Baltusrol's Own B.P. Russell

B.P. Russell: A Quiet Leader in Golf

By Dick Brown

It was reported in the January 1968 issue of the Baltusrol Newsthat one Bob P. Russell, a resident of New York City and a Vice President of Crum & Forster, had been elected to membership. He had been proposed for membership a year earlier by W. C. Ridgway, the Chairman of Crum & Forster.

The announcement was routine, but the new member was not. Five years later, in October 1973, he was elected to the Board of Governors. He was named President of Baltusrol in October 1976, and in 1985 he joined the Executive Committee of the United States Golf Association. Few achieved more for Baltusrol or the USGA.

image

Bobby was born in 1920 and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. In 1938, he graduated from Pascal High School in Fort Worth where he was valedictorian and president of the senior class, and subsequently went directly into the insurance business. Bobby started his remarkably successful business career selling insurance door to door in Amarillo and ended it as Chairman of Crum and Forster with a seat on the Xerox Corporation Board of Directors. 

Bobby the Golfer

Bobby’s golfing career began at the Meadowbrook Golf Course in Fort Worth where he caddied. When asked about a couple of other Fort Worth boys who caddied, and later played the game professionally, Bobby replied that he knew them both, and had been lifelong friends with Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. Nelson and Hogan were older than Bobby, and he never played with them in caddie tournaments, but he was paired with Hogan later on in charity events. The pro at Meadowbrook gave him a few tips and in time Bobby became a three handicap golfer. After he arrived in New York in 1967, he had to give his full attention to Crum and Forster. When the business moved to Morristown, and Bobby and his family moved to Madison in the early 1970s, he had more time to devote to golf and became a regular at Baltusrol. Bobby played a lot of very good golf during those times. He still has a scorecard, signed and attested by Bob Finney, which shows he shot a 73 with eight 3s and 26 putts. He played a fair amount of winter golf. Opponents often claimed that he had 15 clubs—one being a “lip iron”—in his bag. He was so full of stories, jokes and fun, with such a good needle, that at times it was hard to focus on a shot. There is a story of one winter match on the Upper Course where a few flasks were being circulated, and when the group reached the sixth fairway they could find only three balls. Suddenly one of the foursome recalled that he was having such a good time he forgot to hit his tee shot!

Bobby Joins the Board

Bobby joined Baltusrol’s Board of Governors in 1973. He was named Vice President in April 1975 to fill a vacated office. His chief responsibilities were the chairmanship of the search committee for a new golf professional, which resulted in the hiring of Bob Ross, and the upgrading and enlargement of the Golf Shop.

image

When Bobby was elected President in October 1976, the Board minutes recorded his acceptance of the post as follows: “Mr. Russell then presided and thanked the Board for the opportunity of serving Baltusrol as its president. He pledged to carry on the Baltusrol traditions and said he would keep it in mind that Baltusrol was owned by all its members and not just a few.” At the time, Baltusrol was not entirely in a healthy situation. A long and nagging recession, accompanied by 7% and higher inflation was, while ebbing, afflicting the nation, and membership was down to 475, 25 fewer than full membership at the time. The Club lost $26,000 in 1975, and while this was not deemed to be a disastrous event, it was nonetheless serious. The physical condition of the Clubhouse and other buildings was adequate, but only so, and the golf courses needed work. On the other hand, the awarding to the Club of the 1980 U.S. Open was a major plus.

Bobby Takes Office

Bobby quickly showed that he led from in front. The major challenges he saw as he began his term of office were the membership issue, the relatively large percentage of revenue that was spent on maintenance and repairs (which in turn constrained funding for improvements), and the preparations for the 1980 Open. Furthermore, he wanted to end the atmosphere of sleepy status quo and replace it with an atmosphere of growth and enthusiasm.

He tackled the membership issue by asking, as reflected in the November 1976 Board minutes, that “each member of the Board consider himself a member of the Membership Committee and that each endeavor to get three or four new members for the Club during the next year.” He nominated Larry Carpenter to be the Membership Chairman. Larry did not want the job and did not think he was the best candidate for it, but as he says, “Bobby had me cornered in the Locker Room—there was no escape—and you just couldn’t turn Bobby down.” When Bobby’s term ended three years later, the membership was full and for the first time since 1967 there were names on the waiting list.

The largest capital expenditures made during Bobby’s time were the renovation of the Golf Shop, the re-roofing of the Carriage House, the building of the rain shelters, the renovation of the Ladies’ Locker Room, the renovation of the Halfway Houses, the acquisition of the first large fleet of golf carts, and the computerization of the accounting department. Bobby appealed to the membership to provide some of the funding; as explained in the Board minutes, “In connection with the first rain shelter, President Russell expressed the desire to make a contribution to the Club of $10,000 to defray the cost of this shelter. It is the intention to use it as an example to other members who might care to make such a donation to the Club.” The original shelter was followed by four more, all paid for by members, who by then certainly had become aware that friendship with Bobby could be a costly, if rewarding, experience.

It was originally thought that most of the Club’s revenue from the 1980 U.S. Open would be derived from the sale of advertising in the Open program, and Bobby asked each Board member to sell at least one ad. Bobby did more than fill his personal quota; it is astonishing how many insurance companies saw fit to advertise in the Open program that year!

The First Corporate Tents

As far as we can tell, corporate tents were invented at ­Baltusrol, appearing for the first time at the 1980 U.S. Open. We do not know exactly who proposed them, but it was reported in the December 1978 Board minutes that ten of them would be provided, and they were sold out by July of the next year. The corporate tents perhaps doubled the Club's revenue from the Open.

image

Baltusrol always had a forward planning committee, manned chiefly by past presidents, but its activity had been limited. Bobby stirred that committee up and charged it with the preparation of a detailed forecast of the Club’s opportunities for the upcoming decade. The committee produced an excellent report in 1980. It concluded that the Club had been managed with skill and financial prudence in the past, and that it would generate enough revenue in the upcoming decade to permit substantial improvements to its physical plant and programs.When Bobby stepped down from the Presidency in October 1979, he could count as mission accomplished the renovations mentioned above, a renewed relationship with the Metropolitan Golf Association and the adoption of the GHIN handicap system, and the improved condition of the golf courses. In addition, renovations of the Clubhouse had begun and the financial condition of the Club had improved. The planning for the U.S. Open was well along. In fact, Bobby and several other Governors were asked to remain on the Board when their terms ended in order to provide continuity through the Open. They agreed to do so, and Bobby went on to serve as a starter on the first tee. 

Robert Trent Jones

At some point Bobby became friendly with Robert Trent Jones, the great golf course architect who had designed the modifications to #4 and #7 Lower prior to the 1954 U.S. Open. Bobby claims after he learned that Jones loved oysters, he always knew that news of a fresh shipment to Baltusrol’s kitchen would induce a trip by Jones to the Club. Oysters aside, RTJ made many trips to Baltusrol, and made any number of suggestions for improvements to our golf courses. He never sent a bill. In recognition of RTJ’s long association with Baltusrol, Bobby recommended to the Board that “Robert Trent Jones should be designated as a consultant to the Baltusrol Golf Club in connection with the 80th U.S. Open Championship which will be held at the Club in 1980. Such designation would appear in the program and provide an opportunity for the Club to acknowledge some of the suggestions Mr. Jones has made when visiting the Club over the years.” 

The Goose Wars

While most of the initiatives Bobby took on behalf of Baltusrol, and also in business, were highly successful, he did have one brush with failure in the late 1980s when he volunteered to get rid of the many Canadian geese that were infesting our golf courses. The geese were (and still are) protected by a federal migratory bird law, so it was illegal to shoot them. Bobby tried a number of things. One of his schemes was to string a grid of transparent fish line over the ponds, thinking that geese might move to more hospitable waters when they found it difficult to land on our ponds. The fish line failed to impress the geese, which continued to increase in numbers. Ultimately, the Border Collie named Joe arrived on the scene and soon chased the geese away, ending the problem and saving Bobby from defeat.

image

In those days, it was known to everyone who had worked on the goose problem that geese and swans have mutual antipathy toward each other and rarely are seen in the same waters. Some clubs tried to trick the geese by placing plastic swans in their ponds, but for Bobby plastic swans were ugly abominations. Jim Hand, a past president of the USGA, tells the story of an occasion at Ridgewood Country Club where he and Bobby were playing once. When they arrived at a tee that fronted a pond in which a plastic swan was anchored, Bobby expressed in very pithy West-Texas language his disdain for the swan. Thinning his drive across the pond, inches above the water, Bobby’s ball hit the swan and shattered it. The swan sank, Titanic-like, and just before its tail disappeared beneath the waters, Bobby turned to his friends and said, “Well, I got that one on my first shot.”

The Drinking Fountains

The drinking fountains we now enjoy were the result of one more exhibit of the Russell “powers of persuasion.” By way of background, it should be explained that historically, even on the hottest days, drinking water was distributed around the golf courses very sparingly in containers that were only slightly upscale from the tin buckets and dippers once supplied to the convict chain gangs in the South. Bobby offered to build a number of refrigerated drinking fountains on the courses, but Baltusrol’s management demurred on the grounds they would present chronic maintenance problems. Bobby then loaded Baltusrol’s manager and several others into his car and transported them to Congressional Country Club where contented golfers could be seen happily lapping up cool, refrigerated water from their fountains. He introduced them to the Congressional green staff who certified that the maintenance of their fountains was not an insurmountable task. Baltusrol then relented and accepted the fountains. In his typical fashion, Bobby paid for the first fountain and then persuaded some of his member friends to donate the rest. Mark Kuhns reports that the fountains still work fine, and that he has upgraded them with filters to remove metallic tastes from the water after winter shut-downs; however, the plastic water bottle prevails today.

Bobby’s concern and affection for Baltusrol continued long after his Board service. He happily donated the funds to build the present caddie shack which has served the Club well for two decades.

The USGA

In 1983, Bobby happened to notice an article in a USGA publication that described its turf grass research program. It seemed to him that this research could be fundamental to the well-being of golf in this country, and he kept track of the progress being made. He saw that the USGA program lacked the funding necessary to make a substantial contribution to that science and thus decided to do something about it. He persuaded Baltusrol to contribute $2.00 per golf member to the USGA for a number of years. He began a program designed to persuade other clubs to follow Baltusrol’s lead, and quite a number of clubs did so. We don’t know the total duration and effect of this initiative, but we do know that it led to the USGA’s recruitment of Bobby to head up its capital campaign.

image

In the early 1980s, the USGA was strapped for cash. It had moved its headquarters from New York City to its present Far Hill’s location about a decade earlier, at a cost of roughly $600,000, and was, as they say, land rich and cash poor. Its situation was critical but not yet desperate. It had publicly announced it was looking for less expensive headquarters and had briefly considered a location near Atlanta. Its programs were under-funded, and the U.S. Open produced far less in that era than the cascade of cash it does today. Its Executive Committee calculated that it needed $10 million to do the job it wanted and needed to do. According to a USGA press release in 1983, a search committee headed up by Howard Clark and Jim Hand, the then Vice President and future President of the USGA, recruited Bobby on the basis of his record with other groups. He had been chairman of the fundraising campaign for the Police Athletic League of New York in 1982, honorary chairman of the Greater New York Councils of the Boy Scouts of America in 1976, and a trustee of the Independent College Fund of New Jersey. Hand told us he had seen what Bobby could do and believed he could raise money in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The results of the campaign showed that Hand had picked the right man: Bobby raised $12 million.

We were able to speak with a number of people who worked on that campaign. Some of them were in those days young staffers at the USGA who to this day appreciate the friendliness, care, and interest Bobby showed in them and in what they were doing. Bobby made a lot of money for the USGA and in the process also made a lot of friends in Far Hills and at golf clubs around the country.

Bobby always sought ideas and encouraged others to bring ideas to him. One of the great successes of the campaign was the so-called “golf cart drive.” The idea was to persuade every member of every golf club in the country to contribute the rental fee of one golf cart per month. It turned out to be a hugely productive idea. The initial plan envisaged that most of the proceeds of the campaign would come from major gifts made by regional golf associations and individuals. In the end, it was the golf cart idea that generated the most revenue. It turns out the golf cart idea was hatched during a brain-storming session with Tom Eagan, a USGA volunteer and Baltusrol member, and two USGA staffers, Don Spenser and Ran Morrissett. Bobby liked the idea and ran hard with it. He, Hand, Morrissett, and others arranged dinner meetings with the regional golf associations and as many local clubs as they could. Bobby and Hand pitched the USGA, its activities, and its value to golf at those dinners. They made dozens of flights around the country. Recalling those days, Morrissett told us, “You know, Bobby was the guy. He made the sale. They loved him at the meetings. On those long, tough trips, he was always the first one down to the lobby in the morning. He bought breakfast. He always thought there was one more thing we should do and he could get it done. He was retired, and we were all pretty young, but he always had more energy than we did. He had been the chairman of a big company, but he wouldn’t let anyone carry his bag. He always carried his own. We all loved working with him.” Bobby and his team found a way to package the campaign in a way that interested and appealed to thousands of individual golfers making the capital campaign a great success for the USGA.

Committee Work

Bobby joined the USGA Executive Committee in 1985 and served until 1990. He was Treasurer in 1988 and Secretary in 1989 and 1990. The list of his committee assignments is half a page long. In addition to his fundraising work, he chaired at various times the Development, Facilities, Museum and Library, Public Golf, and the 1990 Public Links Championship committees. He also was Honorary Chairman of the USGA Foundation Board of Directors from 1991 to 1995. Bobby says he did not do much for the USGA, aside from the fundraising, but the facts suggest otherwise. Golf was in the midst of its greatest ever period of growth, with golf equipment manufacturing becoming big business. The square groove issue was just one of the matters that came up; one would have to believe the USGA and every committee in it spent long hours dealing with the issues of those years, and that Bobby did more than carry his weight in those proceedings.

Baltusrol’s Oliver Havens became General Counsel to the USGA at the time of the square grooves issue, which ended satisfactorily from the USGA’s point of view. His and Bobby’s contributions to the Association led to a strong case being made for the return of the U.S. Open to Baltusrol in 1993. Other clubs wanted it, but Bobby sealed the deal for Baltusrol.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Club

Sometime during the mid-1980s, Bobby received a call from his old friend Robert Trent Jones, who told him that he had purchased a piece of land near Gainesville, Virginia that was perfect for a great golf course. He wanted to build his “signature” course there, but after having bought the land needed additional funds to build the course. Bobby said he would make some calls, and in 1991 the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, or “RTJ” for 

image

short, was organized. Bobby Russell, Ernest L. Ransome III, the longtime Pine Valley president, and Clay Hammer were the Founding Trustees. Though considered a great course, RTJ was unrated by the golf magazines because it chose not to be. The founders knew they had a great course but wanted to find out how the best golfers would handle it. Bobby called the PGA Tour to discuss the possibility of conducting one of its events there. When they asked what rentals would be involved, Bobby replied there would be no rental fees, that RTJ was not looking for money but only wished to see how the touring professionals would do in competition on its golf course. The upshot was that the first four President’s Cup matches played in this country were hosted by RTJ. Bobby was on the committee for some of the early matches and on those occasions met Presidents Ford, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. When asked if he had played golf with any of them, Bobby replied a trifle grumpily, “Only with President Clinton.” One of the more vexatious tasks assigned to him was arranging a lunch to be attended by some of the early greats of golf and President George H. W. Bush, who had suggested he would greatly enjoy such an occasion. Making those arrangements turned out to be something like stuffing an octopus into a bag, but in the end Bobby got Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, and Sam Snead to the lunch table at the White House. Ben Hogan also had agreed to attend, but got sick at the last minute and had to withdraw. 

Bobby and President Carter

Bobby's business career was unusually full and fascinating, but this article is about his golf interests. However, a couple of incidents in Bobby's business career had national significance and should be mentioned. The first of these had to do with the swine flu vaccine. In 1976, the swine flu virus, to which the massive 1918 pandemic was attributed, sprang up around the world and another pandemic was seen as a possibility. The question arose as to whether or not a national swine flu inoculation should be mandated. President Ford publicly received a flu shot but in the end no national program ensued. In fact, a few senior citizens who received swine flu vaccines died as a result. Some expensive law suits resulted. In the following year, Jimmy Carter came into office, reviewed the previous year's experience and decided that every resident of the United States should be inoculated against the swine flu. The pharmaceutical companies, and particularly their insurers, were very concerned, and Bobby, then chairman of the American Insurance Association, met with President Carter and convinced him that the government should be advising a cautious approach, rather than a blanket national campaign. Bobby and his colleagues met again with President Carter when he decided that the disability insurance business in this country should be removed from state control and nationalized. The discussions were going nowhere, and Bobby suddenly asked the President if he knew how much money the proposed program would cost the government. President Carter said that he did not, and Bobby, who did know, suggested that the meeting be adjourned until the facts were known. Two weeks later an aide called Bobby to tell him that the President was no longer interested in the issue.

Retirement

Bobby retired from his golf hobby after his President’s Cup days. When asked to comment on the current state of the game, Bobby replied that he had not kept up enough with it but thought the USGA had done a wonderful job staging the U.S. Open at Merion. He also thought the USGA was on the right side of the anchored putter issue and was happy that it “stuck to its guns” and prevailed.

image

Bobby is going strong in Vermont and Florida at the age of 93. With his wife, Mary, at his side during our conversation, Bobby told us, “You know, I love Baltusrol. My times there were the happiest of my life.” The ranks of members who know Bobby are thinning. Those who know or remember Bobby think of him as a wonderfully friendly, funny and pleasant gentleman whose accessibility was unaltered by his many lofty positions, and who accomplished much for the game of golf and for Baltusrol.

# # #

We thank Mary Russell, Bobby’s wife, who persuaded him to be interviewed for this article, which Bobby initially was too modest to do. We also thank Nancy Stulack, librarian at the USGA, Jim Hand, Ran Morrissett, Larry Carpenter, George Lair, and Winston Sutter for their contributions and memories.