The opinionated, irascible and entertaining Frank Thomas has passed away at age 81 after a heart attack.
He is survived by Valerie Melvin, his wife and business partner, his children Joanne Thomas, Ginny Zimmerman, Will Thomas and grandchildren Colin and Jordan Zimmerman, Alli and Ryan White.
Defender of Tradition and Innovation
A fixture and a defining figure within the USGA from 1974 to 2000, he was a formidable defender of product compliance.
Thomas ruled on every club and golf ball developed during his 26 years at the USGA, walking the golf industry’s perilous tightrope like a Wallenda. The reams of equipment rules, many of which Thomas wrote, were intended to maintain traditional golf values but not stifle innovation and technology.
Principles, ethics and the fundamental sanctity of the game were his guiding lights. He resigned from the USGA when his views on thin-faced drivers diverged from those of his employer.
“All they were concerned about was the lawsuits,” said Thomas. “I told them, ‘Guys, we have to jump all over this. This is a problem.’ When they said ‘no’, I knew it was time for me to go.” Prior to joining the USGA, he designed the first graphite golf shaft while working for Shakespeare Sporting Goods, well known then only for fishing rods.
At the USGA, his impact was widespread and lasting. He refined the Stimpmeter. He was instrumental in the development of the Slope system as well as in the formation of the USGA’s Research and Test Center.
Included in that project was the governing body’s indoor test range. Designed to measure the aerodynamic properties of golf balls, the data helped form the foundation for what now is the USGA’s Overall Distance Standard.
“I have known Frank from the time he was involved with inventing the graphite shaft,” renowned instructor David Leadbetter said in 2008. “Frank has always had great foresight in looking at the development of the game and a keen understanding of what’s important and what isn’t. His integrity is unquestioned and when he gives his views on how to grow or save the future of golf, we’d all be wise to listen.”
On that note, in 2006, Thomas had this to say about equipment for recreational golfers versus touring professionals:
‘The USGA’s adopted or proposed restrictions on clubhead size, tee height, shaft length and Moment of Inertia, as well as its exploring ball technology to reduce distance by 25 yards, will do little to limit the future performance of elite golfers. But these restrictions may limit the performance of the average golfer, which is a more important concern at time when the game is not growing. Proposals to restrict Moment of Inertia (the extent to which a club resists twisting at impact) will have a much greater effect on the average golfer, who needs a more forgiving club, than it will on the professional who is generally making contact on the sweet spot anyway.
The game’s regulating body (USGA) should consider the interests of the 99% of golfers who are not on the elite level, rather than aiming its rules at the 1% who are. Golf is a dynamic game, and it needs the stimulation that innovative technology may provide. Participation in the game has been stagnant for several years, and even though the USGA is not directly responsible for this, these recent proposals are indicative of its lack of consideration for the less than elite golfer.’
A Legend Behind the Rules
Issuing thousands of rulings during his 26 years with the USGA and writing many of the equipment rules that define the modern game, it can be safely said no individual has been more highly respected on equipment and its complexities.
“There are few people I know more knowledgeable about the technical aspects of the game of golf than Frank,” said Jack Nicklaus in a foreword for Thomas’s 2008 book, Just Hit It, “and very few more passionate about the need for integrity and vision in all aspects of the game.”
Thomas admitted his ideas and passion left little room for opposing viewpoints.
“There’s no filter on me. What I believe and what I say, well, that’s occasionally to my detriment because I’m not a politician. Everyone knows where I’m coming from and, honestly, I’m too old to change. I have strong opinions about this game.”
Of that, there is no question.
Standing Down Golf Giants
As part of the $300-million PING Eye2 square-grooves anti-trust lawsuit in 1985, he was named personally by Karsten Manufacturing.
As USGA technical director, he sparred with formidable opponents such as former Titleist chief executive Wally Uihlein, Callaway Golf founder Ely Callaway and former TaylorMade CEO Mark King. He wrestled with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer over distance, Tiger Woods and the PGA TOUR over onsite testing and had his trademark “frank” discussions with Greg Norman on grooves and spin function.
One thing about Frank Thomas. He never backed down from a fight if he thought he was right. And he thought he was right most, if not all, of the time.
“I found Frank to be very smart, charming and engaging,” said Odyssey’s General Manager Sean Toulon. “Even though we were often on different sides of the issue (usually I was offense and he was on defense), I found Frank to be curious and open to a different point of view. He certainly had the industry’s respect.”
Short-game guru Dave Pelz was on the wrong end of a couple of well-publicized product verdicts from Thomas but that never diminished the high regard he had for the USGA’s equipment sheriff.
“He always put the game first,” said Pelz, whose 3-Ball and Flat Top putter designs were rejected by Thomas. “Even though you were absolutely livid at his decisions, they never wavered from what he felt was right. Frank was all about integrity.”
Early Life and Career
Flashback to 1962, when Thomas, barely out of his teens, was on a 25-foot sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with his friend Malcolm Maidwell.
It’s 2,500 miles across treacherous seas from Durban, South Africa, to the United States. For a man who would eventually spend 26 years of his life immersed in the seemingly turgid waters of golf equipment rules, this would appear, to put it mildly, somewhat out of character.
“That’s just the point,” said Thomas. “Out on the ocean, we set our own rules, we made our own laws. They helped shape my character, taught me about self-reliance. My whole life’s been about getting to the edge of the envelope. Sailing to America was an example of that. I had a map of the South Atlantic, a wrist watch and no radio. I knew America was out there and that’s what kept us going. After something like that, there isn’t a lot in life you feel you can’t handle.”
Having made it to America in one piece, Thomas applied to the University of Michigan, thinking he’d like to be a doctor. His application was rejected so he enrolled in the engineering program at Western Michigan.
Not far from the campus was the headquarters for Shakespeare Sporting Goods. After graduation, Thomas went to their research facility in Columbia, S.C. His first assignment: Build the world’s best golf clubs with the best shafts.
As Thomas recalled:
“The first fiberglass shafts Gary Player once used were already out but they were terrible, just awful. Union Carbide came to me with this graphite filament. They were looking to get into the consumer market and figured this might be the way to do it. Originally, the properties were very bad but when we modified them they worked. From there, we were able to introduce graphite shafts into the golf market.”
Keeping a close eye on his work with Shakespeare at that point was the USGA. For more than one reason. The governing body had an opening for someone with his special skill set to take over leadership of its technical department.
“The best decision I ever made was eventually saying yes,” he recalled. “I mean, that relationship lasted 26 years before it sort of wore itself out. The USGA gave me a nice package and that was that. No regrets. As soon as I left that last meeting I phoned Valerie and said, ‘OK, let’s get something going.’”
On a trip to St Andrews in 2000, Thomas met Melvin, a former member of Scotland’s national golf team. They formed Frankly Golf, a consulting firm dedicated to teaching consumers how golf technology works, help them make more informed decisions about equipment purchases and foster growth in the sport.
Thomas also worked for Golf Channel and Golf Digest as an equipment analyst, was a judge on Wilson Golf’s Driver Versus Driver design show and wrote for the New York Times. He was a speaker for a number of companies during the annual PGA Merchandise Show and was always available to the media.
Thomas and Melvin designed and produced a pair of putters, the mid-mallet Frankly Frog and more blade-like F-16 Stealth, and offered putting instruction courses. Thomas delved into another project. His 2008 book, Just Hit It with Jeff Neumann, was a groundbreaking read.
Much more than a guardian of the game for the USGA, Frank Thomas was driven to help golfers get the most they could from the experience. By my count, he did that for almost 50 of his 81 years.