Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, is a golf guy. Here he is, with his embroidered club belt and a golf shirt underneath his workday blazer. The paintings on his office walls are classic golfscapes, and then there’s his side hobby/business, as the part-owner of a nine-hole course in his native Pennsylvania. Despite taking all the expected precautions, he has the year-round golf tan. Then there’s his delivery: how he talks, the references he makes, what he talks about and the passion he brings to it.
He rose at the USGA not as a politician or a corporate dealmaker, but as a golf person. He can talk for an hour straight about the need to reduce water usage on golf courses. If the name Olin Dutra comes up, he does not do a double take. (Why would he? Dutra won the 1934 U.S. Open at Davis’s beloved Merion, outside Philadelphia.) Davis, who won the Pennsylvania junior boys title in 1982 and played golf at George Southern in the late 1980s, worked his first U.S. Open as a young USGA staffer in 1990, when the Open was last at Medinah. He became executive director in 2011, the year the Open was last staged at Congressional. U.S. Opens are the tree rings of his life.
The greens debacle at Chambers Bay in 2015 and the rules debacle at Oakmont in 2016 hurt Davis in a personal way, as they would anybody with such an emotional and professional stake in the game. He points out that both events had tremendous winners (Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson) and (you could say) interesting Sundays.
Davis, 52, doesn’t say that growing grass is an imperfect science (though it is) or that the rules of golf are necessarily complicated and severe (though they are). He did oversee, in the wake of those incidents, a USGA increase in its commitment to agronomy and to making the rules more user-friendly.
In any event, he’s looking forward to Erin Hills.
The following are excerpts from a conversation with Davis at his USGA office. It was Friday, June 2, his last day in his New Jersey office before leaving for Erin Hills.
On U.S. Open qualifying, which this year whittled down 8,979 applicants to roughly 70 spots earned through local and sectional qualifying.
“One of the neatest things about this time of year is the qualifying process for the U.S. Open. That Steve Stricker, at 50, from Wisconsin, is playing in the 36-hole sectional qualifier. [Stricker was the medalist in his section, in Memphis.] That Rich Tock, from Erin Hills, is. He’s in his mid-60s. He’s old enough to be a grandfather to some of the players he’ll be playing with. We used to give the head pro of the host club an exemption right into the Open. Now you get an exemption into the sectional. This guy loves golf and has played at a high level.” [Tock shot a first-round 80 and withdrew.]
On airline flights when the person next to you is obviously a golfer.
“I get on the plane, and most of the time I really don’t want to talk. I’ve got work to do. So I put on my Bose headphones, and I listen to classical music or some kind of music, and I do my work.
“But this one time, a guy sits down next to me, and he’s got this stack of golf magazines. And it must be U.S. Open time, because he opens one up and there’s this giant picture of me. He looks at me and he looks at the picture and he looks at me and points to his magazine and says, ‘This is you!'”
On taking the U.S. Open to relatively new and lesser-known venues, such as Chambers Bay and Erin Hills.
“If you tell a person the U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach or Oakmont or Pinehurst, they get that. If you say Erin Hills, they look at you. ‘Where’s that?’ It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it’s on a spectacular piece of land.
“In 2003, Ron Whitten sent me an email. I’ve still got it here. He says, ‘Mike, there’s this property in Wisconsin that’s going to be good enough to host a U.S. Open.’ You get an email like that from somebody who has been the architecture editor at Golf Digest for 30 years, you take notice. So I write back, ‘Well, the next time I’m in Wisconsin, I’ll take a look.’
“Roughly a year later I had to be at Whistling Straits for a dinner. So that day, I went and saw the land. We’re driving out there, and I’m thinking, What the heck am I doing here?
“But the moment I got there, we went down this long drive and I thought, This is beautiful property. This is great golf property. It wasn’t fescue grass then. It was prairie grass. They had it staked out with white poles. Tees, land areas, greens. And I thought, If they build this golf course, it’s going to be spectacular.
“That’s what got us so excited. The property had the bones to be a great golf course. And operationally, we could see that it would really work for our needs, because there was all this space between the holes. And we went from there.
“Before you know it, you’re introducing a new course. And it’s helpful to remember, with every great course, at some point it got introduced. Whether it’s Merion or Oakmont or Cypress Point. At some point that course was new. One hundred years from now, Erin Hills will blend in. Oakmont will be 200, and Erin Hills will be 100. Introducing a new course isn’t something you want to do all the time. But now and again it’s great.”
On taking the U.S. Open to the Midwest.
“Here in the East, we think of Oakmont as being in the West. But that’s not how others see it. So Erin Hills is the first U.S. Open in the Midwest since the 2003 Open at Olympia Fields, in Chicago. We’re glad to be going back to the Midwest, but we’re not going there because we have this feeling we have to bring the Open there. We don’t say, `Oh, we haven’t had an Open in Colorado for a while; let’s go find a course there.’ The thing we start with is the course.
“And that’s an area of debate. One of the things that makes the sport so great is the playing field is so different from course to course. Here in the United States we have the most courses in the world and the most great golf courses in the world.
“Now there are certain courses that fit certain eyes. If some of the players get to Erin Hills and it doesn’t fit their eye, that’s fine. It’s like art. Someone could look at the painting on this wall and like it, but another would not. I’ve had a winner of multiple majors who shall remain nameless say to me, ‘How can you bring the U.S. Open to Shinnecock Hills?’ Well I would vehemently disagree.
“Geography is important, but not as important as people think. We’re after going to the best sites that will provide a test for these great players and handle our logistics. We think Erin Hills does both.
On the nature of Erin Hills.
“It might look like a links, but it’s not. Well, by definition it’s not a links because it’s not on the water. But it’s not even links-like. It’s an aerial course. Erin Hills has about 12 holes where you’ve got to fly the ball on the green.
“The fairways are wide. Much wider than what people are accustomed to seeing at a U.S. Open—40 to 60 yards. Sometimes wider than that. If somebody misses the 10th fairway, we ought to disqualify them, it’s so wide. But you need wide fairways there in order to be fair to the players, because of the wind.
“You get off the fairway, there’s a transition area, with rough three, maybe four inches long. Beyond that you have the long fescue rough, which tends to be wispy. You’re going to find your ball, but getting your clubhead through it will not be easy.”
On Erin’s color, which was brown when the U.S. Amateur was played there in August 2011.
“Because it’s June you’re going to see the course with just a tinge of tan to it. That’s how the course is designed. Not the greens. The greens are bent grass, and they need water. If you don’t water bent-grass greens, bye-bye, they’re gone. But the U.S. Open will certainly be much greener than the U.S. Amateur was in August. I don’t have the figures, but this is not a course that uses much water.”
On getting beyond Chambers Bay and Oakmont.
“When you look back at those two, I get it. People came away upset. We’re coming off two in a row where we got a little black-and-blue. But when you look back at the Chambers Bay Open, you had great drama. You had Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson. Then at Oakmont, you could not have had worse weather. For Dustin Johnson, for what he was put through and then for him to do what he did, that was awesome. We’ve learned from those events. And we’ve made changes to make sure nothing like that happens again.
“We really need a good U.S. Open. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to get it. Going to a new course, there’s more risk. We don’t have experience. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
On the role of the USGA.
“Golfers need an authority figure in their lives. And we’re that. But we wear multiple hats. We serve the game. In other ways, I don’t like to use the word dictatorial, but that’s what the rules are. We’re saying, ‘If you’re going to play by the rules, this is how you’re going to play.’ And that is hard, because by and large, people don’t like to be governed.
“Regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on, when was the last time you heard anybody say something nice about the work elected officials do in Washington. With all due respect, there are a lot of reasons for that. But they also do a lot of good things that you will never hear about. And you have to ask yourself, `Where would we be if there wasn’t governance in our society?’
“So we don’t have people in our game saying, `We love the rules.’ We do have people saying, `I don’t like this rule—it doesn’t make sense.’ But that’s the way governance is.”
On the USGA’s relationships with the game’s best players.
“It’s important for us that we work on those relationships. The way society has gotten, it’s incumbent upon us to communicate more. Previously, a USGA official could say, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it.’ And the golfers accepted it. This generation is more apt to push back a little bit. So we have to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. And then the player might say, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do. I don’t agree with it. But I understand it.'”
With that, Mike Davis went to a conference call that had been holding for him. This week at Erin Hills, the greens will not turn mushy and bumpy as they did on the weekend at Chambers Bay. This week, a player will not be penalized for a fractional movement of the ball that is beyond his control. That doesn’t mean other things won’t come up. They surely will. But the U.S. Open is going to a new venue and to a state in which it’s never been played before. Someone’s life is going to change. Ideally, it will be the life of a player that changes, and not the life of a golf administrator.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your feedback at [email protected]