I've learned," says Buzz Taylor. Learned how a magazine photographer, shooting from his knees and using lights borrowed from the set of The X-Files, can make a fellow look imperious or, as one former USGA president puts it, "like Mussolini." Learned how one blunt remark—say, a shot across the bow of any equipment company challenging the right of the U.S. Golf Association to make the rules—can set phones ringing in law offices across America. Learned how the average stockholder in an equipment company would let golfers play with crossbows instead of clubs if that added to the bottom line.
Taylor learned these things a year ago, a few months into his first term as USGA president. So now, if you ask him about springlike effect, he'll flash a springlike smile and patiently explain the USGA's position on technology. He won't grandstand. He won't posture. "The so-called buzz on Buzz was something I wish never happened," he told the USGA in February at its annual meeting. "A little less buzz would have suited me just fine."
On this sunny morning Taylor, 67, is in his sprawling beach house on Jupiter Island, Fla., one of the richest strips of residential real estate in the U.S. Palms, mangroves and hibiscus surround the house, which opens onto a canvas of blues: light-blue pool water, deep-blue ocean and cerulean sky. Taylor, taking a sick day from the company he owns and runs—Aqua-Vac Systems, a manufacturer of robotic pool-cleaning equipment—looks comfortable in a sport shirt, light slacks and Top-Siders without socks.
"I think this is a period of watchful waiting," he says, describing the cease-fire between the USGA and the equipment companies, led by Callaway founder and chairman Ely Callaway and Titleist chairman and GEO Wally Uihlein. Last year at this time Callaway was running full-page ads in national newspapers threatening legal action if the USGA set sweeping new limits on club technology, as rumors said it might. Uihlein claimed that Taylor was a loose cannon on the ramparts of golf, a man with an "ideological mind-set." Taylor fired right back. "Our franchise is to preserve and protect the game's ancient and honorable traditions," he said in his best Edwardian prose. "I intend to do that, and there's not one lawyer in the world who is going to get in our way of doing that."
Taylor regrets the "one lawyer" part of his remark. He should, since the one lawyer the clubmakers hired was antitrust specialist Leonard Decof, who in the 1980s and '90s battered the PGA Tour and the USGA in the famous and costly square-grooves case. "I might have handled it better," Taylor says. "I didn't need to be inciteful." He blames himself, as well, for his naiveté, for letting the photographer catch him looking down his nose like some married-to-an-heiress country-clubber with a big house on Chicago's North Shore, which he is. As a former caddie and greenkeeper's assistant and the son of a Skokie, Ill., high school coach, Taylor remembers what it's like to be down-nose. He says, "I just wanted to do what was right for the game."
Taylor leaves it at that, but he clearly thinks it was disingenuous of the golf companies to demonize him. Unlike CEOs, who collect fat paychecks and stock options, USGA presidents work for free and leave after two one-year terms. The USGA's paid staff of 240 reports not to the president but to an all-volunteer, 16-member executive committee (of which the prez is just one of the members). In turn, the executive committee approves changes to the Rules of Golf in cooperation with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Taylor may look as if he's steering a 2,300-volunteer, 44-committee supertanker, but he's really more of a watch captain trying to keep it off the rocks.
"Buzz did not in any way abuse his leadership role," says Gordon Brewer, a volunteer who is chairman of the USGA implements and ball committee. It was Brewer's technical staff that discovered what has since been described as the trampoline effect of thin-faced metal woods—a hard-to-measure and hotly disputed property that, if real, clearly violates golf's Rule 4-1e, which states that a club face cannot "have the effect at impact of a spring." Brewer and other USGA officials met informally with industry leaders in the fall of 1997 to discuss the trampoline effect, but hopes for an amicable resolution quickly faded. The club-makers claimed that any curtailment of technology would devastate an industry already reeling from a slump in sales. Responding to the companies' concerns—and threats—the USGA announced last June that it would develop a protocol to regulate the springlike effect in future clubs. No previously approved clubs were ruled to be nonconforming.
"[The whole dispute] was a bad scene," says former USGA president Sandy Tatum, a Taylor supporter. "When the manufacturers talk about innovations, they're talking about reducing the skill factor of the game. They're not talking about the sport but the bottom line."
Taylor's predecessor as president, Judy Bell, agrees. "Setting the equipment standards has always been one of our major responsibilities. As long as there are golfers looking for a genie in a bottle, this is what happens."
There's also consensus in the USGA camp that Taylor didn't deserve the horns and forked tail put on him by the media. "He's a joyous fellow," says yet another former president, Grant Spaeth. "He's not a Rhodes scholar, but he's a thoughtful guy who listens and relies on others. God bless him." Says Tatum, "You couldn't find a nicer guy, and I think he suffered grievously from the mugging he took." Asked if that was the case, Taylor smiles and says, "The president usually takes the heat at the USGA."