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Changing Course: The USGA’s Mike Davis Shifts With The Game And The Culture

April 25, 2017

Mike Davis exudes golf. Even in a generic corporate building in Warren, N.J., serving as interim USGA headquarters while the Far Hills administrative building undergoes renovation, his office feels a bit like a golf shop from the 1980s, with a persimmon paean of Hogan and MacGregor woods, along with some classic blade putters.

Affectionately hefting the Spalding Cash-In that carries fond memories of his victory in the 1982 Pennsylvania State Junior, he says, “I believe this putter right here is still the best for holing short putts. But don’t miss the sweet spot on a long one.”

Whether playing the game or working it, fulfillment has never been a problem for Davis. He joined the USGA in 1990, and in 2006 he took over the course setup for the U.S. Open, a job he still oversees. In 2011, Davis succeeded David Fay as executive director, and in 2016, the title of CEO was added. But Davis’ tenure has come at a time when the game is being buffeted by multiple forces in a shifting culture.

Adding to the challenge have been the two most recent U.S. Opens in which the USGA was criticized for course conditioning (the greens at Chambers Bay) and administering the rules (Oakmont). It has all thrust the 52-year-old Davis—admittedly more comfortable keeping a low profile—into a more proactive public mode. As the 2017 Open at Erin Hills approached, he shared his candid thoughts on the state of his organization and the game, riffing on subjects ranging from distance to Donald Trump to mulligans ... and how big a lead he’d need with 18 holes to play to feel somewhat confident of winning the Open.

‘I started playing when I was 8 with my dad at Chambersburg Country Club in south-central Pennsylvania, but growing up I played a number of small-town public courses in the area. One was a nine-hole course that had sand greens, South Mountain. And there was another nine-holer that was almost laughed at around Chambersburg called Conocodell, where we played some junior events. It was really just a field to play. But it was fun. About eight years ago, I went in with my best friend from high school and bought about half of it.

“It’s beautiful land, with a trout stream running through it. It had become a little overgrown, so we upgraded it a little, took out some trees. But the greens might be seven on the Stimpmeter, the bunkers are far from smooth, and the fairways are cut at an inch. I kept telling my friend, ‘I want this course to stay scruffy.’ It’s a throwback. Other than the cars in the parking lot, you’d think you were in the 1970s.

“I didn’t want to market it. I just want to help the course make it however I can, because it meant something to me. I love that it’s golf for everybody. The green fee is under $10 for juniors and seniors; people are out there in jeans. In some ways in this job you get a little jaded being around these great golf courses all the time. But there is this other side of it that we can never forget. I’ll go back once or twice a year, go out there and talk to the golfers, just getting their perspective on what matters to them, and what makes it fun.”

‘I never had any interest in being executive director. I loved what I was doing overseeing the rules and competitions. At the heart of it, that’s who I was. I grew up playing competitive golf, and I love golf-course architecture. There were so many parts of this that fit me. With the job now, there are a lot of days when I’m dealing with budgetary issues, personnel issues, board issues. When I feel like I’m in the middle of a political thing, it’s the part of the job that I just don’t care for. And you start to say, I’ve gotten away a little bit from the things that I love. Having said that, the part of this job that I love more than anything is when I feel like I’m contributing to the game. That makes me happy.

“I talk to the staff a lot, I talk to the board a lot, and I say, ‘We’re not always going to get things right, but if we’re true to what’s good for the game of golf, we’re going to be strong in the long term.’ We’re in this pool of golf, and the organizations governing golf worldwide all kind of have their own swim lanes. And I’ve felt like, for the USGA, we have the ability to really think long term.

“It’s not about profit, and it’s not about putting the USGA in the most favorable light. Because sometimes with governance, it’s like you can’t do anything right in some people’s eyes. But you just keep saying, What’s the right thing? And you just take the punches when you’re going to take them. The anchoring ruling would be an example of that. We got black and blue over that whole thing. It’s debatable, but I think long term we did the right thing for the game.

“Have I grown comfortable being the face of the USGA? I would say, probably, no. But I’ve grown to where I understand that it’s necessary. We’ve always tried to be humble, and do the right things, and not spend money on marketing, because that’s money you could be spending on junior golf, research, whatever. Having said that, there’s a strong argument to be made that if you don’t have a good brand, that actually affects your ability to influence and to perform. So we need to do a better job on who we are, what we do, ’cause most people look at it and say, ‘Oh, they’re the people who run the U.S. Open; they’re the people who try to embarrass the players every year. They’re the people who write The Rules of Golf. We hate the rules of golf.’ Nobody likes to be governed. But we have so many good stories to tell, we ought to be telling them.

“I would never introduce myself as the CEO. I still prefer being called executive director. We still have to report to the board—that’s the group that’s responsible for the overall direction. Looking back on the list of past executive directors—Joe Dey, Harry Easterly, P.J. Boatwright, Frank Hannigan, David Fay—I spent time with and looked up to all those guys. I’m proud to say I was an executive director of the USGA.

“But I like the fact that I’m now making more decisions. Until a year and a half ago, according to the bylaws, the president of the USGA was the CEO. And it’s really been interesting. I certainly did not push for that [change]. But to the credit of the board, they looked at it and said, ‘What organization would change its CEO every two years? What organization would have a CEO when they’re not even at the headquarters?’ But the key thing is that the executive staff is making decisions where you don’t feel hamstrung by an antiquated system.”

‘For about 40 years, hard equaled good. Now you’re definitely seeing that go in the other direction, where fun equals good.’

‘We have absolutely changed. I’m going on my 28th year, and in-house there was always the principle that, whether there are five million golfers, 25 million golfers or 5,000 golfers, what we do is for the game. Just this abstract thing that we are all about the game. Well, about six years ago, we changed the mission. What we’re focused on now is that it’s still the game, but it’s also about those who enjoy playing the game. So it’s about golfers. So when people say, ‘Is the USGA trying to grow the game?’ then yes, we’re now at that point where we’re engaged in those things. We want to collaborate and use some of our monies to be a part of the focus on participation. But on the other hand, what’s dreadfully missing is the other part, which has become our central focus. Because if you’re trying to bring all these other groups into the game—juniors, women, pick your group—but it’s not enjoyable, and the golf courses can’t sustain themselves, it’s never going to work. You’re going to bring these people in, they’re going to try it, they’re not going to enjoy themselves, and they’re going to leave. I’ve asked my counterparts in the industry, ‘When you bring all these people in, and they’re not staying, why is that?’

“It starts with the golf course. What’s enjoyable? There’s no one answer. How I enjoy a golf experience, or how a beginner might, or someone who is an elite golfer, it’s going to be different. But there are certain things. People, by and large, want to play well. Some people want to be challenged more than others. Nobody likes looking for golf balls. So golf courses can present a setup where people are playing from the proper tees, there aren’t a lot of forced carries, the rough is not so high that we’re always looking for somebody’s ball.

“Speaking of balls, the rules say you can’t have anything electronic to help you find your ball. Well, why not? Just think about Topgolf, and the chips in those golf balls.

“When it comes to pace of play, everybody wants to say that golfers are the problem. They’re part of the problem, but we find that the bigger problem is the golf course and how it’s managed. You’d be surprised at how many golf courses in the United States have their tee times for four golfers set up at intervals of eight, seven, even six minutes. It doesn’t work mathematically. So we’ve gone out with a program that is really trying to educate owners and operators, telling them you can get as many golfers around in a day by expanding the intervals. And by the way, everybody is going to have a better experience, and more repeat customers.

“When I talk to architects, for about 40 years, hard equaled good. Now you’re definitely seeing that go in the other direction, where fun equals good. These practices of narrower fairways, higher rough, not encouraging play from the proper tees, it’s no good. And how courses are maintained has positively changed. For decades, many golf courses watered only their greens and tees. But in the past quarter-century, we’ve gone to watering basically the whole course. You could argue it has taken some of the charm out of the game.

“A lot of innovations have made the game better, but there are some where you would say, ‘I’m not sure that’s really good for the game.’ Like the speed of greens. Today, people equate fast greens with good greens. But fast greens cost more to maintain. Fast greens are more susceptible to disease. Fast greens compromise some of the architectural integrity of great courses. Fast greens have absolutely caused more cases of the yips. And they’ve hurt pace of play. So there’s an innovation where we say, ‘OK, we’ve innovated with new grasses and new mowers, but has that really been innovation?’ It’s like over-seeding. It’s very expensive, and agronomically not good, and dormant Bermuda is a very good playing surface. I hope in the future we see a scenario where there is no over-seeding. Period. The notion that everything has to be perfectly maintained, it’s bad for the game, and bad for enjoyment.

“When I came onboard at the U.S. Open, fairways were cut at half an inch. Then it got to a quarter of an inch. Let me tell you, it’s night and day. When the ball is right against the ground, the average golfer can’t trap the ball the way a really good player can. The fairways at Merion were cut to a quarter-inch at the 2005 U.S. Amateur, and the ball would barely stay on the fairway because of the slopes. So, for the 2013 U.S. Open there, we went back to half-inch fairways, which I thought was pretty radical. The fairways actually started to look a little shaggy, and I was afraid the pros were going to complain about flyers. But we didn’t get one complaint from one pro. And the members and their guests were like, ‘This is wonderful—now I can get under the ball.’

“Growing up, we didn’t hear about people skulling chip shots. Now you hear about the chip yips. So we’ve been trying to message, ‘Keep your fairways drier, but longer.’ It’s good, because for the average player, their ball hits and gets a little bit more distance. For the good player, it actually becomes more strategic, because you have to worry about what your ball is going to do after it lands, where is it going to bounce and roll to if it’s drier. The average player can bounce balls into greens.

“There are other issues in making golf more enjoyable. How comfortable is a golfer on the golf course? It’s so common for a beginning golfer to feel like he or she doesn’t understand etiquette, how to mark a ball, or This happened, and I don’t understand the rules. It’s why we’re trying to modernize the rules. If even most elite golfers can’t understand these things, we have a problem.

I remember sitting down with Peter Dawson [former chief executive of the R&A] and saying, ‘We have to be radical about this. We have to approach this thing from outside the box. And if we’re not going to be outside the box on some thinking, shame on us, because we’ll never get there.’ Because golfers who are not comfortable on the golf course are just not going to play as much golf, so we’re getting more engaged with those issues.”

‘I remember when Dick Rugge [former USGA senior technical director] came up to me after the 2007 U.S. Open and said, ‘We’ve now had three good U.S. Opens in a row [Pinehurst, Winged Foot and Oakmont], and we’re now a better equipment and standards department.’ What he was saying was that if there is credibility with how our biggest championship is run, then it builds faith in other things. And if you can’t get the U.S. Open right, all of a sudden, there can be a perception that you don’t know what you’re doing with testing equipment.

“So mistakes at the U.S. Open matter. And we were aware of that last year after Oakmont [the controversial handling of the ruling against winner Dustin Johnson]. You think about it when it’s happening. You think about it a week later. And you think about it when you read a thousand very critical messages that came in. You can’t say, ‘Oh, we had such a good Open except for that one thing.’ Because nobody can look past that one thing. And I understand that.

“The irony at Oakmont is that some things went extremely well. You couldn’t have gotten much unluckier with the weather, but the course still performed beautifully. I can’t think of another golf course that could take that much water and still be that kind of test. We got a great champion. Dustin Johnson doesn’t get enough credit for how well he handled that. But we made mistakes and have learned from them. But it was also kind of a perfect storm. I’d guess that 99 percent of golf people still do not understand exactly what happened (see Golf Digest, September 2016). Tour players don’t understand what happened. DJ himself was operating under the old rule, telling the official that when his ball moved, he hadn’t addressed the ball, which is a term that didn’t exist in the new rule. So you had a player not understanding the rule, us getting incorrect information, then having the video evidence. I’m very comfortable that DJ should have gotten the one-stroke penalty, the way the rule was written. I hated the rule, but you have to apply what it said then. Thankfully we have since changed it.

“Where we got it wrong was, instead of waiting for DJ to get to the scoring area to apply the penalty, we should have just said, ‘DJ, I know you don’t understand this, but you got a one-stroke penalty—play on.’ The way it happened, no one knew where they stood, and so it was unfair to the other competitors.

“If I had a mulligan on that one, once I found out what had gone on, I would have quickly gotten myself into the Fox booth and talked more about it. I wasn’t on the rules committee at Oakmont—we had some people who are better with the rules than I am—and they handled it. But that might have been one of those places where it would have been helpful to have the leader of the organization. In a moment of a crisis, you’ve got to step to the plate and deal with it. I learned from that.

“There was a positive result from the DJ situation. I told my colleagues at the R&A, ‘This rule about the ball moving on the green continues to plague us. It’s burned the tours, and it makes the rules look stupid.’ So we fast-forwarded a rule change, which we wouldn’t have fast-forwarded without what happened at Oakmont.”

‘There was a lot of reaction from the golf community when Lexi Thompson, in the middle of her final round at the ANA Inspiration, was assessed a four-stroke penalty for a rules breach that was brought to the attention of the LPGA by a television viewer from the previous day’s coverage. We were all affected by it, and nobody likes to see that happen. It’s cases like these that we have kept top of mind as we’ve worked to modernize the rules, to hopefully positively change those outcomes in the future. One of the proposed changes says, ‘The player’s reasonable judgment will be accepted even if later shown to be wrong by other information,’ and it will reduce the need for video review in certain circumstances. It’s our responsibility to thoughtfully evaluate the overall effects of video technology on the game, especially because we’ve seen the impact that these situations can have.”

‘From an agronomic standpoint, we had the U.S. Amateur there in 2010, and it played beautifully, and the fescue greens putted beautifully. The problem at the U.S. Open was there had been a rough winter coming in, and the greens got some thick-bladed Poa annua that mixed with the fine-bladed fescue, and they looked horrible and they putted horrible. But there was virtually nothing we could do about it. So if I had one regret, I wish we could have approached the situation with players in a more transparent way. If we had said to the players in the week coming in, ‘Listen, you’re going to see greens that, condition-wise, Chambers Bay is not happy with and we’re not happy with,’ it wouldn’t have become so confrontational. We tried to stay positive about it, but I think what that ended up unfortunately doing was us being perceived as ignoring a problem.”

‘As far as the Fox television deal [a 12-year contract, announced in 2013, for $1.1 billion], there are different ways of looking at it. I watched us go from ABC to NBC [starting in 1995], and there were a lot of hurt feelings back then, the same way that there are a lot of hurt feelings with the transition from NBC/Golf Channel to Fox. On the other hand, getting another big network like Fox involved in golf probably has been a good thing, you could argue, for golf holistically. I would hope people would look at it as those are extra monies coming to the USGA, and we’re a nonprofit. Our monies must go back into the game. So rather than golfers saying, ‘They went for the big money,’ and almost looking at it negatively, you’d like to say, this is actually more money coming to the game of golf. We’re not somebody who would pocket that money.

“Having a war chest is hugely important. It’s somewhere around $320 million that the USGA has in its investment portfolio. People say, ‘Why can’t you take that $320 million and put it back into golf?’ Well, that money allows us to do a couple of things. One, it’s insurance for something that could happen in the future so that we can keep operating. That could be anything. What happens if the U.S. Open is not played for a few years? It’s happened six times since World War I. If 9-11 had been on 6-11 at Bethpage, we wouldn’t have played that U.S. Open. The other thing is having enough money to do what you think is the right thing in governance. That’s really important. Because there were times when the USGA didn’t act because it decided it couldn’t afford to lose a potential lawsuit. We want to do what’s right for the game, and if we get sued and we lose, so be it, but we’re going to stand by our principles. But having said that, we’re at that point where we think that level is very healthy.

“We try over a rolling five-year period to break even. In 2017, we’ll lose money. We’re spending on a lot of things that we have to invest in now for the future, like technology. But as our revenues keep going up, our investment in the game goes up. We aren’t at a place where we’re seeking to grow this investment portfolio. We’re just getting a return on the investment itself.”

‘When I look back at the USGA over the decades, my biggest regret would be what has happened with distance. It’s been the thing, probably more than any, that has been the most harmful to the game. Billions of dollars have been spent to alter golf courses—and for what? If I said in front of a thousand golfers, ‘Who would like to hit the ball shorter?’ would any hands be raised? They’d think I had lost my marbles. Nobody wants to hit the ball shorter. On the other hand, increased distance has had a profoundly negative effect on golf courses. They’ve had to expand, they’ve had to use more resources to maintain. It takes more time to play. It takes more land and construction costs for new golf courses. And in some cases, architectural integrity has been compromised. Are any of these things good?

“Golf is the only sport I can think of where the equipment changes have continually affected the playing field and the size of it. That can’t be the right thing. Imagine equipment innovation in football, basketball, baseball, hockey or tennis requiring stadiums to expand. Crazy, and that’s exactly what has happened to golf courses in the past century. Distance is all relative. So is there a way to get equipment to fit a playing field, if all playing fields aren’t the same size? At a recent innovation symposium in Vancouver, I imagined a future that might have varied-distance golf balls, a concept that could be used under the current Rules of Golf. It sounds radical, but if you could have, for example, an 18-hole golf course sitting on, say, only 70 acres, it would take you only a couple of hours to play it. And by the way, it would be cheaper to maintain because of less labor, less fuel for the mowers, less irrigation and fertilizer. You start to say, that makes sense. And in theory, those cost savings could be passed along to the golfer.

I sometimes wish we could just snap our fingers and say, ‘We’re going to roll the entire golf world back on distance.’ But the stark reality is that would be chaotic and would likely not be supported by the masses.

“Beyond just distance, there also has been the issue of golf equipment making the game easier to play. Innovation has had so many wonderful benefits for the millions who play the game. We all love getting that new driver that flies longer and straighter. It’s magical. On the other hand, innovation has de-skilled the game at the elite professional and amateur level. This disparity between the elite and recreational golfer has made governing equipment more challenging as the years have passed. This is an area that the R&A and USGA really should explore, and I hope we will. Both organizations are steadfast in our belief that one set of playing rules has and will continue to serve the game very well, but at the same time we ought to be open to at least exploring the possibility of giving the game more choices when it comes to equipment and its effects on the golf course, and the skill required to play the game.

“Up to today, we’ve really not talked about it. But with the R&A and the USGA’s responsibility to look out to the future, there’s a genuine interest to say, ‘Maybe we won’t get there, but shame on us if we don’t at least talk about it.’ ”

‘When I look back at the USGA over the decades, my biggest regret would be what has happened with distance.’

‘That’s a beautiful piece of land that John DeLorean and his family used to own. It’s 10 minutes down the road from our headquarters, so when it was being developed, I remember thinking, Oh, boy, this could be a championship site. There were financial problems, and Trump came in and really did a great job finishing up the project. Say what you will about him, he’s always had this incredible love of the game. He approached us, and we ended up holding our Junior Amateur Championships there in 2009. If you were to ask Jordan Spieth, ‘Of all your events playing junior golf, what was the best?’ I’d be surprised if it’s not that event. Because the club was awesome.

I sat down with Trump, and I said, ‘This cannot turn out to be the Donald Trump Boys and Girls Junior.’ He said, ‘I get it.’ And he was a gracious host. He was walking in the galleries, and he wasn’t trying to be the show, and he didn’t get in the way. And then he approached us again, saying, ‘I’d love to have a Women’s Open.’ We did the agreement. Fast-forward to him running for president, and it got tricky.

“And what we’ve said all along, because this country has become so polarized, we kept saying to ourselves, ‘You’re a golf association; you’re about golf,’ and we just do not want to get engaged. To the extent that we can get out of presidential politics, because there is no upside to that. Half the people feel one way, half feel the other way.

“So as you look back as this election was coming up, we were eerily silent. When he wins the election, our focus becomes, ‘What’s in the best interest of the Women’s Open and women’s golf?’ Would it be best if we delayed this event, and moved somewhere else, maybe came back when he wasn’t president? But it became such a complicated thing that we decided we’re going to move forward. No matter what we did, people would be upset. This is just one of those times where we have to say, ‘We’re just going to have to deal with the repercussions and put on the best championship we can.’ ”

‘People wonder why we’re no longer allowing rounds by a player playing by himself to count for handicap purposes. As we’re embarking on this world handicapping system, one of the things inherent in The Rules of Golf is player integrity. It’s all about that. But if you look at handicapping on a worldwide basis, the United States and Canada were the only two places where a player could submit scores playing only by himself. As we went into this, we realized that the credibility of somebody’s handicap was really important, and in fairness, there are places in the United States and probably in Canada where we found that all of someone’s rounds alone got questioned, and we thought, Well, that’s not good. But this really came down to the way golf is played in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America. By the way, a person can still play alone with a caddie or a marker and have that round count. But this really came down to uniformity.”

‘We are exceptionally pleased with how it’s worked out, because change hasn’t been as hard as some people thought it would be. The whole goal was to ensure that the game long term was played with the player holding a club with a free-swinging motion, which we feel is part of the essence of the game. We had seen some troubling signs, like young players being coached to anchor, and even long wedges being stuck under the armpit. As for the projections that hundreds of thousands of people would leave the game, we haven’t seen any evidence of that. This was not about getting the long putter out of people’s hands. We even showed methods in which the putter could be used without anchoring, which is the method Bernhard Langer now uses. I only wish the USGA and R&A had done this a quarter-century before. I know it caused some hard feelings among people and hard feelings among some of the organizations, but thankfully we’ve gotten that behind us. It was no fun going through it, but it was the right thing for the game.”

‘How big a Sunday lead would I need to feel I could hold on to win the U.S. Open? With every hole on television? My Index is 3-something. [Long pause.] Somewhere between 20 and 25 strokes. [Laughs.] It’s embarrassing. I’ve played U.S. Open courses while preparing the course, sometimes by myself. From that back tee, you start hitting it in the rough, and things can spiral. I’d say, if you gave me a 25-stroke lead, and a couple of weeks to practice, I think I could bring it home.”

▶ “I don’t take mulligans when I play golf. I stopped after playing with Peter Dawson a few years ago. His point was, the first tee shot is probably one of the hardest shots of the entire day. Whether you’re a little nervous, or stiff, or haven’t figured out which way it’s going that day, it’s one of the most challenging shots in golf. And to automatically know you can get another one ruins the challenge. Peter, as he can be, was eloquent about it. I said henceforth, I’m never going to take another mulligan, and I haven’t.”

▶ “I’ve started to use a range finder.”

▶ “A few years ago, my wife and I closed on a small house in Jupiter, Fla. It turned out the original owner who had it built was Toney Penna. For a lot of years, I played a Toney Penna driver. That house just feels right.”

▶ “My first 10 years or so with the USGA, I’d still play in some amateur invitationals, but I gradually stopped. I do still play in the Seminole Pro-Member. I’ve invited Annika Sorenstam to be my partner the past several years. She still hits it right in the center of the clubface and down the middle. It’s a thrill to watch.”

‘When I leave, I would love to have somebody say, ‘You know what, over the past X amount of years, I’ve seen a nice improvement in what the USGA is doing for the game.’ That would be good. But I cringe when I hear the phrase ‘the Mike Davis era.’ I’m looking forward to getting out of the limelight, I really am.

“When the time comes, I want to do some volunteering, to stay engaged with the game. A bit of involvement in golf architecture would be fun. I’m not qualified to actually design my own course, but I’d love to team up with someone. Just to help. Just to go out and dig in the dirt. I’d love to do that.

“Until then, what’s going to drive me is that there are a few initiatives that I want to see to their end or at least far enough along where I can say we’re in great shape. I’d like to see if we can’t make some progress on giving more choices on the equipment front and alleviating some negative impacts. It will be great when that gets done.”