Feature Interview with Grant Spaeth
Born June 27, 1932, in Oxford, England, C. Grant Spaeth has served the game – and society – for many years. Married to Lori, they have two adult children, Charlie and Shelly. Mr. Spaeth graduated from Palo Alto High School, Exeter, Stanford (BA) in 1954, and Harvard Law School (LLB) in 1957. He served in the US Army followed by the Reserves and has been in the private practice of law in Palo Alto from 1958 until today. He was the Deputy Secretary, HEW, from 1978 until 1980 as well as a Palo Alto City Councilman. Somehow, he managed to find time to serve on various USGA committees before becoming President in 1990-1991. In addition, he sits on a number of charitable boards and enterprises.
You were president of the USGA in 1990 and 1991. What were its biggest challenges then?
In addition to performing the core assignments well (Championships, rules, handicapping, green section),
a) Shoal Creek, racial issues, and exclusionary policies. We couldn’t tell clubs what to do but we immediately set up open policies for holding events at qualifying clubs.
b) Fear of litigation with manufacturers. (Just before Mr. Spaeth’s Presidency, the USGA reached a settlement with Ping on the groove issue.)
c) Ball starting to go too far; how to anticipate these developments and cap the distance, somehow. We made a major investment in a new laboratory. The thought was that well staffed we could keep pace or actually get ahead of the manufacturers and ‘anticipate’ new developments and come up with appropriate regulations.
d) Continuing focus on strengthening state golf associations, which do the lion’s share of administering amateur golf in this country.
- Over commercialization? The sponsors which now numbers four, etc.
- Ball going too far.
- Will reorganization of Golf House undermine its traditions of charitable service.
How and when did you get involved with the USGA?
I got to know a number of the Executive Committee members over the years, and I attended USGA events, including the Walker Cup at St. Andrews.
Bill Williams was General Counsel in the late 1970’s and it was decided to move him up to the Executive Committee. So they were looking for a lawyer to serve in that capacity, which is a volunteer job, like service on the Executive Committee. I was selected, helped along without doubt by the fact that Frank (Sandy) Tatum is and was a very close friend.
What is your favorite U.S. Open set-up in the past 30 years? What did you like about it?
Shinnecock in 1987 â€œ the Raymond Floyd year. We did not set it up. We found it,( Frank Hannigan the executive director deserves the credit.) Mowed the grass. Cleaned up a few things here and there, built the bridge for spectators, and teed it up.
Winged Foot in 2006 was sensational, because we remained true to its original concepts rather than stretching it beyond belief, and obviously, it stood up. Actually I thought in 1984 it was wonderful for Zoeller and Norman as well, though the trees were getting rather thick.
And 1999 at Pinehurst wasn’t bad! I think P.J. Boatwright would have recognized it.
What about disappointments?
Maybe it was the erosion of the Rules of Amateur status.
Also the failure to return to Merion. I lost several close votes over the years when I proposed returning to Merion. My position: We should share Merion, via television and effective writing, with all the golfers of the United States and the World. It is an unbelievably special place, historically, and a superb test of golf. So what, I argued, that we can’t make much money on tents. We don’t have to be enormously profitable at every US Open. Sharing Merion outweighs income statement considerations. I’ll be watching in 2013 to see if it holds up. It seems like #1 will be drivable and #2 will be a birdie hole. If I had to choose a hole to watch, it would be between the 11th which I love and the 6th which may be the best hole on the course.
Everyone advocates fast and firm playing conditions. Yet, a brick hard fairway yields drives in excess of 350 yards. How can the USGA present fast and firm conditions, and yet still have players hit a wide variety of approach shots into greens?
I don’t have the answer. Look at Winged Foot for one answer. . . . Fast fairways mean that slightly crooked drives go into the rough, even though it is way out there. But it appears we simply have to keep lengthening the courses, like Torrey Pines in San Diego, which is an unfortunate development.
The days of an 8,000 yard U.S. Open seem inevitable. Is it? What message would the USGA send by taking their prized tournament to a course of such length?
Unless we get a tournament ball or otherwise push back how far it can go, it is maybe inevitable.
You were a member of the 1953 NCAA golf championship team at Stanford. How was the Stanford course then as compared to now?
I am a little vague about that. It had no automatic sprinkling system, so it was much faster. But one’s ball rolled into the rough, which was a slight problem only. (I can recall being the measurer at the 1948 NCAA long driving contest, and the balls wound up, then, about where they do today. It must have been the dryness.) . . . The course played longer then, notwithstanding the dryness. Also the greens were different. We are in the process of restoring some of the greens. Over the years, the greens have all become the same size. We recently discovered an aerial in Los Angeles from the 1930’s showing the original shapes and sizes of the greens.
What are your thoughts on classic golf courses, like Stanford, that are subject to continuous renovations?
Regrettable. We are in the midst of an updating which means pushing tees back. Some modernization is inevitable, given how far we hit the ball. And one is forced to wonder whether there should be two sets of equipment rules, because distance is not a factor for non-tournament players, or older ones. But the foregoing suggestion of two sets of rules is sacrilege in many quarters.
The State of California was blessed with numerous outstanding designs during the Golden Age of golf course architecture. Time has not been too kind to many of the courses. Is there one course in particular that you lament, either its passing, or wish its original playing character could be restored?
Cypress Point, clearly. I am told the Stanford Golf Team went down and to capture the way the course originally played, each player had to take his drive and go back 40 yards and play. Awful shame that it is pitch and putt for the good players although the greens still hold up for today’s play. They may have succeeded at Pasatiempo â€œ I found it very tough a few months ago. And what a restoration at California Golf Club by Kyle Phillips â€œ sensational.
The USGA was involved in the restoration at Bethpage and helped push Torrey Pines into renovation. Do you think the USGA should be more involved in renovation of municipal or public golf courses?
I suppose so. Certainly its focus on public courses for many of its Championships gives it the occasion to work with owners and superintendents to improve playing conditions. I am told that after the USGA leaves, the quality of play is inevitably improved.
Although it is not in the remodel business, through its green section consultations, it can be enormously helpful.
There are many other things the USGA could do but in this era of a credit crunch, what is best to do with a limited amount of funds? As example, should the USGA co-sign, form partnerships or make grants? What is appropriate?
You are a long time member of San Francisco Golf Club. Describe a particular hole there and what you like so much about it.
Clearly, ten. Beautiful. Sets up wonderfully as you approach the hole. From back tees, bunkers left and right in play. Perfect bunkering by the green. Green itself is superb. Great chipping area to left. Certain putts are incredibly demanding, so position is important. For me a huge challenge: the drive must be good and the four iron in is hard work. But oh so satisfying when I pull it off.
SFGC recently restored three lost Tillinghast holes after fifty years of discussion among the members and much apprehension. Were you in favor of the change?
Initially, no. I was used to 13, 14 and 15. I did not like the tree in the drive zone of 13. But 14 intrigued me. And 15 was a very fine three par â€œ a very real challenge to me. However, when it was explained that lots of trees were going to die and thus undermine the 14th hole, I changed my mind. I might strengthen 13, which I told Tom Doak would be in keeping with what I think Tillinghast would have done had he been with us today. My understanding is that a bunker will be extended on the left and some changes may occur with the green. As it is, the big hitters have it too easy.
Tell us about Royal County Down and your time there.
First time, with Sandy Tatum and a couple of friends for two days in the 1960’s. Later, I qualified for the 1970 British Amateur. Later still, two more days. And most recently, the Walker Cup last September.
It’s fabulous. The places where soldiers practiced amphibious landings in WWII. The fourth hole is the most stunning three par in golf. The 9th, an unbelievable par 4, looking right at the Slieve Donard Hotel and beyond to the Mountains of Mourn. The new 16th is a great improvement. Every tee shot is demanding a premium on its placement. I think it is the best course in the world.
In 1970 I lost in the third round of the British Amateur. Lost to a little Irishman whose wife was caddying for him. Had I won that match I would have played Michael Bonallack who ended up winning.
Who are three of your favorite modern day architects? What is it that you admire in their work?
I’m a little reluctant to name architects since I know most of them but if I had to name three, Coore/Crenshaw: straight forward, go with the land, seems well grounded in old fashioned principles.
Tom Doak: I like his intellectual strength. I have not seen a piece of his work that I would consider mediocre.
The rest are tied for third!
Fewer and fewer traditional courses (e.g. The Country Club, Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Shinnecock Hills) have either the capacity or interest to host the U.S. Open. As the USGA elects to take the U.S. Open to courses with lesser architectural pedigrees, is there a worry that the importance of the U.S. Open will be slightly diminished?
Generally speaking, I think golfers (players, spectators and TV viewers) enjoy visiting the old sites, and experiencing the history of those places. (Pavin’s last on the 18th at Shinnecock; the Nicklaus one iron on 17 at Pebble, the Watson chip in on the same hole, and on and on). They are like the old movies â€œ fabulous. And thus we should not leave them.
I suppose the Championship would suffer if, in the course of a decade, we did not return to 6 or 7 of the historic venues. It is my view that we are obligated to include new arrivals, once they mature, (e.g. don’t rush in prematurely as we did with the first Hazeltine Open). And I view it important to couple the new venues with geographic balance â€œ we ought to go everywhere in our country with this event, if at all possible. (Slim pickings between the Mississippi and the Rockies).
And occasionally, (see supra re Merion and what we thought might happen at the first Shinnecock) let’s not be only sensitive to the bottom line.
Is the present state of the game healthy?
I’m a little worried about it flattening out, for all the many reasons (cost, difficulty, length of play) that are pointed out in the NGF analyses. I simply fear that people, particularly kids, who might prosper in many ways as a result of playing golf will not be having that opportunity.
The First Tee and all other Junior Programs are worth a try, even if the kids depart the game down the road. They inevitably will return and profit.
How can golf be promoted throughout the world?
This is a topic that is not dealt with easily or in brief. The number of golfers seems to be decreasing in the US, notwithstanding many public and affordable courses and a prosperous society.
When you look at other countries, the facts differ dramatically, one from the other. Affordability and access to the game is limited maybe because of the shortage of courses, but also because golf is expensive, time consuming and culturally at odds in some communities.
It is my own view that a combination of charitable enterprises (USGA, R&A, First Tee, schools and colleges) are doing well and the methodology being applied is sound.
As a result, I forecast a growth, however slow, of the game because at the core it has it all â€œ integrity, beauty, demands on the player, fair competition, and on and on. That sort of enterprise ultimately succeeds.
Lastly, it is rather helpful that the game attracts extraordinarily decent and upbeat human beings as its leaders â€œ Tiger, Bobby Jones, Jack, Arnold, Tom, Ben and on and on..
If you were Czar over the Game of Golf, what would you do?
Unrealistically, reduce the number of clubs. No problem for high handicappers. It forces creativity from good players. And the game gets less costly.
Somehow finish up the ball too far issue, quickly.
Continue to promote First Tee and Junior Golf. To repeat: I want more people exposed to the game. Those who take to it will be lucky and should be thankful.
Previously I have resisted putting golf in the Olympics. It bothers me. It’s like taking coal to NewCastle – not needed, undermines the great events of the world, what’s the World Amateur for, after all . . . and on and on. On the other hand, I am advised that developing countries are prepared to invest in the game ONLY is the sport is part of the Olympics. And that dynamic deserves our attention, because it is the objective of most institutions to spread the game throughout the world for the benefit of all peoples.
So where do I come out? Let golf into the Olympics.
You have mentioned the ball numerous times. It was an issue when you were President and still and issue today. Is it inevitable that a tournament ball must be implemented sometime soon? Is the liability issue to the USGA the reason it has not been implemented?
The process must be thorough and fair. How to solve the problem of the ball going to far is not easy. Liability is not an issue. Doing it correctly is.
What can be done to help the pace of play of recreational golf?
I have worked and thought about it for years and I simply do not have a remedy. Local, club level education and responsibility. Higher handicappers later, faster players earlier. I can’t find something universal that could solve the problem . The use of course marshals and starters as long as they do not violate the rules of golf.
I have been involved in every effort that has been tried and failed. Obviously, if we prevent slow players from teeing it up until late in the day, that is not very ‘recreational’.
It is true that our handicap system, which requires ‘putting out’ even in match play when you have already won or lost a hole, does not help. Should we change that? Maybe. (The British play faster than we do in part, I suspect, because their handicap system is not so designed.)
Have we moved too far away from the original thirteen rules of 1744 (i.e. are today’s rules to lengthy/cumbersome for the recreational golfer to understand)?
We decided that the Rules would apply to you and me and to the Tour. The Tour demands precision because one stroke can mean lots of money. Obviously, the Rules and Decisions are excessive but they are being trimmed down, I note, by sensible writers. But I am not one who suggests further SIMPLIFICATION. There are simply so many crazy things that can happen to a golf ball that simplistic approaches tend to work very badly from time to time. The Rules and the many decisions are responsive to the need for ‘certainty’, in modern times, rather than sorting out problem in an equitable and informal way. Thus, we have moved away from simplicity because it has been required by the professional tours.
You had two eventful years as president and saw golf and the USGA grow and prosper during those years. As golf began to decline in popularity over the last few years, the previous president began a restructuring and reorganization of the USGA. Can you comment on this and were you in favor of it?
I doubt the changes at Golf House were the result of a decline in the popularity of the game. These were decisions related to income and expenses. It is not for me to assess, as of yet, the wisdom of the changes. All I now hope for is that achievement of the fundamental charitable objectives of the USGA are not eroded.