This interview appears in the June 2013 issue of Golf Magazine.
Mike Davis would like you to know that the United States Golf Association is not in a standoff with the PGA of America (and its president, Ted Bishop) or the PGA Tour (and its commissioner, Tim Finchem). Although the latter two bodies have pushed back against the USGA and R&A's proposal to ban anchored putting, Davis, the USGA's executive director, says that his organization works smoothly with the PGA of America and PGA Tour on a range of issues, and adds that the USGA invited feedback on anchored putting, which, if banned, would be outlawed in 2016.
The proposed ban is only the most buzzed-about way the USGA has asserted itself recently. This year the organization announced plans to replace the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship -- mostly because public golfers have long had access to the U.S. Amateur -- with a national four-ball tournament. The typical golfer understands the four-ball or "best-ball" format, which takes some of the pressure off each player and is a fixture at most clubs. It's fun and good for golf, which remains the ultimate litmus test for the USGA, says Davis, 48. Golf Magazine sat down with the former Pennsylvania junior champion in his Far Hills, N.J., office so that he could discuss his leadership philosophy, respond to his critics, and explain why undersize Merion will make a big impression on the world's best players.
People have said for years that Merion was outdated and couldn't cope with the advances in modern equipment, and yet here we are, on the verge of the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. As not only the executive director of the USGA but also the guy who sets up the U.S. Open courses, is this your greatest challenge?
We were among those who said it would never work! A few of us that looked at this really hard had told our board that we just can't host the U.S. Open anymore at Merion. It wasn't because of the golf course itself, although some would argue that it's too short. It was because we couldn't figure out a way to hold a modern-day Open, operationally, on that little piece of land.
What's been the single biggest challenge?
The practice range for the players is a mile down the road. It's not even on site! It's at Merion's West Course. You've got homeowners that literally sit on part of the course that have said, "We will allow you to use part of our yards to put up operational things." That never happens at our events. I could go on and on. Operationally, it has been a challenge to fit a modern-day Open on 110 acres or so -- you just can't do it without incredible cooperation. This is going to be a different U.S. Open; this is going to be a boutique U.S. Open.
Is it true you'll lose money on this Open?
We've never selected a U.S. Open based on money. We want to be fiscally responsible; we know that's the engine that drives everything we do. I don't want to get off-topic, but the amount of money we put back into the game is significant. If you conservatively look at what the USGA has spent directly back into the game, it's almost a billion dollars in the last 12 years. There isn't anybody putting that kind of money back into the game. So we do need to be responsible.
But will the USGA lose money?
We find that when we go to a big venue like Bethpage or Pinehurst, they make millions and millions of dollars more. You go to a little site like Oakmont, Winged Foot, they will make some money, but after expenses, not a significant amount. And I'm excluding the television rights fee, because with that it doesn't matter if it's a big or a small site. But when you go to an ultra-small site like Merion, it's true, we won't make money -- in fact, we'll lose some money. But we look at it from a standpoint of a five-year period, and we're very comfortable with where we are.
The U.S. Open is going to some non-traditional venues in the coming years, like Chambers Bay in Tacoma, Wash., and Erin Hills outside Milwaukee. What are your main criteria in picking a site?
We want to go to special venues. We want to move around the country because it's a national championship, and Merion is so historic. If you look at all of our U.S. Open sites, I'm not sure we have one where there's been more history made, more great moments in time, than Merion. And it's just a great architectural course. Even if it means making a lot less money, it's just the right thing to do. It's a special thing to see those wicker baskets.
What can players expect to see at Merion?
Tight fairways, thick rough, great greens that reek with character; it's a wonderful blend of short and long. But when we go to Pinehurst next year, you're not going to see any rough.
Phil Mickelson should love that.
He should love that! A few others should, too! And when you get to Chambers Bay, it's about playing on a course that's new, that's built on sand. We have never played on fine fescue putting greens. These players, unless they've gone to Bandon Dunes, they will have never played on fine fescue. It looks like it wouldn't putt well, but it does. The ball doesn't hop on it. And you can turn the irrigation off and it doesn't die. It goes dormant.
That seems like something the USGA should support. It's a green idea.
It's wonderful. If you go back and look at the U.S. Amateur there from 2010 -- this was in August, so granted, it's much drier then than it is in June -- the golf course was the same color as my office walls [beige].
There were reports, though, that the course got a bit too firm and fast.
It did. It got too firm in practice rounds, and we did apply a good bit of water. But it wasn't enough. After we got done with the stroke play, we literally dunked it with the equivalent of three inches of water. And finally, we got it to the right firmness. It was a little bit of a learning experience for us. There is no ideal U.S. Open site. Name one and I can tell you about problems with it.