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USGA Members Program Founder Jemison Dies

By David Shefter, USGA

| Nov 23, 2010

Former Executive Committee member Elbert S. Jemison was responsible for starting the USGA Members program 35 years ago. (USGA Museum)

Elbert S. Jemison Jr., a former USGA Executive Committee member who helped start the Association’s Members Program 35 years ago, died on Monday in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., at the age of 90. No information was available on the cause of death. 

A successful insurance agent and amateur golfer, Jemison was appointed to the USGA Executive Committee in 1970 and served for eight years. When Jemison assumed the role of treasurer in 1975, he recognized the USGA’s need to broaden its revenue streams.  

He conceived the idea of an Associates Program, in which Members would pay an annual subscription and in turn receive the USGA Golf Journal, a bag tag, The Rules of Golf and other benefits. Jemison turned to Arnold Palmer for assistance and the first Member enrolled was President Gerald R. Ford. The ceremony took place in the Oval Office on Dec. 18, 1975. 

“Arnie and I got together to set out a strategy of what we could do, and we agreed that [President Ford] would be the first Associate in the country,” said Jemison, who served his final two years on the Executive Committee (1976-77) as secretary. “Arnie said he would be the second [Member] and I’d be the third because, you know, the president and Arnold have a little more clout than me.” 

The name was changed in 1991 to the Members Program. It continues to play a major role for the USGA, currently boasting more than 800,000 Members.  

“It has created a great deal of support for the USGA,” said Jemison. 

Born in Birmingham in 1920, Jemison quickly gravitated to the game as a young boy through his mother, who was an active competitive golfer in Alabama. While his father didn’t play, he played an active role in selecting tournament sites for the Mountain Brook Club and the Country Club of Birmingham. Though he loved football, Jemison found more success on the golf course. He played on the golf team at Ramsey High School and later at Sewanee Military Academy. 

In his final year at the academy, he was promoted to cadet colonel and battalion commander for more than 300 of his cohorts.  

In 1940, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, in part because of its strong golf team, but World War II cut short his academics. 

He enlisted in the US Army and started out as an infantry officer, then moved to the armored division before being named the personal aide to General Edmund Sebree, the assistant 35th Infantry Division commander. 

“We crossed the [English] Channel into Normandy [in 1944] and I was assigned to an infantry unit involved in the liberation of Le Mans, Orleans and Nancy,” Jemison told in a 2007 article. 

Golf even played a minor role as Jemison took an 8-iron into the service with him. “It was just short enough to fit into my bedroll and I knew hitting some balls off the deck of the troop ship would be a good diversion. 

“General George Patton found out about this months later, and commented, ‘By God Jemison, if you can kill Germans with that thing, do it!’ ” 

Following the war, Jemison enrolled at the University of Alabama and played on the Crimson Tide golf team for two years. Former New York Yankees outfielder Sam Byrd, who had become a local golf pro, worked with Jemison on his game to the point where he considered turning professional. 

Jemison eventually decided to become an insurance agent for Mass Mutual. 

As a player, Jemison won back-to-back Alabama State Amateur titles in 1956 and 1957, and he later claimed consecutive Alabama State Senior Amateur titles in 1976 and 1977. He also qualified for four U.S. Amateurs (reaching the fourth round in 1960), one U.S. Senior Open and one USGA Senior Amateur. 

During the 1950s, Jemison found his way into golf administration, twice serving as president of the Alabama Golf Association and also joining the USGA’s Green Section and Sectional Affairs committees. He also went on to serve many years on the USGA’s Green Section Award Committee and its Members Committee. He also served as president of the Southern Golf Association before his appointment to the USGA Executive Committee. 

Five years after being appointed, Jemison took the bold step of creating the Associates Program, an initiative that originally drew some skepticsm.

Past USGA Executive Committee member Prescott Bush Jr., son of former USGA President Prescott Bush and brother and uncle, respectively, to former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, was one such critic.

“I remember him asking, ‘If no one enrolls in this, what is our cost?’ ” said Jemison. 

But that never proved to be an issue as new Members jumped aboard, thanks in large part to the support of Palmer, who remains the honorary chairman of the program. 

In 1982, Jemison was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, which to his death remained one of his proudest achievements. Jemison also received the USGA’s Ike Grainger Award for his long service to the Association in both 1995 and 2001. 

Through the help of Wendall Givens, a past member of the sports staff at the Birmingham Age-Herald, Jemison wrote a book about his fascinating life entitled “Playback: From Hickory Nuts to Hall of Fame,” which was published in 1977, the last year Jemison served on the Executive Committee. 

“My aim was to write this book primarily for present and future family members,” said Jemison. “Not as an autobiography, but as an account of events in my life.” 

Jemison’s family will receive friends at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 27, at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Klingman Commons, Birmingham, Ala. A memorial service will follow at 11 a.m. 

David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at