Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the March 11 issue of Global Golf Post.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA | “You have to love this, don’t you? I mean, how can you not love this?”
John Bodenhamer, the USGA senior managing director of championships, said this while standing behind the 11th green at the Country Club of Charleston looking back 180 yards to the tee of one of the most wicked par-3s in the game, a reverse redan with a false front that looks like a two-story wall.
“A lot of players, Beth Daniel among them, would lay up on this hole,” Bodenhamer said, referring to the Hall of Famer who grew up playing the course that will host this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. “Can you imagine? It’s 180 yards and they’re laying up short.” Then he paused and said, “This is a special place. Really special.”
“I’m really interested in what players have to say, in knowing what they think, what they feel, what they perceive. I can’t tell you how important that is to me. We listen now and we are going to continue to listen.” – John Bodenhamer
You don’t have to search for passion in the new front man for the USGA, the official who will answer most of the questions in public about everything from hole locations at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open to the rules spat his organization had on Twitter last week with Justin Thomas. It’s all out in the open with the 57-year-old, as is his genuine desire to break some generational stereotypes about his organization.
“I’m really interested in what players have to say, in knowing what they think, what they feel, what they perceive,” he said. “I can’t tell you how important that is to me. We listen now and we are going to continue to listen. That’s going to get nothing but better.
“And it isn’t just listening, it’s engaging. It’s being responsive. It’s having a constant dialogue, seeking understanding. No matter what the issue, that’s what we want to do. That’s what we will do.”
“Listening” is a word he repeats often, and not in a scripted way. Bodenhamer knows that the USGA is seen, fairly or not, as aloof, an organization that passes down edicts from Olympus. That perception led to frustration when questions about the recent rules modernization exploded in recent weeks. Not only was there no attempt to dictate regarding the recent rules revisions, both the USGA and R&A went overboard on the inclusion front.
“From the beginning there were representatives, not only from the PGA Tour but from all the major tours, who met with us (regarding the modernized rules),” Bodenhamer said. “And we met a lot. We had ongoing and open discussions where there were no sacred cows. We did that for five years.
“Our process included meetings with the tours, the PGA of America, our state golf associations, other rules minds; there were advisory groups; we spoke to average golfers; we talked to a lot of people and tried a lot of things.
“The R&A did the same thing. They had representatives from the European Tour, the (Ladies European Tour), several national golf federations that they engaged. And by that I mean that they were directly at the table.
“I personally gave presentations to LPGA referees and to the PGA of America board of directors – the entire board – about the new rules. That was months before we rolled them out. And I’m just one of many. (USGA senior director of rules) Thomas Pagel, (USGA president) Mark Newell, there were others who made (similar) presentations.
“It was a constant set of discussions. There was feedback from everyone. Every change, every consideration we could think of was thoroughly discussed. Then we experimented. We’d go out and play (by the new rules), give them a try. And not just us. We had college teams, elite amateurs, regular players at clubs. We encouraged people to try to them out. It wasn’t like we hid them. We put them out for everyone to see and had a discussion period where we said, ‘Here, go try them and let us know what you think.’ And we changed a few things as a result of the feedback we got. We went from 20 and 80 inches to a club length (for relief), for example.
“We listened. And we’re still listening, still considering, still learning. We’re still taking it all in. … If we’re going to make this game better, we need to all be in this together.”
“We also engaged with Justin (Thomas). We had direct conversations. We had a good dialogue. His voice is important to us. But I will say, to engage with players in 140 characters on social media is never good. … It shouldn’t have happened and it will not happen again.” – John Bodenhamer
Bodenhamer didn’t use the word “embarrassed” when he talked about the Twitter spat with Thomas. But he winced a little when talking about an episode that USGA insiders say was terribly frustrating. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan might not have intentionally hung the USGA out to dry, but by remaining silent for as long as he did before issuing a memo to tour members (one that came only after high-level conversations with folks in Far Hills, according to sources close to the matter), the commissioner let a small scratch fester and grow.
“We speak to Jay all the time,” Bodenhamer said with a nod toward diplomacy. “We’re in constant contact. When I talk about this being a collaborative partnership, that is ongoing.
“We also engaged with Justin (Thomas),” he said. “We had direct conversations. We had a good dialogue. His voice is important to us. But I will say, to engage with players in 140 characters on social media is never good. That’s not who we are. It shouldn’t have happened and it will not happen again.
“We’re doing the research. Of 258,000 shots played (so far this year) on the PGA Tour there have been four penalties attributed to the new rules – a couple of wrong drops, one involving green-reading material and one caddie alignment. But we get it. There are three or four rules that elite players have concerns about, and we’re listening. In fact, many of the (rules) changes that we made were as a result of what players had to say, 40 or 50 of them would be my guess.
“But with Justin or any of those other players, explaining the ‘why’ behind these rules is probably the most important thing we can do. As much as we’ve had these conversations, once you explain the why behind it, you get a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, I never thought of that.’ So, we’re redoubling our efforts on that front. Of course, we need to listen to their concerns. It makes the process better.
“There is always going to be a level of complexity with the rules. I hear this notion that, ‘Oh, we could write the rules on the back of a scorecard or on an envelope.’ You could do that, but boy you would get into some situations where it really is difficult.
“All of our playing conditions are different. People of differing skills are playing. Throw in the intangibles with youngsters out there and the different environments around the world, it’s difficult. We should always try to simplify when we can, and we have, and bring common sense, which we are trying to do. But there will always be complexity.”
The frustration may have subsided but there was still a tinge of sadness in his voice several days after the latest rules dustup died down.
“The narrative could so easily be positive,” Bodenhamer said. “If you think about all the elimination of penalties – you’re searching for your ball and you step on it; you’re trying to carve a 3-iron around a tree and it comes back and hits your equipment; you accidentally drop your putter and move the ball on the putting green; you double-hit it, there are no penalties. I mean, when was the last time you benefited from a double-hit? It doesn’t happen very often. To put the discussion back on what we’ve done in that respect, that is where we see success.
“You talk about things like (leaving the) flagstick (in) and how it speeds up play at all levels. At the Latin American Amateur this year at Casa de Campo, pace was 10 to 12 minutes faster than it was three years ago at the same golf course. And we actually had more wind this year.
“I spoke to a group of 50 CEOs on Monday and (the flagstick) was the one rule that they loved the most. One guy jumped up and said, ‘It saved 30 minutes with the group I play with because we never take it out.’ There are differing opinions but there was a consensus among those guys.
“When you pile it up – flagstick, three-minute ball search, and dropping – these are all pace benefits.”
There are no discussions about changing or modifying the flagstick rule. “Look, there are very few new ideas,” Bodenhamer said. “If you go back 50 years, you can see players putting at the flagstick on the PGA Tour and in the U.S. Open.”
But that doesn’t mean the USGA isn’t open to talk. “We’re evaluating everything,” Bodenhamer said. “And we’re listening.”
An hour or so later, he was standing on the front of the 16th green at the Country Club of Charleston. “Come have a look,” he said. “Isn’t this some kind of putting green? The subtlety, that’s what I love about classic courses like this. You stand here and you can see four (hole) locations that are just great.”
Then he turned and said, “What do you think? Where would you set the hole locations?”
The question wasn’t rhetorical. As is true with all things Bodenhamer, he really wanted to know. He wanted to listen.
Top Photo: John Bodenhamer is the USGA’s Senior Managing Director, Rules, Competitions & Equipment Standards. (Photo: USGA/Matt Sullivan)
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