Museum Moment: Dey’s Leadership, Vision Documented In Personal Papers

Nov 17, 2011

By Jean Dotto

Few would argue that Joseph C. Dey Jr., often known as “Mr. Golf,” was one of the most influential administrators in the game during the 20th century.

The Dey Papers, a collection of interesting articles and historical documents housed in the USGA Library, reveal a dignified, articulate and conservative man whose 40-year career brought about sweeping changes to the game. They also provide deep insight into a person who demonstrated a strong sense of honor and integrity – values intrinsic to the game.

A major theme of Dey’s life shines through: the absolute necessity for good sportsmanship in golf. One also catches a glimpse of a man who was a bit of a showman, with an unfettered imagination, providing a strong contrast with his conservative image. Perhaps this aspect of his personality was a throwback to the days when he acted in a group known as the Plays and Players in Philadelphia. It was once revealed that he had wanted to change the U.S. Open format to a 216-hole event, with three 72-hole segments played in different regions of the country. The idea was quickly rejected by the USGA Executive Committee.

Joe Dey became the USGA’s executive secretary, a title later changed to executive director, in 1935 after forgoing a career in the ministry. Before joining the USGA, he had been a sportswriter for two Philadelphia newspapers, but admittedly knew little about The Rules of Golf. Thereafter, he spent much of his time studying and memorizing them. He realized that as the USGA’s most prominent spokesman, he needed to become an authority on the Rules and other activities in which the USGA engaged.

Most important to Dey was the goal of educating people in the Rules, which were considered esoteric and understood by only an elite few. He guided the creation of films and publications to stimulate interest among the golf public, mainly by illustrating and simplifying the Rules to make them more appealing to the average golfer. One publication, Golf Rules in Pictures, proved particularly popular and was followed by Golf Rules in Brief, which is still in existence.

With Dey at the helm, USGA championship procedures underwent a radical transformation. Par became a U.S. Open standard and the conduct of the Open and other USGA championships was standardized. Prior to Dey’s arrival, the conduct of championships had been left mainly to host clubs, whose policies and practices could vary greatly from year to year. Dey believed that consistent standards should be instituted, with the result that specifications for USGA championships became synonymous with the U.S. Open – narrow fairways, penalizing rough and fast greens. These championship specifications have been modified only slightly over the years.

Other significant changes were introduced at the U.S. Open: Gallery ropes were installed on every hole in 1954. Changes were instituted in scoring standards when leader boards were introduced around 1960 and placards displayed the status of every player in relation to par. Previously, only premier groups had been accompanied by scoring placards.

The number of USGA championships more than doubled, from four (the Open, Amateur, Women’s Amateur and Public Links) to nine – with the addition of the Women’s Open, Junior Amateur, Girls’ Junior, Senior Amateur and the Senior Women’s Amateur.

Beyond Rules and championships, efforts were made under Dey to achieve national uniformity in handicapping. An initial velocity regulation was established to curb the distance a ball could be hit.

The original role of the USGA Green Section had been to assist in turfgrass research, but under Dey, the Green Section added regional agronomists who regularly visited Member Clubs to perform on-site consultations and recommend turfgrass practices.

The USGA Museum and Library was established when George Blossom, a member of the Executive Committee and the USGA’s president in 1942-43, proposed the creation of a collection of historical golf artifacts. With Dey’s assistance, a Museum and Library Committee was formed in 1936, and today the collection of books and artifacts is unparalleled.

One of Dey’s proudest achievements was the worldwide unification of the Rules between the USGA and The R&A, the world’s two governing bodies. The first meeting took place in London and was most salient because of the many significant differences existing in the Rules at that time. The meeting was an unqualified success, with almost unanimous agreement, except with regard to the size of the ball. This first conference cemented a fruitful and harmonious relationship between The R&A and USGA that continues to this day.

Dey’s other most rewarding achievement was the establishment of the World Amateur Golf Council, now known as the International Golf Federation, in 1958. The federation brings together the national governing bodies of golf throughout the world to conduct biennial amateur team championships for men and women.

In 1969, Dey left the USGA to become the first commissioner of the newly organized PGA Tour. His energetic and forceful personality, along with his solid reputation as a golf administrator, gave the Tour the respectability it needed during its formative years. Dey served as commissioner until 1974, when he was succeeded by Deane Beman.

In 1975, Dey was named Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, the game’s most revered title and position. He was the second American to hold the title, the first being Francis Ouimet in 1951, followed by William C. Campbell, a former president of the USGA and close friend of Dey’s. On a recent trip to the United States, Dey’s son, Edward K., of Paris, France, donated two valued items to the USGA collection: the prestigious red R&A Captain’s jacket and the Queen Adelaide Medal, given upon appointment as Captain of the R&A.

Dey received numerous awards and honors throughout his many years of service, some of which include: the 1976 Distinguished Service Award from the Metropolitan Golf Association, the 1976 William D. Richardson Award for contributions to golf from the Golf Writers Association of America and the 1977 Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship from the USGA. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in Pinehurst, N.C., in 1975. The Joe Dey Award was established by the USGA in 1996 and is given each year to an individual in recognition of meritorious service to the game of golf.

Indeed, Dey touched many lives in the world of golf. As Jack Nicklaus once said: “From the moment I met Joe Dey, I could tell he was in charge of the game of golf, (and) I think he was responsible for the gentlemanly way golf has been preserved throughout the world. His guidance at the USGA kept the sport’s integrity at its highest level.”

Jean Dotto is a USGA Museum assistant. Email her at jdotto@usga.org

One of Joe Dey’s proudest achievements was the worldwide unification of the Rules between the USGA and The R&A, the world’s two governing bodies. (USGA Museum)


With Joe Dey’s assistance, a Museum and Library Committee was formed in 1936, and today the collection of books and artifacts is unparalleled. (USGA Museum)


In 1975, Joe Dey was named Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, the game’s most revered title and position. On a recent trip to the United States, Dey’s son, Edward K., of Paris, France, donated two valued items to the USGA collection: the prestigious red R&A Captain’s jacket and the Queen Adelaide Medal, given upon appointment as Captain of the R&A. (USGA Museum)