SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – At 7,440 yards, Shinnecock Hills is the longest medieval rack in history, upon which the world’s best golfers are stretched until they can bear no more and scream sulkily about “clown golf” – a comment by Bryson DeChambeau that suggested the cap is the only thing his head has in common with that of four-time U.S. Open winner Ben Hogan.
Mike Davis is the U.S. Golf Association CEO who turns the screws in an effort to find the breaking point of every man but one. He’s been the head of the game’s governing body, and for a half-dozen years before that was responsible for the day-to-day course setup at the U.S. Open. He has an impish sense of humor and avuncular demeanor that are somewhat at odds with his role as the most famous interrogator in major championship golf.
Davis can play. He sports a 4.3 index at two of the country’s finest courses — New Jersey’s Somerset Hills and Seminole in Florida. According to GHIN.com, the USGA’s handicap service, he posted a couple of 74s last fall, but like a handful of competitors this week he has struggled to break 80 in his last few rounds.
So how would Davis fare if stretched on his own rack through two rounds at Shinnecock Hills?
“He couldn’t have shot 90, there’s no way,” said Adam Scott, the former Masters champion and World No. 1 who went 78-75 to miss the cut. “He’s not going to be able to hit it far enough. Over 90, both times.”
“If he didn’t play well, no doubt,” Scott said.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk was no more bullish on Davis’ prospects, pointing out that he has likely never experienced the brutal conditions prevailing this week.
“Maybe if he was a member at Oakmont or Shinnecock he might have seen them in a member-guest where the greens superintendent got pissed off,” said the 2003 U.S. Open champion.
Furyk’s caddie, Mike ‘Fluff’ Cowan, pointed to England’s Scott Gregory, who was savaged by Shinnecock in the first round.
“Poor guy. He’s got game and comes out here and shoots 92,” Cowan said. “Obviously he had a bad day. But if someone that good can’t break 90, a guy like Mike Davis — I don’t care what his index is — he ain’t breaking 90 in these conditions.”
“For any 4.3, not just Mike Davis, 90 is a break even point,” said Steve Flesch, who finished T-7 at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. He’s walking the fairways for Fox Sports this week and has had an intimate view of the carnage.
“A 4-handicap doesn’t mean they’re spraying it off the tee, but you’re going to spray a couple. There’s a couple of unplayables. A lot of bogeys, probably four or five doubles. Maybe a triple thrown in there,” he added. “I think 90 would be the lowest they would shoot.”
“He would have to be on his game to break 90 because these are not conditions 4-handicaps ever play,” offered Paul McGinley, the former European Ryder Cup captain. “They don’t have the ball control, particularly with the wind blowing and the greens the way they are.”
So through 36 holes on this par-70 layout McGinley would expect Davis to be distantly separated from the fabled Open standard of level par?
“Yeah, that’s about right,” he said, after a long pause. “Forty over.”
Finding no optimists among the players who have long endured Davis’ course setups, I approached some coaches, who are more nurturing by profession.
“Maybe if he was a member and knew the course he could have a couple of 90s,” Michael Bannon, Rory McIlroy’s coach, gamely suggested.
“I’d give him 10 to one he could break 100,” laughed Denis Pugh, coach to Francesco Molinari (75-77) and Ross Fisher (76-71). “He wouldn’t find his ball unless he’s an extremely long hitter. He’s got to carry it 250 minimum without a wind. If he can do that he’s got half a chance of breaking 100. The real problem is if you hit it in the rough off the tee there’s no one looking for your ball. They’ve grown the rough so its impenetrable. So you go back to the tee and do the same thing again. You might not get off of one tee. Run out of balls.”
About to give up on finding anyone at Shinnecock Hills who could offer Davis some support, I bumped into Curtis Strange, who won back-to-back Opens 30 years ago.
“In these conditions?” he pondered. “I think he breaks 90.”
He smiled and excused himself to go to the restroom. But it was already clear he was full of it.
Finally, I asked Davis for his own estimate.
“90 plus,” he shot back with the good humor of a man who knows this course is designed to test the best, not the rest. “Assuming I did not run out of balls.”