In many ways, David Fay was the face of the United States Golf Association for the past two decades, which is why it seems so strange now that he’s gone, retired after 21 years as its executive director. A dozen USGA presidents came and went during his tenure, and so did more than 100 Executive Committee members. Some of those were people of fairly high profile, but Fay was the USGA’s public face. Wearing his signature bow tie and blue blazer. Offering insights from television booths on the Rules of Golf he knew so well. Advancing the public golf game.
To be sure, Fay often seemed kind of a contradiction as he carried out his duties. After all, he was a liberal Democrat with muni-course roots toiling in a blue-blooded realm of conservative private clubs – and private club golfers. A baseball fanatic, he often spoke of how the national pastime – and not golf – was the very best game on earth. A devotee of Bruce Springsteen, he didn’t interact professionally with many people who had “Born to Run” on their iPod play lists, let alone “Lucky Town” or “Tunnel of Love.”
That’s not to say, however, that there was ever anything phony or incongruous about Fay; he simply has a unique ability to move easily among different worlds.
Fay was also a skilled administrator and deft politician, dealing with an array of strong-willed Association presidents and a dysfunctional organizational structure better suited for a small country club than a non-profit with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. He was a man of vision, too, helping the 116-year-old Association see both macro and micro perspectives as it moved into the 21st Century.
Fay was famous for his frugality and legend has it that his expense report for the 1995 U.S. Amateur in Newport, R.I., contained only one entry: a charge of 75 cents for a muffin. And he has always had a scratch sense of humor. When asked one time why he had come to favor bow ties, he replied that he had begun spilling food on his traditional cravats, and the dry cleaning fees were mounting.
Born in New York in 1950, Fay received his introduction to golf as a caddie at the Tuxedo Club in Orange County, N.Y., later spending two summers there as a member of the grounds crew. In time, he became a good enough player to make the varsity golf team at Colgate, where he graduated in 1972, majoring in English and political science.
Fay’s first “executive” position in the royal and ancient game came in 1976, as communications director for the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Golf Association. He moved to the USGA two years later, serving in a variety of positions before taking the executive director’s job in 1989.
Ask anyone about Fay’s greatest accomplishment in that role, and they invariably mention his advocacy for bringing the U.S. Open to public golf facilities beyond Pebble Beach, which had hosted the 1972 and 1982 National Championships. It began with another golf resort, Pinehurst, in 1999, and continued with the 2002 Open at Bethpage State Park, making it the first state-owned facility ever to host the National Championship. And Fay was instrumental in ensuring those were not one-shot deals. He spearheaded the USGA’s move to hold Opens at a number of other courses that are accessible to the public, such as Torrey Pines and Chambers Bay, providing a nice boost to public golf in America and softening the USGA’s image as an elitist organization.
Fay also deserves some of the credit for the financial success of the USGA, largely due to astute investing, prosperous U.S. Open television contracts and forays into the lucrative – and previously uncharted – world of corporate sponsorship. It also expanded its philanthropic activities significantly under his leadership and developed a program through which the Association funds internships at state and regional golf associations. In addition, Fay was a driving force behind the successful push to make golf an Olympic sport again and served as a voice of reason in the often-contentious debate over equipment regulation.
Fay’s retirement caught even his best friends by surprise, and he revealed some of the rationale for his decision in a Christmas Eve e-mail. He had recently turned 60. He was a cancer survivor. The USGA had just enjoyed its best financial year ever, and he had put a strong senior staff in place. He quoted Jerry Seinfeld, saying he wanted to “leave on a high note.”
There were no doubt other reasons. Fay and his wife had moved from New Jersey into New York City some time ago. Their two daughters were grown and living on their own. His mother had recently passed away. He was spending more time at a second home in Newport, R.I. And the Association seemed to have successfully gotten through a difficult stretch marred by layoffs and blow-ups and that disastrous final day of play at Shinnecock Hills at the 2004 U.S.Open.
Fay has given no real hint as to what he will do next, though it would not be surprising to see him involved with another sport. Whatever happens, he will no doubt remain active in golf. But only as a player, lugging his carry bag across courses near and far and relishing the fact that golf is now a recreation for him, and no longer just work.
May he enjoy each and every round.