Mike Davis will test his political and people skills as the new executive director of the USGA

Mike Davis figures to have his hands full as the USGA's top exec, but he didn't want to give up his key role with the U.S. Open.
Jeff Zelevansky

“He’s the perfect man for the job,” was golf architect Rees Jones’s immediate response to last week’s announcement that Mike Davis had been named executive director of the U.S. Golf Association. “He’s a wonderful team player. He’s a good listener. He’s smart. He’s articulate. He knows how to compromise.” Jones, known as the Open Doctor for his renovation of tournament courses, then put special emphasis on Davis’s final qualification: “The golf world likes him.”

Oh, and it didn’t hurt, Jones said, that Davis, 46, had two decades of experience within the cloistered walls of USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. Said Jones, “I don’t think they could have hired somebody from outside.”

He was right about that, but a “career administrator” might argue the point. When Columbia University needed a postwar president, it hired Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general. When Major League Baseball had to replace commissioner Peter Ueberroth, the owners picked a former professor of comparative literature, Bart Giamatti. (And when Giamatti died they gave the job to his deputy, Fay Vincent, who had run Columbia Pictures and a division of Coca-Cola.) When the people of Minnesota needed a new governor, they elected Jesse (the Body) Ventura, a pro wrestler.

O.K., bad example. But the dictionary definition of administrator is “a person who manages or has a talent for managing.” Unless you’re interviewing for the top job at the Vatican, being an outsider is not usually disqualifying.

It’s different at the USGA. The executive director gets the big corner office, but authority resides with an unpaid 15-member executive committee and a committee-elected president who serves two one-year terms. (“It’s been my privilege to serve under 17 USGA presidents,” outgoing executive director David Fay noted in his retirement letter, sounding like an Italian cabinet minister.) Most of the monarchs reign over a peaceable kingdom, but several have treated the not-so-well-paid Golf House staff the way Wisconsin’s governor treats his public-employee unions. One recent USGA president routinely dismissed opposition to his policies with the patronizing comment, “Most people don’t understand the complexity.”

Fay, the bow-tied rules maven who lasted 32 years at the USGA, 21 of them as executive director, did understand the complexity. Smart and amiable, he gave eloquent expression to the organization’s pursuit of a more-populist image—e.g., by allowing the U.S. Open cash cow to graze on lavishly upgraded munis such as Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines. But he also knew how to finesse a crisis, whether it was burned-out greens at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, legal battles over the bounciness of driver faces or the executive committee’s hypermanic purchase and resale of Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room. (Don’t ask.)

“David was marvelous at that,” Davis said last Saturday— that being Fay’s ability to function, even flourish, under musical-chairs-style micromanagement. “And you’re right,” Davis continued. “We have this unique governing structure where the chairman of the board is also the CEO. But I’ve been with the USGA since I was 25, so I’m used to the idea.”

Outside critics, egged on by a number of Golf House staffers who were purged in recent years, think it’s an idea mired in the early 20th century, when the all-volunteer USGA began hiring full-time employees. A hundred years later, they say, it’s downright quaint to give someone like Davis a czarlike position paying a reported $500,000 a year and then ask him to take orders from a geographically dispersed panel of volunteers.

“But they know they’re volunteers,” counters Davis, refusing to take the bait. “Practically speaking, you rarely see those people flex their muscles and say, ‘Do it my way.’ This is what people on the outside don’t understand. The presidents, historically, have worked wonderfully with the executive director. There might be differences in personality, but the overall direction doesn’t change that much.”

Besides, Davis doesn’t want to be golf’s czar—or its nanny, either. “My role,” he says, “is to make sure our 360 or so staffers carry out the USGA’s mission.”

Davis certainly brings the résumé, and no one doubts that he has the chops. As the senior director of Rules and Competitions since 2005, he has been in charge of course setup for the U.S. Open and other USGA events. It is a position, like that of prison warden, that wins you few friends, but Davis is almost revered for the fairness and sophistication of his setups. When he introduced graduated rough at Winged Foot in ’06, a few pros squawked out of habit; the others recognized that a down-to-the-last-shot free-for-all was total validation for Davis and the USGA.

That’s why, when Fay retired, Davis and the committee had to consider the possibility that promoting him would be tantamount to asking Vin Scully to give up his mike to become general manager of the Dodgers. “I tippy-toed into the idea of putting my name in the hat,” Davis admits. “I’m passionate about my work on the Open. It would have been hard to give up.” USGA vice president Thomas O’Toole Jr. agrees, saying, “I wasn’t excited about Mike walking out of that role just yet.”

No problem. The executive committee has given Davis the job with the understanding that he will continue to set up U.S. Open courses. “That will be Mike’s challenge,” says a former Golf House staffer, “to not lose the part of the job he really loves. Plus he’s going to have to know when to push and when to lay back, because the power changes every two years.”

There it is again, that little nudge to the ribs, that insinuation that Davis, as head of the USGA, will not wield the clout of PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka (answerable to a four-man board) or that of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem (answerable to posterity). To which Davis blithely replies, “It’s not as troublesome as some would make it. I think we all understand our roles.”

For what it’s worth, O’Toole’s phone rang last week upon the announcement of Davis’s appointment. It was Donald Trump saying, “Tommy, you got it right.”

Sometimes the company man is exactly what the company needs.