Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Raleigh's Hyler Right Man For USGA Leader

PINEHURST – Sitting in the lobby of the Carolina Hotel Saturday afternoon, a few hours before being installed as the new president of the United States Golf Association, Raleigh’s Jim Hyler was already looking ahead.

There was a speech to deliver, a new focus on environmental issues to push ahead, a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach to prepare for and the lingering issue of grooves legislation to button up.

At a time when golf rounds have declined in the United States, Hyler begins his term as the USGA president with the chance to turn challenges into opportunities.

Though he didn’t join the USGA’s Executive Committee until 2004, Hyler’s quick ascension to president speaks to his understanding of the game and its traditions as well as his ability to work cooperatively with others.

In a position that has had its share of strong, divisive personalities, Hyler has a softer, more persuasive style.

“He’s what the USGA needs,” says Mike Davis, the organization’s senior director of competitions and championships. “He’s a big picture type person who understands what a national governing body should be doing and our role in the game.”

Hyler sees that role as being progressive. When he joined Davis on the championship committee in 2006, Hyler agreed with Davis’s notion that the U.S. Open needed a makeover.

The championship has always been designed to be the toughest tournament test in golf. In that pursuit, course set-ups became unforgiving. There was no margin for error and, by becoming so demanding, the U.S. Open became predictable. Miss a fairway, make a bogey. Stretch every yard possible out of the course.

Hyler and Davis introduced graduated rough, giving players a chance to recover if they weren’t far off line. They decided to adjust teeing grounds from round to round. They reintroduced the notion of the short par-4 hole, offering drivable holes at Winged Foot, Oakmont and Torrey Pines.

It was borderline radical.

“It was a significant change in philosophy,” Hyler said, crediting Davis for many of the changes. “Our mantra is hard but fair. We didn’t want to ease up on the hard part but we wanted to make it more fair.

“We wanted to challenge the players’ thinking and the way they approached holes.”

It worked, earning generally positive reviews from players.

“When you chair the (championship) committee, the buck stops with you,” Davis said. “I’d do most of the detail work but if didn’t go well, it was Jim’s neck that was out there.”

A Virginia Tech gradate who plays out of Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham, was instrumental in the success of the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens at Pinehurst and he was involved in the decision to stage both the men’s and women’s Opens at Pinehurst in 2014.

He assumes his presidency at a time when the game is dealing with changing dynamics. The number of rounds played has declined over the past five years in the United States though they have grown in South America and Asia.

While the PGA of America and other organizations focus more directly on growing the game than the USGA does, the organization has donated more than $65 million over the past 13 years in golf initiatives, Hyler said.

“We’re always concerned about the health of the game,” Hyler said. “We’re not worried about it. We’ll support efforts to defend the game and grow the game as our mission allows us. We think as the economy comes out of this recession that things will come back to what I would term a new normal, which will somewhere between where we are now and where we five or six years ago.”

Hyler said he’s pleased with the rules changes that went into effect Jan. 1 regarding the eventual elimination of u-shaped grooves from competition. He has monitored the controversy that erupted around the use by some PGA Tour players of 20-year old Ping Eye-2 wedges that are still allowed under terms of a legal settlement in the 1990s.

“We knew that this Ping legal settlement was out there. We were a little surprised some of the players elected to use those clubs because that 20-year old clubs – we thought the newer grooves today would still be better than those grooves – but its perfectly legal.

“We’re trying to work through a solution to this.”

In his speech Saturday night, Hyler urged the USGA to take a larger leadership role in environmental issues, particularly regarding water use. Golf courses do not have to be perfectly green to be in good playing condition, Hyler said.

“We have done a lot of environmental research over the years. It’s our best-kept secret,” Hyler said. “We’ll start talking about sustainability and water and our view of courses.”

Looking around the hotel lobby Saturday, Hyler had the look of man energized by his new role.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “It’s something I never dreamed would happen. I’m very lucky and maybe a little bit nervous.”