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USGA President’s Speech at Annual Meeting Discusses Current Golf Issues

(The following speech was given at the USGA Annual Meeting by USGA President Glen Nager. It touches on many important issues facing golf and should be of interest to all golfers.)
As you may recall, at our Annual Meeting last year, I urged that- as a governing body, as an allied association, as volunteers and employees, and as lovers of the game of golf – our shared focus needed now more than ever to be on what is necessary to sustain the game. Golf is a special game of skill and challenge; it is one that we all play on the same field and by the same rules; and it is one that uniquely promotes values of honesty, integrity, and sportsmanship. Our mission is to protect and preserve this wonderful game, which is presently facing substantial challenges, both in the United States and in parts of Europe, where participation rates have declined over the past 10 years and where women and juniors are not taking up the game at the rates that they have in the past. Challenges are also emerging in other parts of the world, where new populations taking up the game speak different languages, have different cultures and customs, and lack our experience with the game and its traditions.
For these reasons, last year, I applauded our continuing efforts to strengthen the game not just here in the United States, but on a global basis: efforts to make the Rules of Golf and Amateur Status both fully uniform world-wide and more understandable and accessible to golfers around the world; efforts to advocate for sustainable water management practices; efforts to encourage golfers to play from tees more appropriate to the distances that they actually drive the ball; and efforts to bring the game and its unique values to underprivileged youth across the United States and to new cultures everywhere. I said last year, and I will repeat the message today, that we must join with others to do much more to promote a more enjoyable, a more affordable, and a more welcoming experience for golfers, without fundamentally changing the game itself, so that we ensure that the game is healthy and that, as it grows around the world, it remains the game that we love so much.
Over the past year, under the leadership of Mike Davis and his outstanding team, and guided by the priorities set forth in our new five-year strategic plan, the USGA has worked diligently to address these issues, taking new steps to preserve and protect the game, working with others to make the game more fun, less expensive, and more welcoming, and acting to ensure that the game that grows worldwide is the game that we are entrusted to protect. Let me highlight a few of our efforts.
Through this past year’s U.S. Open, we showcased the game at its very finest. The firm and fast Lake Course at The Olympic Club demanded skilled shot-making, mental toughness and physical endurance – attributes displayed throughout the week by our champion, Webb Simpson. While at The Olympic Club, we also honored and celebrated the most accomplished U.S. Open player of all time by announcing the dedication of the Jack Nicklaus Medal, henceforth to be awarded to the U.S. Open Champion, as well as our plan to create a Jack Nicklaus Room at the USGA Museum. Last May, the Museum also opened the Mickey Wright Room, celebrating the accomplishments of a legendary four-time U.S. Women’s Open Champion and further demonstrating our commitment to honor the greatest players – men and women – in the game’s history.
Last year, we also worked to strengthen amateur golf. In addition to conducting the finest amateur championships in the world, we formalized two positions for mid-amateur players on the USA Walker Cup Team, as an incentive and as a reward for career amateurs. These actions should strengthen top-tier amateur competitions that are conducted each year by many of our partners who serve amateur golf around this country.
Our determination to preserve and protect the game also was evident in the announcement of proposed Rule 14-1b – a rule that would prohibit anchoring the club during a stroke. The proposed ban aims to maintain one of the essential elements of this unique and enjoyable game of skill and challenge – the free swing of the club that is the essence of a golf stroke.
This past year, Mike and his team also expanded the USGA’s efforts to make the game more affordable for those who want to play it. The Green Section’s agronomists conducted more than 1,250 Turf Advisory Service visits last year, disseminating best practices for improving turf in ways that benefit both the environment and the bottom line. Further, in early November, the USGA convened a summit of thought leaders from the golf industry and the environmental community to discuss golf’s use of water and to begin to identify practical solutions that are both environmentally and economically sound. Last year, in partnership with The R&A, we also expanded efforts to evaluate the impact of distance on the long-term sustainability of golf courses. As Peter Dawson has emphasized, and I quote, the distance issue “is very germane to the future of the game. It affects size of golf course, amount of land use, cost of play, and there can be no doubt at all that this distance issue has to be at the forefront of our minds.”
Importantly, over the past year, we also stepped up our efforts to make the game more welcoming and more inclusive. Having heard beginning golfers tell us that the Rules and etiquette practices of the game can be intimidating, we initiated a comprehensive Rules education campaign for recreational golfers. In the first phase of this initiative, new educational videos were introduced on throughout the year; and we are about to begin testing a broader Rules education kit that will be distributed to high school and college golf coaches, golf professionals, and state and regional golf associations in Fall 2013. Together with The R&A, we are also undertaking a comprehensive review of the Decisions book, in hopes of simplifying this essential resource; and we have established a joint committee with The R&A to consider a simplified Rules book that could be more easily used by – and translated into the languages of – the many golfing populations around the world. In addition, we enhanced our support of LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, adding 29 new sites in 2012 for a total of 249 sites nationwide, and growing participation by 20% to a record level of nearly 10,000 girls. Further, in partnership with the PGA of America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, we rolled out a new program at 46 facilities around the country that provided golf instruction to more than 2,500 kids.
This past year, we similarly intensified our efforts to make sure that the same game that we love so much is the game that grows around the world. We increased international viewership of our championships. We hosted a friendship match among junior golfers from China and the United States. We were a key leader in the adoption of an international statement on sustainability by the International Golf Federation. And. in partnership with The R&A, we began exploring the possibility of a world-wide handicap system.
Of course, our work in promoting the health of the game and addressing its challenges is far from done. We have much more in mind for 2013 to make our already great game even better.
As noted last year, a major barrier to participation in the game is the perception by some that golf can be elitist and exclusionary. To combat this perception, in 2013, we will be disseminating best practices and implementing new programs aimed at making the game more welcoming, particularly to women, juniors, and minorities. Among other things, we hope to expand the Boys and Girls Club program to 25 additional locations; and we hope to announce some entirely new junior golf initiatives. Equally important, in 2013, we will commence a multi-year program aimed at addressing the frustration expressed by many golfers – including lapsed golfers – that golf takes too long to play. Pace of play has been an issue for decades; but it has now become one of the most significant threats to the game’s health. Five-hour plus rounds of golf are incompatible with life in modern society, where there are many alternative forms of entertainment and sport that fit more comfortably into the compressed time that we have available for recreation and relaxation. Beyond the time involved, we golfers are too often standing around, waiting to play each shot, watching the players in front of us seem to move in slow motion, and then, in reaction, foolishly rushing our next strokes even though we will have nowhere to go. Poor place of play saps the fun from the game, frustrates players, and discourages future play. Pace of play is a problem, for both men and women, at the professional level, the elite amateur level, and the recreational level. Now, more than ever, the golf community needs to act.
We of course applaud the past efforts of so many individuals and associations who have worked to address pace of play issues. In thinking about the pace of play problem, we have learned from these prior efforts. We are currently examining how we can further improve pace of play in our own events, particularly our own influential televised events. But the USGA needs also to add its voice and resources to the challenge for the game as a whole. In this regard, we must recognize that pace of play cannot be tackled from a singular perspective, and no single solution will be successful for all facilities or all competitions. Rather, solutions must be dynamic and adaptable, and they must consider at least four key factors that affect pace of play: (1) course design, including factors such as overall length, green-to-tee walks, and the location and number of hazards; (2) course management and set-up, including factors such as green speed, hole locations, and the height and location of rough; (3) player management, most significantly the proper management of tee times; and (4) player education, encompassing both player behavior and ability. The golf community needs to promote improvement in each of these four areas if we are to successfully address the pace of play problem.
This past year, the USGA’s Research and Test Center launched an ambitious project to create the first-ever dynamic model of pace of play – a model based on real data, and applicable to both competitive and recreational golf. Previous models and programs addressing pace of play have been based largely on observation and anecdote; but our Test Center’s model uses large-scale, real-world data. When complete, the model should show the specific influences that course design, set-up, and operation, as well as golfers themselves, have on pace of play; and it will allow us to advise course architects, club owners and managers, golf superintendents, professional tours and golfers themselves about how to promote a faster pace of play. In anticipation of the valuable insights that we will obtain from the Test Center model, we are also ramping up and revising the Green Section’s Turf Advisory Service. We will expand its educational services to include specifically the various aspects of golf course management that impact pace of play. The Green Section will also offer a specialized on-site visit that can evaluate the playing quality of a golf course – of which pace of play is a central component.
The new pace of play model will also be used to improve the USGA Pace Rating System. This program was first developed in 1993, with the goal of helping players complete a round of golf at an optimum and reasonable pace. Historically, pace of play had been expressed as the number of hours that it should take to play the entire course. The Pace Rating System introduced a new concept: the number of minutes – or Time Par – that it should take to complete each hole. With the insights gained from the Test Center’s modeling project, our Handicap Department will be working to refine and enhance the Pace Rating System. Ultimately, we intend to make the system more dynamic, allowing us to better customize the Pace Rating of individual courses.
While these three programs will focus on ways that facilities and those who conduct competitions can improve their management of pace of play, we must also double-down on our efforts to educate golfers on how to play faster. To this end, we will be working through our various communications channels, including our Members Program and social media channels, to educate golfers on best practices for faster play. We will also work to encourage alternate forms of play – such as match play, foursomes, and Stableford – that are popular in other parts of the golfing world and that are known to take less time to play than the standard American four-ball. We can also better educate recreational golfers on the benefits of equitable stroke control, so that they understand that their Handicap Index will not be adversely affected by picking up when appropriate. In 2013, we will build a resource center on that will pull together these and other concepts that any golfer can access for improving his or her own pace of play.
We intend to make this knowledge available to the golf community as a whole. We intend to use it to improve pace of play in our own championships. And we intend to partner with other golf organizations, the media, and other leaders to promote a better pace of play at all levels of golf. In this regard, I am pleased that the leadership of the PGA of America shares our concern about this critical issue; we look forward to engaging with their 27,000 members, who can play an essential role in supporting our efforts to educate players and facility managers on how to improve pace of play.
That said, we must also recognize that, regardless of pace of play, many golfers simply do not have the time to play 18 holes of golf, in any format. So we must work to promote the nine-hole round as a complete and enjoyable golf experience. Contrary to some beliefs, a nine-hole round is fully compatible with having fun and with both the Rules of Golf and the USGA Handicap System. If there are any stigmas associated with a nine-hole round or a nine-hole course, we must identify them and work to overcome them. We must also help golf facilities understand better the benefits of offering a nine-hole option to their customers.
It is unrealistic to think that we can achieve substantial improvements in either the pace of play or the playing of 9-hole rounds in just one year. As with our Tee It Forward and sustainability initiatives, we must be committed to addressing over the long term the amount of time that it takes to play. Slow play is draining enjoyment from the game and thus adversely affecting participation. Lack of time is a real challenge for the game. We all need to join together to address these issues, and the USGA is firmly committed to leading the charge.
As we work together to meet the challenges that the game is presently facing, it is imperative that we maintain our focus on protecting and enhancing this unique and wonderful game. I argued last year that some in the golf community had for too long confused the notion of “more difficult” with the goal of “better,” such as in golf course design and set-up. This year, I must unfortunately comment on an alternative view, recently advanced, that “easier” itself equates with “better” – specifically, that if only we would relax equipment and playing Rules to enable longer, straighter shots and lower scores, more people would enjoy and perhaps play the game. These assertions are sometimes coupled with a view that the USGA should preserve golf’s Rules, traditions, and essential character only for professional and elite amateur players, while creating a separate set of relaxed Rules for recreational golfers. With all due respect, these calls to change the very nature of our wonderful game in a supposed effort to save it are misguided.
The argument that “easier is better” is premised on concerns about recent economics – and that fact alone should cause us to pause. There certainly are important issues for the golf industry to address, including economic issues, but revenue concerns arising during a broad economic slowdown should not lead us fundamentally to alter our approach to writing the Rules and defining the game. It is our obligation as a governing body to keep our eye on the long-term good of the game and to hold firm to what we know to be true about the essence of golf.
The underlying logic of “easier is better” is inexorably contrary to the game’s very nature. Golf is a unique game of skill and challenge. The need for skill and the elements of the challenge are what define golf; they are in fact what have caused us to love the game for the past 600 years. The game tests us, vexes us, humbles us, and thrills us – so that, when our rounds are finished, we can’t wait to tell our tales of triumph and woe; so that we search endlessly for the skills that will allow us to improve; so that we can’t wait for our next chance to play; and so that we stand in awe of those who can play better than we can. For centuries, golfers have fervently embraced and celebrated the challenge of the game.
This enthusiastic embrace of the game as a stout test of skill and challenge prevails as strongly today as ever. In a recent study commissioned by the National Golf Foundation, passionate recreational golfers – that is, the golfers who play most of the rounds and who spend most of the money in golf – indicated that the challenge of the game is among the top reasons, if not the top reason, why they are so passionate about golf. Moreover, research among non-golfers, as well as lapsed golfers, indicates that the top three reasons that people do not take up golf, or quit the game, are reasons of expense, time, and the perception that golf is exclusionary and unwelcoming; the challenge of the game is nowhere near the top of the list of barriers to participation. These data strongly undermine the argument that making the game easier will grow participation. Golfers and potential golfers are in fact attracted by the challenge of the game; and calls for making the playing and equipment rules easier paradoxically would compromise and possibly destroy the game for them.
In arguing that “easier” itself equates with “better,” some have pointed out that, in some other sports, such as football and baseball, there are some different rules for professionals and amateurs. The implication is that such sports have made their games easier to play for amateurs than for professionals, and that golf would benefit from doing so as well. But the argument is unsound.
There are a few differences between the rules for high school and collegiate football and professional football, such as whether a receiver need have only one foot or both feet in bounds for a reception. But the purpose and effect of such differences is not to make the game easier for amateurs; rather, the differences make it easier on the offensive player – but harder on the defensive player – or vice versa. Similarly, the differing rules permitting the use of metal bats in amateur baseball but not in the professional leagues prove nothing relevant for golf: Metal bats took hold in amateur baseball principally because they were more cost effective. But, after concerns deepened over time that metal bats were compromising safety and altering the game’s balance between offense and defense, the amateur rule-making bodies in baseball took strong steps to regulate metal bats so that they have to perform comparably to wooden bats. Far from reflecting a bifurcated set of rules intended to make baseball easier for amateurs to play than for professionals, the metal bat experience shows that baseball is fundamentally baseball, whether played in the pros or in college or high school.
The analogies to rules in other sports also ignore a crucial difference that makes golf unique. In football, baseball, and similar sports, competition takes place in a contained league; players participating at one level generally do not play simultaneously at another level. Golf is wonderfully different: a single amateur golfer may simultaneously participate at virtually every level of the game. He or she may play in a national open alongside leading professionals; in elite national, regional or state amateur events; in school leagues or events; in club or inter-club championships; and in casual competition with players of the same or entirely different levels of ability. To create multiple sets of Rules for all these various levels of play would create confusion for competition organizers, players and officials alike, and would serve no purpose. Golf is a single game; that is part both of its unique appeal and its ability to grow as a global sport.
The argument that multiple sets of Rules are needed to accommodate players of differing skill levels is refuted by golf’s long history and traditions. The history of golf is actually a history of movement toward unification of playing and equipment rules – as golfers of different abilities from myriad geographies and cultures seek to play the same sport on a national and international basis, and soon in the Olympics. Moreover, aided by the USGA, the game has long used two great innovations – multiple teeing grounds and the Handicap and Course Rating Systems – to enable people to play within their own physical abilities and yet also to compete against one another across ability levels, while playing each shot and each round by the same set of Rules. Creating multiple sets of Rules would undermine both these great traditions and the needs of modern golfing populations, as well as threaten the value and integrity of the Handicap System.
In the end, some advocates of an easier set of Rules for amateurs seem to believe that recreational golfers do not care about whether they are playing the same great game that they watch on television and are merely looking to have a generalized form of casual “fun” that is unconnected to the game’s great traditions. Well, I am a recreational golfer, and I could not disagree more. Like many recreational golfers, I strive to master the skills of an elite golfer, which is why I take so many lessons, pound so many golf balls on the range, read every golf magazine and instructional manual I can find, buy the latest equipment and golf balls promoted by professional players, and savor the well-struck shot and occasional birdie so much more than my total score. I want to play the great courses that the legendary champions have played, in order to compare my performance with theirs – treasuring the fact that, on any given stroke, using the same equipment and following the same Rules, I may play as good a shot as the most elite player. The National Golf Foundation’s data, as well as golf history, suggest that my perspective is representative of, rather than atypical of, many, many other recreational golfers.
With respect, therefore, I submit that easier for the sake of easier is plainly not better – at least not when we are talking about the playing and equipment rules for the game historically called “golf.” In golf, we play the ball as it lies, however imperfectly it lies; we don’t tee the ball up in the fairway or rough or play off of pristine artificial turf. We have to avoid hazards, play out of them, or accept a penalty in taking relief from them. We have to learn to control the ball; we do not allow golf balls that do not hook or slice. We have to count all of our strokes, not just the ones that we like. And, we have to call penalties on ourselves, and in so doing exhibit the honesty, integrity, and sportsmanship that are the hallmarks of the game. These complex challenges of the game are the game. To compromise them in a misconceived quest for “fun” would simply destroy the game that we love. Our task as rule makers is not to make the game easier or to make it harder, but rather to preserve and enhance the game’s special and eternal qualities.
As I stated last year, and have reiterated today, the game of golf is facing real and complex challenges. But the answer is not to change the game. We should instead vigorously address the factors that we already know discourage golfers from enjoying or taking up the game – such as long golf courses that are unduly expensive to maintain; rough heights that make it difficult to find golf balls and slow down play; putting greens that are set up at speeds that are expensive to maintain and that slow down play; and indeed slow play itself. These issues and others like them are the challenges that we must carefully examine and address, with the confidence that we can identify solutions that will both protect the essence of our great game and foster a sustainable future. I hope that others will join us in this pursuit