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People have said for years that Merion was outdated and couldn't cope with the advances in modern equipment, and yet here we are, on the verge of the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.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.
Speaking of problems, let's talk about some criticism that the USGA has received. Jim Furyk told me he likes the way you set up a U.S. Open course, but he had issues with the way you moved the tee up 100 yards on the par-5 16th hole at Olympic Club last year. [Furyk snap-hooked his tee shot into the woods and bogeyed the hole.] He said he's never seen a great par 5 that asked you to hit two hybrids and a wedge to the green. He also said he's never seen a great par 5 that was over 600 yards.
First of all, Jim can't be a bad guy because he's a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. [But] I would respectfully disagree with Jim on this. The hole requires three good shots. And there's nothing wrong with a par 5 that requires a Tour-level player to hit three good shots to get to the green. They see a par 5 and want a green light to make a birdie.
What about moving the tees up 100 yards?
We want to test not just their shotmaking and their nerves, but we want to show them something, and particularly on that last nine holes Sunday, where they're going to step up and think, "Hmm. I didn't practice this." And it's not just the player; it's the caddie. I remember walking with Tiger, the last round in 2008, at Torrey Pines, when he got to the 14th hole. And we'd moved the tees way up there. He stood there on that tee talking to Steve Williams for I don't even know how many minutes. Because here he's tied, I guess, with Rocco, at that point, and to watch Tiger and Williams strategize — to me that's part of the U.S. Open.
You mentioned you gave players the short par-5 17th hole after the hard par-5 16th at Olympic, but the problem was no one could hit the tilted fairway. That was another criticism of the setup at Olympic, that the fairways were so tilted and fast and narrow as to be almost unhittable. The data shows as much.
But the thing that the data isn't showing [about Olympic] is that unlike '55, unlike '66, unlike '87, unlike '98, we didn't have real thick rough right up against the fairway on the right. We doubled the amount of the intermediate rough.
That's one of your calling cards, the graduated rough.
I wouldn't even call it rough. The ball is sitting up. For most amateur golfers, they would rather have that lie than be on those tight fairways. I saw a lot of players playing from that first cut, and they absolutely could go for the green.
One of the things you've said you aim to do is to make golf more fun and more accessible. We're in the middle of this debate on anchoring. Doesn't taking away our long putters and belly putters make the game less fun and less accessible?
Well, good question, because you can see how people would think that. We are simply trying to define the way that golf should be played. For hundreds of years, golf was about taking a club, putting a ball into play and seeing how many strokes it takes you to get it in the hole. And while some people say, "Hey, I have more fun anchoring," we're simply saying, "We don't think that's golf." It's fun if you go out there with 25 clubs, but that's not playing by the rules. You could go out there and putt billiards style. We had somebody doing that in the final match of the 1895 U.S. Amateur. Anchoring didn't become popular in this country, and only with a certain group of players, until very recently. You can't say that golfers for the last 550 years didn't have fun. You can have fun without anchoring. Now, people can go out on a golf course and have fun, take mulligans, play with three clubs, play with an eight-inch hole — we're not saying we have a problem with that.
The USGA has been around for a long time. Why wasn't anchoring banned when it should have been banned? Are you really in the business of banning something because it becomes popular?
That's a fair question. If you think of any rules change, you are thinking about the future. When we make a change, we think it's in the best interest of the game longterm. To say that those people before me, and the committees before us, liked anchoring, would be a misstatement of fact.
Why didn't they do anything?
Well, they certainly looked at it.
They made things harder for you by not doing anything about it.
Well, that's certainly true. But when you look back, [anchoring] was done by far fewer people before. As we said in the announcement, the vast, vast majority of people who anchored years ago did it because they had lost their nerves or they were taller and couldn't bend over.
Now you're concerned about guys who could putt conventionally but don't.
We have seen a fairly radical change in that. You were not seeing instructors or golfers themselves, who weren't in one of those two groups, advocating going to an anchored stroke. Five or six years ago we weren't seeing anyone in the U.S. Junior doing it; hardly anyone in the U.S. Amateur did it. And now all the sudden you're seeing instructors doing it, teaching it. Now it's a game changer.
To what extent did you coalition-build with the PGA and the PGA Tour?
We went to the different key groups, whether it's the state and regional golf associations or the LPGA Tour, or the PGA of America, the PGA Tour. It wasn't as if the key leaders in the game weren't aware of this. Sometimes key leaders change their mind. Before Ted Bishop, trust me, there was a different mindset with the PGA of America. But listen, the PGA of America and Ted Bishop, and the PGA Tour and Tim Finchem, have done exactly what we asked them to do. We had a 90-day comment period for the rule, and it's a divisive rule. But they've never specifically said they're not going to follow this rule. People want to think we're at war with the PGA of America and the PGA Tour and it's just not the case. We work with them all the time and this happens to be one issue where we differ, but we asked for their opinion. You should know, too, that we've gotten a lot of input from others who have been incredibly supportive.
Like Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.
Yes, and the state and regional golf associations that represent millions of golfers also have been hugely supportive. Around the world, they're looking at us like, "Those guys are a different breed." This is a United States issue, and maybe a Canada issue. The R&A is not getting any push-back whatsoever around the world: Australia, Asia, South America, South Africa, Europe. It's also a male-female issue. We're not getting any push-back from females, who don't tend to anchor.
How much feedback have you heard from Keegan Bradley and Adam Scott and other Tour pros who anchor?
We can't just focus on Tour golfers. This affects millions and millions of golfers around the world.
The PGA Tour players are the only ones who do it in front of millions of viewers every week. They're the ones who are going to get called cheaters.
Well, I disagree with that.
Keegan Bradley says he's being called a cheater.
That's not what I mean. I'm saying that if this rule goes through, and John Doe and I four or five years from now are playing somewhere, and John starts anchoring, he's going to be called a cheater too. We weren't trying to hurt anybody. It's a divisive issue and it's been divisive ever since the long putter has been around. We're simply trying to clarify it and put it to bed. We see a time when this will go away.
Do you anticipate the PGA Tour following your lead?
You'd have to ask Tim Finchem; I don't want to speculate. Think of us as a bureau of standards. We write and interpret the rules, but other than our own championships, we're not in the business of policing them.
Are you an anchorer, by the way?
No. I believe it's never too late to do the right thing with the rules.
I like that.
I have a friend who is pretty upset with you guys, though.
Remind him it's just a game.
He's ready to burn this place down.
[Laughs] Tell him not to try it. It's a hard thing, governance. I don't care what kind of governance you're in. You don't get pats on the back. We're trying to do what's in the best interest of the game and if the people in Washington just tried to do that a little more often and said, "What's the best thing for the country?" and not, "What's the best thing we can do to be reelected?" the country would be in better shape. In this case, doing nothing would be the easiest thing to do.
There's a long history of that in Far Hills.
Well, yeah. There are instances where, looking back on it, if we had known what we know now…
I think the things I've mentioned: trying to make the game more enjoyable, make it more cost-effective, trying to address the time issue, pace of play. The United States is a very mature golf market. We're focused on what the game is going to be like in 20 years, in 100 years.
Let's say the game is a patient. Some alarmists might say the patient is on its deathbed. Others would say it's fine. How would you describe the patient?
Fact: The United States has seen golf participation drop in the last several years. Most places in Continental Europe and the U.K. have seen the same thing. Japan, same thing. But in [other parts of] Asia, [and in] Australia, South America and Mexico, golf is growing. Those people who want to say that golf is on its way out are ignoring history. You can take the last 100 years and watch the ebb and flow of the game, golf course openings and closings, and put it right up next to the ebb and flow of the economy. You will find that they match almost identically.
So how's the patient?
To describe that patient, I'd say that for the last several years it hasn't been gravely ill, but that it now has had a nagging cold, if you will.
How can the USGA pick up pace of play?
We have our Research and Test Center doing data that's never been done, to show how the recreational golfer spends his time during a round, how the elite player does it. We consult on best practices for superintendents. We want them to go into courses and look at fairway widths, look at heights of the rough — things that affect pace of play. The faster the green speeds, the slower the rounds.
Would it help if the PGA Tour came down on the snails who set a bad example for the rest of us?
Yes, to the extent that they can do it. The other thing is you see golf courses sending groups of four players out there every eight, nine minutes. Mathematically, it can't work. All that does is put more people out on the golf course and makes it slower for everybody. If you're the owner-operator and you send people out every 11, 12, 13 minutes, you can get as many people around in a day, but instead of making it a six-hour round, you've made it a four-hour-and-45 minute round. And you know what? That person is happier and that person will play more golf.
How often do you play these days?
In a good year, if time permits, I can play as many as 20 times a year.
How many scores did you post in 2012?
Only eight. Kind of sad!
Do you let your golf buddies take mulligans or otherwise bend the rules? Or do you feel morally obligated to keep them in line?
It depends upon a few things: whether we are playing competitively or if it is just a casual round; the practices of the course we're playing; and the golfers involved. Where opportunity exists, I like to subtly educate on the Rules of Golf to players and caddies even during casual rounds.
When did you last take a mulligan?
I might be guilty of one within the last year, but I always feel better not taking one even after a poor opening tee shot. As Peter Dawson of the R&A has told me on more than one occasion, the opening shot in golf might be the toughest of the day — and it should not be compromised by allowing a mulligan.
If you weren't running the USGA, what would you like to be doing?
I've always been fascinated with golf course architecture, even at a young age. During a round, I would often find myself studying the nuances of a course rather than focusing on my own game. I'm not sure I have the talent, but architecture is a profession that truly captures my interest.
What would you choose for the epitaph on your career as executive director? "Mike Davis did ______."
[Laughs] Already? "He worked with many others to make the game better." There are decisions to make the USGA better, or to make more money or whatever, but if it doesn't make the game better, then we shouldn't do it.
If eliminating the U.S. Public Links and adding the national four-ball championship is going to make the game more fun, then maybe you're already succeeding, at least by that definition. This job is going to be easy!
[Laughs] I've already got my epitaph: "This is easy!"