USGA is strengthening its ties at the state, regional levels

In a The First Call Q&A, Emily Palmer, the USGA's chief member service officer, discusses how the governing body is enhancing the golfer experience through Allied Golf Associations

Finishing her 11th year at the U.S. Golf Association, Emily (von Doehren) Palmer became the organization's chief member service officer on Nov. 1, 2021, after serving as the chief of staff.

In her current role, she is responsible for the USGA-Allied Golf Association (AGA) relationships and services; USGA committee relationships and assignments; the USGA Green Section; USGA Transformational Initiatives and serves as the Executive Committee liaison for the senior leadership team.

After playing at Northern Arizona University from 1999-2003, Palmer rose through the golf administrative ranks. Her career started as a USGA P.J. Boatwright intern before she landed a full-time position midway through the internship, with the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA). She worked for the SCGA from 2003-2011.

At the start of 2018, the USGA announced a new relationship with regional golf associations to enhance the golfer experience at the state and local levels in the U.S. Palmer discusses those changes, what it means and touches on the future relationship goals with The First Call's Ken Klavon.

2022 U.S. Open
USGA staff member Emily Palmer during the third round at the 2022 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, on June 18, 2022.

THE FIRST CALL: Leading up to 2018, the USGA began revamping the state and regional golf association (SRGA) relationship to where they are now called Allied Golf Associations, or AGAs. Walk us through that and why it was necessary?

Emily (von Doehren) Palmer: The AGA community is definitely one that I am very fond of. The way in which the USGA and the local associations network has worked together and has evolved over the past century or so. Many of them have already celebrated their 100-year anniversaries and we have been working with the network of associations.

When we started examining just the volume of those AGAs, we saw that there were about 150 of them, and they all did something a little bit different or somewhat crossed over on similar things. Some just served women, some served men, some handled public courses, some focused on private, some did course rating and some did something of everything. So we really started to examine what the optimal structure would be moving forward.

We asked ourselves, "How can we create more efficiency and really streamline USGA programs and service deliveries to local levels?" It could benefit the consumers' end, the golfer and golf course facility end, so it would become more of a consistency experience instead of 150 disparate groups.

That started about 2015-16 to formalize the relationship with what then became the AGAs — the Allied Golf Associations. We decided we better come up with different naming conventions and terminology to differentiate from the previous world of the SRGAs to the new world of the AGAs. In that new world, we now interact with 58 AGAs. They serve all golfers, men and women, public and private clubs, and they all handle each USGA program and service for us. We really created a one-stop shop for all 58 of the organizations in a more consistent way of covering the entire country and Puerto Rico.

We have made good strides, and as you can imagine, it's not without some bumps and bruises along the way. But we really feel like we are in an even better place than we were a few years ago with the AGAs. It feels like we are getting better and better.

TFC: As the new structure was being formalized, some of the old state and regional associations voiced concern with how it would play out. And like anything undergoing change, there were questions and a need for clarity. How has the synergy been since the official announcement in 2018?

EP: I think there is always room for growth. Look at what we've learned over the past couple years with the COVID environment and working remotely. There's always room to remove redundancies and making things even more efficient. That's something we work through with the AGA community continuously.

We're putting in practices that will hopefully cut back on resources and time at the AGA level. For example, we all have volunteers. The AGA has a network and the USGA has a volunteer group of USGA committee members. So instead of creating 58 different volunteer orientations — every association is going to have a different spin on how they incorporate their volunteers into their operation — if we have a consistent turnkey orientation video or online seminar, or something else, and allow the AGAs to customize it, those are the kinds of things we're excited about.

How do we help the AGAs focus their time and attention on things where they should be focused? How can we leverage the broader community and some experts and resources here at the USGA so that we can help? That's just one of many ideas that are at various stages within the AGA community.

TFC: Let's go back to your early days in the P.J. Boatwright Internship Program. How did that shape your understanding of golf administration and all the myriad duties that take place outside the ropes?

EP: I've been around the game and was fortunate enough to play in college. Upon graduation, I started to investigate what kind of opportunities were available to me in the golf community, golf administration in particular. I happened to stumble upon the USGA's Boatwright Program. After a couple clicks of the mouse, I had applied to a couple of then state and regional golf associations, which were offering anywhere from six months to a one-year Boatwright internship. I was fortunate to land one with the Southern California Golf Association.

At the beginning, I didn't really know much about the framework that the game was grounded in. That Boatwright internship experience opened my eyes to golf administration. One thing led to another and during that internship I was able to find a full-time job with the Southern California Golf Association. I was there nine, almost 10 years. I wasn't fully prepared to what amounted to be my 12-month Boatwright experience, but mine was cut short after six months because of the full-time job with the SCGA. I didn't get to exercise the entire 12 months, but I would describe it as a whirlwind tour of the AGA. By virtue of that, it gave me exposure to USGA programs and services by way of local delivery.

It was so valuable to have that opportunity to spend a chunk of time in almost every department the Southern California Associations offers, such as going out on course ratings. I played the game and I didn't understand how a course rating was developed, who does it, how often, that there's really a data and science piece that goes into it. So that was tremendously eye-opening.

Of course, going to Rules of Golf seminars and spending time with the competitions team and going to qualifiers for USGA events and for Southern California Golf Association events, that was a whole other world in itself. I also took part in other departments as part of this opportunity, which included the Handicap and Membership realm. I didn't know a whole lot about the handicap system and that's where I landed my first position with the SCGA — in the Handicap and Membership Department. I really gained a greater understanding for the value and importance of the handicap. Also, of how that tool is so unique to the game, and how that serves as the foundation for members to join a club or join a local AGA, or in some cases, getting connected to the USGA. They want that handicap and that ability to play with their family and friends.

From there, I pretty quickly got more comfortable where I thought this could be a career. It was more than the year-long internship I signed up for.

TFC: It's important to have a finger on the pulse of the AGAs, as well as other related processes involving them. How has that process worked out since going to the AGA system?

EP: We have a regional affairs team, and we have regional affairs directors with five regions that has one director for each region who are embedded in those communities. They have become great ambassadors and great eyes and ears for us, also as important connectors for the AGAs. They are an AGA's executive director's first point of contact if there is a USGA question or issue. That team keeps us extremely informed in terms of what the issues are, concerns, highlights and what's going on.

There is also an AGA Council, which is a group of representatives elected by their peers and they serve a couple of years on this leadership group. This council is new and part of the sort of reset between the USGA and AGAs. The council has been a great way for us to progress conversations and issues.

The previous setup with 150 organizations made it difficult to move the agenda down the field if you were having that conversation 150 times. So the council now is a group that is a broader reflection of the AGA community, so by serving on the council, those executive directors have the innate ability to take off their individual association hats and think about things through the lens of the broader community. That has been helpful to us.

You mentioned the Boatwright internship earlier, and we're actually spinning up with that group looking at the Boatwright program. How is it going? What is the feedback and what are the recommendations from the AGA community? Are we resourcing appropriately? We've had virtual Boatwright orientations the last couple of years because of COVID. Is it helpful, or is it hurtful? These are the types of things we are able to hash out by using the council as a vehicle for that.

In terms of keeping the finger on the pulse, it just so happened that we recently hosted the class of the newest executive directors from the AGA community. There are eight of them and they were in [Liberty Corner, New Jersey] for a full day of orientation with the USGA, as we introduced them to key faces, departments and programs. It gives them a little more sense of our operations, how we work with them and their teams at the local AGA level. It's an opportunity for us to also talk about how we can work together to grow the game.

TFC: In terms of the casual fan or observer, it's probably fair to say many of them don't fully understand how much gets accomplished outside the ropes. How do you communicate that out so the proper picture is painted in terms of the USGA's relevancy in the game?

EP: That's something we are always talking about. How do we stay relevant? How do we exude a modern organization yet be respectful of tradition and history. And that's something we always wrestle with. We have been working hard with the AGAs to combat that as well because they all have their own communications teams, and in many cases magazines and special channels.

How can they be attractive to not only their existing membership but welcome in different diverse audiences and new members? Also, how do they provide new experiences that might be appealing and interesting to a whole group of people they haven't traditionally called upon as members?

We have a robust volunteer base at the USGA, and the AGA has some of that community as well. So how do we tap into that so we make sure we have the latest and greatest eyes and ears out there on our behalf? Through our marketing and communications teams, you'll probably hear some different things from the USGA, but it's all in that spirit of how we can be relevant and how can we resonate with all golfers of all ages, genders and abilities. It is something we continue to work on.

2021 U.S. Open
Emily Palmer.

TFC: If you had a crystal ball that looked several years ahead, where would you like to see things head, or what kind of improvements or developments would you like to see with the AGAs?

EP: In my area in particular, especially working with the AGAs, we have been working hard behind the scenes to be a trusted partner of the AGA executive director community and their staff. That is something that has taken a lot of time to rebuild — trust in the relationship — particularly after the reset.

Our team has really concentrated on being a resource and helping provide data and information, and to use facts to make decisions. I think infusing that line of thinking into our business is something we are constantly striving to do. That will take a little time for some within the AGA community to absorb.

We have been fortunate where a lot of the AGA staff members have come up through the ranks and know their business inside and staff. They have a good feel for what works and what doesn't. That can sometimes work, but not always. We've tried to be a little more disciplined with asking feedback, surveying and using some of that to make informed decisions at the AGA level. I think that's something we'll continue to work on and be a trusted AGA partner.

We talked earlier about the structure of the AGA network and there are probably some opportunities for more efficiencies to be realized there, and more shared services. AGAs are helping other AGAs. We'll likely continue to see more of that, and that's a good thing. It removes duplication from the community. Over the next few years, I would say continue efficiencies, remove the redundancies and let's really leverage the value of the AGA-USGA relationship.

TFC: Like some of the other state and regional golf associations, Washington Golf (formerly Washington State Golf Association) just celebrated its 100th-year anniversary. You played junior golf there, so does it take on special meaning knowing it has been instrumental in the game for so long?

EP: I wasn't able to get up to the U.S. Women's Amateur at Chambers Bay [Golf Course] and their executive director was kind enough to send me a book. They put together a really nice, professionally done hardbound book celebrating 100 years of Washington golf. It's amazing to flip through those pages and see the progress they have made and how much more they have to look forward to.

My parents still live in the greater Seattle area. I get back maybe once or twice a year typically around the holidays, although this year I went back over the summer, took my clubs, and my husband and I played a couple rounds of golf.

I play a fair amount on the weekends. Certainly not at a level I once played, but I still love and enjoy the game, and it's been such a joy that it's been such a part of my life and my family's life.

TFC: Looking back on your career and incremental rise, what are your thoughts with how far you have come in the golf industry?

EP: I kind of pinch myself. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would work for the USGA. I recall coming to our headquarters for a Boatwright orientation and I thought, "Wow, this place is pretty cool." Never would I have dreamt fast forward to 10 or so years later that I would be working here and walking the halls.

It's funny because I came here to visit the [United States Golf Association Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History] as a kid with my family and I have a picture in my office of my brother and I in front of the museum and it was probably in the mid-1990s. If I had known then that I would live around here and work in our administration building every day, I would have never believed it. I pinch myself every day. I love my job and I love working in the golf industry. But the quality of people and the relationships — and not just the USGA staff — who we are exposed to are just top notch.

It is something different every day, but I think the AGA's are in a similar category as the USGA. They wake up every day and ask how do we grow the game; how do we improve our offerings that we provide to our members and our future members?

There is a whole network of AGAs and executive networks. Their intentions and spirit are how do we make this better and make it more appealing.