Incoming USGA president honed his game with Sandra Day O’Connor as a playing partner

February 2, 2012

Glen Nager’s sporting life, as a kid in Houston, centered on basketball. His exposure to golf consisted of three or four rounds a year at the local muni, playing with $10 dollar clubs bought at a garage sale that had long ago lost their grips. His sporting life, by the time he reached Washington and became a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, wasn’t much more developed. When he finally took up golf in earnest, he was over 30. His second lesson, he hit 25 shots. He shanked 24.

“It certainly did not come naturally,” Nager said.

“But when he started to play, he just fell in love with the game,” O’Connor said last week. “He’s such a hard worker, so dedicated to anything he puts his mind to, I knew he’d work at it and get better.”

Such is this Washington story: A Supreme Court law clerk becomes a prominent attorney, arguing cases in front of the body for which he once clerked. Along the way, he takes the advice of a mentor, the late Andrew Kramer – “You can have an office at the law firm, or you could have an office with green grass” — and enthusiastically attacks golf. A frequent playing partner: his old boss, Justice O’Connor.

And on Saturday, Nager will have a new job, albeit a volunteer one: president of the United States Golf Association, the organization charged with governing the game stateside, with a significant hand in overseeing it worldwide. Nager will officially take his new post during the USGA’s annual meeting in Houston.


Glen Nager, the USGA’s incoming president, counts his former boss, Sandra Day O’Connor, as one of the people who got him into the sport. (John Mummert/USGA ARCHIVES)

“His skills are perfect for that job,” O’Connor said. “Glen’s not just a smart person – and he’s very smart – but he’s nice, and genuine, and he listens to people and gets their opinions and values them. And he cares about golf. He loves it.”

That love was not born by beating balls for hours at a range as a kid. Still, his rise to the top of the USGA – from a blind call in 2006 asking if he would serve as the organization’s general counsel, to becoming one of the world’s foremost experts of golf’s arcane rules – seems natural to those who have come to know him.

“I would say Glen Nager is one of the smartest — if not the smartest — people I’ve ever met in my life,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, who will report to Nager. “To sit back and watch how his mind works, it’s just fascinating.”

After growing up mostly in Texas – but traveling the world some, as his father was a chemist for Shell Oil – Nager went to the University of Texas and graduated in three years. At Stanford Law School, he became the youngest president in the history of the Stanford Law Review. That led to a clerkship for the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District. And the next summer, 1983, he became the first clerk O’Connor hired. At 25, he wrote the first drafts of opinions for the Supreme Court.

“It was a heady experience,” Nager said. “She really needed her law clerks and relied on her law clerks. She’s a taskmaster, but you were real participants. You were expected to get to the heart of the case.”

O’Connor, too, developed a reputation for caring about the lives of her clerks – both while they worked for her and afterward. So even after Nager finished his clerkship, he and O’Connor developed a kinship around golf. O’Connor, too, came to the game late in life, only after she turned 40, and only after she and her husband visited friends on a Wisconsin vacation – during which golf was considered mandatory.

“I grew up on a ranch,” she said, “and my father told us golf wasn’t the game for us.”

Once she took up the game, though, O’Connor was all in. She joined the Chevy Chase Club and – along with Kramer, a partner at the Washington firm Jones Day, where Nager now serves as a partner – became one of the main people to encourage Nager to play golf.

Eventually, Nager joined the Chevy Chase Club as well, and he regularly played with O’Connor and Viet Dinh, another former O’Connor clerk who is now a professor at Georgetown Law School.

“She hits the ball disgustingly straight,” Nager said. “There was a reason she was the center of the court all those years.”

As he grew more interested in golf, Nager grew more interested in the rules. “I’m a lawyer,” he said, “and lawyers get sort of trained in rules and precision.” That interest became more intense when he served as the USGA’s general counsel.

“For people who are good with the rules of golf, it takes years and years to master them,” Davis said. “Glen was almost an exception to that. He has become truly one of the best in the world with the rules of golf.”

Now, Nager will have input not just in the rules, but into the entire future of the sport.

“He’s a consummate coalition builder,” Dinh said. “He makes everybody feel appreciated and nobody feels that they were overruled. But more importantly, he brings a very, very good sense of his love for the game and his respect for the game.”

Nager knows, too, this is a tenuous time for his sport. Participation rates in the United States, he said, are down almost 13 percent since 2003. Studies by the PGA of America indicate players are finding golf takes too long, that it’s too expensive, that they, as Nager said, “find it not welcoming.”

“The challenge for those of us involved in the governance of the game is to maintain the great traditions of the game – promote the values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship,” Nager said, “and at the same time evolve the game to make it more open, more enjoyable.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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