The Good Life

At The Top Of His Game

Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA of America, is helping to shape golf’s future
By Jeff Williams | From Churchill, May/June 2018
At The Top Of His Game
Photos/Jeffery Salter
Pete Bevacqua in his natural element, on the Champion course at PGA National Resort and Spa, home to the Honda Classic.

In the summer of 1994, after his first year at Georgetown University Law Center, Pete Bevacqua had a decision to make: He could work as a clerk for a New York State Supreme Court justice, or he could return once again to the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club to caddie, as he had done since the age of 10.

His father Arthur was adamant on what he should do.   

“My father talked me into going back to the golf course,” says Bevacqua. “He said enjoy this summer and play as much golf as you can, and I did.”

Bevacqua chose passion over practicality, love over the law. And while he would go on to get his law degree in 1997, it’s now 2018 and Bevacqua is the CEO of the PGA of America, the head of an organization with 29,000 club professionals and two of the five top events in golf, the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.

His passion for golf has taken him all the way to the top of the game. He’s a 2.8 handicap on the course, but a major champion on golf’s world stage, a wheeler-dealer of significant influence that he wields with sanguine charm and singular effectiveness.

Since his tenure began in 2012, a number of major PGA initiatives have come to pass, or are slated for the near future: The PGA Championship will move to May from August in 2019, allowing a better progression of golf’s majors and freeing up August for the PGA Tour playoffs. The 2019 PGA Championship and the 2024 Ryder Cup will be played at Bevacqua’s beloved Black Course at New York’s Bethpage State Park, and another public facility, TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, will host the 2020 PGA. In 2015 the PGA partnered with the LPGA, changing the LPGA Championship to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. And in 2013 the PGA negotiated an unprecedented 15-year extension with NBC for the broadcast rights to the Ryder Cup and several other PGA sponsored tournaments.

Under Bevacqua, the corporate culture of the PGA has become more focused, more driven by a long-term strategic plan, more integrated, more centric on its membership while at the same time being largely liberated from a suit-and-tie mentality.

“I always talk about how I’ve never been the smartest guy in the room my whole life,” says Mike Whan, commissioner of the LPGA and a friend and collaborator of Bevacqua’s. “I’m pretty sure Pete’s never been able to say that because he’s usually the smartest guy in the room. An incredibly smart guy.”

His intelligence, his drive, his passion and his distinctly social nature have made him a major stakeholder in the game, and at age 45 his influence will have a long and potentially significant impact for years to come.

This influence emanates from PGA headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. (The PGA has been here since 1965, but it may move to the Dallas area, according to reports. By late March no decision had been made.) Bevacqua’s brightly adorned corner office has pictures and plaques, trophies and mementos. There’s nothing flashy about it. The desk could have come from IKEA, but several of the game’s top players are represented. His late father Arthur is a much-loved presence.

It was Arthur’s love of the game of golf—love of life—really, that made Bevacqua’s rocket-trajectory rise in the game possible. Arthur was a dentist in Bedford, a well-heeled suburb north of New York City. Beyond his family of wife Lenora, four girls and a single boy—the baby of the lot—Arthur was an avid, though not accomplished golfer, a lover of the arts and a graduate of Notre Dame, a school that had become part of the DNA he would pass along to Pete.

“My whole childhood revolved around two things, golf and Notre Dame,” says Bevacqua, sitting in his office dressed in natty golf attire, a freshly shaved bald head, and a naturally summoned smile. “That was my relationship with my father. Notre Dame, because he had gone to Notre Dame, and golf. I remember going to the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot with my father standing on the 18th hole near Fuzzy Zoeller when he waved the white towel. Hundreds of times going to the Cherry Lawn driving range, no longer there, hitting balls off of artificial tufts of grass, and then going to Leno’s Clam Bar for cheeseburgers.”

There were also trips to Bethpage, to play the five courses there, including the magnificent and memorable Black. Along for the ride sometimes would be childhood friend Larry Marchini, now a New York banker. Sometimes they would play 36 holes. The trips became journeys into a vastly larger life. There were visits to Borgatti’s in the Bronx for ravioli, sojourns to Marlon Brando film festivals, concerts by Johnny Cash and Mel Tormé and long treks to Maine for summer vacations. Bevacqua was an accomplished athlete, the quarterback of his football team at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut, and captain of the golf and basketball teams. He was an equally accomplished student, attacking his schoolwork with such vigor that he became valedictorian.

Marchini saw early on that Bevacqua was destined for success. “He’s very intelligent, very driven and his work ethic is very strong,” says Marchini, who has known him since the fifth grade. “He always did his homework, he was meticulously neat, he got straight As… He always does a lot of work to get ahead.”

All during this time, he was being greatly influenced by someone whose organization he would come to lead. Walt Ronan was the golf professional at Bedford Golf and Tennis, a man with the ability to connect, guide and inspire his membership. This quality was not lost on Bevacqua, even as a teenage caddie, that a club professional was the person who connected the game to those who played it.

“We have 29,000 people who wake up every day living and breathing this game, connecting everyone in the country to the game,” says Bevacqua. “Whether you play at a private golf course in Palm Beach or a public golf course in Kansas, there is a PGA professional connecting you to the game.”

Bevacqua’s connection to the PGA, and to the hierarchy of golf, was not a certain thing at all when he graduated from Notre Dame in 1993, magna cum laude, with a BA in English and a minor in film. He had won an Indiana journalism society award for his film reviews for the Notre Dame newspaper, but he really didn’t know what he wanted to do. “If you asked me at 21 what my dream job would have been, it would have been to be the film critic for The New York Times,” says Bevacqua.

So he bought some time. He returned to the Brunswick School for a year as a teacher (English and algebra) and coach (football, basketball and golf). “I used that year to figure out what to do next… I loved being a student and I thought worst-case, law school buys me three more years of being a student.”

After getting his law degree in 1997 he went to work for Davis Polk, a prestigious Manhattan law firm. Bevacqua had always been a worker, but as an associate low on the totem pole the hours were long and tough. “It was certainly a bit of a grind,” he says. The job soon got to him. Before his father died in an auto accident in 1997, he had wondered if the law was the right direction for his son. “It was my father who always regretted that I was doing something that maybe my heart wasn’t really into,” says Bevacqua. “He’d say you are all about sports. It just seems that is where you ought to be.”

He had a revelation during a particularly rough stretch of work with a 78-hour week. “I run home, take a shower and come right back to work,” he says. “A light went off in me and I said, ‘Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?’ ”

Georgetown Law kept a roster of its alumni and where they had landed, and Bevacqua came across the name of Romaney Berson, who in 2000 was the chief legal officer of the United States Golf Association. Bevacqua sent a letter and a résumé, waited months for a response, then was called to the organization’s office for an interview. He was selected as the USGA’s in-house counsel in 2000, his foot in the door of a golf career.

USGA executive director David Fay was so impressed with Bevacqua’s acumen and passion that he made him managing director of the U.S. Open in 2004, and by 2009 he was the USGA’s chief business officer. Both jobs required refined people skills to deal with large egos and testy situations. But that year, he hit a speed bump in his career. He was interviewed by the LPGA to be their next commissioner, but the job fell to Whan. (Bevacqua has said repeatedly that Whan was the right man for the job.) Fay abruptly left the USGA in 2010, and Mike Davis was named executive director in 2011.

Another disappointment, but in the end another opportunity.

Bevacqua, photographed in his corner office at PGA headquarters, enjoys cigars on the course.
Bevacqua, photographed in his corner office at PGA headquarters, enjoys cigars on the course.

Bevacqua left the USGA to become the head of global golf for the Creative Artists Agency, a powerful player in the entertainment world that was also teeing it up for some golf business.

“When David Fay left and Mike Davis became executive director, I didn’t feel like there was anything left there for me to do,” says Bevacqua, who began representing brands that spent on golf, as well as advising players. “I was looking for a different kind of challenge and CAA was looking for me to bolster and lead their golf initiatives.”

The PGA of America came knocking at his door when Joe Steranka left the CEO job in 2012. When he interviewed with Derek Sprague, then secretary of the PGA and later president, he made an impression. Sprague helped put Bevacqua in charge.

“He was very polished, very focused, very visionary,” says Sprague. “He did his research on the PGA of America. He understood the role of the PGA professional and he had the business acumen from his time at the USGA running U.S. Opens. A great combination for the PGA of America to have the skill set.”

Yes, Bevacqua was prepared for that interview, just as he always seems to be. “When I interviewed for this role, my whole premise was that we needed to do a better job connecting the national organization to its membership,” says Bevacqua. “When I got here it was very much a hybrid organization with two almost distinct staffs. There was a staff consumed by the business of the organization revolving around the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup and our partnerships in the broadcast world. Then there was a staff really focused on the membership—with education, employment, player development. I thought I brought a strategic vision. I always felt I was good at saying this is what we need to do to get from here to there.”

Getting to there, in Bevacqua’s eyes, meant getting this large organization focused, and on the move. “I think the PGA of America was always viewed as sort of an aircraft carrier lumbering along,” says Bevacqua. “But I think through our board of directors and our senior team, we aren’t afraid to act a little bit faster now. I think I’ve helped accomplish bringing the staff closer to the membership we serve, having that culture that is all about those PGA professionals. I think I’ve helped the organization be more open and accessible. I tell people here if we are batting 1,000 we aren’t doing a good job. It means we are being too safe. We can’t be afraid to get hit by the pitch. We’re going to make some mistakes. But if they are smart mistakes and we learn from them without trying to talk in business-speak cliché that means we are doing some good things.”

One very good thing was the creation of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Diversity within the organization had always been a major theme for Bevacqua, to empower the women that were within it, and bring them more into the fold. When he was negotiating the NBC contract extension, he had in mind that the PGA might one day sponsor a women’s championship. He had a provision built into the contract that if the PGA did come up with such a competition, it would be televised on NBC.

The day before Halloween in 2013, Mike Whan, the LPGA commissioner, called Bevacqua to discuss a joint major with the PGA, and they agreed to meet the following day. Whan drove down from Daytona and Bevacqua drove up from Palm Beach Gardens and they met in Melbourne. Whan had the idea and the potential sponsor in KPMG. Bevacqua had the desire and the NBC commitment. They met for a couple of hours, but Bevacqua, the father of daughter Samantha and sons Arthur and Jake, needed to head home. “He looked at me at about three o’clock and said, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s Halloween and if I don’t get home soon I might be a single parent,’ ” Whan remembers. Bevacqua made it home for Halloween with Tiffany and the kids, and at the 2014 Masters the deal to put on the Women’s PGA came together. The first championship was played the following year.

The Women’s PGA is a significant feather in Bevacqua’s cap, but there is so much else to do to expand the diversity theme, grow the game and benefit the members. “Diversity. Golf has a tough past,” says Bevacqua, his face narrowing with purposeful seriousness. “There is not enough diversity in the sport at any level. We need more women, we need more minorities in our staff, we need that in our PGA professional ranks, we need that in people watching the game and maybe most importantly in terms of people playing the game…Diversity in golf is not only the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but from a business perspective it’s a smart thing to do. The face of this game has to change if we are going to grow and increase in our relevancy.”

Bevacqua is also looking beyond the traditional game of 18 holes and four and a half hours. Society is changing, and the overall golf experience will have to change.

“Golf takes time and people have less time than they ever had. The beauty of golf is going out and playing a beautiful golf course with three friends. But people do things in 30, 60, 90-minute segments. We have to show people you can have a 30, 60, 90-minute golf experience,” he says. “It doesn’t have to always be 18 holes. Take a lesson from a PGA professional. Go to a Top Golf and drink a pitcher of soda, eat chicken wings and hit balls. Go play two or three holes after work with your kids or your spouse. We need to make the funnel into the game as big as possible. The more people who can have a golf experience, the more people our PGA professionals can turn into lifelong golfers.”

Those who play golf with Bevacqua say that particular experience is always memorable. He can hit the ball a mile, is competitive as all get out, but enjoys every second of the round. That would include smoking a cigar along the way, his favorites being Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series.

Paul Levy, the current president of the PGA, sings Bevacqua’s praises, and enjoys a cigar with him. “Pete has brought a passion for the job, a passion for the game,” says Levy. “His biggest asset is he’s worldly and down to earth at the same time. He knows everyone in the industry, he understands the industry, he understands the business of the industry.” The two have engaged in several casual but meaningful chats about the state of the game and the state of the PGA while the cigar smoke rose. “He and I are the two cigar smokers in the office,” says Levy. “We have had many a cigar smoke where we have talked about where we are going and what we are doing. Pete’s just one of those guys you want to hang out with, talk about life, talk about sports.”

One of those guys who likes to hang out with Bevacqua is Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who happens to be a bit of a golf nut. He won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am with Kevin Streelman this year. “I got a chance to meet Pete at a golf event in California last June,” says Fitzgerald. “He is engaging, humble, honest and extremely inquisitive. Cares deeply about the game of golf and the people that play it. I’m privileged to call him a friend. The game of golf and the PGA are in good hands.”

“He’s brought a different perspective to the job and the association,” says Kerry Haigh, who has been around the PGA since 1989. Bevacqua appointed him as chief championships officer not long after he took over. “He’s very forward thinking. He’s certainly able to focus on five, 10, 20 years down the road as opposed to next six months or year. He’s very dynamic, personable. He knows more people than anyone I know.” (Bevacqua estimates he has 5,000 contacts on his mobile phone, which must need its own server.)

Charlie Robson, the former longtime executive director of the Met Section of the PGA, calls Bevacqua “one of the most gifted dinner speakers I’ve ever heard because he speaks from the heart.” Bevacqua sometimes uses lines from The Godfather to make a point, but his most frequent gesture might be taken from the show “Kojak,” which starred Telly Savalas. The two bear a striking resemblance. Suzy Whaley, vice president of the PGA, notes this trait impishly. “When things are kind of going his way, he points both fingers at you like Telly Savalas and goes ‘Hey, now,’ ” she says. “If you put up a picture of Telly Savalas with a cigar in his mouth and one with Pete with a cigar in his mouth, you go ‘Look at that!’ ”

Look at what Pete Bevacqua has done. He is chairman of the International Golf Federation, instrumental in bringing golf back to the Olympics. He’s the former chair of the World Golf Foundation. He is on the board of RISE, a group that promotes racial equality.  Through it all, he brings an infinite supply of passion.

“As I always say, if you aren’t real passionate about the game of golf, you should not be a PGA professional,” says Bevacqua. “It begins and ends with that passion.”

For him, the passion is not going to end. 

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


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