2012 Annual Meeting: USGA President Glen Nager's Address

By Glen D. Nager, USGA President
February 4, 2012

“It’s about the game” – that’s what Jim Hyler has so wisely reminded us at each of our last two Annual Meetings.  

It is “about the game.” That basic premise has to remain our focal point – both for today, and, even more importantly, for tomorrow. Thousands of wonderful and committed people volunteer their time to the USGA and to our partner state and regional golf associations each year. We do so not simply because we care about our golf associations. We do so because we deeply and passionately care about the game of golf and the life values that it represents and supports.

Golf is different from other sports in many ways. But the most important differences are in the values that the game promotes: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, discipline, and respect for other players and for the golf course itself. While other sports may aspire to some of these values, golf is the only sport that really achieves them. Only in golf is it common for competitors to call penalties on themselves; only in golf does a player compliment an opponent or a fellow competitor who has played a good shot.

It is this uniqueness, this integrity, this sportsmanship, that remains the singular basis for our collective efforts in protecting, nurturing, and governing the game. The USGA’s mission has always been to promote and conservethe true spirit of the game as embodied in its ancient and honorable traditions. At a time when the game faces increasingly complex challenges, we must recommit ourselves to this mission. Everything we do must be in the best interests of the game – so as to respect its traditions, honor its values, and yet allow it to evolve for the benefit of golfers today and the future golfers of tomorrow. This is how we sustain the game.

 

This past year, under the leadership of Jim Hyler and Mike Davis, the USGA took substantial action in this regard. We simplified some of the Rules of Golf. We developed Rules education programs for recreational golfers. Recognizing the global reach of the game, we joined with The R&A to create a single look-a-like Rules book and a new joint Amateur Status code – so that golfers around the world would be connected to the game in the same way. In partnership with the PGA of America, we embarked on ambitious new projects like Tee It Forward, to address pace of play issues and encourage golfers to have more fun, as well as a joint initiative with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, to bring the game and its values to thousands of underprivileged youth across the country. And, through the ongoing work of our Green Section, we strongly reaffirmed our commitment to responsible water management practices and expanded our advocacy for a more environmentally sensitive vision for the game. All of this was “about the game” and to “sustain” the game.

We should be proud of these actions. But we must also recognize that the game faces increasingly complex and broader challenges – from the cost and time required to play the game; from the environment and the economy; and from a history and perception that the game is unwelcoming, if not intimidating, to some. Continuing to pursue our past agenda is important, but it is not sufficient to meet the very real challenges that the game faces.  

Participation in the game in the United States has been flat or declining since it peaked in 2003. According to National Golf Foundation data, the number of golfers in this country has dropped by 12.9% since that time, and the number of rounds played has decreased roughly 5%. According to research conducted recently by the PGA of America, the game has become too expensive; it takes too long to play; and many women and minorities still feel unwelcome. We have to promote a more enjoyable, more affordable, and more welcoming experience for golfers – without fundamentally changing the game itself.

One of the reasons that golf is fun is because we all play by the same rules on the same field – whether we are a professional, a low-handicap golfer, or a high-handicap golfer. On any given stroke, each of us can hit as good a shot as an elite professional. But our romance with elite golfers and the shots that they play has, unfortunately, also caused us to demand longer and lusher courses than many of us can realistically play and afford.

For the past two years, Jim Hyler has been the industry’s leading advocate for sustainable water management practices. Firm and fast golf course conditions can make the game more fun. Responsible use of water also translates directly into economic benefits for courses, and ultimately for golfers. It is critical that we grow our sustainability initiative.

But, to sustain the game, we must do more. We also need to reexamine the acreage that is used on modern golf courses. Today’s longer, wider, and more immaculately groomed golf courses consume excessive resources – not simply land and water, but also fertilizer, energy, and labor. That makes golf more expensive – causing it to be put further beyond the economic reach of many. Length also impacts pace of play and enjoyment. Longer courses take longer to walk, and, let’s admit it, are also harder to play. Five-plus-hour rounds have become too common, and, for too many golfers, they are just not as much fun.

Our joint Tee It Forward initiative with the PGA of America is specifically targeted at aspects of this challenge. In a two-week program last July, we asked golfers to play tees more suited to the distances that they actually drive the ball. More than 235,000 golfers at more than 1,900 facilities participated. More than 70% of those who “teed it forward” reported that they had more fun; more than 90% confirmed that they would encourage Tee It Forward to a friend; and 52% confirmed that they would play more often knowing that they could “tee it forward.” While we are pleased with the 2011 pilot program, we must commit additional resources to grow this program in 2012 and beyond to effect a long-term change in playing habits that will ultimately strengthen and sustain the game.

Still, Tee It Forward is also not alone enough. Golf courses today are longer, lusher and more costly to maintain due to a variety of factors: Choices made by developers, owners, and architects to design courses for the driving distances of elite players, even though most players cannot drive the ball so far; the belief by too many players that longer and more difficult is equivalent to better; an overemphasis on highly manicured aesthetics; and modern equipment, including advances in club and ball design. For us to truly sustain the game, we must reset expectations to embrace courses that are shorter, more smartly set-up, more affordable, and more fun for the average recreational golfer.

We must also look at who is, who will and who should be playing the game. Women and minorities have for too long faced obstacles preventing their full participation in the game. Also, the game just has very low penetration in the Hispanic community. It is incumbent upon us to advocate a vision for the game that is truly open and welcoming. That is how we can sustain the game.

Our new initiative with the PGA of America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America is an important step in this regard. So, too, is the work we are doing with the PGA to document and celebrate the history of African-American golf. At the same time, programs like LPGA-USGA Girls Golf provide valuable opportunities for young girls to learn the game. And our recent work toward simplification of the Rules is important to making the game more welcoming and accessible to newcomers.

This is a critical point in time to broaden our outlook. At both the amateur and professional levels, golf is increasingly a global sport played by more and more racial and ethnic groups. Participation by foreign players in our national championships has surged in recent years. And the return of golf to the Olympic Games in 2016 suggests that the growth of the game in regions of the world such as South America, Africa, and Asia may well accelerate.

Such developments make it necessary that we, too, embrace a global, multi-cultural vision for the sport. Through our partnership with The R&A, the USGA has governed the game worldwide for more than 60 years, jointly writing the Rules of Golf including equipment standards, the Rules of Amateur Status, and most recently joint administration of the World Amateur Golf Rankings. As the game develops globally, we must expand our partnership with The R&A and, together, find more ways to serve the game globally. To this end, in collaboration with the China Golf Association, this summer we will host an international junior team match on our West Coast. And while our handicapping and course rating systems are already used on six continents in more than 50 countries, we must expand these core programs to benefit even more golfers around the globe. Likewise, we must find new ways to extend the programs of our Green Section to international audiences, so that the research and science that has been so beneficial to golf courses here at home can be leveraged by course superintendents around the world. Sustaining the game requires global actions.

For us to succeed, the USGA will have to find more financial resources, so that it can pay for these important sustainability initiatives. The USGA is currently financially stable and strong: We have a substantial reserve to protect us against litigation and unforeseen events; and we are fortunate to have a prestigious national championship that generates substantial financial resources for us. But we frankly cannot place undue financial stress on the U.S. Open experience if we are to maintain its integrity and reputation. And our recent championship history shows, not surprisingly, that we are not immune from the economic challenges that the entire world is facing.

 If you look across our present activities, from the Green Section to Rules to Amateur Status, from Equipment Standards to Handicapping and Course Rating, from our amateur championships to our Museum, you will find that the USGA already dedicates more than $70 million a year to support the game. The challenges facing the game require still more from us. If we are to provide additional support to the state and regional golf associations that are so critical for the game, and if we are to expand our programs to service the growing needs of a global golf community, it will be necessary for us to expand the resources available for investment in the game.

We are fortunate to have an elite group of corporate partners that share our vision and our values and provide us with important resources to enhance our core functions. Our media partners work tirelessly to help us reach new audiences and share the stories of our national championships. We appreciate the support of these partners. We also recognize the loyalty and dedication of the USGA Members, many of whom have been a part of the USGA family for years. We see new opportunities for our Members Program and we hope to capture the philanthropic spirit of those with financial resources to join us in promoting the health and sustainability of the game.

In preparing these remarks, I very consciously did not include the kind of “thank you’s” that are typically given in speeches of this type. It is not because Jim Hyler, the two past presidents who kindly escorted me to the stage today, or my colleagues on the Executive Committee are not deserving. It is because I passionately believe that our shared focus today should be on the game of golf and how we sustain it – not on me, my predecessors, or even the USGA.

That said, I would be remiss if I did not note the absence today of one man – a man who very much wanted to be here. His name is Andy Kramer, and sadly Andy lost his long battle to cancer last November. A number of you knew him from his work on past U.S. Opens and from his service as Chair of the Board at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. But I knew him as a mentor and as my closest friend. He introduced me to the game. Indeed, it was Andy who encouraged me to become active in the USGA. Andy’s passion for the game – and his demonstration of the values underlying it – are most clearly illustrated by my memory of his walking fast up the fairways of Caves Valley Golf Club last year in 95 degree heat three days after a chemotherapy treatment. It is for Andy and others like him – people who so love the game of golf – that we must work to sustain the game.

So, let us remember that we are here “For the Good of the Game.” And in going forward, our focus must be on sustaining that game – by making it more enjoyable, less expensive, and more welcoming, while at the same time maintaining and honoring the core values that it promotes.

Thank you.

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