The U.S. Golf Association conducts 13 national championships, including the 105th U.S. Open here this week, writes and occasionally changes the rules, regulates the handicapping system, awards millions in grants to grow the game, and serves as a regulatory agency for the multibillion dollar equipment industry.

But increasingly in recent years, the sport's governing body in this country has come under criticism for dropping the ball on a number of issues, from regulating equipment to course setups at its major championships to the elitist image its volunteer officers and executive committee project.

A year ago, the USGA was universally slammed for its course setup at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, specifically for allowing several greens, including the seventh hole, to become so dry that putting on them became virtually impossible. "We're human," said USGA Executive Director David Fay, the first to publicly admit the USGA had made a mess of Shinnecock. "We try to make it hard and fair. Sometimes you get close to the edge and sometimes you go over the edge. Last year, we went over, and all you can do is learn from your mistakes. I will say this: We are not going to deviate from our standard setup in terms of this always being regarded as the world's toughest golf tournament. But we will do everything we can to make it fair."

The USGA, based in Far Hills, N.J., was organized in 1894 by five member clubs essentially to conduct national championships and write a uniform set of rules. Now, the organization is made up of 9,000 member clubs and courses, and committees comprise more than 1,300 volunteers, with 300 paid employees.

In its 2004 annual report, it listed assets of $225 million, but critics wonder how an organization with an annual operating budget of $117 million can be run essentially by an all-volunteer officer and executive board highly influenced by a coterie of past presidents that essentially dictates major policy initiatives and relies on the USGA's paid staff to implement its directives.

"The USGA executive committee and the past presidents have a lot of very smart and successful people, but there's not a single one of them who would run their own businesses the way they run the USGA," said Jack Vardaman, a Washington attorney, highly regarded national senior amateur golfer and a former general counsel and member of the USGA executive board. He resigned two years ago when it became apparent to him that he was being pushed off the fast track to become president because of views that clashed with more traditionalist members on the board and in the ranks of past presidents.

The debacle at Shinnecock may well have been symptomatic of what Vardaman and others believe truly ails the organization -- a classic case of too many chiefs at the top with no one in position to make a final decision.

"I believe the organization has totally lost its way," said another former executive committee member who did not want to be identified because he still has friends and business associates in the organization.

"You still have the former presidents sitting in the back of the room intimidating the current officers. They have never been able to deal with the equipment issue. The staff is really, really good, high-quality competent people. But it's the leadership and creativity the [executive] committee completely lacks, and that ultimately leads to mediocrity."

Some wonder how an organization that should be the most powerful in the game can be headed by a volunteer president who only serves a single two-year term. They say Fay, who most agree is one of the most competent administrators in any sport, is often usurped in his authority by the officers, past presidents and executive committee, very few of whom reflect the diversity they say they'd like to achieve.

Among the current officers, there are no minorities and only one woman, Emily "Missy" Crisp, who serves as treasurer. On the 15-member executive board, there are no minorities, no representative of the disabled and only one other woman, Mary Bea Porter-King. The average age of the officers is 55; the average age of the rest of the executive committee is 58 and the youngest member is 48.

"The character of the leadership is very undistinguished," said Frank Hannigan, executive director of the USGA from 1982 to 1990 who began working for the organization in 1961. "In my time, it was a very big pro bono job in sports, like being on the executive committee of the National Gallery. Now they're mostly nickel-and-dimers."

A number of officers and members of the executive committee, including Tampa attorney Fred Ridley, the current president, and Atlanta attorney Walter Driver, the vice president and heir apparent, also are members of private golf clubs such as Augusta National, Peachtree in Atlanta, Seminole in North Palm Beach, Fla., and Pine Valley in the Philadelphia suburbs that discriminate either on the basis of race or gender, or both.

"I can appreciate that people will look at the USGA and raise an eyebrow," said Fay, who resigned his membership at Pine Valley several years ago because it does not admit women. "To some people there is a contradiction. You can be exemplary in your deeds, but you also want to play great golf courses. It's almost like you're torn. It can only be sorted through by each individual interpreting how important their club membership is in relation to performing their duties for the USGA."

On April 11, the day after the 2005 Masters concluded, the USGA sent out an e-mail to ball manufacturers from USGA Technical Director Dick Rugge asking those companies to design and produce a prototype ball that would reduce maximum distance by 15 to 25 yards for use in a study by both the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the governing body for the sport throughout the rest of the world. Many in the equipment industry believe this was merely a forerunner to possibly instituting a so-called "competition ball" to be used only at the highest level of the game. A number of players, including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Nick Price, among many others, have been arguing for years that the USGA needed to do something about the ball, if only because so many of America's great golf courses were being rendered obsolete by the best players taking full advantage of the warp-speed technological advances in equipment. So far, however, the USGA, clearly concerned about possible litigation from the manufacturers, has done little to address the problem except lengthen its major championship courses.

"In my opinion, they blew their solemn obligation to keep distance under control among the greatest players in the world," said Hannigan. "Look at Congressional last week. In the 1964 Open at the 17th hole, they were hitting 4- and 5-irons to the green. I saw where Sergio [Garcia] and [Adam] Scott were using sand wedges. That tells you everything you need to know."

Fay, however, disagrees.

"There are those who will say we should have done this or we should have done that," he said. "Some will say this is nothing new. There are always people who think the ball has gone too far, but others say it's just a reflection of a healthy sport that keeps evolving. It almost becomes a pick your poison kind of thing. We do believe we are set up to be the bureau of standards. I don't expect the USGA to be loved by everyone, but I do hope to be respected."

Gordon Brewer, a past executive committee member who left to devote his full attention to being president at Pine Valley, also was a former chairman of the USGA's ball and implements committee charged with dealing with equipment issues.

"I think I have a pretty good understanding of the issues and the complexities and challenges they pose," he said. "Would I have liked to have seen more done? Yes. But I also understand the caution they've taken because of the threat of lawsuits and also wanting to do it in conjunction with the R&A. I still believe it's a highly effective organization. Could it be better? Yes, but I think it's served the game effectively. Has it dropped the ball on some issues? Yes. But I do believe there is a keen interest from the executive committee in making sure all facets of the game are well represented."

Others disagree. In his book, "The Future of Golf: How Golf Lost Its Way and How to Get It Back," author Geoff Shackelford wrote that the USGA staff reports to Fay, who then "works with, steers, and ultimately has to explain and justify what the volunteer executive committee decides to do for the 'good of the game.'

"The USGA regional staff members, president and immediate past presidents oversee the selection of volunteers for various subcommittees that traditionally feed the 15-member board its constituents. More recently, fewer executive committee members have been coming from the subcommittees, which may explain the apparent inability to grasp fundamental problems when it comes time to debate and decide issues presented to the executive committee. Personal connections or ties to U.S. Open sites in the current rotation seem to be the way many future executive committee [members] will be selected."

Vardaman has his own solution to what he believes ails the USGA.

"I would do it just like a regular corporation," he said. "I'd have the executive director be the CEO and chairman of the board for five or ten years. You'd still have a board as an executive committee that would help determine the policy issues. But the person at the top would be the equivalent of a Jack Welch [retired CEO of General Electric].

"There is no question these are well-intentioned, good people trying to do the right thing. They volunteer. They pay most of their own expenses. They want to bring the game to the people, make it affordable and accessible. The USGA is a big, important organization with an important mission. But they have an organizational model in place now that's destined to make it mediocre. And that's a terrible shame."

Wie's Tie for First Is a First

Michelle Wie became the first female player to qualify for an adult male U.S. Golf Association championship Tuesday, tying for first place in a 36-hole U.S. Amateur Public Links sectional qualifying tournament.

The 15-year-old star from Hawaii, second Sunday in the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Maryland, matched Artie Fink Jr. of Altoona at 1-over 145 on the Cedarbrook Golf Course. Wie opened with a 1-under 71 and shot a 74 in the rain-delayed second round.

The Public Links winner has traditionally received a spot in the Masters.

-- Associated Press

Although the U.S. Golf Association is facing criticism for a number of its policies, golf still is a main draw for the fans who attended a practice session for the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C. The 105th Open tees off tomorrow.