Aug 09, 2022 5:04 PM

Fergus Gould, Executive Director of USPA Umpires LLC. ©David Lominska
Fergus Gould, Executive Director of USPA Umpires, LLC. ©David Lominska

A third-generation polo player hailing from Goondiwindi, Australia, Fergus Gould has been a staple of the USPA Umpires, LLC team for an impressive 10 years, first serving as a well-disciplined and dedicated high-goal umpire, then later assuming the role of Western Regional Umpire Director in 2019. Prior to permanently picking up the whistle, Gould spent fifteen years traveling around the world playing polo professionally while also umpiring, reaching a 4-goal handicap at the peak of his career. His experience on both the sport side of polo and the umpiring side have now brought him to his next great professional endeavor—assuming the role of Executive Director of USPA Umpires, LLC.

Passionate about bringing transparency and objectivity to umpiring, Gould is determined to create healthy relationships between players and umpires through the use of advanced technology and data, which he believes allow for clarity and impartiality during emotional games. Having more access to pioneering technology than ever before, Gould is confident that players and umpires will both appreciate this approach that will ultimately eliminate subjectivity. Gould’s contributions to the sport so far have been tremendous and this next step in his career only promises more development and growth in both the Umpires LLC department as well as in the personal lives of the umpires and players that make up the sport of polo.

“My main motivation for umpiring is that I really feel like I need to give something back and leave the sport better than I found it.”  – Fergus Gould, Executive Director of USPA Umpires, LLC

What is your equestrian background and how did you become involved in polo?
“Polo is a family business. Both my grandfathers, father, mother, uncle and brother all played polo professionally. I grew up traveling with my dad while he was working as a pro. While playing in Australia my father was offered a job at Ellerston in 1987 and he spent 18 years working for Ellerston Polo Club. When I graduated from high school, I took what was only supposed to be a year off to play at Cowdray Park Polo Club in England, but it turned into nearly five years. I did attend Massey University of New Zealand for one year to study veterinary science, but that did not last long after my experience playing polo.

I began playing polo professionally when I was 17 and I always had a fascination with the United States. When the opportunity arose to come to the U.S. I jumped at it. My first job in the states was for Craig Steinke, my wife’s uncle. I was connected to him through a friend of mine who had played in the states before and I came to work in California.

I stopped playing professionally in 2015 to umpire full-time with the USPA. Before that I’d been umpiring around the world on my own, particularly in France as well as Malaysia. I umpired many of the FIP World Polo Championship qualifiers in the Dominican Republic and most recently the finals in Chile and Australia. I also umpired the Snow Polo World Cup in Tianjin, China.”

How were you introduced to umpiring?
“My first paid umpiring job was in England in 1998. Gillian Johnston’s Coca-Cola polo team was playing that season and I was umpiring high-goal practices in my spare time from my full-time job. As a way to pay for my membership at Cowdray Park Polo Club I would umpire any games that the polo manager needed and in return was able to play for free.

I started with the umpire program at Eldorado Polo Club in Indio, California, and started traveling to play in the desert in 2006. I was playing and umpiring, specifically a lot of the finals of the skins games. Susan Stovall, club manager of Eldorado Polo Club at the time, went to Polo Club Saint-Tropez [Gassin, France] to become club manager and brought me over to umpire the 2010 season. That was when I started spending more months out of the year umpiring professionally than I was playing. I was umpiring in the summer in Europe (six summers in France) and returning to play the winters here in the United States. My son Ivor was born in France while I was working there, and Beau was born in the United States.”

Gould Family (L to R): Lacey, Ivor, Fergus, August, Beau. ©Bridget Miller
Gould Family (L to R): Lacey, Ivor, Fergus, August, Beau. ©Bridget Miller

Moving into this new role, what in particular are you looking forward to accomplishing?
The things that I'm really excited about are having a better feedback loop to the umpires, doing more assessments on their performance, getting more hard data and getting feedback from the teams, clubs and the other umpires about how they find working with each other. What they think their strengths and weaknesses are, have them do a self-assessment, and then really show them clearly the areas they need to improve on and the areas they're excelling. I’d like to create a pathway for them and a really clear idea of how they reach the top of the game, which is umpiring the Gauntlet of Polo. It’s giving them the tools that they need to succeed. Last year, we did our first training camp in December and that was an overwhelming success. We brought everybody together and said this is how we're going to call these calls. We brought in a sports psychologist to be like, if you guys are having trouble with interactions, this is the stuff that we can do. We also played golf and encouraged team bonding.”

I'm looking forward to all those things and really giving these guys the support that they need, trying to make an even more viable career path for them and have them be proud to be part of this and have a bit more ownership in that process. Chris Green [USPA COO/In-House Counsel] has been great about reaching out to us, having us involved in the rules process, talking to the umpires and talking to me. That's the other thing that I'm excited about is cross department cooperation. I think we used to be very siloed, but now we're all collaborating really well.”

“We're human, umpires are human. The only mistakes that I won't accept are mistakes we don't learn from because then it’s a waste.”  – Fergus Gould, Executive Director of USPA Umpires, LLC

You seem to have such a data-driven mentality to understand performance. Why do you think that is?
I just think it is objective truth. For too long, umpiring has been so subjective. What I've said for a long time is in the absence of data, all we're left with is how the players feel when the umpires are on the field. So, to a large extent, if I don't have data, all I'm dealing with is people's feelings. I can't talk you out of your feelings, but I can show you the data to say, well, this is objectively what happened and I know that you feel a certain way about it, but that's not necessarily matching up with what we're seeing. So, I'm not invalidating your feelings, but I'm saying this is what we're working from. I think without data, we're left with conjecture, hearsay and subjectivity rather than objectivity. And it works both ways. We can't hide behind half-truths. If we make mistakes, the mistakes are going to be there for everybody to see. And we have to take ownership of them. Otherwise, we have no credibility. So, it's really about transparency, integrity and honesty. That’s my philosophy.”

Do you think that players appreciate this transparency and focus on objectivity?
I think players have been screaming for it. I think having the objectivity and the transparency lets the players feel more like they're being heard. When players come to me and say, ‘this umpire got this call wrong,’ we look at the video together and I either say, ‘no, this is the way we call this,’ or we say, ‘you know what? He did get it wrong.’ Mistakes are going to happen. We're human, umpires are human. The only mistakes that I won't accept are mistakes we don't learn from because then it’s a waste. Let's look at them and say, ‘okay, what went wrong? Why did it go wrong? And how can we stop it from going wrong again?’

Our job is to be out there and keep everybody safe, horses and humans, and facilitate the best game possible. We can't really influence the way they play, but we can try and stay out of the way as much as possible, only make calls we have to and let them play the game. Nobody's there to watch the umpires. The best thing we can do is not be talked about.

Steve Evans, Ivor Gould, Martin Aguerre, Martin Pascual, Fergus Gould. ©David Lominska
Professional Umpires were recognized for their contributions during the Farmers & Merchants Bank Silver Cup final trophy ceremony. Fergus Gould (far right), pictured with Steve Evans, Martin Aguerre and Martin Pascual. ©David Lominska

With this new position in mind, where will your homebase be?
I’m going to divide my time. California's home for me and I've got kids in school. I'm going to be in Florida mid-January, so I'll be there to start the season. Most of January I will be in California because it's a pretty busy time in the desert. February and March I'll split my time between the two coasts and then from the final of the USPA Gold Cup through the U.S. Polo Open Championship, I'll be in Florida full-time.”

Someone mentioned that you recently began playing pickleball. Is that true? And, if so, how long have you been playing?
“I play like it's my job. It’s awesome. I’ve been playing for about a year, so it’s recent. My friend, who's the CEO of Dreamland Universal Pickleball Rating (DUPR), was the number three ranked women's player in the world for a while. So, she comes over, I have a court in my backyard, and I play singles against her. My mixed doubles partner is her wife. When she first came over, she beat me by a lot. But by a couple months ago, I was giving her a pretty hard time.”

Is there anything else people would be surprised to learn about you?
“I can play the ukulele and I play a lot of Jack Johnson and Willie Nelson songs. I started playing the ukulele when my wife and I lived on a 36-foot sailboat for close to a year. I had a steel-string guitar at the time and the strings would rust if I kept the guitar on the boat. We bought a ukulele and I put velcro strips on it and attached it to the ceiling to keep it out of the way. My wife grew up sailing so we both have our American Sailing Association certifications and scuba diving certifications as well.

I’ve also done a bit of street magic performing for fun. I was really into close-up magic for a long time. Performing in front of people was one of the things that I did to improve at places like farmer’s markets. I even performed at a few kid’s birthday parties when my friends asked me, but magic requires a significant time commitment to upkeep your proficiency.

I have a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, too, which is the intermediate adult ranking, and have been practicing the art for 13 years. Jiu-Jitsu is similar to wrestling because when you hit the ground, you have to get your opponent to submit. It focuses on grappling with an emphasis on ground fighting. It is a very mentally stimulating and physically demanding sport. It’s one of those sports where you are always learning something new. It is interesting to me on so many different levels and it keeps you in great shape. They call it human chess - it’s all about setting traps and being a couple of steps ahead of your opponent.”

2021 Tom Hughes award recipient Tom Gose. Presented by Gould and USPA President Tony Coppola. Fergus Gould, Executive Director of USPA Umpires LLC. ©Rob Garland Photographers
2021 Tom Hughes Award recipient Tom Gose. Presented by Fergus Gould and USPA President Tony Coppola. ©Rob Garland Photographers

Why do you think it’s so vital for umpires to travel to clubs of varying levels around the country?
We visit more clubs than any other part of the USPA. So anytime that we are visiting a club as representatives of the USPA, we want the member clubs and members to have a great experience and I think that is something really worthwhile. I think it's important to really show that we're supportive of polo at all levels, and sometimes the lower levels need us more than the high levels.

We visit some of the smaller clubs with mainly low-goal and that's where the team owners in the 20- and the 22-goal come from! As far as the umpires go, these people that go and visit the small clubs, they umpire six or eight games in a weekend, they're on the horse for six hours a day, that's the real hard work! I feel like the umpires that visit different clubs every weekend, are the unsung heroes. I think everybody really appreciates what they do so much. They teach clubs about the rules, about how they're applied and what they should be doing after we leave.

Gould with fellow umpire Julian Appleby. ©David Lominska
Gould wearing his customary smile with fellow umpire Julian Appleby. ©David Lominska

What do you think the biggest challenge is for Umpires LLC moving forward?
“Recruitment and retention. We're trying to focus on the certified umpire program. We're a little bit the victim of our own success. We umpire so much polo now that the citizen umpires, the certified umpires and the people that played and then had to umpire are really becoming less and less. We don't have this pool of experienced people to draw from that have had some experience. Today you really have to go and seek out the opportunities to umpire.”

Who is an ideal candidate for professional umpiring?
Somebody who has played polo, is a good rider, has a good work ethic and is prepared to put time in to become really proficient in the rules. If they have good field judgment, we can teach them everything else. My main motivation for umpiring is that I really feel like I need to give something back and leave the sport better than I found it. That’s the kind of person I'm looking for, people that are motivated and still want to be involved in the sport. Maybe they don't necessarily see their future as a professional polo player, but they still have expertise and a love for the sport and want to give back and stay involved.”