Newell, now in his eighth year with the Executive Committee, chaired the USGA Rules of Golf Committee for five years from 2013 to 2017. During that time, he has been a leading force behind the USGA’s joint initiative with The R&A to modernize golf’s Rules. He also chaired the USGA Handicap Committee and spent four years as co-chair of the USGA/R&A initiative that led to the development of the new World Handicap System, which is scheduled to debut in 2020.
THE NEWELL STORY
I grew up playing public courses with my friends, and long ago fell in love with the joy of playing this fun game with great friends in a beautiful outdoor setting. I began playing regularly right around the time my youngest son became interested in learning to play, and attending a golf camp together was a key moment for both of us. I quickly became a real golf “addict” – not only in playing with the same group every Saturday morning — and every other time I could — but also in watching the game and reading about its rules and history. I was lucky to have the chance to volunteer with the USGA Executive Committee many years ago, and as a “regular” golfer it’s been exciting and rewarding to have the chance to focus on how to make golf as great as possible for every golfer and every aspect of the game.
You wake up in the morning — what’s the driving passion?
To do better than the day before in working together as a team. What drives me is to help pull people together to ask hard questions and thoroughly examine every aspect of a problem, to reach a real consensus of understanding about the facts and perspectives and the opportunities for improvement, and to agree on and implement real solutions in a real time way. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve the game and champion our USGA staff’s work to lead, grow and sustain our sport during this exciting time in golf’s evolution. I believe our collective focus on ensuring its future has never been stronger.
What made you decide to get involved at a leadership level with the USGA?
I spent much of my career at my law firm in leadership roles and just as I was retiring after 10 years as the firm’s Vice Chair, I had the amazing opportunity to join in serving with the other volunteers on the USGA Executive Committee. I quickly came both to love working on such exciting issues and to admire the fantastic staff team at the USGA, and was thrilled to have the chance to give back to golf in a meaningful way. I had no idea that I would end up in my current role, but it is a wonderful privilege to help lead this organization that has given so much back to me and to the game in so many ways.
Given your ascension to the presidency of the USGA — what’s the most important priority you will be resolved to address?
We live in a world of rapid and substantial change, which presents opportunities for the game of golf. A high priority for me is to make sure the USGA completes several multi-year initiatives that will help the game continue to thrive and grow. One area of special focus will continue to be the environmental and economic sustainability of golf facilities. This includes our ongoing concerns about ever-larger golf course facilities, the resulting increase in use of water and other resources, and the potentially negative effects on operating costs and the golfer experience. Addressing these pressures on the game will not be easy, but that only makes it more important for us to provide leadership in this area.
There’s been much discussion about the impacts caused from distance gains via clubs and balls. Do you see the USGA taking any forthcoming actions?
As our CEO Mike Davis has been a leader in saying, we are concerned that the footprint of golf courses has continued to expand. It’s not just a recent development; it’s been going on for decades and the effect is potentially significant for the game’s future. We think that distance and sustainability are much bigger topics than just about equipment. In pursuing our mission to ensure that the future of golf is strong, we are joining with The R&A to engage with stakeholders throughout the industry on this important subject and to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of increased distance on both the playing and overall health of the game.
The US Open returns to Shinnecock Hills for the 5th time. The ’04 Open was impacted by how the course was set-up with the 7th green being the most noted meltdown. What will be the philosophy for the event given what happened in ’04 and how the course was prepared at Erin Hills last year?
We are thrilled that the U.S. Open will return to one of our country’s most-storied venues. We are confident that Shinnecock Hills will provide the ultimate test for the world’s premier players, as it has for more than a century. A lot has changed since the last time we visited – the course has been updated, technology has improved, and our ability to use tools to be more precise has improved.
This includes precise weather zone mapping, moisture meters and firmness measurement tools. Our team of experts has been working extensively on site for quite some time. Golf fans will love watching great shotmaking at this very special golf course which requires excellent course management, skill and mental focus.
When you look back at the rules situation that happened in ’16 at Oakmont — you were with the Dustin Johnson / Lee Westwood group — what was learned from that event?
That sometimes it would be good to be anonymous! Seriously, we all learned a great deal from that, spurring us to make a series of changes to both the Rules and our championship practices since that time. Our USGA Rules and Championship team led a thorough review of all our processes and implemented many improvements such as better access to technology for officials who are on the course, stationary Rules officials and a more comprehensive video review process to enhance both accuracy and faster decision making. On the Rules front, we already had planned to eliminate the penalty for accidentally moving a ball on the putting green in the 2019 revisions resulting from Rules Modernization, and we accelerated that change at the end of 2016 by authorizing it to be adopted by local rule.
Slow play is a major threat to the game. The USGA had a program entitled, “While We’re Young.” What do you see happening on this front now?
Our special role is to address the game’s well-being in all aspects and a key area of emphasis is pace of play at all levels. Golfers tell us that the time it takes to play a round is one of the main barriers to playing more. Our extensive research has shown that pace of play is not just the responsibility of the player. The architect, golf course owner, superintendent, starter and competition administrators play critical roles as well. “While We’re Young” helped raise awareness about the subject of pace of play, and if we can bring that awareness to all areas of the industry and continue to pursue research and innovative solutions, we can help make the game more enjoyable for everyone.
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally — what would it be and why?
I would change the perception that golf is an elitist sport. Three-fourths of the golf courses in America today are public golf courses, and the average cost of a round is $38. Half of those courses have nine-hole rates, offering the ability to fit golf into a two-hour timeframe. It is also a lot of fun to play, whether with your best friends or strangers you meet on the first tee. Golf is a great community of people who love to play with others, and the USGA Handicap System allows everyone to compete together on a level playing field. It is the greatest recreational sport to enjoy for a lifetime, and the USGA will keep working to help make the game one that more people will play more often.
The major golf organizations — USGA, R&A, PGA of America, PGA TOUR, LPGA — are all seeking ways to attract millennials, women and minorities. What steps do you see need to be implemented to add more people to the sport since clearly golf has lost nearly 20-25% of players from a decade ago?
We’ve worked together with these and other leading organizations to build programs that we can scale nationally, such as LPGA*USGA Girl’s Golf – and those investments are yielding great results. Now, one in three junior golfers is a girl. The number of women golfers has grown year over year since 2012. And millennials, who have more ways than ever to spend their entertainment dollars and time, are finding facilities like Topgolf, 9-hole options and indoor driving ranges as a pathway into the game. Golf is a social game, and the more ways we can show how much fun it can be, the more we will continue to draw in golf’s next generation. Everything we do at the USGA – from modernizing the Rules, to developing a World Handicap System, to conducting international qualifiers and more – has a focus on helping to grow the game and make it more welcoming and accessible to more golfers.
Best advice your ever received — what was it and who from?
I think the best advice – but I don’t remember the source – was to stop thinking about advice in the middle of my golf swing! But that’s easier said than done.