The list of words that those who knew Frank Hannigan might use to ex- plain him was a lengthy one: smart, tough, funny, irreverent, liberal,
angry, insightful, contrarian—to name a few.
There was one word that never came up:
If someone had described Hannigan that
way he would have screamed in pain.
Hannigan died March 22 at age 82. He was
executive director of the USGA from 1983
to 1989 and was directly responsible for the
USGA’s decision to return the U.S. Open to
Shinnecock Hills. In doing so, he changed
the way the organization put on the Open forever.
Hannigan went to work for ABC as a rules expert after he
retired from the USGA and also wrote frequently about golf
for numerous publications—including this one. Having start-
ed his career as a journalist at the Staten Island Advance,
he was most proud of his writing, which often took on issues
others hadn’t even thought about. “You must read my latest,”
he’d write to friends. “It’s brilliant, if I do say so myself.”
He was justifiably proud of the 1974 story he wrote for the
USGA’s Golf Journal on A. W. Tillinghast, which reminded
people of Tillinghast’s brilliance. Hannigan’s opinions on
course design, like all his opinions, were absolute.
In 1994, when the USGA gave Arnold Palmer an exemption
into that year’s Open at Oakmont, wanting Palmer to play in
the event one last time on the course where he had lost a playoff
to Jack Nicklaus in 1962, Hannigan was outraged. Palmer
was 64 and had no chance to compete and thus, according to
Hannigan, didn’t belong in the field.
Palmer’s final walk up 18 on Friday was one of the Open’s
more memorable moments. Palmer wept. Fans around the
green wept. Palmer wept again in the interview room and left
to a standing ovation from the media—which isn’t supposed
to cheer for anyone. Hannigan stood in the back of the room,
“Still think he shouldn’t have played?” I asked him.
“He shot 77-81,” Hannigan said. “Of course, he shouldn’t
One word Frank never used to describe himself: wrong.
His true loves were his family and basketball. Even though he
first went to work for the USGA in 1961 and spent the rest of his
life deeply involved in golf, his greatest passion was basketball—
specifically the NBA. He was extremely proud of the fact that
one of his daughters-in-law worked for a law firm that repre-
sented Michael Jordan.
The most important thing Hannigan did was bring the Open
to Shinnecock in 1986 for the first time in 90 years. The issue
had never been the quality of the course but the logistics. The
Open had always been an event run inside the ropes by the
USGA, outside the ropes by the host club. Shinnecock, being a
seasonal club, didn’t have the infrastructure to play that role.
“Fine,” Hannigan said. “We’ll do it ourselves.”
Which they did, leading to the expansion of the Open
into the super-sized event it is today—something Hannigan
always lamented. Even so, the presence of that kind of staff
allowed David B. Fay—who Hannigan anointed as his succes-
sor in 1989—to put together the success story that became
the Open at Bethpage Black in 2002.
In his later years, even in bad health, Hannigan often be-
moaned the fact that part-time USGA presidents, who spend
two years on the job, have the final say in decision-making,
meaning the executive director has to report to the president.
In one of the last emails I got from him, Hannigan wrote:
“I’m glad the Davis kid [which is what he always called USGA
executive director Mike Davis] won the battle with [then-
USGA president Glen] Nager. Rare that the good guys win
one in golf these days.”
No one had a keener sense of what was good—and impor-
tant—than Hannigan. Perhaps that’s because he was both. N
BY JOHN FEINSTEIN VOICES
GOLF LOSES A CLEAR, UNWAVERING
VOICE WITH FRANK HANNIGAN’S DEATH