“I might sneak in wearing a cap and sunglasses for one of the practice rounds,” he said last week. “But I’m not even sure I’ll do that. I mean, seriously, why would I go? At this point in my life, I’m a lot more interested in my own golf game than in the guys who will be playing in the Open.”
This will be the second Open Fay has missed since 1978. In 1979, he spent his honeymoon in Toledo, putting up the ropes at Inverness for that year’s Open. From 1979 through 2010, Fay missed one Open: Shinnecock Hills in 1986, after he had spent almost six months in the hospital receiving radical treatment for Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.
“They let me out [of the hospital] on Thursday,” he said. “My plan was to drive to Shinnecock and work on Friday. The minute I got home, my fever spiked, and I ended up back in the hospital for another month.”
Three years after surviving cancer, Fay succeeded Frank Hannigan as the USGA’s executive director.
Even though one of Fay’s jobs in later years was to appear occasionally on television to explain rules issues, he preferred to operate under the radar. A liberal Democrat living in a decidedly Republican world, he had a unique approach to the job.
In 1995, when he wanted to walk around Bethpage Black to see if the course could be a future U.S. Open site, he didn’t call anyone in advance. Instead, en route to a dinner party on Long Island, he detoured late one afternoon and sneaked onto the golf course after the last tee time.
A couple of days later he sent his staff what he called his “I have a dream” memo. That dream was to make Bethpage Black the first truly public golf course to host a U.S. Open. Seven years later, it happened. Now two more public courses, Chambers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills in 2017, will host Opens.
“There’s no doubt [Bethpage] is the thing that I’m most proud of getting done,” Fay said. “I was a public golf course kid growing up and in the back of my mind I always hoped we could get the Open to a real public golf course” as opposed to private clubs or elite resorts such as Pebble Beach or Pinehurst.
Fay’s staff thought he had lost his mind because Bethpage was in horrible condition, not uncommon for state-owned facilities. That’s why the USGA’s first contract with Bethpage was unique: Rather than pay a rental fee, the USGA put millions of dollars into renovating the course.
While Fay made a political point with the Bethpage Open, he also helped make the USGA very rich. In 1994, at the urging of Mark Carlson, whom he had hired to negotiate TV contracts, Fay put the Open up for bid.
ABC, which had televised the event for 29 straight years beginning in 1966, bid $27 million for three years. NBC bid $39 million for three years with USGA options for two more years, meaning the USGA could not make less than $65 million over five years.
“It was a no-brainer,” Fay said. “I know the ABC people were upset because we had a long relationship with them but it was too much money to turn down.”
Fay grew up playing municipal courses and working at a private one. At Colgate, he grew his hair long, was a golf team walk-on and went to Woodstock.
“I was a little different than most of the kids there,” he said. “I went to the concert in the afternoon, the track at night and played golf the next morning.”
Though he knew his political views differed from those of most members of the USGA executive committee, Fay never hid his feelings. On Election Day in 2008, he showed up at work wearing an Obama T-shirt.
In 1991, he was invited to join Pine Valley, as elite a club as Augusta National. Eight years later, he caused a stir when he resigned from the all-men’s club.
“Yes, part of it was that it was a one-sex club,” he said. “I was the highest-ranking paid employee of the USGA, and it didn’t feel right to me. I was also probably influenced by living in a house with three women [wife Joan, daughters Kate and Molly]. But it was also tough to just show up there and get a game, which I like to do, and I remember playing once with an older member who said to me, ‘David, this is a very tough golf course to grow old on.’ So, some of it was politics, but some of it was also being practical.”
He was openly disdainful of President George W. Bush’s policies, yet when PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem invited him to play golf with the former president last month during the Players Championship, Fay accepted.
“It was a very good golf course,” he said with a weak smile. “And I was at the tournament as Tim’s guest.”
Those excuses apparently didn’t wash with his daughters. “They showed their disdain in the most eloquent possible way,” he said. “Complete silence.”
Fay will work hard on his golf game during the Open. And, in a couple of weeks, he will be glued to his TV watching his favorite event on the sports calendar: Wimbledon.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com