USGA Annual Meeting
TOM O’TOOLE JR.
ADAM BARR (MODERATOR)
Good morning, and welcome to the 2015 Annual Meeting of the United States Golf Association. More than 400 delegates have joined us for this official gathering.
Directed by the USGA’s volunteer Executive Committee, its purpose is to gather our membership body and establish a clear vision for our year’s work. We also take this time to celebrate the many volunteers who dedicate their time and passion to golf.
I am joined by our President, Tom O’Toole Jr., and USGA Executive Director, Mike Davis. Together, they have led the organization’s efforts in our four areas of influence: national championships; governance; the long-term health, or viability, of golf; and fostering a strong golf community.
We’d like to begin today’s conference with Tom O’Toole Jr., the USGA’s 63rd president, with a few opening remarks.
TOM O'TOOLE JR.
Thank you, Adam, and thank you to the media present with us today. We are honored to bring our Annual Meeting to New York City, where the USGA was founded among kindred golf clubs over 120 years ago.
We appreciate your support as the USGA continues its work to serve the game of golf.
You will hear the words “new” and “first” repeatedly from us in 2015:
We will bring the U.S. Open Championship to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in our history, at the magnificent Chambers Bay Golf Course in Washington State. This is the first time we will conduct the championship on an all fine-fescue golf course.
We will introduce our new U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championships in May, first with the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at the Olympic Club, and then the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball at Bandon Dunes the following week. Our commitment to providing championship excellence to all players remains a high priority with this organization.
On May 27, we will also open our newest addition to our USGA Museum, celebrating the significant contributions of one of golf’s greatest legends, Jack Nicklaus. Two weeks later, at the U.S. Open Championship, we will bestow the Bob Jones Award, our greatest honor, to Barbara Nicklaus.
We have likewise dedicated significant resources to introduce new technology this year, including the launch of a new usga.org and usopen.com this spring, to better inform, educate and inspire our members and fans. This includes a new Rules education module to our website, as we respond to our community’s need for advanced tools they can quickly access.
New technology and new imagery will also be delivered via our partnership with Fox Sports, which began earlier this year with the airing of “Nicklaus: The Making of a Champion.” You will learn more about our upcoming schedule at the USGA on Fox session at 3 p.m. today.
In addition, our new pace-of-play flagstick tool will be introduced in field testing this year. Designed to help golf facilities accurately measure pace and develop solutions to accelerate the time it takes to play, it is one of the many ways we continue to devote energy to support the long-term viability, or health, of golf.
And as active participants in a strong worldwide golf community, we will provide strength and support to our allied golf organizations in matters critical to golf’s future: namely, leadership in promoting a sustainable game, both environmentally and economically – and in this connection, we are convinced that focusing solely on participation numbers underestimates the opportunity for the golf community.
We are also committed to the exploration of a worldwide handicapping system, and a thoughtful, collaborative approach to simplify the Rules of Golf.
We hope you will take time during our sessions to engage the game-changing discussion on sustainability at 10 a.m. today, and visit our displays in the East Foyer that show our work in these areas.
We will also give back to the game through allied programs such as the Latin America Amateur Championship, opening the game to a new generation and audience of golfers.
However, the primary reason we are here today is to celebrate a great milestone – we are proud to announce the formation of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open Championship
The opportunity to extend the inspiration of championships to this important part of golf’s family is something we approach with great humility and a sense of duty.
Simply, the time is right. Support of the women’s game is at an all-time high, as we clearly experienced at Pinehurst.
It serves a population of our golf community that is hungry to compete for a national title.
Moreover, interest in this particular championship has steadily increased since we began investigating its viability more than 20 years ago.
Seven of the last 10 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championships have recorded more than 500 entries, with a record 554 in 2014 alone.
So many women have worked hard to take their games, their fitness, their commitment, and their service to golf to new heights. They deserve a championship of the highest quality.
The facts we share with you today are as follows:
We will conduct this championship beginning in 2018.
We will mirror our U.S. Senior Open format, in conducting a 72-hole stroke-play event over four days, with a cut after 36 holes of play.
This will be a walking championship, intended for players age 50 and over.
• With great deliberation and care, we are investigating:
• Optimum timing
• And other details necessary to produce a championship standard of excellence
We look forward to our work ahead, and are committed to reporting those facts to you.
In making this announcement today, we reinforce our passion and commitment to promote a game that is welcoming and accessible to all. It is the right message to send to the golf industry, as we support a game that can be played for a lifetime, as both a recreational and competitive sport.
As we introduce all of these modern advances to the game – new championships, new tools and ideation in Rules education, supporting a healthy game and growing a strong golf community - we will not forget what we learned last year. The celebration of the back-to-back U.S. Open Championships at Pinehurst clearly showed men and women can play at the same competitive level on the same course.
Before we open the floor to questions, let me reiterate that our staff is energized by the programs and solutions we will reveal in the year ahead.
With that, we’ll turn the microphone over to Adam with your questions.
ADAM BARR: We'll open to questions
TOM O’TOOLE JR.: For a championship of this magnitude we will continue with the right message to send to the golf industry as we support a game that can be played for a lifetime as both a recreational and a competitive sport.
As we work to resolve these modern advances to the games, new championships, new tools, new ideas and rules, education, supporting a healthy game, and growing a strong golf community, we will not forget what we learned last year. The celebration of our back to back U.S. Open Championship and U.S. Women's Open Championship at Pinehurst clearly showed that men and women can play the same competitive level on the same playing field.
Q. Tom, when was the time over say the last couple of years where it became apparent that the Senior Women’s Open was going to become a reality?
TOM O'TOOLE JR.: As we've said, we have deliberated and discussed this internally. In fact, it's no secret to anybody in this room or the media, we met with the during the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst, and as we looked at our entries and the rise of women's golf, not just at Pinehurst but leading into it, I think it became evident to our group that this was obviously a sector of golfers that we had not tested. And with the rise in popularity in women's golf that we felt this was the right time.
As we wound up 2014, and I was pretty vocal in saying we were going to make a decision about that this year, meaning 2014, and not to let any secrets out of the bag, we did decide this in our meeting in November.
Q. I know you said there are a lot of details to be worked out yet. Do you have an idea on field size and on the age?
TOM O'TOOLE JR.: Yeah, maybe the age is a good question, I may have overlooked that in our good notes from our communication department, it will be the age of 50. And the field size, those are one of the things that we continue to explore and discuss internally. We want it to be the proper size, like a national championship that we conduct, but we just haven't focused in on the final perspective of this just now, but we will continue to do that and then when we think we've made those decisions and feel comfortable about them, because all these things impact on things like qualifying and exemptions, we'll come back group.
Q. To follow along on that when the inaugural Senior Open was on the East Coast at Winged Foot there were a number of automatic exceptions, as I recall, I think U.S. Open, perhaps even U.S. Amateur, including those, surely.
TOM O'TOOLE JR.: Obviously we're celebrating not only women that have taken up the game later in life, but those like Juli Inkster that I see sitting in the back that have had great USGA and professional careers. When we roll out this pertinent information we will have an impact on play with that exemption piece and there will be exemptions into this championship. We're just not in a position right now today to delve into the depth of those.
Q. You said that you were exploring golf initiatives, not just limited I'm paraphrasing not just limited to participation rates. There was a round count of how many golfers, could you elaborate on that?
TOM O'TOOLE JR.: Well, I think our industry gets caught up in looking at data about participation. And participation in all sports has been down, in a downturn probably since 2005 with the exception of probably soccer and lacrosse.
But we think that this is about sustaining a game, we mean economically and environmentally. The environmental piece is probably the No. 1 challenge that the game has. Participation is going to come back to our game. We've already seen this. If you look at the junior numbers, they were at a height in 2005 and they've dropped since then. But if you look back in the '80s and '90s, we're equal to that, as it relates to junior participation.
So we have to focus on participation, but we have to focus on making the game sustainable, and particularly environmental. Make sure that all the things that we've talked about in the last several years, how long does it take to play the game and our efforts there.
And as I mentioned about our no longer just an awareness campaign, but really taking data and coming up with scientific solutions at how we can play the game faster, or is the game welcoming. Do we welcome people into the game, which will then, of course, by logical progression, increase its participation rate.
Participation rates, in our view, is a myopic look at this problem. We're looking at that, but we're trying to get what makes the game more sustainable. That's really where we're going to place our resources, and you'll hear specific reference to that in my remarks.
Q. This might be a question for Mike, as well. Tom, you mentioned you're taking the U.S. Open for the first time to a fescue environment. Chambers Bay always goes through pretty tough winters. Have there been measures taken to back off on the round play, to give the course a chance to rebound. Can you talk about the concerns, initiatives, what you're doing to make sure the players have a solid playing surface of fescue.
TOM O'TOOLE JR.: I'll let our expert handle this one.
MIKE DAVIS: I guess just to make sure everybody is aware, we are playing this year's U.S. Open on an all fine fescue golf course. It's never been done before. Never been done certainly in the United States.
And if you think about playing on fine fescue putting greens, that's not even done on the Open Championship over across the pond in the UK. So we're excited about that.
Fine fescue is a very unique grass. It's a grass that plays firm and fast because it doesn't require as much water, it's not a sticky grass, so the ball does tend to skid on it. And Brad, you're right, I mean with the fine fescue greens, one of the things we've done going into this winter is that that grass typically stops growing about November 1 out there. So with the foot traffic, what's nice is that golf course is built on all sand, so it gets played 12 months of the year if there's no snow on the ground.
We have taken precaution, and eliminated some of the play, and in particular two greens we've backed play completely off, just to make sure we're in good shape going into The Open. The 12th and 15th greens.
While fine fescue is very unique, what I would tell you is that almost every year we're looking at things agronomically going into a U.S. Open to ensure that we are in good shape for U.S. Open week. That may be limiting play or adjusting cuts of height or whatever. We did the same thing at Pinehurst where we put covers on the green in the middle of the winter, had certain days where they didn't play. It's not really that abnormal.
Q. Talking about sustainability, and this is for either of you, in today's world, how important is it to make sure that golf courses are set up properly for the recreational player to make the game more appealing to them, if they're not playing on more golf course than they can handle.
MIKE DAVIS: When Tom was talking about sustainability he mentioned economic and environmental. But as part of that we want to make sure that the game is enjoyable. And when it gets right down to it, we all play golf for different reasons, but if we don't enjoy it we're not going to play.
So I think that over the last 40 or so years we've seen a trend in this country where hard equals good. And we actually think enjoyment equals good.
So to your point, you saw us a couple of years back with a Tee It Forward game, so golfers were playing on the teeing ground, so they were playing the way the architect was intending it to be played.
When it comes to grass heights it's been fascinating where fairways have been cut lower and lower, greens are getting faster and faster, there's this notion that we should have high rough. And the reality is we firmly believe that raising the height of cut of fairways is probably a good thing for recreational play.
I'll give you an example. When we played at Merion in 2013 we played on fairways that were roughly half an inch.
In 2005 U.S. Amateur, 2009 Walker Cup there was played on fairways about a quarter of an inch. We raised it. We raised it to about the same height that we saw maybe 25, 30 years ago. And now all of a sudden recreational, or in this case members of Merion playing it, had a much better experience because they could get the ball off the ground, it was easier to hit pitch shots. And speed of greens, the faster we get greens the longer it takes to play a round, the more agronomic pressures are put on greens. And ultimately in some cases it compromises the architecture of greens.
So I think that all this gets back to golf is meant to be fun. There's supposed to be a challenge to it. But having very high rough everywhere and really fast greens and fairways cut to a low, that's not doing anything to help the game.
And I'll say another thing with golf perceptions, we talked about sustainability, we are as an association very focused on how golf courses are maintained, best practices. And we really believe in terms of resource management that less water on a golf course is a very good thing. And it's a good thing in terms of water and the environment.
But it's also a good thing in playing and making the game enjoyable. Because firmer fairways and we're not talking about the color of fairways, they don't have to be brown or tan, it's just that less water makes it bouncier, you can get a little bit of extra roll. For the recreational player that's wonderful thing. You can bounce balls on the green. It's just a more enjoyable game.
And for the good player it makes a more challenging game, because they have to figure out what's going to happen when the ball lands and where is it going to roll to and bounce.
So we are very focused on maintenance and long term sustainability, because as we talked about participation, but we said it over and over again, that when we look long term in this country, particularly in certain parts of the country, it's water. It's not participation, but it's water that's going to be the issue here. And we're already seeing water rates in terms of the cost of it, the availability of it, the quality of it, it's changing substantially.
So it's something all of us need to be concerned about and focused on. And certainly we as an association are very focused on it.
Q. Pinehurst No. 2 had a great model for exactly what you're talking about. Have you gotten positive feedback on the look and playability of that course from the clubs that you talked to?
MIKE DAVIS: Some of this is anecdotal, but outside of the United States it was almost a unanimous we loved it, loved the look of it, loved the play of it. The feedback we got from the 312 players was almost unanimous in terms of they loved how the golf course played.
But here in the United States, this country, at least some of this country seems to love lush, green, over-watered conditions. And that's some of my point is that we need to start to change perception.
So I would tell you that feedback afterwards from people living until the United States maybe was a 50/50. Some liked it, some didn't.
But the reality is I think for us, you know, this is something that we look back at Pinehurst and said that was one of the successes of it, that we played on a wonderfully restored golf course that had been using 55 million gallons of water on an annual basis and now it's using 15 million gallons. That is a great story. You know what, the golf course played better.
I think some people in the United States are going to have to get past this lush green desire they want for golf courses. The rest of the world, interestingly enough, feel different about it.
Q. Mike, along similar lines, green speeds, what can the USGA do to get green speeds down, because we all know that's a contributing factor in slow play, and frustration for certainly a lot of golfers?
MIKE DAVIS: It really is. Over the years the agronomic practices of golf are so good, the newer strains of grasses have gotten so good that it's much easier for superintendents to now get greens fast.
And there is this motion that fast equals good. And I think to your point you're really trying to make is there's a breaking point here. And we've actually seen that already. And I don't have the data up here today, but there's some golf courses, particularly resorts, that are trying to focus on their revenues that will tell you that for every additional foot of green speed they lose X amount of minutes in their pace of play, they add to their cost of annual maintenance. Their chance of possibly losing the greens, whether it's disease or some other reason, go up.
So I think that this is a message we're trying to send that let's get grass heights back to a reasonable level and that maybe going from green speeds that were 11 or 12 back down to 9 or 10, it's a good thing for the game.
I would contend, fair to say, that the fastest greens in the world tend to be here in the United States. And when we went through the whole anchoring issue, it was it really wasn't an issue outside of the United States. We just didn't hear the push back.
And I'm convinced we saw that because the faster the greens get, for some players that it's the same thing with pitching a golf ball off a tight lie, that you just didn't see people having problems back when fairways were cut a half an inch or higher, and now they're probably a quarter inch.
It's interesting with Merion, when they made that change, word started to spread around the greater Philadelphia area, and we've heard that other clubs started to raise their fairway heights, it's a great thing to do. Use less water, and it's healthier for the grass.