The USGA's Mike Davis has softened the U.S. Open's fearsome reputation with (sort of) gentler course setups

The USGA’s Mike Davis has softened the U.S. Open’s fearsome reputation with (sort of) gentler course setups

"When you let players go for the green it doesn't necessarily mean it's easier," says the USGA's Mike Davis.
John Biever/SI

Since Mike Davis began setting up U.S. Open courses in 2006, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition has weaned the Open off its addiction to spindly fairways choked by knee-high rough. His signature elements include graduated rough, which has been popular with longer hitters, and short par-4s that tempt players to try to — gasp! — drive the green. The Black was generally well received in 2002, with one glaring exception: the par-4 10th hole, where even players with average length couldn't reach the fairway. Davis's solution for '09? It's not what you think.

You're going to laugh, but we've actually made the 10th hole slightly longer. Length was not the issue on the hole. It's supposed to be played long, but the problem in 2002 was that if you caught it with a north wind, an unusual wind there, you couldn't reach the fairway. And on the day in question it was cold and rainy, too. So we built a new tee there that's added 12 to 15 yards, but we've also pulled the fairway back about 40 yards. If they can't reach it this time, either the weather is so bad we shouldn't be playing, or they don't belong in the Open.

I'd say we've done a 180-degree turn in philosophy since the 2002 Open. We used to not want to be flexible in the teeing grounds we used, but now there's a concerted effort to give the players a different look every day. We want them out on the course having to think right then and there. They used to know from practice rounds exactly how everything was going to be.

I think you could take Winged Foot [in '06] and Oakmont [in '07] and summarize the player comments as an incredibly fair test but extremely difficult. I think it bears out, with 5-over winning both those U.S. Opens.

One of our big goals going into Torrey Pines was to get the rough a little less severe. When a guy misses only 20 feet off the fairway, we want him to go for the green but without quite as much distance control over the ball. We want to let players show their shotmaking ability. What we're seeing in the statistics is that when you let the players go for the green it doesn't necessarily mean it's easier. When guys had to pitch out to the fairway, they were taking double-bogey out of play. With the first cut, you have guys going for it, so they may make birdie or par, but they also may make double-bogey. The better players are able to shine in that situation. That's what our goal was.

There are people who say Bethpage is in even better condition now than it was during the 2002 U.S. Open.

I don't play nearly as much as I used to, maybe 25 to 30 rounds a year. I'm probably a 3 handicap, something like that.

One of the reasons Tiger is so good in majors is because he has the ability, particularly when the pressure is on, to slow things down. You can just see his mind working. Sunday at Torrey Pines, on 14, he stood on that tee and talked to [his caddie] Steve Williams for a minute and a half. He didn't know what he was going to do. He ended up laying up, where two-thirds of the field went for it that day. He probably hit a mid-iron and left himself with a wedge in and made par. I got a big kick out of that.

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