Skip to main content

Waugh Q&A: Golf's future, challenges and the distance debate

Seth Waugh with Tiger Woods at the 2009 Deutsche Bank Championship.
Getty Images
Seth Waugh with Tiger Woods at the 2009 Deutsche Bank Championship.  - 

Seth Waugh was at the turn of what had already been a hectic morning, making the rounds to various media outlets in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement that he’d taken over for Pete Bevacqua as PGA of America CEO.

“Sorry, it was me,” Waugh offered as a conversation that was supposed to last 15 minutes stretched past 20.

After a lifetime in the financial world, including a dozen years as CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas, Waugh’s passion for golf is etched into every answer. His leadership style is a case study in consensus management and his cornerstone philosophy of “no jerks,” naturally leads to more contemplative conversations that don’t exactly lend themselves to ready-made sound bites.

At 60 years old, Waugh takes over an organization in transition. Under Bevacqua’s leadership, the PGA has emerged as a leading voice in golf and, as Waugh envisions, the pointy end of the spear when it comes to growing the game.

Although he came to golf late, Waugh’s passion for the sport and its traditions are evident. Some questioned why Waugh would be interested in the PGA job, but in many ways he’d been waiting his entire adult life for this opportunity.

Here’s his interview with After graduating from Amherst College, you were torn between jobs in the financial world and going into the coaching and teaching profession. Is the PGA job the natural progression of that career arc?

SW: You nailed it. My father was a teacher and a coach. I always thought I’d go that route. It’s what I loved. When I graduated I tried to decide what to do, I figured it would be easier to go from business to teaching. Here I am 35 years later, I’ve had a great run and I loved every minute of it, but this is absolutely a chance to go back to that. I’m a listener, it’s how I’ve always led and this is a chance to go back, to a certain degree, to my roots. I always felt like there is a mission to give back. What are the biggest challenges facing the game, and by extension, the PGA of America?

SW: To make sure the next generations find golf as life changing as we always have. It’s the combination of preserving the traditions we all care about, but also making it interesting. I don’t think there’s any version of golf that has to be the one; there are all kinds of levels that are good and relevant. The key is figuring out how to create access and be inclusive and make it affordable and have a diverse society feel included.

For us at the PGA, it’s figuring out how to pass on the benefits of all this good fortune we’ve had on the business side to our membership and energize them about the game. One of the bigger changes introduced by Bevacqua (who is leaving to become president of NBC Sports) was the PGA Championship’s move from August to May starting next year. What are your thoughts on the move?

SW: It’s a game changer. It’s going to change some of the places we can play but also adds some places we can play. In terms of the calendar I think it fits much better being the second major of the year instead of the fourth. It helps the players a lot, particularly in a Ryder Cup year. They are tired. Giving them a little bit more of a breather makes all the sense in the world and I think we’ll have more eyes on it. You’re known for creating cultures based on the idea of “no jerks.” In many ways it seems golf, and particularly the PGA, would be a natural fit for that leadership philosophy. Was that part of your motivation for taking the CEO job?

SW: I’ve always had that golden rule and we all know what that means. To be self-enforcing cures a lot of ills and makes for cultures that are self-fulfilling.

My son played every sport, but none of the basketball or baseball kids would take off their hat when they shook your hand, the golf kids did. All those things are enormously valuable in a society that’s moving so quickly. Being a gentleman or gentlewoman really matters. What are your thoughts on the current move by golf’s rule-makers to examine how technology is impacting the game, particularly distance gains in recent years at the highest levels?

SW: I have an opinion as a golfer, but not as a CEO yet. I pride myself on coming in without preconceived notions and hearing all the sides and I haven’t done that yet. I don’t think you can do this without the sign-on of these 29,000 [members]. I think golf should be more fun instead of less fun. I don’t think we need to make the game harder.

I look forward to getting in the middle of the conversation, but it’s premature to give an opinion because it’s not informed without hearing all the sides of the argument. One of your strengths is team building and putting people around you who are comfortable speaking their mind. Do you feel like that team is in place at the PGA?

SW: [Bevacqua] has done a great job. The association is in the best shape, probably ever. The Ryder Cup is bigger than it’s ever been. We’re going to do a TV contract that is bigger than it’s ever been in the past. The status of the brand, the level that he created by being at the table, has never been higher.

The cool thing for me is how do we optimize that? There are two ways to take things over, to redo and clean up and the other is it’s on a roll and you want to continue to reach higher highs, and that’s where we are.