Derek Sprague was introduced as a “special guest” during the Northeastern New York PGA’s annual spring membership meeting and special awards presentation at Saratoga National Golf Club.
But in truth, the new president of the Professional Golfers Association of America said he was just glad to be back home to address the needs of his friends and peers after several months of dealing with numerous huge national controversies.
“I’m not a special guest. I’m a member of this section, and I’m glad to be home. They [the local club professionals in attendance at Saratoga National] mentored me, and it’s so good to be back among them.”
Despite traveling more than 180 days a year, Sprague is still the director of golf and head pro at Malone Golf Club in the North Country of New York. Before he jumped on the career track of being a national PGA officer — first as secretary and then as vice president — he regularly took the four- to five-hour trip back to the Capital Region to attend meetings and play NENYPGA events.
Now, he travels the country and tries to solve problems that are both national and local in scope. He and Pete Bevacqua, the CEO of the PGA of America, answered a handful of questions following last week’s spring meeting. The two oversee the club pros (Sprague) and staff (Bevacqua) of the world’s largest sports organization with 28,000 members.
Sprague was thrust into controversy even before his official term began last fall, when Ted Bishop was ousted as president of the PGA because of remarks he made following British star Ian Poulter’s criticisms about Tom Watson and Nick Faldo in his new book, “No Limits.”
Bishop called Poulter “Lil Girl” on Twitter and then added the comment, “Sounds like a little girl squealing during recess.”
This gender-based slam ended up causing Bishop’s immediate removal as president in October, and Sprague, who was set to be elected president the next month, took over sooner than expected. Interestingly, these elections almost always follow the established protocol, so Sprague was 99 percent assured he would become the next president anyway.
Both Sprague and Bevecqua said the Bishop stir has long been swept away.
“It’s been pretty seemless moving forward,” said Sprague. “It’s been a pretty natural progression. We’ve been focused on our long-term strategic plan.”
“That’s the benefit of having a long-term plan,” added Bevacqua, a native of Bedford and both a Notre Dame and Georgetown graduate. “Ted will always be known as our 38th president, and we now have a good relationship.”
The controversies continued when several U.S. players complained of team captain Tom Watson’s leadership style during the annual Ryder Cup between the U.S. and Europe. The Europeans once again crushed the U.S. The PGA of America not only chooses the U.S. team captain, but oversees the Ryder Cup, along with the PGA Championship.
“The PGA of America has elevated its status, and we need to be in the conversation when these things break out,” said Sprague. “We don’t wait for controversies now.”
Bevacqua said the PGA has teamed up with the top members of the PGA Tour to get a stronger communication flow between the players and their leadership in regards to the Ryder Cup.
“We’re in a good place as ever with the naming of Davis Love III as our new U.S. captain,” Bevacqua said. “We said, ‘Let’s do an analysis into how we can do this thing better and give Team USA the best chance over the next 20 years to start winning the Ryder Cup on a regular basis.’ We’ve gone 2-8 in our last 20 years [the Ryder Cup is held every other year], and that’s not good for the American team or the Ryder Cup itself.
“We put together a new committee with the players, and they were two of the best meetings we’ve ever had. We had two of them so far. One was five hours, and the other was four. They went by so quickly. Davis, Phil [Mickelson] and Tiger [Woods] gave us great energy and insight in that meeting. Now, we have a formula in how to move forward.”
Bevacqua said that every new Ryder Cup team for the U.S. was like re-inventing the wheel.
“We have this new Ryder Cup task force for the next 20 years, and it’s about building a program beyond the next two to six years. We want to win at least seven out of the next 10 Ryder Cups, and with this Ryder Cup committee, we have a good chance. It makes sense getting more input from the players.”
Bevacqua was asked about how golf in the Olympics will affect the sport here and around the world.
“The PGA supports the Olympic movement. In fact, we are very involved in it. Again, Tiger and Phil are both on our [Olympic golf] committee. The Olympics will have a long-lasting effect, and it will validate the sport. A country like Kuwait only had about 600 golfers before the movement to join the Olympics. Now, they have thousands.”
The conversation turned to a couple of local issues, and both PGA officials gave their take.
Sprague was asked about the new Saratoga National Golf Club initiative to expand the premier course into a resort.
“In a way, Saratoga is similar to my hometown in Malone,” he said. “This looks like a fantastic project. You need amenities to keep competitive in this market. Saratoga has the horses at the track, but you still need to invest in this area to keep people coming in. People who run golf courses are really the best stewards of our environment, and they try to insure that city/country feel.”
“I’ve been here to Saratoga maybe five or six different summers when I attend the Alabama, and I always play golf here. I think the resort idea is a good one,” he said.
Sprague discussed the new NENYPGA junior golf project, which will be conducted at Town of Colonie Golf Course, the section’s headquarters. Although the local PGA already runs its own Junior Golf Tour, this new junior plan will be more about introducing children to the game at a younger level. They don’t have to be members of clubs to join.
“It will piggyback our junior golf tournament series and will be a feeder system for it,” said Sprague. “It’s designed to be fun more than competitive. It will begin May 30 and will have two three-week sessions. We will start with instruction, then we will have several other steps before they start playing. This will start with the youth, and then get the parents and the grandparents involved. Golf transcends generations. You can play with your parents and your grandparents.”
Sprague said a new Web site will help draw youngsters into the junior program.
With about 100 of his peers in the adjoining room, Sprague was asked about the nagging employment issue, as it’s been more challenging every year for local pros to find or keep their jobs in this challenging economy.
“Employment is obviously a huge concern for our members,” said Sprague. “Any job for a PGA professional, we take very seriously. After several years of focusing on other issues, we are shifting our emphasis on player and professional development. We are making it a point to help our employers see that golf professionals help drive revenue in so many ways at their course.”