Orlando, Fla. – Mimi Evans hesitated briefly before deciding that she couldn’t pass up the opportunity presented by the third edition of the USGA Member Education Series.
Earlier this week, Evans was one of 125 USGA Members gathered at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando for a three-day event that included golf, a series of informative programs with USGA officials and – the highlight for Evans – a chance to meet and hear from golf legend Arnold Palmer, who lives at Bay Hill during the winter.
“When the e-mail came in, it took my breath away,” said Evans, of Little Rock, Ark. “When I was 10 years old, my father taught me to play golf in my hometown of Saginaw, Mich. I started watching golf and when I saw Arnold play, he mesmerized me. I decided right then that I was a member of ‘Arnie’s Army.’ I putted with my knees together and my feet pointed in just like he did. And ever since then, he has been my hero.”
Evans’ father, Ray Payton, was a scratch golfer, and she also became an accomplished player.
“We would play in father-son tournaments in which I was the only girl, and we would win,” said Evans, the current women’s state senior champion and women’s state senior club champion in Arkansas. Evans’ father died when she was 18, but through it all, Palmer has been a constant role model.
“I wish we could clone him and put him out on the Tour right now,” she said. “He would make it exciting for viewers again. Back in the 1960s and 70s, you would watch them play on TV and it made you want to learn the game. Today, people go to Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open so they can say they were there, say that they saw this player or that player, but how do they really feel about the player? Do they care?”
Evans proudly displayed a photo of the patch that signifies her status as an original USGA Associate, an initiative that was launched in 1975 with Palmer’s involvement. He has been the program’s honorary chairman since its inception and presented the first membership to President Gerald R. Ford in a White House ceremony. Its name was changed to the USGA Members Program in 1991, and it is now roughly 800,000 strong.
Members from 26 states and one foreign country (Norway) signed on for the Bay Hill event. They attended a cocktail reception with Palmer and USGA President Jim Hyler on the first night, followed by dinner and a multi-media presentation with Hyler, who provided examples of some of the Association’s recent championship initiatives, such as graduated rough, risk/reward holes and firm and fast course setup at recent venues such as Pebble Beach and Chambers Bay. Hyler also took questions from the Members, many of whom came away with a fresh understanding of the USGA’s goals in setting up a U.S. Open course.
“It’s a myth that we are trying to set it up so that an even-par score wins the U.S. Open,” said Hyler to one question. “For one thing, I’m not even sure how you would go about that.”
The next morning, a thunderstorm forced the Rules and instructional clinics into the clubhouse, where David Staebler, the director of Rules education for the USGA, gave a primer on the Rules of Golf. Staebler explained that the Rules are based on two basic principles, that players must play the course as they find it and play the ball as it lies, then expanded on this point by asserting that when it is not possible to abide by one or both of those principles, the Rules attempt to provide a procedure to the player that is the closest thing possible to playing the course as it is found and the ball as it lies.
“I have been to other Rules clinics that were very technical,” said Jim Simon, a USGA Member from Morris Plains, N.J. “He was terrific, very animated. And he gave the logic behind the Rules in a very clear and simple manner.”
John O’Leary of the on-site Arnold Palmer Academy centered his discussion on swing fundamentals, but couldn’t resist describing the scene a friend of his encountered on a driving range across town.
“My friend is a member at Isleworth, and he was out hitting balls one day,” O’Leary said. “Tiger Woods was the only other person on the practice tee. Suddenly, Tiger leaves the tee and sprints out to one of the flags about 100 yards away, then runs back. He hits some shots, and then he does the same thing. My friend is worried that he’s going to pull-hook a shot and hit Tiger; finally he had to ask Tiger what he was doing. Turns out that he wanted to practice wedge shots with an elevated heart rate.”
O’Leary later explained that he got his start in golf as an “outside service attendant. But in those days, we were called ‘cart rats.’ Now, when you come to the Arnold Palmer Academy, we teach you that the correct ball position is two inches inside the left heel, for all shots. Why is that, you ask? Because Mr. Palmer says so.”
Attendees waited out the rain, with most of them able to get in 14 or 15 holes later in the day. No one fretted about the weather.
“I’ve been involved in golf a long time, and this has been one of the most enjoyable mornings I’ve had in the game,” said Simon, after Staebler and O’Leary had completed their sessions.
Stephen and Connor Brown could not have made the same statement, since the brothers from Los Angeles are only 12 and 11 years old, respectively. Their golf immersion started in August 2007, when their father, Robert, suggested that they spend a summer week at a golf camp of his own design.
“I had them go to the practice green, the driving range, and then play a few holes every day,” said Brown. “I thought they would have had their fill of it after a few days, but on Friday they were waking me up to get over to the golf course.”
The Browns live a couple of blocks from Rancho Park, a municipal course that hosted the PGA Tour’s Los Angeles Open for nearly two decades. The brothers are able to walk to the course, and over the next year, they logged nearly 200 rounds on Rancho Park’s 1,000-yard, par-3 course.
“They don’t need a tee time when they play the par-3 course at Rancho Park,” said Brown. “Unlike soccer or baseball or basketball, it’s easy to fit into their schedule. You don’t have to work your schedule around when the team is playing or practicing.”
As part of their involvement with the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, the brothers must demonstrate golf skills, but also keep up their grades, get recommendations and perform community service. They have run five youth tournaments at Rancho Park, raising $2,500 for various organizations in the process.
“It’s a golf journey for them – it’s not all driving range, driving range, then tournament after tournament,” said Brown. “There’s no scheme to this, it’s just a tumbling, bouncing ball. We’ll see where it takes us.”
On this day, it had taken the boys to the Member Education Series and an opportunity to meet Arnold Palmer, a gift that will resonate for the rest of their lives.
Ron Driscoll is the copy editor for USGA Communications. E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.