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Sunday, June 16, 2024

A one-on-one interview in Myrtle Beach with PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh

His take on the PGA Tour-LIV Golf relationship, golf ball distance rollback, payments to Ryder Cup players, the game's resurgence, and more

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PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh recently spoke at a Project Golf banquet for donors and invited guests called the Circle of Champions Celebration and ‘Fireside’ Chat at The Dunes Golf and Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, and granted On The Green Magazine an exclusive interview.

The PGA of America serves approximately 30,000 PGA professional members in 41 sections, with the largest being the Carolinas Section, which includes the Grand Strand.

It also “borrows,” as Waugh put it, the best players in the world to conduct the PGA Championship and KPMG Women’s PGA Championship annually, and Ryder Cup biennially.

Prior to taking over leadership of the association for club professionals and instructors in September 2018, Waugh was involved in business and Wall Street.

He spent a decade as CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas and was managing director of and remains a senior advisor to Silver Lake, a global leader in technology investing.

Waugh gave his thoughts at The Dunes Club as the head of the PGA on numerous matters in the world of golf, including the rift and announced partnership between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, the upcoming limitations on golf balls, potential payments to Ryder Cup participants, and the PGA’s continued role in the resurgence of golf.

Some of Waugh’s responses were part of his Project Golf Fireside Chat in front of a small crowd, and others were part of his one-on-one conversation.

His thoughts on:

_ Topic: Accepting the position of PGA CEO after decades in the financial sector.

_ Response: “My parents are both teachers, and I’ll never have a chance to impact more lives than through this game. If we can make 30,000 lives better we can make millions of lives better.”

_ Topic: The divide in the game at the highest levels of competition between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, and the PGA’s stance and possible role in any forthcoming resolution. On Jan. 6, the PGA Tour, DP World Tour (in Europe) and the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF) announced an agreement to unify PIF’s golf-related commercial businesses (including LIV Golf) with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour commercial businesses into a collectively owned for-profit entity. But the parties still seem to be at odds with LIV signing Tyrrell Hatton away from the PGA Tour in late January, and the PGA Tour continuing to ban LIV golfers from its tournaments.

_ Response: “Coming together is what the game needs. War is no good and peace is always a lot better. [LIV] certainly had no business model, right, and that’s a hard thing to compete against. On the other hand it was destroying the game. It certainly wasn’t destroying it at our level, but at the professional level you’re diluting the game. I don’t think the game is big enough to handle two leagues by any means. . . . Bringing the game together is important and I think [the Jan. 6 announcement] is a great first step towards that. I do think the other leg of this trade will happen. I think both sides need the other side to come to the table and I think they will in time. . . . But the professional game will be changed by this. For the first time ever you have a for-profit entity as one of the true golf bodies and perhaps the most powerful one. So they’re going to behave differently.

“. . . When there is a big change in one of the entities there’s going to be change with everybody. It’s dropping not a pebble into the water but a boulder in this case. I think we’re all going to have to adjust to the fact that there is a for-profit entity that is going to behave probably somewhat differently than they historically have. How do we respond to that and how do we look at that as an opportunity to get stronger.”

_ Topic: The PGA of America’s brand campaign over the past nine months to inform the public of the PGA’s role in the game and differentiate it from the PGA Tour because of the negative backlash it received from the tour’s announcement on June 6, 2023, that the tour and LIV Golf were essentially merging.

_ Response: “It became a big disadvantage [to be confused with and associated with the PGA Tour] on June 6. I got hate mail and I know John Lindert, our president, did. . . . As always in branding you come back to the most simple thing, the thing that people are going to stick to, and we came up with ‘We Love This Game,’ which I think says it all, and I think it’s resonating as far as I can tell.

“We’re trying to talk about ourselves. We’re all about branding ourselves. It’s not a negative to them or disparaging about what they’re doing. It’s talking about our mission and what our professionals do every day and how we view the world. There was obviously a lot of emotion around that moment so we’re not judging them, but we are saying this is the PGA of America. We’ve been around for 110 years and this is what we do.”

_ Topic: Enduring impact on the game of the PGA Tour-LIV Golf rift.

_ Response:  “I think it has been double-edged. I think it has created interest in an odd way, some of that wanted, some of it not. I think that we need to get back to talking about all the good the game does, what the charities raise and also what you saw here [with Project Golf]. The tour does a lot of that, whether it’s The First Tee or the $1 to $3 to $5 to $20 million they raise per week at tour stops, and away from how much money everybody is playing for. I hope the dialogue gets back to what we love about golf as opposed to money.”

PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh speaks at The Dunes Club during a Project Golf banquet in January 2024. (Alan Blondin photo)

_ Topic: The USGA and R&A have announced a slight rollback of the distance balls can travel based on new testing standards that will be enacted in 2028.

_ Response: “How many people in the room want to hit the ball shorter? For me and for us it’s strange timing. The game has never been in better shape. It’s on a roll. As you’re in this boom, why would you say we’re going to make it harder and less fun? It just makes no sense from a timing perspective. I get where they’re coming from, which is we’ve got to protect the game for the next 100 years. It’s an emotional topic. It’s a complicated one. Defending golf courses is something we all care about, certainly the older iconic ones particularly. But we’re not for it, and certainly not right now.

“ . . . They listened to us. We were very loud as the PGA of America and we should be. I think because of our 30,000 [members], because we touch it at every level whether it’s your first shot you hit in PGA Junior League to the Ryder Cup, we should have the most balanced, the most thoughtful, the most insight into what’s really going on in the game. So I think our voice should be outsized on this sort of stuff. So when they went to the modern local rule [proposal] which would have created bifurcation and have an elite ball and an everyday ball, we decided we liked that even less than an overall rollback. . . . We thought it would create chaos.”

_ Topic: The growth of the game since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, led by women and younger players.

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_ Response: “The fastest growing [demographic] in the game are females, both girls and women, and that’s true of beginners, it’s true of juniors, it’s true of avids, it’s true in every way. Sixty percent of all growth of on-course golf since COVID is women. More women watched Full Swing, the Netflix documentary, than men. The other fastest growing [demographic] is people of color, and that’s fantastic. That’s been very intentional. It’s not only the right thing to do frankly to grow it in that way, but the smart thing to do. . . . So if we’re not growing in those ways, we’re not growing. That’s why I think this version of the growth is very different than the Tiger sort of spike that we had back in the day.

“. . . Now 48 percent of all golfers in the U.S. are under the age of 35, and that’s an extraordinary change from where we were. If you think about any sport they would kill for that demographic. I think we’re here to stay and we’re not going to take that for granted. We’re going to continue to be farmers rather than miners and till the soil and continue to bring players to the game. The other thing that I think happened generationally is that golf for the first time ever – it’s had its ups and downs – is cool. Golf is cool right now, and I think that’s a really important factor in terms of first of all making it younger and second of all making it sustainable.”

_ Topic: The PGA of America has numerous grow-the-game programs under the umbrella of PGA REACH including PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) for veterans; Junior PGA League for juniors; PGA Works, which promotes diversity; and PGA Places to Play, which supports the existence and preservation of urban golf courses. The PGA also supports PGA Golf Management (PGM) programs at 16 universities including Coastal Carolina. The PGA has a fundraising campaign from individuals that began more than 30 months ago with a goal to raise $100 million for its programs. It has received commitments for $65 million thus far, with much of it dedicated to PGA HOPE. Money earmarked for Junior League goes largely to scholarships.

_ Response: “What we want to do is have every kid that wants to play be able to play. I think the number is 3,500 scholarships this year which is up significantly from what we’ve had. We’re trying to get to the point where not only are we giving a scholarship for their feed of play, but we would provide transportation, clubs, etc., sort of a whole true scholarship.”

_ Topic: Should golf relax its often staunch standards for dress codes, music and behavior to cater to a younger customer base?

_ Response: “I think it already has, and I think it will. . . . I’m for [golf] in every form that it is. If you’re going to go somewhere you should abide by their conventions and their rules. If you’re [at The Dunes Club] here you’re probably wearing a collared shirt and it’s tucked in. If you’re on a public driving range and you’re wearing gym shorts, there’s all stuff in between and I’m for all that. I think music on a range or music on a cart at the right places is great. If you’re playing golf in your bare feet, that doesn’t bother me a bit.

“. . . At the end of the day the one thing I do want to preserve are the values, why we all fell for this game. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing but it does matter how you behave.”

_ Topic: The impact efforts by the PGA and golf’s other leading entities have had on the game’s resurgence. In addition to the PGA’s four primary programs under PGA REACH, it has supported the “Make Golf Your Thing” slogan, and joins the USGA and Augusta National Golf Club in support of the national Drive, Chip & Putt youth competitions. The PGA operates all of the local and regional qualifiers for DC&P leading to the national finals at Augusta National.

Waugh said that in May of 2020 he spoke to Dr. Anthony Fauci and officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and developed a program called “Back To Golf,” which set the parameters for being able to play during the pandemic with phases to return back to normal procedures, and the PGA coordinated the program’s implementation nationally through conversations with golf courses, government leaders and health officials.

_ Response: “I think we’ve put our thumb on the scale. Golf was the first game that really opened up. The other thing that was happening was [PGA Tour commissioner] Jay Monahan was talking about playing golf on TV before anybody imagined any of it in like May, and they played at Hilton Head in June. So it was the first thing on TV, it was the first thing you could do, and everybody discovered the benefits of it, sort of a mind, body, spirit sort of thing. And I think that led to [increased participation].

“Then when we started ‘Make Golf Your Thing,” it was while the game was booming and after George [Floyd’s death]. It was like, we have an opportunity and an obligation here to do two things: to make this a sticky growth different than the Tiger thing, and doing it intentionally, and also to make the game look more like the rest of the world because, A, it’s the right thing to do and, B, that’s where the growth is going to come from.

“With ‘Make Golf Your Thing’ the industry aligned and donated both money and more importantly sweat. At the peak of it we had like 150 people from various organizations. We convened a meeting with Jay and I and [USGA CEO] Mike Whan and we could gather people, so the equipment companies were all on it, the CEOs, the other golf bodies. We created a job portal. We created a supply chain of diverse suppliers. We had a marketing team. We had like six workstreams that involved all these people.

“Do I think that’s had an effect? Absolutely. We’re three years into it. It was the first time the industry ever came together to truly grow the game and I absolutely believe it’s had an effect. All of the above. It’s all sort of pixels on a big TV screen that add up to where we are today, which is a miraculous change in terms of what the game looks like, how it’s behaving and frankly the age of it, which is an extraordinary change.”

_ Topic: The intra-industry PGA Show in Orlando in January, which was perhaps the largest in two decades.

_ Response: “If you walked the floor, it was a trade war, it was a bazaar. You could tell it was a bull market. You had no doubt what’s going on. I think we’re all so tired of talking about money in our game. Nobody fell in love with this game because of money, and that’s been everything at the highest level that has been talked about frankly for the last couple years. To get back to the business of the game, to what we do, our 30,000 are out there on the front lines of the game making lives better every day, and that’s what [the show] was all about and you could feel it. It was the biggest show in 20 years, it was up 15-plus percent over last year. The game continues to defy gravity.”

PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh participated in a Project Golf banquet at The Dunes Club in January 2024. (Alan Blondin photo)

_ Topic: The U.S. team led by captain Zach Johnson was dominated and lost by five points to the European team captained by Luke Donald in the last Ryder Cup in October in Italy, giving Europe wins in 10 of the past 14 Ryder Cup competitions.

_ Response: “We got our butts kicked. We thought we were very prepared. . . . At the opening ceremony Zach sort of stumbled through a little bit of Italian and he had obviously practiced a little bit, and you go, ‘That was cool,’ and he got a little bit of applause. And then Luke came out and did pretty much his whole speech in perfect Italian, absolutely like textbook Italian. And it turns out after the fact that he literally spent the last year and a half, two hours a day or something, studying Italian for that one moment. I think the thing that the Europeans are better at than we are: we care as much that week, [and] they won the Ryder Cup and they were preparing the next second for Bethpage [in 2025]. . . .  I think at the end of the day it’s a 24-7 thing for them, and it kind of is for us for the last few months of it. We’re spending a lot of time on how do we make sure, A, we retain the Cup at home, and B, how do we show better in Ireland [in 2027]?”

_ Topic: The prospects of U.S. Ryder Cup Team members being paid more than a large donation to their charities of choice by the PGA of America for their participation in the event, and the controversy over team member Patrick Cantlay not wearing a USA hat in what was perceived to be a protest over players not being paid. Cantlay said the hat didn’t fit him.

_ Response: “I don’t know about the whole hat thing. I’m pretty sure we could have found a hat that fit him. I don’t know that it was a protest. I give him credit to say that it was not.

“. . . There’s no question the whole money thing is real. It’s been going on since the late ’90s, I think Freddie Couples and Mark O’Meara were the first to bring it up. I’ve had conversations with current players about that and tried to explain to them . . . First of all we give each player $250,000 for their foundation, they can do whatever they want with it. And then we also give 20% of all of our media rights to the [PGA] Tour, and the tour theoretically puts it in their pension plan for all of the players, but they certainly could direct it to the players. So the PGA of America is paying for the players, it’s paying the tour as opposed to them.”

_ Topic: Donald has been named the 2025 European Ryder Cup Team captain. When the next U.S. Ryder Cup Team captain will be named and who it will be.

_ Response: “I think the first half of this year is a good time to think about, and we’ll have a great captain. Obviously everybody wants to know about Tiger [Woods] doing it or not, and I think he’ll be a captain at some point. His timing may be different than our timing. We’ll see how that plays out. He’s earned it and did a great job in the Presidents Cup. We’ll have a great captain, and he’ll be a great captain whenever he is.”

PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh speaks at The Dunes Club during a Project Golf banquet in January 2024. (Alan Blondin photo)

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