Open to change

Jim Hyler is a vice president of the United States Golf Association, the national governing body for golf. A native of southern Virginia, he graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s in accounting from Virginia Tech. After 10 years at Ernst & Young, he moved to Raleigh in 1980, where he joined First Citizens BancShares. He recently retired as its vice chairman and chief operating officer. Hyler recently talked about golf in the state.

What drew yo to golf?

Hyler: I got hooked on the game through television. It was the late 1950s when Arnold Palmer burst on the scene, winning the ’58 Masters, the ’60 Masters and the ’60 U.S. Open with his dramatic final-round charge at Cherry Hills. I was 11 or 12 when he got my attention.

Did you play as a teen?

Hyler: Not really. I didn’t really get into playing golf until I went to Virginia Tech. I played basketball, baseball and football and ran track in high school. When I got to college, I quickly realized that team sports were going to be a thing of the past. To have a sport that offered a lifelong opportunity to play, it was going to be golf for me.

You made yourself into a scratch player on a couple of occasions. How?

Hyler: I had played a fair amount in college. Then when I started working, I began playing a lot. I was in public account­ing, which was demanding, but I made time to play. My formative training came from looking at Golf Digest or a Ben Hogan book and trying to emulate what I saw. Hogan, Palmer, Byron Nelson — I’d buy their books and put into practice what they said. Getting to be a fairly good player wasn’t easy, though, and boy, it’ll leave you quickly.

What do you mean?

Hyler: How much you improve and how you sustain it is directly dependent upon how much you practice. Your improvement is your ability to turn double bogeys into bogeys and bogeys into pars. It’s accepting bad shots and minimizing the damage that they cause.

Do you remember the milestone rounds?

Hyler: Absolutely. I broke 80 for the first time at Grandview Golf Club in Winston-Salem in 1975. I shot 77. The first time I broke 70 was at North Ridge Country Club [in Raleigh]. My low round was a 65 at Blowing Rock Country Club. But I’ve only had one hole-in-one — on the second hole of the new course at Ballybunion [in Ireland] in 2000.

How did you become chairman of the President’s Council for the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2?

Hyler: The President’s Council was a joint idea between Pat Corso [then president of Pinehurst Resort], Jon Wagner [then managing director of Pinehurst Championship Management] and me. Pat was concerned with how he could sell the Open. He, Jon and I decided that we’d have to get the business leadership of the state involved. Pat and John took that idea and came up with the President’s Council, which they asked me to chair.

Was it a hard sell?

Hyler: When we began selling the ’99 Open, the economy was roaring, and we actually had companies that we turned down for hospitality tents because we had to make sure we could service what we had sold. When we first began selling the ’05 Open in the early 2000s, the economy wasn’t good. Fortunately, a lot of the larger North Carolina companies stepped up early and took the largest packages. Then the economy took a turn for the better in 2003, and we were able to make our goals — though we never turned anybody down.

How did you start with the USGA?

Hyler: I got a call out of the blue in May 2003 asking if I would interview to be on the Executive Committee. The call came from Stuart Bloch, a past president of the USGA and then the chairman of the nominating committee. Laughingly, I said, ‘You sure you have the right number?’ It really surprised me because I had no USGA connections whatsoever.

What was going through your head?

Hyler: I didn’t think anything would come of it — I just figured that Pat Corso had persuaded them to talk to me and that they were doing it out of a courtesy to him. But luckily for me, it wasn’t. I really got excited when I got a call back in October. Later, I found out that I was going to go on the executive committee in 2004.

You got your feet wet quickly, didn't you?

Hyler: I really did. The first year, you typically just listen and soak everything in, but the USGA was in the midst of some changes, and I got assigned to several great committees — each of us can serve on six to nine committees. One of the ones I was assigned to happened to be new, the marketing committee. It made sense since I was a business guy. In fact, I’m sure that’s why I was considered for the executive committee in the first place, because of my role in the ’99 Open at Pinehurst. It couldn’t have worked out any better, because I had the platform in which to suggest new things.

What were those new things?

Hyler: The business environment of golf was and is changing, and we needed to adapt. We have corporate partners now, for example. And broadcasting revenue has changed tremendously, which made us look at avenues to diversify our revenue streams.

You made a significant leap up the USGA ladder early in 2006. How did that come about?

Hyler: Walter Driver became president in February 2006, and he made me chairman of the championship committee, which, third year on the executive committee and not being an officer, well, that was an incredible honor. As it happened, Tom Meeks had retired in late 2005, and Mike Davis had moved up to become senior director of rules and competitions. So here’s a new championship committee chairman and a new guy coming in to run the day-to-day stuff, but we absolutely clicked on how the championship should be run.

So how should the Open be run?

Hyler: Winged Foot was our first Open, and we introduced some new concepts there that were well received by the players. Two are apparent, and one is very subtle. The most talked-about change was the different cuts of rough, where it becomes more penal the farther off the fairway you are. The second noticeable one is that we used different teeing grounds on some of the holes. One day, we’ll play a hole up; the next day, we’ll play it back. That had never been done at a U.S. Open — we think it adds flavor and spice. The subtle change was to introduce a concept of course setup: what the players get on Monday [for practice] is what they’ll get on Sunday [in the final round] — to the best of our ability. Put another way, the course setup is not intentionally made harder throughout the week.

Keeping a course consistent during championship week isn’t as easy at it sounds, is it?

Hyler: Not at all. The weather is the wild card, of course. The last two years, at the U.S. Open, the Senior Open and the Women’s Open, we’ve worked diligently to keep the greens speeds consistent, and we’ve cut the rough every day. The average fan might not notice that, but the players have — and they appreciate it. When they arrive on Monday at an Open, they know that it’s going to be a tough week, that the course is going to be difficult, and that it’s going to be a grind. That’s part of the allure and the differentiating factor that sets the Open apart. Water management, wind, rain, humidity levels — it’s really an art to get it right, and boy, you’re hoping you get it right.

How much of an Open do you watch?

Hyler: Thursday and Friday, I don’t watch much live golf. We might go to a place where we have a hole location that we have some concerns about — I’ll go out and watch four or five groups go through and see how the hole location plays. The last two years, as championship committee chair, I walked with the next- to-last groups the last two rounds. I probably will do the same at Torrey Pines.

Being chair of the championship committee means more than just overseeing the U.S. Open, correct?

Hyler: Our committee is responsible for all of our championships, but my primary events are the U.S. Open, the Senior Open and the U.S. Amateur. Of those, there’s something about the Amateur that’s special, because it’s pure and it’s fun. This year, it’s extra special because it’s in Pinehurst, and No. 2 is a great match-play course.

What’s something that the casual fan doesn’t know about the USGA?

Hyler: That it’s not an organization of just stiff guys in blue blazers. We’re down-to-earth people with a common goal — to give back to the game. Each year, the USGA gives away $5 million to $6 million to organizations that primarily serve low- to moderate-income kids. During the last 11 years, we’ve given away almost $60 million.

What’s your stance on distance?

Hyler: The governing bodies have done a good job managing distance. If you look at scoring on the PGA Tour, except for Tiger Woods, it’s not all that much lower than it was 10 years ago. And driving distance on the tour has been virtually flat for the past three years. Keep in mind that there are several variables in place. It’s the bigger club head and the better matching of shafts to club head to ball. Then, the athleticism of players today, influenced largely by Tiger, is much better than 20 to 30 years ago. I favor of one set of rules for everybody — the touring pro, the club pro and the average player.

If you could only play one more round of golf, where would it be?

Hyler: It would have to be Pinehurst No. 2. It’s such a special place to me, because of the history of the course and my personal history with it. The greens at Pinehurst are just extraordinary.

How much do you play?

Hyler: I probably play about 20% of what I played 10 years ago. When you get involved in golf administration, and if you have a full-time job, the thing you give up is playing. But I’m fine with that. Now that I’m retired, I hope I can play more.

Do you have one experience with golf that stands out?

Hyler: The final round of the ’99 U.S. Open at Pinehurst was incredible. I still get chills thinking about that. But the thing that stands out most is the connection that golf has given me with my son [Brad, now 29]. He started playing when he was about 6. He stayed with it through junior golf and then college golf, and I got to caddy for him at the 1998 U.S. Amateur at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., where he made it to the first round of match play. Having gone through that experience with him, well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

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