By Art Stricklin
In his first speech as president of the United States Golf Association last month, Glen Nager spoke of public accessibility to the game, of the amateur and public nature of golf and about the need to bring more people into the game he loves.
As a junior golfer, Nager experienced all of those aspects in his hometown of Houston, playing at a popular public course with used clubs he bought at a Lone Star garage sale.
Texas golf has had a lot of heroes, a lot of champions, a lot of historic figures in the past century.
But until February, Texas never had a native son elected as president of the USGA. Nager, a high-powered Washington, D.C., corporate attorney who was the association’s general counsel, was elected in his hometown at the USGA’s Annual Meeting.
Born in Pasadena, just outside of Houston, Nager, 53, was a “refinery brat,” the son of a chemist who worked for Shell Oil Company. Basketball was his main sport while growing up, and he played for the varsity at Houston’s Stratford High School, graduating in 1976.
Unlike the stereotypical image of golf or the USGA, Nager and his family didn’t belong to a private country club or play in manicured splendor. Nager played his golf, the few rounds he did play as a junior, at Bear Creek Golf Club, a 54-hole facility just off of Highway 6 in west Houston.
It once hosted the NCAA Championship, won by the University of Houston, but mainly it was the home to thousands of thoroughly hooked hackers, who were exposed to the game like Nager and beat the humid Texas soil at Bear Creek into submission on a regular basis.
When he went to the University of Texas after graduation, Nager’s golf rounds or ability didn’t change. He still played very few times and when he did it was at Austin’s “old Muny,” Lions Municipal.
Along the way he enjoyed the game at its most humble levels and learned some of Texas’ most famous and popular public courses.
His avid and full-time love of the game didn’t start until he moved to Washington after college to become a Supreme Court law clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor, an avid golfer herself.
Once he learned of his boss’ love for golf, he became smitten himself, taking him on the path that would land the 8-handicap with Lone Star roots into the top volunteer job for the game’s U.S. governing body.
He will serve a one-year term, leading the USGA’s 300-plus professional staff members and nearly 1,400 volunteers, who serve on more than 30 committees governing and promoting the game.
“Since 2003, participation in the United States is down almost 13 percent, and rounds of golf in that time are down almost 5 percent,” Nager said in his opening speech. “And when we look at the research on why that is the case, we see that golf is viewed as increasingly expensive and increasingly time-consuming and, in some instances, too complex and confusing and not welcoming.”
Nager says programs such as Tee It Forward will help grow the game. The initiative, developed by Plano’s Barney Adams, encourages golfers to play courses from shorter distances, as well as building and designing more player-friendly and environmentally friendly courses.
“Because if we could impact those who design golf courses and play golf courses so they would design and maintain and set up golf courses that were shorter, use less water, use less fertilizer, use less labor, use less energy, you have less expensive golf,” Nager said.
From humble Texas public golf roots to the highest halls of golf’s power in America. Just another first-time impact of Texas golf to the game it has helped shape.
The Texas Amateur always has played a big role in the Lone Star game, and this fall some of the state’s best will have a chance to showcase their ability with the world’s best players.
Both Dallas-Fort Worth area PGA Tour events, the HP Byron Nelson Classic and the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, have extended sponsor invitations to Dallas native and U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft.
“I grew up going to the Nelson, so to have the opportunity to now compete in it is something that is very special,” Kraft said.
Kraft earned four victories for Southern Methodist University’s golf team during his tenure there, second only to local favorite and former U.S. Amateur champion Colt Knost, from Denton, who grabbed seven.
“We are committed to providing opportunities to young players who show the potential to someday be future stars, and we believe Kelly Kraft fits that mold,” said Robert Smith, tournament chairman for the 2012 HP Byron Nelson Championship.
The 2012 tournament will be played May 14-20 at the TPC Four Seasons Resort and Club Las Colinas in Irving. The Colonial will be held a week later at historic Colonial Country Club.
Valero Texas Open executive director Tony Piazzi also is considering a possible amateur spotlight at the San Antonio event for a promising Lone Star player.
With spring golf temperatures here, amateur tournament season is beginning for both men and women around the state.
Last week featured the regional Texas Golf Association amateur four-ball in North and South Texas. This week, the Women’s Texas Golf Association Eclectic was held Feb. 27-28 at The Dominion Country Club in San Antonio. The overall gross champion, Camm Dougherty (Corpus Christi) shot a two-day eclectic total of 70. Kenna Harrison (Granbury) was the overall net champion with a 57.