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Devil's Advocate It's hard to imagine a straight arrow like USGA president Buzz Taylor being the root of all evil

June 28, 1999
June 28, 1999

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June 28, 1999

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Devil's Advocate It's hard to imagine a straight arrow like USGA president Buzz Taylor being the root of all evil

I've learned," says Buzz Taylor. Learned how a magazine
photographer, shooting from his knees and using lights borrowed
from the set of The X-Files, can make a fellow look imperious
or, as one former USGA president puts it, "like Mussolini."
Learned how one blunt remark--say, a shot across the bow of any
equipment company challenging the right of the U.S. Golf
Association to make the rules--can set phones ringing in law
offices across America. Learned how the average stockholder in
an equipment company would let golfers play with crossbows
instead of clubs if that added to the bottom line.

This is an article from the June 28, 1999 issue Original Layout

Taylor learned these things a year ago, a few months into his
first term as USGA president. So now, if you ask him about
springlike effect, he'll flash a springlike smile and patiently
explain the USGA's position on technology. He won't grandstand.
He won't posture. "The so-called buzz on Buzz was something I
wish never happened," he told the USGA in February at its annual
meeting. "A little less buzz would have suited me just fine."

On this sunny morning Taylor, 67, is in his sprawling beach
house on Jupiter Island, Fla., one of the richest strips of
residential real estate in the U.S. Palms, mangroves and
hibiscus surround the house, which opens onto a canvas of blues:
light-blue pool water, deep-blue ocean and cerulean sky. Taylor,
taking a sick day from the company he owns and runs--Aqua-Vac
Systems, a manufacturer of robotic pool-cleaning
equipment--looks comfortable in a sport shirt, light slacks and
Top-Siders without socks.

"I think this is a period of watchful waiting," he says,
describing the cease-fire between the USGA and the equipment
companies, led by Callaway founder and chairman Ely Callaway and
Titleist chairman and CEO Wally Uihlein. Last year at this time
Callaway was running full-page ads in national newspapers
threatening legal action if the USGA set sweeping new limits on
club technology, as rumors said it might. Uihlein claimed that
Taylor was a loose cannon on the ramparts of golf, a man with an
"ideological mind-set." Taylor fired right back. "Our franchise
is to preserve and protect the game's ancient and honorable
traditions," he said in his best Edwardian prose. "I intend to
do that, and there's not one lawyer in the world who is going to
get in our way of doing that."

Taylor regrets the "one lawyer" part of his remark. He should,
since the one lawyer the clubmakers hired was antitrust
specialist Leonard Decof, who in the 1980s and '90s battered the
PGA Tour and the USGA in the famous and costly square-grooves
case. "I might have handled it better," Taylor says. "I didn't
need to be inciteful." He blames himself, as well, for his
naivete, for letting the photographer catch him looking down his
nose like some married-to-an-heiress country-clubber with a big
house on Chicago's North Shore, which he is. As a former caddie
and greenkeeper's assistant and the son of a Skokie, Ill., high
school coach, Taylor remembers what it's like to be down-nose.
He says, "I just wanted to do what was right for the game."

Taylor leaves it at that, but he clearly thinks it was
disingenuous of the golf companies to demonize him. Unlike CEOs,
who collect fat paychecks and stock options, USGA presidents
work for free and leave after two one-year terms. The USGA's
paid staff of 240 reports not to the president but to an
all-volunteer, 16-member executive committee (of which the prez
is just one of the members). In turn, the executive committee
approves changes to the Rules of Golf in cooperation with the
Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Taylor may look as
if he's steering a 2,300-volunteer, 44-committee supertanker,
but he's really more of a watch captain trying to keep it off
the rocks.

"Buzz did not in any way abuse his leadership role," says Gordon
Brewer, a volunteer who is chairman of the USGA implements and
ball committee. It was Brewer's technical staff that discovered
what has since been described as the trampoline effect of
thin-faced metal woods--a hard-to-measure and hotly disputed
property that, if real, clearly violates golf's Rule 4-1e, which
states that a club face cannot "have the effect at impact of a
spring." Brewer and other USGA officials met informally with
industry leaders in the fall of 1997 to discuss the trampoline
effect, but hopes for an amicable resolution quickly faded. The
clubmakers claimed that any curtailment of technology would
devastate an industry already reeling from a slump in sales.
Responding to the companies' concerns--and threats--the USGA
announced last June that it would develop a protocol to regulate
the springlike effect in future clubs. No previously approved
clubs were ruled to be nonconforming.

"[The whole dispute] was a bad scene," says former USGA
president Sandy Tatum, a Taylor supporter. "When the
manufacturers talk about innovations, they're talking about
reducing the skill factor of the game. They're not talking about
the sport but the bottom line."

Taylor's predecessor as president, Judy Bell, agrees. "Setting
the equipment standards has always been one of our major
responsibilities. As long as there are golfers looking for a
genie in a bottle, this is what happens."

There's also consensus in the USGA camp that Taylor didn't
deserve the horns and forked tail put on him by the media. "He's
a joyous fellow," says yet another former president, Grant
Spaeth. "He's not a Rhodes scholar, but he's a thoughtful guy
who listens and relies on others. God bless him." Says Tatum,
"You couldn't find a nicer guy, and I think he suffered
grievously from the mugging he took." Asked if that was the
case, Taylor smiles and says, "The president usually takes the
heat at the USGA."

So who is this fellow with the charred ears and scorched
eyebrows? To golfers at USGA events he's the man in the blue
blazer presenting the winner's trophy at sunset on Sunday. To
his golfing buddies he's Stone Hands--a dig at his short-game
deficiencies. Ask him to define himself, and Taylor comes up
with "corporate vagabond," a nod to his four decades as a
manufacturing executive.

He's a junior--as in F. Morgan Taylor Jr. The moniker is
misleading because the first F. Morgan Taylor did his
precious-metals speculating in short pants, not in banker's
spats. Buzz's father is one of a handful of U.S. track and field
athletes to have won a medal in three Olympics, including the
gold in the 400-meter hurdles at the '24 Games in what would
have been world-record time had he not knocked down the final
hurdle. "He was an incredibly gifted athlete," says Buzz. "Golf,
badminton, tennis, swimming, he could do it all."

Buzz was athletic, too. He was a three-sport star for Western
Military Academy, a secondary school in Alton, Ill., and he
played football at Princeton when the Tigers were a national
power led by Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier. Taylor, a
defensive back, claims little credit for Princeton's 26-1 record
during his three seasons, but faded clippings reveal that he
broke up a fourth-quarter pass against Yale in 1952 to preserve
a victory. His track ability, while not as impressive as his
father's, took him within a whisker of the '52 Olympics. In the
trials, at the Los Angeles Coliseum, he was third in the broad
jump with one round remaining and took the lead when he
increased his distance on his final attempt, to 24'11 1/2". But
three men passed him on their final tries, the third jumper
taking the last qualifying spot by two inches over Taylor. "I
stayed home," he says, looking absently out toward the sea. "I
got over it, but it bothered me. I was good enough to go."

Taylor's business ability is harder to gauge. He got a major
career boost in 1954 when he married munitions heiress Barbara
Olin and took a job offered by her father. Olin Industries was
diversifying from its core business of armaments and explosives,
so Taylor bought and ran divisions that made skis and camping
gear. In '74 he left Olin to become president of Victor
Comptometer, a company that made, among other products, a
hook-resistant, slice-resistant golf ball called the Polara.
"Two weeks after I got there, I heard about the Polara ball," he
says, looking chagrined. When the USGA ruled that the Polara was
nonconforming, the two inventors of the ball, in a foreshadowing
of the battles of the '80s and the '90s, took the USGA and the
Golf Ball Manufacturers Association to court, charging
violations of antitrust law. The case was settled, with the USGA
paying the inventors $1.47 million, but Taylor says, "The USGA
was absolutely right." He adds, with a hint of a smile, "The
ball was straight, all right, but it was also seven or eight
yards shorter."

That experience, and the fact that he was on the implements and
ball committee during the square-grooves lawsuit, gives Taylor a
solid background on technology issues. He denies that he wants
to stifle innovation and points out that the trampoline effect
is hardly the only option left for clubmakers to explore. "Sure,
there are limits," he says, "but we're talking about,
fundamentally, a field of dreams. Look what they've done with
grips in the last five years, and who expected a titanium golf
ball?" (Asked if titanium actually does anything to improve a
ball, Taylor laughs and says, "I don't know, and I don't want to
know.")

Taylor's biggest regret is that the equipment controversy makes
it hard for him to be heard on another issue: slow play. "We've
done a lousy job there," he says, "and it just drives me crazy."
Five-hour rounds were not uncommon at last week's U.S. Open.
Players in the bottom half of the field crawled because they
were overwhelmed by the slick chipping areas at Pinehurst No. 2.
The stars crawled, too, because that's how they play--slow.
"It's one of the things that keeps the game from growing,"
Taylor says. "It takes too much time to play, and it costs too
much."

That's where the technology debate kicks back in. When R-and-D
geniuses add yards to a player's game, architects lengthen
courses, which, in turn, adds to construction and maintenance
costs, drives up greens fees and makes the game even slower.
It's not a blind devotion to tradition that drives the USGA,
Taylor says, but a genuine fear that high costs and
inconvenience will diminish the game's allure. "We weren't
looking for a fight," he says, "but if it's one of those
defining issues, you've got to fight anyway."

If the battle resumes, Taylor won't see much action. His second
term expires at the end of the year, and he plans to follow the
example of other former USGA presidents and, he says, "stay the
hell out of the way." Meanwhile he is selling Aqua-Vac to his
employees as a first step toward retirement.

Will he go quietly? Taylor says that's up to the equipment
companies, who are awaiting word on possible changes in the
Rules of Golf. An announcement is expected to come from the
joint rules committee sometime this fall. But Taylor got a lift
recently when a top executive for a major company phoned him.
"Keep doing what you're doing!" the executive said and then
quickly hung up.

One small victory for Buzz, one small departure from business as
usual.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID WALBERG Buzz bomb Taylor unwittingly set off a wave of media-fueled extrapolation madness in the golf industry a year ago at the Open.B/W PHOTO: ALAN W. RICHARDS/PRINCETON Like father, like...Buzz (left) missed the '52 Olympics by inches, while his father won a medal in three Games.B/W PHOTO: GRINNELL COLLEGE [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Main man At Pinehurst, Taylor kept a low profile until offering congratulations to Payne Stewart (right).
"He's not a Rhodes scholar, but he's a thoughtful guy who
listens and relies on others," says Spaeth. "God bless him."