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Trail Blazers

With a keen sense of the many challenges golf faces today, Glen Nager and Mike Davis have positioned the USGA to lead, not follow

January 28, 2013

The USGA's headquarters sits elegantly on a bucolic rise in Far Hills, N.J. After passing a series of horse farms, a visitor turns into the property's gently curved, quarter-mile long entrance and is drawn immediately to the pastoral grace of the three-story Georgian colonial mansion that is the 118-year-old association's recently renovated museum, the classically pillared white colonnade and red-brick facade conveying old-world influence and stability.

But to the left of the driveway, attention is quickly jarred away by a disheveled landscape strewn with fallen trees, the remnant of Hurricane Sandy's vicious pass through the 86-acre property last October. The ravaged idyll is not an inappropriate metaphor for the state of the game.

In recent years there is no denying golf in America has been rocked by a powerful storm. A bad economy and a rapidly changing culture in which leisure and recreation are grabbed in ever shortening moments has resulted in an epidemic of course closures and dwindling participation, especially among women, minorities and juniors. As much as at any moment since World War II, the game's viability and future relevance is in doubt.

USGA headquarters

The bucolic look of the USGA museum belies recent turmoil in golf. Photo courtesy: USGA/John Mummert

"We've got to wake up in the game of golf," Jack Nicklaus said recently before a gathering in Pinehurst, N.C., "if we want the game of golf to continue."

As the game's alphabet soup of organizations have scrambled to keep up, most adherents of golf's easy stereotypes presumed the fusty USGA -- always considered slow to emerge from its proverbial ivory tower -- would be at least a step behind. There was no expectation that even the most bearish of markets would incite the blue blazers to take the bull by the horns.

Well, led by the career staffer who steer-wrestled Jungle Bird off screen at the 2012 U.S. Open trophy presentation -- newly appointed executive director Mike Davis -- the USGA is undergoing the kind of awakening that comes with fresh leadership and an urgent crisis. By refreshing its vow to "preserve and protect the game," the long caricatured professional staff at Golf House is being implored to believe that, actually, it is ideally suited for precisely this historical moment.

Related: Heckler interrupts US Open ceremony

"There is a consensus that the way the game exists today can't sustain itself," says Davis, who succeeded David Fay in 2011. "The questions are huge. 'What is the game going to be like for our kids and grandkids?' There are so many problems to solve, and I look around and wonder, 'If we don't do it, who will?' It has to be us."

Davis' answer amounts to the USGA's Big Move. Rather than govern benignly and often mysteriously, Davis is determined that his regime will be transparent, communicative, responsible and sometimes even bold. The most recent demonstration is the pending ban on anchoring, which even opponents concede was thoughtfully conceived and clearly presented. Other big initiatives to be tackled in the near future include presenting and encouraging practices designed to speed play for recreational players, pushing increased water conservation by urging superintendents to get on board with concepts like "brown is the new green" and curtailing irrigation in areas other than tees, fairways and greens with "maintenance up the middle," and producing a more concise and user-friendly rule book for the recreational player.

The 48-year-old Davis, a former Pennsylvania state junior champion who started at the USGA in 1990 and since 2006 has set up the course at the U.S. Open, doesn't seem daunted by the turbulent times. Although his physiognomy and manner lack a visible edge, just as he suddenly flashed sharp elbows at the Olympic Club, his words can be incisive. "If we don't do what we think is the right thing for fear of a lawsuit, then shame on us," he said when announcing the proposed ban on anchoring. "We shouldn't be in the governance business then."

For Davis, while the issues may be complex, the reason for any decision is simple. "My guide is to just keep doing the right thing for the game," he says. "That's not necessarily synonymous with what might seem to be good for the USGA. I tell our people, let's not be like the federal government, where too many politicians are not willing to do what's right for the country because it might not be good for them. Let's not make expedient short-term decisions. Let's make right ones for the long term."

USGA president Glen Nager, 54, comes from the high-powered Washington D.C. law firm, Jones Day, that recently went before the Supreme Court against Obamacare. A golfer who didn't begin playing regularly until his mid-30s, Nager carries an 8-handicap but has a plus-4 résumé. After growing up in Houston, he headed the Law Review at Stanford Law School. Since serving as a law clerk for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, he has gone on to argue 13 cases before the Supreme Court. He came to the USGA in 2006 as general counsel and quickly made himself an expert on the rules, scoring a rare 100 on the infamous USGA test on his first try. As the R&A's chief executive, Peter Dawson, says, "Glen is staggeringly bright. He sees his way through issues very quickly."

Related: Coming to grips with the anchor ban

Nager, then vice president, joined other members of the executive committee in interviewing candidates to succeed Fay. A classic Mr. Inside with a specialty in corporate and managerial organization, he wanted his two years as president to be partnered with a golf-savvy executive director who could be the game's Mr. Outside. "Mike lives and breathes the game and has a selflessness about doing the right thing people quickly sense," says Nager. "That gives him enormous credibility as a leader."

Davis was close to Fay, and though he had an inkling that after 21 years at the helm the 60-year-old cancer survivor was considering stepping down, he says he did not have designs on the top position.

"I loved the job I was doing setting up the Open course," says Davis. "I looked at the way so many people reported to David and thought, 'God, I never want that job.' I knew the only way I could ever do it was if it was restructured. I also had some long-term ideas that I didn't think the USGA was ready for."

But after Fay's sudden retirement, Davis' forward thinking -- a mixture of purist, populist and ecologist, especially on the subject of water use, which he calls "a game changer" -- met the moment. His conditions for accepting the job -- being able to continue to set up the U.S. Open and being allowed to delegate more duties to the executive staff -- were also welcomed.

mike davis and jeff hall

Davis, with staffer Jeff Hall at the '12 U.S. Open, has a balancing act doing major setups to avoid problems such as Shinnecock '04 (below). Photos: USGA/Darren Carroll; Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

USGA greenskeepers

"I have a lot of weaknesses," says Davis. "When it comes to non-golf things, I'm not your person. I'm not a business person or a marketing person."

But Nager is. "While as a recreational golfer, I think I can have an important perspective, I don't qualify myself as a messenger for the game," he says. "But the good news is that I've spent my professional career delivering other people's messages. I'm trained for that aspect."

Nager got it working closely for clients such as General Electric, CBS and IBM. He urged Davis to let him oversee the staff in producing the first strategic five-year plan in the organization's history, and after a year, it was launched at last year's Masters. The plan's purpose, Nager said, "is to embrace some of the techniques that the modern business world uses to identify what consumers want, and how to satisfy them, and creating strategies and measuring your progress. Basically, we want to touch the golfer. For example, we've taught the rules to officials, but now we have a DVD on the rules -- at a cost of several million dollars -- that goes to high school coaches, people who can really touch golfers. We want to interview spectators to try to make the U.S. Open a better experience. This is a shift in emphasis."

Of the strategic plan's pillars, both Davis and Nager agree the most important is the Open. The championship not only provides the funding, primarily through a lucrative television contract that is up for renegotiation in 2014, but is the one week a year when the USGA is both in the spotlight and on trial. Nager says problems in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills -- where a wind-dried green that became uncontrollably fast forced officials to stop final-round play to add water -- was a turning point that intensified the USGA's determination to get the national championship right.

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