Last week was filled with 18-hour days for Glen Nager. But he wasn't complaining. After all, the reason he was so busy was that the annual U.S. Open Championship golf tournament, was under way in suburban Philadelphia. (Justin Rose wound up the winner.)
As The Am Law Daily has previously reported, Nager—who chairs Jones Day’s issues and appeals practice—was elected to a one-year term as U.S. Golf Association president last year. Earlier this year, the 15-member executive committee that oversees the USGA extended Nager's stint at the top by electing him to a second one-year term that is scheduled to end in February 2014. “Not bad for a guy who didn’t start playing until his thirties,” jokes the man who lays claim to an 8 handicap. (The executive committee also tapped retired Latham & Watkins partner Ernest Getto, now a managing director of litigation finance firm Burford Capital, to succeed retired Latham vice-chairman and chief operating partner Mark Newell as USGA general counsel; Newell, meanwhile, took a seat on the executive committee.)
The 54-year-old Nager, who has argued 13 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court—including American Needle, which yielded a 2010 decision with broad implications for the sports industry—first picked up a set of clubs at the urging of veteran labor lawyer and former Jones Day partner Andy Kramer, who died in November 2011 following a 12-year battle with cancer.
Because many country clubs near Washington, D.C., where Nager works, weren’t keen on welcoming beginners, Nager took lessons and honed his skills at Akron's Firestone Country Club, where Kramer served as chairman of the board. And in the inaugural address Nager delivered after being named USGA president last year, he made a point of mentioning Kramer, who was also active in the organization, as his “closest friend."
As president of the Far Hills, New Jersey–based USGA, a nonprofit that functions as the governing body for professional golf in the United States and Mexico, Nager presides over an organization with 700,000 members while also running Jones Day’s 75-lawyer appellate group. Since he succeeded former firm partner—and current appellate judge—Timothy Dyk as the practice's chair in 1998, it has roughly tripled in size.
“I’ve done a lot of recruiting,” says Nager, when asked how he’s managed to handle both responsibilities. Specifically, the former Supreme Court clerk—Nager worked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now an occasional playing partner who has given him a few friendly pointers over the years—cites Jones Day’s recent hire of six high court clerks, a move reported on earlier this year by sibling publication The National Law Journal.
During Nager's brief USGA reign alone, the practice group he oversees has handled two appellate arguments challenging the Affordable Care Act, a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that produced a ruling striking down the recess appointment of labor lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board, and a dispute over the patentability of human genetic material that resulted in a major ruling by the Supreme Court this week that was a blow to Jones Day client Myriad Genetics. (Nager didn’t handle those cases himself, instead making way for fellow Jones Day appellate litigators including Michael Carvin, Noel Francisco, and Gregory Castanias.)
Nager credits technology with allowing him to keep in close contact with the firm’s appellate lawyers from afar while focusing on the practice's strategic outlook rather than the nuances of specific cases. He also notes that unlike many other Am Law 100 firms, the bulk of Jones Day’s appellate lawyers are located beyond the Beltway, which he says gives the group a more national scope.
Given his duties at Jones Day, Nager is too busy to run the USGA's operations on a day-to-day basis alone. He credits the organization's executive director, Mike Davis, with helping him on that front. Among the pair's most substantial shared projects, according to a Golf Digest article published earlier this year: helping the USGA craft its first-ever strategic plan, a blueprint for addressing the cost and time of play, breaking down barriers preventing women and minorities from playing golf in greater numbers, and adopting a series of rule changes.
Broadly speaking, the game of golf employs 2 million people and generates an estimated $70 billion in spending each year. The pro version is an especially high-end business, and during the USGA’s signature tournament—which is being played this year at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania—Nager's schedule is packed with meetings with sponsors and other industry heavyweights. He says revenues connected to the U.S. Open itself provide about half the budget for the USGA, which took in roughly $150 million from television broadcast agreements, merchandise sales, and membership fees during its most recent fiscal year, according to federal tax records.
The USGA—in tandem with The R&A in St. Andrews, Scotland—is responsible for writing and interpreting the rules of golf worldwide, and Nager’s legal background has served him well both in his role as president and a previous stint as rules committee chair. That was never more clear than last month, when he was front and center as the controversial decision to prohibit so-called anchored putting beginning in 2016 was announced.
“I can’t walk away from that one,” Nager says of barring the practice of intentionally fixing one end of a putter to a player’s body to help guide a swing. He maintains that the ban—which is laid out in a 40-page report that reads in places like one of the Jones Day partner’s appellate briefs—was necessary because of an “explosion of anchor putting” at the pro and amateur levels since 2010.
Adopting the ban put the USGA at odds with the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida–based PGA of America, the organization that represents nearly 28,000 men and women club pros, and the Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida–based PGA Tour, which represents the men who play elite tournament golf. A group of pro golfers opposed to the rule change went so far as to hire Harry Manion III, a founding partner of Boston litigation boutique Cooley Manion Jones, to pursue potential legal action. (“It’s certainly an acronym-filled industry,” Nager says.)
The USGA does have its share of supporters. Those in favor of the anchored putting ban include the LPGA Tour—operator of the women’s pro circuit—The European Tour, and such prominent pros as Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, and Rory McIlroy.
Despite golf's image as a sport for the wealthy, Nager—whose predecessors as USGA president include retired Cooley partner Frank “Sandy” Tatum and retired (and, some would say, aptly named) King & Spalding chairman Walter Driver Jr.—is quick to highlight what he claims are the $3.9 billion in charitable contributions the industry makes in charitable contributions in the U.S. each year. “That’s more than all the four major [North America] pro sports leagues combined,” Nager says.
Ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest sacrifice Nager has been forced to make since ascending to the top of the USGA’s executive ranks—he served as the body’s general counsel from 2006 to 2008 after taking over from former Thelen partner Fredric Nelson—has been giving up golf on the weekends.
“I don’t get out there as much as I used to,” says Nager, noting that during the U.S. Open his day starts at 6 a.m. and doesn’t wind down until about midnight. “But next year [after his term ends as head of the USGA] hopefully I’ll have more time for it.”