The recent U.S. Open at the Bethpage Black Course has been bountifully praised, and for all the right reasons: for being the first true public Open, for restoring a historic course to its original design and playing conditions, and for attracting fans from a considerably more populist demographic. The golf that was played in challenging weather made for intriguing television, even if a certain drama was lacking at the end.
However, in all the analyses I missed the sense that a watershed moment had been reached — and that the USGA had, with Bethpage Black, successfully closed a chapter on what had been a very difficult journey. Although there were many CEOs and other top executives in attendance as usual, I doubt they realized they were witnessing a rare and complex business triumph, one that any company caught in a tidal wave of change would wish to emulate.
The USGA has historically been made up of very exclusive and private clubs. Like most businesses, it faced a world in transition in the decades after World War II. The totality of the U.S. war effort had forced the government’s hand in finally dismantling the barricades of segregation and class — not very quickly and not wholeheartedly, it seemed at the time, but if we look at how things stand today, not so ineffectively.
Of institutions and organizations of the immediate postwar era, the USGA would surely have ranked among the most conservative and resistant to change — and they would’ve been proud of the fact. With the Bethpage Open, however, the USGA has made a successful, yet quite calculated, transformation, one that allows it to be both exclusive and yet enjoy popular support. That’s nice trick.
Social change always results in a business challenge
The problem golf faced in 1960 was that it was a white male dominated sport, and didn’t see that as a problem. Before 1960, the USGA had no compelling interest in change. But along came television, with the attraction of advertising revenues. Television creates heroes, of course, but it’s a populist medium; the public votes on which of the top players it decides to root for. In short order the first hero of the new era appeared — Arnold Palmer, whose ability to create drama on the course was matched by an extraordinary charisma. Palmer presented himself as the son of a pro in Latrobe, Pa., someone who was essentially gate-crashing the elite Palm Beach courses. Yet he was no unkempt slob out of Caddyshack, but rather a dashing sort, someone who fit the Clark Gable mold.
Palmer was the first shot across the bow. He made golf popular with the truck-driver set, yet he did not threaten the game’s special qualities. He obviously enjoyed the historic courses, traditional manners and sportsmanship, and even its upper-echelon associations. He stayed true to himself. For the USGA, he was both a blessing and a warning of what was to come.
By the time of the Shoal Creek Open controversy, the USGA had become quite comfortable with television revenues but had given no thought to a changing America and golf’s place in it. When the controversy over the club’s exclusionary policies arose, the USGA was reactive rather than proactive. But in the end, they forced certain compromises on Shoal Creek, a recognition that golf’s market base was changing to a broader one.
Choosing when to be proactive
From a business standpoint, it can be seen that in each of these cases the USGA let the market dictate its timing and reaction. They didn’t make Palmer. Until he appeared, they would have been appalled at the thought of a club pro’s son being followed by “armies” down the fairway. They didn’t have a problem with Shoal Creek’s membership policies until an outcry arose that wouldn’t go away — and threatened their bottom line.
Companies can survive a major shift in markets by being reactive, but for only so long. In the initial going, after all, there are still holdovers from the previous paradigm, music lovers who own shelves of vinyl albums, air travelers who prefer travel agents to going online, and stuffed shirts who only want to be among “people like us.”
Eventually, the shift becomes an avalanche. That’s when it gets dangerous to wait and see. Before 1910, for instance, it was unthinkable for men and women to get outdoors without their heads covered with a hat. By 1914, there were an awful lot of former hatters looking for another line of work.
When the USGA’s next controversy broke out, it was in terms of timing, right on the heels of Shoal Creek. The same issue surfaced at Augusta, and was messily and publicly resolved, guaranteeing that there would be a next time, and that it wouldn’t be so easy to fix. Indeed, there was further negative publicity over Cypress Point going off the tour to preserve its exclusivity, and when Pebble Beach was trumpeted as “public,” the fact that it cost $500 a round inspired derision.
The market had spoken. And then, just as the advent of television seemed to require an Arnold Palmer, the end of the era of exclusivity seemed to bring forth Tiger Woods — a player so complete and so dominating that he seemed born, as the Greek myths would put it, “full-grown, from the head of Zeus.”
Now the USGA became proactive, with Tiger taking golf into the multiracial era, and into the inner city. They’re involved with Tiger’s foundation. They’re fully vested in the modern age. And, in a brilliantly conceived and impeccably executed Open at Bethpage, they succeeded in presenting this new face of golf to the larger television audience in a way that spoke to golf’s love of tradition, its manners and sportsmanship, and its inclusivity.
That was the real secret of the Open. As in golf, a lot of success has to do with timing.
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