernon Diamonds and Wholesale Jewelers, Vernon served as past president of both the boards of directors of the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA) and the California Golf Association.

In an interview, Vernon said there were too many special moments during his presidency. Ultimately he referenced two that stood out. 

“The [U.S. Open ] playoff at Torrey Pines and being with the last group. The 19th hole and then handing the trophy to Tiger Woods,” said Vernon. “The Walker Cup Match last year, that was really something special. Presenting the cup to the Americans and how [USA captain] Buddy Marucci instituted a strategy to get that team to play. I’m in awe of Buddy.”

On Saturday, nearly three years after first inquiring about what he'd like his legacy to be when his presidency ended, the question was asked again.

“That’s for others to say and determine,” said Vernon. “But I hope I’m stepping down with championships being a little better than when I started. I hope the business operations are better streamlined with the Association poised to take advantage of some things, such as technology. And I hope all the core functions have been improved.”

It was written before Vernon started his presidency that a house built on sand will ultimately sink, but a home constructed with a foundation made of concrete will stand the test of time. If Vernon’s legacy can be weighed by his contributions, then he added more concrete to the USGA foundation and, in Hyler’s opinion, left “big shoes to fill.”

Vernon was asked about the final closed-door session and his emotions that bubbled to the surface. His face became flush when he tried articulating the moment.

“It was a final way to for me to thank the staff and our volunteers for all they’ve done,” said Vernon. “People have become great friends, lifelong friends, and I wanted them to know I have the utmost respect for them. God, I’m going to miss it.”

Ken Klavon is the USGA’s Editor of Digital Media, Communications. E-mail him with questions or comments at kklavon@usga.org.

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