Stu Francis faced a term as president of the USGA that was destined to be different from those of his predecessors. Francis was elected to be the first three-year leader in the 108-year history of our nation’s governing body, and that fact alone would differentiate him from the 65 previous presidents.
How different his term would be became clear very quickly.
Just weeks after Francis accepted the mantle at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina in February 2020, COVID-19 hit. The nation essentially shut down, pro golf was sidelined, the U.S. Open was postponed, and the USGA amateur schedule was decimated.
Not exactly what Francis signed up for after five years of serving on the USGA Executive Committee, the last two running the Championship Committee.
Francis and his Executive Committee colleagues worked closely with the USGA staff to steer the organization through the pandemic. The men’s and women’s Opens did get played, as did the men’s and women’s amateurs. That they could be played at all was not obvious in April of 2020.
“He had a long list of impactful accomplishments, including helping us very successfully navigate through the many challenges of Covid,” former USGA CEO Mike Davis wrote in an email.
As Francis looks back on his eight-year tenure, he told me of some things he is most proud of having a hand in shaping.
“He had a long list of impactful accomplishments, including helping us very successfully navigate through the many challenges of Covid."
Among them was a smooth succession at the top of the organization chart. Davis announced his retirement as CEO after the rescheduled 2020 U.S. Open in September, effective after the 2021 Open, a decision of which Francis was aware as he took the helm. He led the recruitment of Mike Whan, the recent LPGA commissioner, to take the CEO position, and Davis and Whan worked to ensure a smooth transition.
Francis worked closely with John Bodenhamer, the chief championships officer, to elevate the USGA’s national championships, especially on the women’s side. They were guided by World Golf Hall of Famer Nick Price’s observation that, to the players, it matters where they win a major championship. For the men, experimental sites such as Chambers Bay were out, and for the women, it meant a near total upgrade in the caliber of courses for the U.S. Women’s Open, starting in 2020 at Champions Golf Club in Houston and extending to Pebble Beach this summer.
Alongside the R&A, Francis is proud of the work that went into the modernization of the “Rules of Golf,” championed by his predecessor, Mark Newell. Francis also called out the changes made to the rules of amateur status and the introduction of the World Handicap System.
Most recently, Francis is pleased that progress is being made to endow the Walker Cup and the Curtis Cup, and that a long-discussed national development program is beginning to take root.
“If there was a blueprint for the perfect USGA board member (aka, Executive Committee member), it would be based off of Stu Francis,” Whan wrote via email. “Stu’s lifelong love of the game, his respect for those who work in it and his even-keeled approach to every business issue made him loved by competitors, staff, and his EC peers.”
Francis also commented on his role with equipment standards, known as the Distance Insights project. While not a member of the USGA and R&A Joint Equipment Standards Committee, he sat in on a majority of committee and senior staff meetings. Important decisions are soon to be revealed, and change appears to be on the horizon. It will be Francis’ successor, Dallas business executive Fred Perpall, who will lead the charge.
And all the while, Francis had to run a business. He is the senior partner at Evercore and is one of the most respected investment bankers in California’s Silicon Valley. His focus is technology, and he leads a team of 60 professionals. During his time on the Executive Committee, business conditions could have been described as frantic. His business grew by a factor of 6X, and he advised on tens of billions of dollars of transactions in the technology world.
Francis’ final act of service
was his mentorship of Fred Perpall. Succession planning is a tricky thing in
the corporate world, something Francis knows all too well from his day job
responsibilities. He presided over an exceptionally smooth transition from
Davis to Whan, and then he executed his own easy transition to Perpall.
I saw this up close and in
person over the last year, most especially at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2022,
when I spent an after-hours session with them both. It occurred to me then, and
was reinforced this past weekend in Napa, that they had become genuine friends.
It will be comforting to Perpall that
his friend is just a phone call away.
More time with family is at the top of the list, as the USGA president’s job takes one from home quite a bit. Francis plans to resume playing competitive golf, a pursuit of his since his days on the Princeton golf team. He also hopes to play more recreational golf with friends.
“I definitely plan to spend more time with my wife, Diana, and our family, and I now plan to play more competitive senior golf,” Francis wrote via email.
By nature, Francis is soft spoken and humble. He leads by example in a quiet way. As far as thankless jobs go, being president of the USGA ranks up there with Little League umpires. The rewards are very personal, and Francis did reap great satisfaction in his tenure.
During his eight years of service to the USGA, Francis made a real and meaningful difference. What more can you ask for in life?
Top: Francis breaks new ground by becoming the first three-year leader in USGA history.
Robert Beck, USGA