First black on USGA ruling body is greeted by bag full of requests

GOLF

March 08, 1992|By JOHN STEWART

As one of three new appointees to the Executive Committee of the U.S. Golf Association, John Merchant is more concerned with where he's going than where he's been.

From a background unlike that of any of the others on the 15-member board, Merchant, the committee's first black, has been thrust into a position of importance and is expected to have instant expertise in a lot of areas.

"Since I was first nominated last September, I've had a lot of fun. . . and a lot of letters," Merchant told the annual meeting of the Middle Atlantic Golf Association at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase Friday evening. "There were friendly letters and there were letters wanting me to do something immediately in an area of their interest.

"I thanked all of them, but had to point out that I was only a nominee and had not been elected yet."

There is reason to believe no nominee has ever been rejected, and certainly none of these were, as Merchant, from Fairfield, Conn., James Curtis, of Seattle, Wash., and Reed Mackenzie, of Chaska, Minn., were elected at the USGA's annual meeting in February.

"In the last few months, I've been asked -- in different ways -- what my focus is, what do I hope to accomplish," Merchant continued.

"There are two main items: I believe golf is best walking, so I'm for caddies and caddy programs, and, I don't believe in $l management from the top down. I work with people, not for people. And the USGA's basic strength lies in its member organizations -- its outreach."

Basic strength is something Merchant has had for a long time. Born and raised in Greenwich, Conn., he graduated from Virginia Union University and was the first black to graduate from the University of Virginia Law School. Given the tenor of the times, that was not exactly a stroll down a fairway.

Merchant started playing golf while serving as a naval officer in Hawaii in the 1950s, "and that was it. I was hooked."

Back in Connecticut, he started playing golf with a group of young lawyers, one of whom was Giles Payne. More recently, Payne, a member at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, was the chairman for two USGA championships, and a good friend of former USGA president Sandy Tatum. When Payne heard about the search for a possible black committee member, Payne recommended Merchant.

"Actually, I'm a fluke, to the extent I had had no previous tournament administration experience at any level. Most come with good backgrounds. I did not earn my way; the outside situation was my means of entrance.

"The call came out of the blue, but it relates to some of the things the game of golf gets done. I'm here because of Giles Payne's interest in golf. If that hadn't occurred, someone else would be sitting here. And, if I were white, I wouldn't be here, either.

"However," he told his attentive audience, "you should know I care about the game. There is not enough time to repay all I have gotten from the game. Benefits and values are wrapped up in relationships generated by participation. Among these things are friendships."

It was his friendship with out-going MSGA president Steve Isaacs, of Richmond, that triggered the invitation, Merchant's first public speaking appearance since his election.

"We first met in Puerto Rico in 1975," Isaacs recalled. "It was one of those situations where the starter paired two of us with a

twosome ahead. One of the others was John Merchant, and we found out we had some things in common -- we both loved golf and both were lawyers. We enjoyed each other's company, and, over the years, have stayed in touch, exchanging notes, and visiting each other's homes."

Merchant, a partner in the Stamford, Conn., law firm of Merchant and Rosenblum, recently was appointed by Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker to head the state's Office of Consumer Counsel.

Merchant said he intends to be "active on the issue of minority involvement" and hopes that his election "lends integrity to the game of golf in general, and the USGA in particular."

Merchant has been a member of Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton, Conn., for 15 years, is a two-time club champion, and currently has a Handicap Index of 6.1. Away from the course, he is interested in politics and civic commitment, two things that should stand him in good stead with the USGA.

Although the USGA took a long time before adding a minority member to its inner sanctum, it appears to have the right person for the job.

* The Middle Atlantic Golf Association knocked down two doors at its meeting. Not only did it entertain a black for the first time, but, for the first time, presented its annual award for meritorious service to two women. Woodholme CC's Evelyn Glick, still taking lessons, practicing, and playing at 82, and Baltimore CC's Mary Ann Cooke, were cited for their playing accomplishments, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, when they virtually dominated the local women's tournament scene.

*

Show-time: The fourth annual Southern Maryland Golf Fair, scheduled for today at the Holiday Inn in Waldorf, is the first of three area golf trade shows open to the public.

The Mid-Atlantic Golf & Travel Show will be held March 14-15 at Reckord Armory on the University of Maryland campus, and the Baltimore Golf & Travel Show will be held March 21-22 at the

Towson Center. Tickets will be available at the door for all three shows.

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