In the Swing of Things

Joe Anthony has every lawyer’s dream assignment: serving as general counsel of the USGA

Published in 2010 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2010

Joe Anthony’s career was changed with a puff of talcum powder.

Three years ago, Windage, a Minnesota company, sued the United States Golf Association (USGA), claiming that the organization conspired to keep its product, a device that measures wind speed and direction with a puff of talc from a golf ball-sized bulb, off the market. In short order, the USGA hired Anthony, Anthony defended the USGA against the lawsuit, and the USGA executive committee, impressed with his work, asked Anthony, a recreational golfer with a 5 handicap, to replace its outgoing general counsel. In February 2009, Anthony began the two-year term of his dream job.

Anthony, the 61-year-old president of Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie, sits in his firm’s conference room on the 36th floor of the Wells Fargo Center, with its commanding view of the western metro area. He leans back in his chair, laces his fingers behind his head—looking very much the contented man—and reflects on his volunteer role. “It’s been a blast,” he says.

The perks have included several meetings with Arnold Palmer and the chance to walk the course with the game’s elite players, including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman. “To be six feet away from Tiger when he hits a 3-iron 250 yards to an uphill green and stops it on the green—that’s staggering,” he says. “It’s not the bullet like I would hit. It was elegant.”

Anthony advises the USGA in its mission to write and interpret the rules of the game, regulate its equipment, maintain the handicap and course rating system, and conduct 12 national tournaments annually. He does not try cases himself but strategizes with the USGA’s four paid staff attorneys. He also travels to the four major professional championships the USGA hosts. All told, the pro bono work consumes anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of his time, depending on the time of year.

Anthony served as general counsel at the time of the controversial fallout from the USGA’s decision to ban U-grooves on club faces, which had allowed golfers to hit for distance instead of accuracy, and which inspired courses such as Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters, to increase their yardage by nearly 10 percent. He also stared down a lawsuit brought by golfer Dusty Schmidt, who was stripped of his amateur status after attempting to make money in a golf-poker challenge. (Schmidt ended up dropping his suit.)

Anthony played baseball as a kid in Bridgeport, Conn., but a beanball changed that. He ended up gravitating toward a sport with a smaller, less-painful white ball, and got good enough to make his high school team.

His introduction to law came from watching his father, Fred Antonaccio, who immigrated as a young boy with his Italian parents and who had an eighth-grade education, serve as a self-taught “curbside lawyer” to the community, advising neighbors on disputes and even occasionally springing Anthony’s uncles from jail. Antonaccio died when Anthony was 14 but he left behind his law books and a strong influence on his son. (Anthony has his mother, Florence, the daughter of German immigrants, to thank for his last name, which she changed on his birth certificate to sound more American.)

At Temple University School of Law, Anthony solidified his aspiration to become a trial lawyer, a seed planted by watching Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Anthony liked the idea of performing in a courtroom and the strategic aspects of building and developing a case. “I was always fascinated by the art of cross-examination and people’s motivations of why they did what they did, how that could be exposed in cross-examination,” he says.

Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren lured Anthony to Minnesota in 1974 with his first job out of law school. After seeing then-Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson featured on the cover of Time magazine, Anthony—who had never been west of the Hudson River—figured the land of 10,000 lakes seemed as good a place as any to launch his career. He was supposed to start as a trial lawyer but circumstances at the firm changed, and he ended up assigned to tax law, an area so convoluted he says no one can understand it. He managed to work his way into litigation and spent 10 years with the firm honing his skills before leaving to found his own shop, which has evolved into a 21-attorney business litigation boutique.

He was elected as a fellow to the American College of Trial Lawyers in 2002, which he calls “a highlight of my career.” Five years later, Anthony cemented his reputation as one of the Twin Cities’ pre-eminent trial attorneys by winning a $130 million judgment in a five-week trial for Park Dental Group against American Dental Partners on claims of breach of contract, fiduciary duty and tortious interference claims. “The [jury] verdict speaks for itself,” says Hennepin County District Court Judge George F. McGunnigle, who presided at the case. “He’s a very good trial lawyer, consistent with his excellent reputation.”

Anthony took 25 years off of his golf game to develop his career and raise two daughters. But recently, with his children grown—the oldest, Brooke, 31, is a trial lawyer in Chicago—and his career established, he’s returned to the sport. The biggest moment for him as player occurred in 2008 on the eighth hole of McCormick Ranch Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., near his second home, while playing in a foursome with Tom Lehman’s father. Anthony aced his tee 135-yard shot with an 8 iron on a blind approach.

The USGA is primarily a volunteer organization, and the willingness of volunteers to dedicate their time and expertise inspires him. “I’m meeting some great people from around the world devoted to the game of golf,” he says. “They do it lovingly.”

The USGA has been equally impressed by Anthony. Lee Abrams, an attorney who has represented the organization, recommended Anthony for the USGA general counsel position and has worked on a number of matters with him since. “He’s a terrific lawyer because he’s smart and has good instincts for solving legal problems,” says Abrams, a partner at Chicago’s Mayer Brown. “He’s warm, sensitive and funny.”

That sensitive side shows up in the pleasure Anthony derives from the more low-profile charitable work of the USGA, which includes giving back millions of dollars to support the game’s participants. At the moment, his desk is filled with applications for scholarships, which will help young people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to advance their education.

Ironically, time spent as the USGA general counsel is cutting into his own golf time. Still, he loves every minute of the job. “It’s a gratifying experience,” he says, dimples marking his cheeks. “Very worthwhile.”

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