Davis plots strategic flexibility on USGA's courses
Editor’s note: This story appeared in the June 11, 2010 issue of Golfweek.
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Mike Davis doesn’t know how many days he spends on the road a year, just that it’s a lot. “I’ve never counted them,” says the U.S. Golf Association’s senior director of rules and competitions. “I don’t want my wife to know. But it’s probably about half a year’s worth.”
As the man responsible for running the USGA’s major golf championships, Davis spends plenty of time in hotels and airports and conducting business from a hands-free cell phone in his car. His Lexus LS 460 – courtesy of a deal between the automaker and the USGA – is as spotless as his office. Davis doesn’t do well with clutter.
The department he runs at Golf House in Far Hills, N.J., coordinates 16 national and international competitions – everything from site selection and preparation to the competition itself. Davis, 45, is accountable for everything inside the ropes at the U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Amateur and Walker Cup. He also runs USGA rules seminars and helps coordinate policy with the R&A in St. Andrews, Scotland. In his “spare time,” he volunteers as a rules official for the Masters, British Open and Presidents Cup. All of which leads to a spring/summer calendar that has him criss-crossing the country, adding stops in Tokyo and St. Andrews.
For all that travel and all those course visits, he plays surprisingly little golf.
“Two or three dozen rounds a year,” by his own count. Not much for a former scratch golfer, now a 2.9 index, who is a member of Pine Valley (N.J.) Golf Club and the R&A and has honorary memberships at Saucon Valley in Bethlehem, Pa., Trump National in Bedminster, N.J., and his hometown Chambersburg (Pa.) Country Club.
It was there in Chambersburg, a town of 18,000 residents in south-central Pennsylvania, where Davis learned the game. He won the 1982 Pennsylvania Junior and played at Georgia Southern, graduating in 1987 with a degree in business finance. After a few years with Coldwell Banker Commercial, he landed with the USGA in 1990 at age 25.
His job was to manage championship relations and help clubs run majors. But he had an eye for design and course setup. In an era when the USGA was languishing with a reputation for making its championship venues unduly severe, Davis’ penchant for strategic flexibility was something of a welcome relief. He penned his thoughts in a memo that would help shape future USGA policy.
The issue came to a head at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, when a combination of high winds, low humidity and an extremely firm and fast course setup threatened to derail the final round with near-unplayable conditions. Two days later, Davis and other USGA course setup officials sat through a squirmy two-hour meeting in the office of executive director David Fay. The result, developed from Davis’ earlier memo, was a 14-point statement that included more flexibility and fairness with championship setups.
From the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst through this year, the USGA has adopted a more strategically oriented approach to championship course preparation. That includes wider variance in teeing grounds, rough heights proportional to the length and difficulty of the hole, the occasional drivable par 4 and closer monitoring of course conditions – green speeds, moisture levels and the firmness of fairways and putting surfaces.
At the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Davis garnered widespread praise by players and media with a layout that provided lots of options. His signature move: shortening the 435-yard, par-4 14th hole into a drivable, 267-yarder for Sunday’s fourth round and the playoff Monday.
Such flexibility and options require coordination with superintendents and the USGA’s own Green Section staff of consulting agronomists. The respect that Davis shows for turf experts is reflected in the high regard they have for him throughout a prolonged process that can grow stressful if mutual respect is lacking.
Bob Farren, director of maintenance at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort, has worked with Davis through U.S. Opens in 1999 and 2005 on Pinehurst’s No. 2 course. Farren is getting that layout ready for an unprecedented doubleheader in 2014: the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open on back-to-back weeks. Farren also is coordinating a restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw of the famed Donald Ross design – a process in which Davis has taken an ongoing interest.
“Mike has a great eye for design,” Farren said. “He also has a sense of respect for allowing professionals to do their job. That’s been evident here during championship week as well as for what’s best for the golf course in the long run.”
Davis is the kind of quiet, behind-the-scenes person who is content to work in advance of tournament week to ensure course flexibility.
During championship week, Davis says, one of his favorite activities is to retreat to his field office for an hour and watch on TV how golf balls react when they hit the ground.
As it turns out, staying out of the spotlight not only fits his personality – it also is a telling sign that he did his work properly.