Q-and-A with Frank Hannigan

Familiar to television viewers as ABC's professiorial rules authority, Frank Hannigan is one of golf's most thoughtful print commentators as well, bringing an insider's knowledge of golf politics to his wry, astringent writing. Hannigan is a former USGA executive but also an occasionally forceful critic of American golf's governing body, so it isn't always easy to tell when he's speaking for the USGA -- or to them.

We caught up with him at the British Senior Open at Royal County Down in July. Thanks to complications arising from knee surgery last year, Hannigan has been forced to use a cane, but is making the most of is forced exile from the links to work on a memoir titled "Guilty of Golf" ("it's from H.L. Mencken, who said 'if I had my way, no man guilty of golf would be eligible to any office of trust under the United States.'")

How did you get to do what you're doing now?

Oh, God -- well, it was a natural cop-out of a sort after working for the USGA for 28 years. My early history was with writing and newspaper work before going to the USGA, and when I was with the USGA, I edited Golf Journal -- it was [Golf] Digest-sized then. That was for 2 or 3 years, and then I changed jobs internally with the USGA.

Your involvement there has brought you a unique perspective on the USGA.

Sure. I mean I was -- it's complicated because... I was intimately involved with them for almost 30 years... I was its principal bureaucrat for the last of them, as executive director.

Sometimes it seems like it's gone from one of the most conservative governing bodies in golf, to trying to be ahead of its time.

No. That's all spin.

There's no significant difference in the USGA from what it was twenty years ago. With the exception that it got rich, and so it's got this money lying around that it doesn't hardly know what to do with. And so it now is in the gift business -- it gives away so much money, if that's what you mean.

We -- the USGA does a number of things -- we used to call certain activities the "core activities:" the rules of golf, conducting championships, even amateur status. That's the reason the USGA was formed, to do all those things. And the other things have been added on over the decades.

Well, there's environmentalism, to a certain extent.

Well, -- they say.

Yeah -- they say, "we're going to give this money, these millions and millions of dollars to these environmental causes." But I can't think of a greater failure that we had in my time than where we said, "...we're going to reduce the amount of water that's put on American golf courses by fifty percent in the next thirty years." Nothing happened. Complete failure. I mean, it's a hell of a -- it's a proper cause, it's a great cause. But it's very hard to change something like that.

I think anything like environmental stuff that happens in golf ends up more or less imposed by a much greater force than the USGA. Although the USGA certainly works at it -- and the USGA Greens Section is a very, very positive aspect of the USGA.

The business of social and political conservatism -- that's -- I mean, David Fay -- we are the same, both of us are registered Democrats, slightly to the left probably of even most Democrats... I was always [ticked] off when people said we were super conservative... Grant Spaeth, one of our former presidents, had a sub-Cabinet role in the Carter administration.

Whether they believe it when they talk about bringing golf into the inner cities -- it's ludicrous, by the very nature of the activity. You can't do that. It's nice to think about it. But I mean, how are you going to play golf in south central LA?

But they're all -- there's a lot of guilt goes on about it.

I suppose it's better than no guilt.

It's relatively harmless....

What do you think when you see the commercial forces at work in golf these days?

Uh! (groans) That's changed dramatically...

When you think about golf and tennis -- twenty years ago when Borg was playing McEnroe, tennis was huge, and relatively few people cared about golf.

The New York Times owned a golf magazine and owned a tennis magazine, and the tennis magazine was a commercial failure, and Digest is a license to print money.

And you can't even conceive of it changing. Do you think golf is on a bubble sometimes?

Well the commercial part of it? I think they're distinct -- I think the big money part of golf -- this is prior to Tiger -- benefited entirely from the grassroots, that the money came up from the grassroots.... But Tiger is a whole different phenomenon, that transcends all of this and draws people -- I'm not so sure to play golf, but certainly to watch it on television, and to think about it -- or something. But he's different.

Do I think golf is on a bubble? Not that I can see, in the immediate future, no.

But what I do see is -- there's a funny thing about Tiger: in that he's SO big, he transcends the Tour itself.... It never occurred to me that at this time an individual could just dominate the sport. Certainly the common wisdom was that we had this great increase in the number of excellent players say since the 60's if you will, and there was a certain quality -- that everybody was pretty good, but nobody was ever going to be two and a half times better than anybody else, which is the way it turns out mathematically in the rankings.... He's the world's best-known athlete, I believe -- certainly the world's best-compensated athlete.

How did you get started at ABC?

When I was with the USGA I was the liason between the USGA and ABC. And so I was with them in... everything from approving camera locations, to writing pieces. There came a time where I decided I really don't want to go to an office anymore. So, I cooked up a deal with Terry Jastrow, who was then the producer of ABC's golf and then with ABC's management.

People think I got rich -- I took a sharp reduction in salary, leaving the USGA.

People will be surprised to read that.

That's right -- it's always assumed that I sold out for a million!

What do you think is going to happen with equipment and manufacturers -- do you think they're going to work to isolate the USGA?

I don't see how they can isolate the USGA. I think Callaway would like somehow to command public opinion in such a way that the USGA was somehow forced to abandon its principles, that's the signal -- more than the signals -- that he gives. I don't see that happening.

I look forward to the prospect of litigation... because in this case, the USGA wins this test.

There's a sense of them holding the line.

Well, they don't hold the line -- and I'm p*ssed at them. The so-called "trampoline effect" was first came in 96 or 97, they didn't find out about it until the fall of 97. I made a lot of noises about it, they didn't do anything until June of -- when did -- June of 98, and then what they did was, they drew a line around what was on the market, forgetting everything that had happened in the previous three years, because that's a tough legal case.... So what happened was on the highest level is, distance changed dramatically -- by ten yards plus. That's a bigger jump, in one fell swoop, than anything in the previous history of the game since the advent of the rubber-cored ball. So they drew that line.

And then most recently, Callaway and some Japanese companies have gone above THAT line by another distance. So they've drawn that line -- because the R&A for its own precious reasons did not -- and so we may have this confusion and breach between the two organizations, so that's terrible.

All for a set of rules that are universally accepted.

I've interviewed a good number of golf course superintendents over the years, and a number of them complained that the USGA treated them poorly at as an organization.

That's nonsense.

Some said they'd appreciate if for example they could air one or two commercials during the US Open, for example.

That's nonsense. That the USGA should give its time to golf course superintendents?... The USGA Greens Section was a very novel thing, particularly the visiting service, which was launched in the early 1950s, when golf course superintendents were by and large a bunch of played-out farmers. And it became a profession, and an honorable and highly-paid one, along with the assistance of the USGA Greens Section. So to me, that's nonsense. I hear now golf course superintendents are making as much as $200,000 a year, so I don't worry too much about them.

Now, I considered working with them -- and when I ran championships, which was fun for me, especially something like the National Junior, I had a great relationship with the golf course superintendents.

There's been a lot of talk lately about genetic engineering, and my understanding is that grass may be one of the first products where some of the inventiveness will be put to work.

I see -- that the grass is going to come back and eat us alive?... They'd like to have turfgrass that's less costly to maintain and requires infinitely less water, if they had their way. People at the local level in particular. Wives of club presidents want it green, like goddamned Augusta, is the attitude that has prevailed, unfortunately.

I think the golf like at Royal County Down is wonderful. What do you think it costs to maintain this place? I would think a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year, max -- compared to the ridiculous 650,000 plus is what it costs to maintain the average privately-owned golf course.

And there's no signs of it changing.

No, it gets worse.