By David Droschak
Payne Stewart’s dramatic winning putt on the final hole of the 1999 U.S. Open galvanized the world of golf 20 years ago this summer and to this day remains one of the game’s most iconic moments.
Stewart’s clutch putt played out in front of tens of thousands of fans huddled around the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2, and many millions more glued to their TV sets. But there was also a behind-the-scenes hero of that Open who played a vital role in the success of the championship and the USGA’s now long-standing relationship with one of golf’s historic resorts.
Jim Hyler Jr., the former president of First Citizens Bank and one of the state’s most influential businessman of his generation, was called upon more than two decades ago to serve as chairman of the 1999 U.S. Open President’s Council – a monumental task of gathering support for one of golf’s majors in a location that was anything but a slam dunk for the USGA.
It was Hyler’s role in that Open and his unlikely 12-year stint in the USGA ranks that eventually saw him rise to USGA president that helped get him elected to the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame Class of 2019. Hyler also spearheaded countless charitable efforts associated with golf over the years across the state, including serving as chairman of the First Tee of Wake County in 2005.
“Perhaps Jim’s greatest achievement was his leadership of a group that administered the U.S. Open at the legendary Pinehurst Resort,” says John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of championships for the USGA. “While the USGA had always recognized Pinehurst No. 2 as one of the world’s finest, it never thought it could host a U.S. Open because of the agronomic limitations and because of its remote location to which fans and corporate dollars would not travel. Jim put together a group that overcame these challenges and by all measures staged one of the most successful U.S. Opens of all time, bringing notoriety to the USGA, the state of North Carolina and Pinehurst Resort.”
Hyler grew up on a tobacco farm in rural southside Virginia, with no access to golf.
“I had kind of beat some golf balls around in our yard at home but never really played to speak of until I went to Virginia Tech, and at the time there was a golf course on the edge of campus. I started playing golf on that little 9-hole course.”
Hyler says he also fell in love with Arnold Palmer in the early 1960s as he headed into his teenage years.
“Arnold Palmer really was a crucial part of my developing an interest in golf,” Hyler says. “I just found him to be an incredible personality and player, and really followed him. He’s my all-time sports hero. That had a whole lot to do with me falling in love with the game.”
After serving on the President’s Council for the U.S. Open in 1999 Hyler says was unexpectedly tabbed to serve as a member of the USGA executive committee from 2004-2011, rising to the position of USGA President in 2010-2011.
“Working with the business community across North Carolina to support the 1999 Open was my first exposure to the USGA,” Hyler recalls. “I developed some friendships there with Mike Davis and David Fay and so on, but then I got a call out of the blue in 2003 – totally out of the blue – asking me if I was interested in interviewing to go on the executive committee. I honestly asked the guy if he had the right number. He assured me he did. Being on the USGA executive committee, and spending four of those years chairing the championship committee and two years as president, was really was an incredible eight years. I’m sure thousands of people would have loved the opportunity to do that. My wife and I were able to meet a lot of wonderful people, make a lot of lifelong friends and travel to some fabulous places around the world. It was very cool.”
Hyler was also a founding board member of Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham County, serving as club president from 2005-2006. His business vision helped usher the club through a difficult beginning after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers.
“And probably one of Jim’s lasting legacies is his commitment to amateur golf, which has led Old Chatham to adopt a goal of hosting one major amateur championship or qualifying tournament each year which will culminate with the club hosting the 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship,” said Old Chatham club president Allen Wilson.
“It is such an incredible game; there is no other game like it,” Hyler says when asked about selfless contributions to golf. “The game itself you are outside, you have a chance to be with your friends; you call penalties on yourself and there is really no other sport that does that. It is just an incredible game. If we can reach one kid and make a change in their life it’s worth it. I just love the game and what it’s about and just want to impart all the traditions and values of the game. Allowing others to be exposed to golf is very important to me.”
Hyler remains a solid 6.2 handicap between a few back surgeries and a recent rotator cuff operation.
“I kind of scrape it around now and have a decent short game,” Hyler says, chuckling.
A humble steward to the game of golf says he was humbled when informed he was heading into select company of the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame on Feb. 9 at a banquet in Columbia, S.C.
“It really was disbelief, just very surprised,” Hyler says. “It’s just like everything in my golf journey here the past 20 years I had no idea that something like this would happen. At the same time gratitude because it’s a great honor and something I never expected or considered.”