PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – There's a red Solo Cup on the floor of Seth Waugh's office at PGA of America headquarters and a Scotty Cameron Notchback prototype putter, with the inscription “Seth,” leaning against his credenza. Otherwise, Waugh, 60, has been too busy to decorate since taking over the role of chief executive on Sept 24. In his short stint on the job, he already has sworn in the association's first female president, signed a lucrative 11-year TV deal with CBS and ESPN beginning in 2020, finalized a deal to relocate the PGA's headquarters to a fancy new campus complete with championship golf courses in Frisco, Texas, and witnessed the Americans lose yet another Ryder Cup.
The PGA in this day and age qualifies as big business, and no one before Waugh, the former Deutsche Bank Americas CEO, has had his experience at running a major corporation. Next week, Waugh will preside over his first PGA Merchandise Show, and as he outlined during a lengthy and wide-ranging interview in December, he's got an ambitious agenda that could include a health-care plan, a pension and other perks that members of the PGA have long sought.
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“I may have gotten the job because of what I've done, my business stuff, but I took the job so that I could make a difference,” Waugh said. “The opportunity to do that is what is fulfilling to me. That will be my legacy, not whether we win a Ryder Cup or have the biggest TV deal ever. It will be whether the members are better off.”
(This conversation was edited and condensed.)
Adam Schupak: How did you become a PGA board member?
Seth Waugh: Pete [Bevacqua, the then-CEO] came to me and was trying to create a think tank of sorts. I told him about the advisory board I instituted at Deutsche Bank of ex-CEOs and politicians. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell was my lead director. It turned into a huge resource for building our business. I told them there were a lot of people who cared about golf. He said, “Great idea. Will you be my first guy?” We built this group, and he executed it very well. Three or so years into it, he asked me to join the big board. I said, “Sure.” I was rolling off. I thought I was going to be done at the annual meeting [in November].
AS: Wow. I didn't realize that. Next thing you know you're being approached to be CEO?
SW: Pete got an opportunity he couldn't turn down [as president of NBC Sports Group], and the officers and the special committee called me one night. They had put together a special committee and outlined the criteria. They had about 10 items and someone said, Don't we have someone sitting in front of us that fills a lot of those buckets? I think it was a Friday night, because I was home and it was kind of 6 o'clock at night and Paul Levy, who was the president at the time, called. I told him I thought he'd get a bunch of good candidates because of how we've elevated the brand and it's a really great job. He said, “Funny you say that, because we've gotten together and we think you're going to be the right guy. Would you consider it?” I said, “Excuse me?” I was flattered. He said, “Would you consider it?” I said I'd have to sleep on it and talk to [wife] Jane. I went downstairs, and Jane and [son] Clancy were cooking dinner. She looked at me and said, “What happened?” I said, “What do you mean?” She could tell something happened. I said, “I just got this call. It was a pretty cool call, but I don't know what to do with it yet.” Clancy and Jane's reaction was immediately, like, Wow, you have to do that.
AS: What will be different in your approach to running the PGA?
SW: We had a zero-risk approach to things. I'm trying to unlock some of the passion and ideas and a DNA of innovation and entrepreneurship to make this game cooler. That won't necessarily be me, but I can enable that, encourage that and award that. Frisco [Texas, where the PGA intends to relocate] can be that incubator for us. Imagine 20 years forward, you'd go to Frisco if you wanted to be in golf the way someone would go to Silicon Valley to be involved in a tech startup, because we're going to be the think tank. That's where innovation will be, where the energy will be. It's just not building a place to play golf, but a Silicon Valley concept of, Build it and they will come. That probably won't happen on my watch because it's going to take us 3-4 years to get there, and hopefully I'm sitting on my couch and alive a generation from now when it's become a reality. It's not going to happen because I say so but because we build something that delivers on that over a generation of time.
AS: What would you like to see Suzy Whaley accomplish during her presidency?
SW: I couldn't have asked for a better partner coming in out of the gates. She's the whole package. I asked her after our first meeting at the annual meeting, “What do you hope to accomplish in the next two years?” She said, “That's a great question. Let me think about it.” The next morning, I woke up to an email with, I think, 47 things she'd like to accomplish. They were all things I agree with, and most of them were on my list of things to accomplish, which is great.
AS: The PGA coffers are flush with money. How can you get that to the membership?
SW: I'm happy to tell you what I'm thinking, but I've got to be careful because I don't want to screw it up by talking about it. In terms of a) creating too much expectation or b) getting in front of the IRS and having them read about and determine it doesn't work. I'm hopeful on the health-care side of things, for sure. Here's what I will say: We're hopeful we can create a class of the 29,000 members and maybe add some of the other associations like the superintendents and others because the new law [a Department of Labor proposal], if it gets enacted, may allow us to go across state lines in terms of being a class. Historically, if you were, for instance, a group of schools trying to get a discount on health insurance, it all had to be in New York or New Jersey. It couldn't be tri-state. Because of Obamacare [the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] is affecting the market, they may be looking to relax that. So, we think we can create an attractive health care for clubs or individuals. They tend to be healthy, young people working outdoors. Whether we can supplement that remains to be seen, but we'd be open to that, if we can do it without screwing up our tax status.
On the pension side of things, I've been spending a lot of time with the PGA Tour to understand its program, and I think I have a pretty good sense of it now. I have a kernel of an idea how we can apply the principles of the Tour's plan to our members. If it works, it will benefit the younger folks more because they will have a longer time to vest in that program and have their money grow. It's not totally ideal but still would be very compelling. If we can create that safety net, that wealth-creation vehicle, that anchor for people entering the industry, we will attract the best and brightest to our industry. I think it has been hard to say to those people that there is a really compelling career as a club professional across the board. We're trying to train not just how to hit a 7-iron but how to run a club – from general manager to F&B manager to operations manager. We're doing a lot on the education side, and now we need to figure out how to make it better for them and their families.
There's a natural cynicism of the members about HQ. There's this feeling that we get to drive our courtesy cars and we're sitting down there in Florida and all this money is rolling in and, What's in it for me? I've got three kids going off to school, and my lesson book is going down, and I don't have any health care and whatever. They're right. We have to figure that out if we want this to work. We have an army of 29,000 people who are the best army in the game to make it better. We need to figure out how to make their lives better and incent them to do the things to make that all happen. The selfish thing is, if we figure it out, we'll have a more passionate group to get it done for us. That's what I'm hoping, and that's why I'm here.
AS: What's it like to work with Jay Monahan, whom you were a mentor to and now sit across from in meetings with the PGA Tour?
SW: We're such good friends. We joke about it. I may have to remind him every once in a while that he wouldn't be where he was [without me]. We may end up on different sides of things, but we have total respect and, I think, understanding of each other. We had a talk last week that was mostly collaborative, but we may have a different opinion of things on stuff, but total respect.
Historically, some of the associations have competed against one another for turf or relevance or history. I have a totally different perspective. I'm for the game and anyone who is doing right by the game. We don't have to own it or reinvent it. We're going to encourage it. The really good thing that is going on with the game is that we have mostly all new people in the seats. Martin Slumbers [the R&A’s chief executive], Jay and myself are very new. The chance to have these conversations and think about it differently is good. One of those things that we talked about it recently is, what can we do together? We're all trying to grow the game. Why don't we pool resources rather than try to invent our own foundations or whatever it may be?
I think the PGA is in a unique position to be that United Nations of golf, if you will, the Switzerland of golf. We're for the game at every level. We just want everyone to play and like and have as much impact as we can. Being that objective observer on things and uniter around the game and sort of thinking at the end of the day we just need to cook the biggest turkey so we can all eat the most meat, right, and that's what we're about rather than, do we get the breast or the thigh or the leg? That's certainly how I'm approaching it.
AS: Anything you would've done differently handling former PGA president Paul Levy's being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol?
SW: I don't think so. I know everyone wants to compare it to Ted Bishop. I wasn't there for Ted, so I don't really have an opinion about that one. But for the one I was there for, I don't think it was a capital crime. He went out on a Saturday night, not on PGA business, wasn't representing the association, shouldn't have driven home, and he did. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, including himself. It's horrible. I'm not trying to justify a DUI. It's totally unacceptable, but are you supposed to lose your life and job? I don't think it's a capital crime. His reaction was one of total humility, total contriteness, total embarrassment, and threw himself on the cross with no excuses, no anything, and I think that's important, too. I think our reaction was appropriate, not an overreaction, but a significant one to give him time to figure it out and come back a period of time later with what he learned with a chance to apologize, and so I think it was appropriate. I do. Again, I have trouble comparing it to the other one.
AS: I wouldn't term Ted Bishop's actions a capital crime, either. Do you agree?
SW: Having not been there and having taken a little time to try to understand it, I think the difference was it was an accumulation of things, No. 1, and No. 2, was his reaction was very different. He was not humble about it. He was aggressive about it, and he was representing the PGA. He was using his pulpit to say something, and while we may not judge it to be a capital offense, a lot of the world was judging it to be a capital crime in this environment. Not being there, it wasn't something that just blew over, and maybe it could've. He did a lot of great things for the association. I've never met him, but there are a lot of people who think the punishment didn't fit the crime.
AS: Do you expect your game will improve, regress or stay the same during your tenure?
SW: I think I'll probably have a club in my hand more often yet play less, if that makes sense. There is an advantage to living here versus Manhattan. PGA National is right there. I'm working really hard, and I love it. I'm better when I'm busy and have 20 things going on than having one.
Every golfer thinks he's going to get better tomorrow, right? I just started working with Warren Bottke at PGA National. It's convenient. He worked with Pete, and Pete recommended him. Warren's like the most positive person on the planet. I'm going to give him a shot. I'm like a lot of people in that when I was playing well, I was building on something, but now because of time constraints, you only go for help when you need a doctor when you should be going to a trainer, right?
AS: What is your current roster of golf memberships?
SW: Seminole, Lost Tree and Old Marsh down here. I guess I'm a member at PGA National, too. Then there's Old Town in Winston-Salem [N.C., where his son played college golf, at Wake Forest]. I voluntarily gave up Pine Valley and Garden City because of the single-sex thing. I didn't think that would be fair to the clubs or the association if that came out. Deepdale, Westhampton, Quogue [Field Club], National [Golf Links], Shinnecock, Cypress Point and San Francisco Golf Club, Boston Golf Club, Lahinch in Ireland and Royal Aberdeen in Scotland. Too many.
AS: The PGA Championship moves to May and to a course in Bethpage Black that you have a real fondness for, right?
SW: It's really cool. I've caddied for Clancy in 30 or so rounds there. I think Bethpage is one of the real wonders of golf. May, from a weather standpoint, is a little scary for those of us who live there, but I think we'll get away with it. The May change is so good for us. It can't be better than to follow the Masters and be ahead of the others. If it is crappy weather and lesser conditions, it's an outdoor sport. They're playing football in Green Bay this weekend, right? Maybe we can put up with 58 and drizzle and a few bare lies.
AS: How will you split your time?
SW: We still have our home in Long Island and apartment in Manhattan, neither of which I'm planning on giving up. We are opening an office in New York, which we've never had other than some shared space with the MGA [Met Golf Association]. We always should have had one, given the size of our commercial side of the business. We're building this dream in Frisco. We're going to keep about 100 people in Palm Beach Gardens. It makes all the sense, because this is the golf capital of the country, to a certain degree. We want to have a presence here. It doesn't make sense to move everyone across the country culturally and expense-wise, etc., etc., and then opening a small commercial office in the city. We already have the space and will do it in the first quarter. I'll continue to spend a lot of time in New York as I always have, and I suspect my weekends will be spent in Quogue rather than Palm Beach Gardens. Now, when Frisco happens, it will make it that much more complicated.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak