A Q&A with USGA’s Tom O’Toole

The U.S. Golf Assn. is based in Far Hills, N.J., and its leaders don’t get to Chicago all that much. That’s why Tom O’Toole’s recent stopover offered a good opportunity to find out what’s new with golf’s ruling body in the United States.

O’Toole, the USGA president, is from St. Louis. He’s been involved with USGA matters since 1988 and is in his seventh year as a member of the USGA Executive Committee. O’Toole is in his first year as president after serving as secretary in 2010 and vice president from 2011 to 2013. He has also been a USGA rules official on more than 135 championships including every U.S. Open since 1990.

While O’Toole’s visit was designed to connect with key supporters and benefactors for next year’s U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields, KemperSports arranged for some select media to question him about current issues in our game. O’Toole spoke expansively, and this is the boiled down version of what he said:

QUESTION: While it’s great that the U.S. Amateur is coming (its 115th playing is from Aug. 17-23, 2015, on the North and South courses at Olympia Fields), Chicago is not on the current list for a U.S. Open – or any other USGA championship, for that matter. Will any big events – particular U.S. Opens – be coming?

O’TOOLE: It’s been the long-standing practice of the USGA that we don’t talk about invitations that we receive for particular championships because we protect the confidentiality of clubs and regions and communities that are in that mix. That said, Chicago certainly is a wonderful golf town. We’ve had great U.S. Opens here, even in the last couple of decades with Hale Irwin winning at Medinah (1990) and Jim Furyk at Olympia Fields (2003).

We would always look to interact with a club that would issue an invitation, or facility if it’s not a private membership club like Medinah or Olympia Fields, to bring the U.S. Open back to this storied town of Chicago.

QUESTION: Which club, or facility, would be the best bet for that?

O’TOOLE: Suffice to say that our experience next year at Olympia Fields will be one that will be looked at closely. I’m sure it will cause the club possibly to entertain other discussions with us about future championships at the club.

QUESTION: This year was an unusual one for the USGA, in that both the men’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open were played on the same course for the first time, and in back-to-back weeks. In retrospect, was that a good idea and will it likely be tried again?

O’TOOLE: We’ll continue to look at something like that. We knew there was associated risk with doing that, predominantly centered around the Women’s championship. We don’t want to be braggadocios, but we pretty much avoided those risks and ended up with two great weeks of championship golf.

We always thought it would be an unbelievable celebration of women’s golf. You don’t always achieve your objective when you start down a road like that, but I think we did that. There were more eyes on women’s golf that second week. Our ratings were fabulous, the best they’d ever been for the Women’s Open. We had great galleries. It was mission accomplished.

QUESTION: Given the USGA’s new, more lucrative television contract, could some of that money be used to start a U.S. Senior Women’s Open?

O’TOOLE: That’s been a hotbed of discussion. Mike Davis and Dan Burton, who chair our Championship Committee, met with players on the (LPGA) Legends Tour. We had a good exchange, and we’re looking at it very in-depth. It’s the only sector of golfers we don’t have a national championship for. We don’t want to rush to have one if we don’t think the championship is viable.

Do we have a number of golfers from both the female professional ranks or female amateur ranks who would want to participate? We’re looking at what the Legends Tour is, how big its fields are. They range anywhere from the mid-40s up to 100. What would be the right fit for that? We promised this group that this was not lip service, that we were taking a very serious look at this championship.

I want to get this resolved by year’s end so we can say, we’ve made a decision, we’re going to go forward, we’re not, and here is the reason for either answer. I’d look for something this year.

QUESTION: One tournament that went away this year was the U.S. Public Links, for both men and women. Any regrets about that?

O’TOOLE: It was somewhat of a sad time when we retired that championship, but society has changed. We need to be celebrating that point, the fact that we don’t have in any of our national championships any requirements about what your socioeconomic background is, what golf club or facility you play for or represent.

It’s a wonderful thing that in this day and age we’ve evolved past that, particularly in a sport that’s been accused of being an elitist sport, exclusionary and not inclusionary. We don’t need those championships anymore because our society is open, our game is open. It’s something to be exhilarated about and not be disappointed about.

QUESTION: Finally, the U.S. Amateur that is coming to Olympia Fields next year may not be the most heavily followed of the USGA events but your organization in many ways finds it the most important. Why is that?

O’TOOLE: Well, it’s our oldest championship (it was first held in 1895) and the USGA is an amateur body. That’s why we were formed in December of 1894 – to conduct championships that are primarily of the amateur variety.

I don’t think there’s any debate in men’s amateur golf that the most coveted title is the Havemeyer Trophy (which goes to the U.S. Amateur champion). It just has a long connection with what the USGA represents and the epitome of what we’re trying to do in our championship presentation. The level of competition that you enjoy at the Amateur is the best in the amateur game. We have a particular attachment to it for what it means in championship golf going forward.