They are the guardians of golf - a $150-million not-for-profit organization that oversees virtually every aspect of the game. And their presence will be felt every step of the way at this week's U.S. Open, being held for the second time in a decade at Bethpage State Park's Black Course.
The U.S. Golf Association, founded in 1894 and now based on a college-like campus in Far Hills, N.J., yields more clout than any other ruling body in sports, say experts. As the sport's main governing body, the USGA is the arbiter of the game's standards. USGA technicians determine the size of clubs, the grooves on irons, and the dimples on balls. The group's turf management team studies and advises on different kinds of grass used on fairways and putting greens across the nation.
While the Professional Golfers' Association oversees all players on the pro tour, it is the USGA that sets the rules and the technology of the game.
It also negotiates lucrative contracts with television networks, approves manufacturers' merchandise, and sells its own USGA-stamped memorabilia for its own tournaments. It collects dues from thousands of members, promotes golf around the world, and runs a multimedia museum dedicated to golf's storied history.
Perhaps most importantly, the USGA oversees 13 national championships, most notably the annual U.S. Open - a huge weeklong event featuring the game's best players. They will battle for the silver cup and big-time purse this year at Bethpage Black's publicly owned, 7,400-yard course.
USGA spokesman Rand Jerris described the group as the "guardian of the traditions of golf that go back hundreds of years, before this game came to this country." In the last three decades, it's grown dramatically in terms of money and popularity, he said.
This year's Open and other USGA amateur and professional championships for men and women will cost an estimated $50 million to run, tax records show, including more than $13 million in prize money.
"We want to have a strong field and the prize money that is available to the players is an important factor in determining what championships they will play in," said Jerris.
The USGA's staff and an army of volunteers will play host to about 50,000 spectators at Bethpage each day of the event, including more than 1,000 members of the media. Jerris said the expenses include a huge media center and many large white tents filled with dining tables and food for corporate sponsors.
"The U.S. Open is the workhorse for the USGA - that's what brings in most of the revenue that enables us to do all the work that we do the rest of the year," he said.
Championship-related broadcast revenue for the Open and its other tournaments amounts to $90 million, records show, far exceeding money collected from merchandise and membership fees, and comparable only to the USGA's earnings from investments. "The primary source of revenue is our broadcast contracts - what the networks will pay for the rights to our championships," said Jerris. NBC and ESPN will be the two major American networks airing tournament play from Bethpage Black.
The USGA employs about 350 people, with a payroll of more than $26 million. In its headquarters, golf's genteel tone and tributes to legends like Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus line the walls along with photos of today's golf heroes.
Returning again after the highly successful 2002 Open, USGA officials say Bethpage's Black will probably become a regular site for future Opens, like Pebble Beach Golf Links in California and Oakmont Country Club in western Pennsylvania.
"The atmosphere, the way that the Long Island community came out to support the Open, made it such an enormous success for us," said Jerris. "The decision to return to Bethpage was made very soon after (the 2002 Open) and that is unusual for the USGA. Even with the elite courses, 10 or 11 years will pass between U.S. Opens. This is seven years and it's a reflection of how special we thought the 2002 Open was. Moving forward, I think you will see Bethpage become part of our regular rotation."