Born in the summer of 1958, Seth Waugh grew up the son of a prep school English teacher who also coached baseball and basketball. After graduating from that institution, the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, Waugh earned a B.S. in Economics and English from Amherst College in Massachusetts. Soon after, he began working in the financial services industry, doing well enough to become CEO of the Americas for Deutsche Bank. He held that position for 10 years, and it was during that time that he created in 2003 the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston. His rationale for that move came from recognizing that the game was a very effective and efficient way of reaching the sort of customers – both individual and corporate – his company coveted.
Waugh’s involvement in the business of golf only grew from there. A single-digit handicapper and a member of Seminole, Cypress Point and Shinnecock Hills among other clubs, he eventually joined the PGA of America’s Board of Directors. Then in September 2018, Waugh assumed the position of CEO at that organization.
With thick, dark eyebrows and hair that has become more gray than black, Waugh is married and the father of five. He met his wife, Jane, on a driving range. The following comments came from a phone conversation with GGP/Biz as the 63-year-old prepared for this week’s PGA Championship at the Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And his first words, in the latest installment of The 19th Hole, were in response to a question about the differences in running one of the world’s top banks and the PGA of America:
Leadership is leadership, right? No matter where you work. The idea is to wake up every morning thinking of how to make the place you are leading better. But there are certainly differences between the corporate world and what I am doing in golf. At Deutsche Bank, we had shareholders, of course, as well as employees, clients and regulators. And one of the ways you measured success was by share price. But the PGA of America is different in that we are mission-based and not-for-profit. We also have a different structure and are more like a government entity than a corporation, which is something I had to learn when I came on board.
At the PGA, we have four primary stakeholders. First are our nearly 28,000 members, and we are trying every day to make their lives better as they work to make the lives, and the games, of millions of golfers better. Next comes the game itself. We are stewards of golf along with the other entities, like the R&A, the USGA, the PGA Tour and the LPGA. A big part of our collective mission is growing the game while at the same time making it feel more welcoming. And what’s been particularly great in this area is how well we are working together to do those things since the pandemic. The level of collaboration has been really good.
Number three is our business, which is the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, as well as our partnerships. And what we are able to derive from those enables us to finance and fulfill our mission. Of all the things I do as CEO of the PGA of America, this is the one that is most similar to what I did in my previous life at Deutsche Bank, having major corporate relationships that are mutually beneficial and figuring out how to make those brands better by associating them with ours.
Finally, there are our stakeholders, our people, those who work for us, with us, including those with all 41 of our sections, as well as the millions of golfers we touch as the PGA.
The game is something we need to protect, and to defend all the things it stands for. It really is one of the greatest engines for good on Earth.
Looking at those four groups, I see them all as our partners, which brings me back to something else that was true for me when I worked in the corporate world. And that was thinking of every relationship I have as a partnership.
In terms of what I have brought to the PGA from the corporate world, maybe a bit more speed in how we act and react to things and also the value of disruption and the good things that can bring. The idea of embracing change, too, while recognizing at the same time that the game itself is in very good shape. We have become this very hot sport through the pandemic and coming out of it. So how do we build off of that?
We had an opportunity like this when Tiger (Woods) came on the scene in the late 1990s, and we have to ask ourselves what can we do better this time around, to take advantage of the very good position we find ourselves in.
To that end, one of the first moves as PGA of America CEO was naming a chief of innovation, a real thinker who heads what I describe as a department of one. We need to innovate, and to keep innovating, so we do not become less relevant.
And golf is worth that effort. The game is something we need to protect, and to defend all the things it stands for. It really is one of the greatest engines for good on Earth. It creates a common language for us and a way to spend four hours together and enjoy civil conversations and interactions and get to know each other better as we also get to know ourselves.
With all these different entities in golf, I often ask myself: How do we do more together? One example of that is Topgolf. I remember when I took over at the PGA, Topgolf had some 50 facilities in the country, and maybe five of those employed PGA professionals. Well, now there are more than 60 Topgolf locations, and each of those has one or two PGA professionals. In the beginning, there were those who saw Topgolf as an invader, a threat, but others saw it as a gateway. It may be golf in a different form, but it is still golf. And if we can help turn even 5 percent of those who go to Topgolf into green-grass golfers, then we are doing something very positive for the game.
What are the things I am most proud of us doing? Creating the Back2Golf program during the pandemic after reaching out to Dr. (Anthony) Fauci (the chief medical advisor to the President of the United States) and people at the CDC and saying that we wanted to be part of the solution. We saw golf as a safe and very good mental and physical outlet for people who wanted to be outside and doing something active, and to be able to do that with others but in ways that promoted social distancing. It really helped bring people we had lost back to golf, and it introduced a lot of folks to it for the first time.
Another initiative is our PGA Works Collegiate Championship, which was first played in 1986 and has become an important development for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) as well as Hispanic- and Minority-Serving Institutions. The format is 54 holes stroke play, and we use the money we raise every year partially to endow golf programs that serve these players and are otherwise struggling. We have five divisions, and last year more than 160 student-athletes from 41 schools competed.
This takes me back to leadership. My father, James, who was a teacher and a coach, just passed away a couple of weeks ago, at the age of 95. And at Lawrenceville, where he worked and where I went to high school, he used the Harkness system in his teaching.
What else? Of course, the things we do for our professionals. Like the PGA Cup, with our best golf professionals playing against those from Great Britain and Ireland every two years in Ryder Cup format matches. And the Member Deferred Compensation Plan we introduced last fall, with the idea of it providing supplemental income to our members once they retire.
In June 2020, when the PGA Tour started up again after being shut down for a few months, I reached out to Jay (Monahan) and also Mike Whan, who was head of the LPGA at the time (and is now CEO of the USGA). We talked about this being a generational opportunity for us to grow the game. What that led to was the creation of six working groups from within the industry. Governing bodies, equipment makers, people with real stakes in making this happen for golf. The idea was to pool our resources and see what we could do together.
This takes me back to leadership. My father, James, who was a teacher and a coach, just passed away a couple of weeks ago, at the age of 95. And at Lawrenceville, where he worked and where I went to high school, he used the Harkness system in his teaching. That employs an oval table that has room for 12 people, a teacher and 11 students, and your participation around that table counts for 50 percent of your grade. The idea is for that to be a place where people could exchange ideas, express their own and listen to others, with the teacher guiding the discussions but never really leading them. Dad was very Socratic in his thinking, and when I think of leadership, I think of that table and that approach, of how to build consensus and to learn from other people and figure out ways to move forward together.
Now, I have Dad’s Harkness table. It’s in our dining room, and it makes me think about him and what it represents all the time.
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