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Davis' setup work goes under the microscope at the Open, and he concedes that as equipment and agronomical advances have caused America's championship courses to play increasingly shorter, the tolerances between creating a great test and a flawed one have gotten much tighter. "It is much harder to set up the U.S. Open course now than it was in P.J. Boatwright's day," says Davis, who will arguably face his most challenging test at compact Merion in June. "Every year, we are right on the edge, which is the only way to test the skill of the current group of players."
Reining in distance would make Davis' job easier, but doing so with rules changes would introduce litigious possibilities. For more than a decade the ruling bodies and the major professional tours have considered this risk to be the game's third rail.
The USGA is commonly blamed for causing the problem by letting manufacturers introduce innovations in drivers and golf balls that, from 1995 to 2003, allowed the distance of the average drive on the PGA Tour to go up nearly three yards a year (from 262.7 yards to 285.9 yards) during the only extended period in which the increase averaged more than one yard a year.
"Science came into the game in the mid-1990s," says Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director, who during those years ran R&D at TaylorMade. "At that time, I knew we were ahead of the USGA. They had only one engineer. We had several. It was a question of resources."
Rugge, who is retiring and will be succeeded as equipment head next month by John Spitzer, joined the USGA in 2000, going on to build a staff with six full-time engineers to evaluate clubs and balls for conformance to USGA rules. He believes such staffing -- along with more regulation by ruling bodies concerning distance in the last 10 years than in the previous 100 -- is the key reason driving distance on the PGA Tour essentially has been flat the last eight years. "The manufacturers have learned that we are not behind," says Rugge. "The train is not leaving the station. It may not be the station that some want to be in. But it is not leaving."
Davis echoes the message. "We are OK with where things are right now," he says. "If it continues to increase, we will do something, but distance is fine. It has basically stopped at the elite level. We don't see equipment innovation in the future going to change distance that much. I've talked with Tim Finchem. He couldn't be happier with his product."
A traditionalist at heart, Davis well understands the dissenting point of view. "Sure, if Rory [McIlroy] goes to Cypress Point, he'll have a nice walk, but he won't play the course the way Alister Mackenzie intended," Davis says. "Maybe as time goes on, the U.S. Open won't be able to be held at Merion, Oakmont or Pebble Beach. That would be bad, bad, bad. The purist in all of us scratches our heads and wonders, 'Is that what we want the game to be?' But there are other places we can hold the championship. The game has bigger problems than where we play the U.S. Open."
Talking about distance is a delicate matter for Davis, all the more so during the comment period on anchoring, when sentiment in some quarters that the USGA is becoming too proactive is running high. He probably winces when he hears Nicklaus, who has long advocated a rollback of the golf ball, and who Davis has reached out to for his views on the game's future, speak frankly on the matter. "I think they are going to bring the golf ball back," Nicklaus said last September. "So you can have a game that is less expensive that will be sustainable."
Sustainability is based on creating a smaller footprint for golf that would save resources and lower costs, and theoretically, make the game more affordable, faster and more enjoyable. Theoretically, that smaller footprint would logically lead to a shorter golf ball.
Davis, being careful, doesn't back off from the possibility that a shorter golf ball could be good for the game. "If," he says, "we asked golfers, 'Would you be willing to hit the ball less far if it helped with cost, pace of play and resources, and if you didn't, your course might close?' I believe people would look in the mirror and say, 'Yes, I'd be willing.' They would help the game along.
"The problem is in the term 'rollback.' It suggests going backwards, which is very troubling to people. A better way to put it is 'forward thinking for the game.' "
Of course, opponents will not see it that way. But neither Davis and Nager show any signs of being intimidated away from an eventual rollback if the USGA deemed such an action best for the game.
"Governance, especially of the playing rules and equipment rules, is not a popularity contest," says Davis. "The key is, let's be right long term. If we get black and blue in the process, so be it."
This, too, is in Nager's wheelhouse. Having been brought in under the presidency of Walter Driver when the USGA was concentrating on increasing its war chest, Nager is sensitive to charges that the association lost its way looking for funding through measures like partnering with companies such as American Express, Lexus and Chevron.
The USGA has a $274 million investment portfolio for possible legal battles and emergency funds in case something like a natural disaster threatens the staging of the U.S. Open. It has separate deals with NBC, ESPN, Golf Channel and international outlets to broadcast its championships, generating a combined $40 million a year.
"What we are trying to do is make sure that we have the resources to invest in the game of golf," says Nager. "Our investment portfolio is not there to make anyone wealthy. It's there so that when we have to make a move when somebody challenges us, we have the resources to defeat them, to put it bluntly.
"Whether it's anchoring, whether it's distance, whatever it is, we are now positioned to figure out, in consultation with the golfing industry and community, what protects and preserves the game in the face of these challenges. And if someone wants to take us on, we are prepared to take them on."
Nager is on a roll, presenting his case with what one imagines as the same intensity and precision as he would employ before the Supreme Court. "You know, we may get something wrong," he says. "But better that we get it wrong than we're not even trying to figure out what the answer is. I think there is super urgency, even though some of the solutions we are proposing, they aren't going to happen in two years. When we roll out our pace-of-play initiatives later this year, it won't be fair to look back six months later and ask, well, did they succeed? You are talking about changing behaviors and changing habits. It's 20 years to reset expectations on what golf courses will be like. To really pass judgment on those initiatives, we are talking about Mike's tenure, not my tenure."
The long view doesn't discourage USGA staffers. On the contrary, they feel as if they are emerging from the shadows.
"Morale is much better," says Rand Jerris, senior managing director of public services, who has worked at the USGA since 1988. "Most people come here because they love golf. But it can be discouraging when you are constantly asked, 'Why are you guys on the sidelines?' But it feels different now because the game really needs us to lead. The past few months, it's amazing how many of us have said to each other, 'This is why I came here.' "
Davis and Nager can say the same thing.