News & Opinion

USGA gains major asset in Nick Price

As the U.S. Golf Association readies to pull up the long drive to Long Island’s stately Shinnecock Hills Golf Club for next week’s 118th U.S. Open, it’s no surprise that the 15-person USGA Executive Committee that oversees the championship comprises many of the usual suspects. There are blue-blazered bankers, corporate financiers and lawyers, as well as a highly respected retired rules official. 

But there’s only one of the 15 who, when the U.S. Open was played at Shinnecock in 1995, led the tournament after Day 1.

Ask Nick Price, a three-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Fame member, whether two decades ago he ever envisioned himself in lockstep with one of golf’s most powerful governing bodies, and a smile creases the 61-year-old’s face. The USGA? Why, that was the same group that would exasperate him each June as a competitor, pulling every trick and tucking every flagstick to make its most important championship tougher than week-old cube steak. 

With his major-championship credentials, Nick Price gives the U.S. Golf Association another perspective on world-class golf.

With his major-championship credentials, Nick Price gives the U.S. Golf Association another perspective on world-class golf.

“We’re not trying to humiliate the best players in the world,” the late Sandy Tatum, a USGA icon, once famously said of the U.S. Open and its stringent setups. “We’re simply trying to identify who they are.”

Funny, but humiliated is exactly how Price felt in 2002, when he stood on the 10th tee of the U.S. Open at New York’s Bethpage Black in the wind and pelting rain, fully realizing that he couldn’t even reach the fairway ahead. “There was a time," Price said, "when the USGA was pretty arrogant about It's our way or the highway.”

Ah, but those were olden days, and different times. Price always has been one of the game’s kinder and gentler souls. These days, the USGA is making an effort to improve in that area. Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, has acknowledged that the gap between the organization and today's players is one that needs to be narrowed. 

Price and Davis are members at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., and shared many dinners in the past five years. Price, who makes his home in Hobe Sound, Fla., has retired from competitive golf, and has ample free time when he’s not relaxing on a boat somewhere. He told Davis over dinner that he was interested in giving back to the game that had given him so much. 

The offer made Davis pause. What about Price becoming a member of the USGA’s volunteer Executive Committee?

Price was nominated late last year and approved in February. He gives high praise to Davis and the direction in which he has taken the USGA in the past seven or eight years, saying he would not have agreed to serve otherwise.

“Mike Davis has done an incredible job of putting them in the 21st century,” Price said.

Last month, when Davis made a walkthrough at Shinnecock, with him was Price, who is viewed as a bridge between the organization that runs the Open and the players who compete in it.

“Just to bounce things off him about golf course setup, about potential sites we’re looking at for U.S. Opens, to get a sense of how the game was played when he was there, it’s invaluable,” Davis said. "He's fabulous."

Price, who played in 20 U.S. Opens (with three top-5 finishes), says he still is in the feeling-out process of determining areas where he can step in and help. His resume extends beyond being a Hall of Fame player. He has been involved in course architecture and offers a respected voice on the subject of equipment and where the game is headed. 

“You’ve got to look at what equipment has done through the whole game,” Price said. “Everybody focuses on elite players and the PGA Tour, and it’s not just about them. They are just a very small percentage of it. It’s looking at how it affects the average, day-to-day club player.”

Technology isn’t Price’s biggest concern, and it's not where he wants to make his biggest contribution. He wants to help the USGA and other organizations come together in a galvanized quest to grow the game. To make it more accessible. Growing up in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in southern Africa, Price said that once he was able to assemble a bag full of clubs, the rest was easy. There were courses he could play for reasonable fees. Not every beginner today enjoys such accessibility, and that hinders participation, he said.

“I think there’s a general fear that the game is getting more expensive, which is not the right thing,” he said. “Geez, if the game was as expensive as it is now, I probably would have never started playing.” 

Which would have been very unfortunate, as Price won tournaments around the globe. In the days of persimmon, few players could drive a golf ball with the prowess displayed by Price and Greg Norman, another former World No. 1, who separated themselves from the rest. Price won the PGA Championship in 1992 and 1994, and also won a British Open in ’94. 

Price never did win a U.S. Open. His best finish was fourth, in 1992 at Pebble Beach and 1998 at Olympic Club. He will contribute at Shinnecock by offering his thoughts on course setup, ideas on hole locations, and identifying some areas that might need widening or mowing. 

“You saw what happened in the last U.S. Open there, when Goose won [Retief Goosen, in 2004],” he said. (At one point, the USGA lost control of the green at the par-3 seventh hole on Sunday, and players were highly critical.) “They’ve got to protect against that. They have some really capable people. I won’t be able to make a really huge difference, but I know I’ll be able to contribute a little in there. I think I can give them a different insight, having been there and having played. 

"It’s a learning experience for both sides, trust me.”

When he plays a round of golf at home these days, Price does so without a scorecard in his pocket. It’s more fun that way, he says. He enjoys not grinding on his game. His near-lifetime of competition may have come to a close, but caring about, growing and giving back to the game? That's a mission he'll continue to take head-on.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62