Mike Davis
John Feinstein

It was painful for Mike Davis to step away from setting up U.S. Open courses, but not for the reasons you might think

January 7, 2019

The news last week that USGA CEO Mike Davis has decided to step away from setting up U.S. Open courses wasn’t a shock to most in golf, especially considering the controversy that has surrounded Opens in recent years.

As Davis pointed out in his always even-handed manner, his elevation from executive director to CEO in 2016 left him far less time to spend on golf courses since his new role also meant spending a lot more time in corporate board rooms and glad-handing with big-money types and sponsors.

So, it all made perfect sense: After 13 years overseeing the set-up and almost 30 playing a role in how courses would play all USGA championships, it was time for Davis to hang up his Stimpmeter.

Davis insisted the decision to hand things over to John Bodenhamer wasn’t based on what happened last year at Shinnecock Hills, where he and his staff were criticized—justly—for letting the historic Southampton, N.Y., course get away from them during Saturday’s third round. Nor did the fall-out expedite a decision, Davis said, as it already had been set in motion.

Cynics will cry that this is all a likely story, but I believe Davis. I’ve known him for 25 years, having worked closely with him during my research for the book Open, which chronicled the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. I have no doubt he thought long and hard about the time that goes into set-up—not so much the week of the event as in the years leading up to it—and whether he could still be CEO and the man in charge of Open set-ups.

What I also believe is that the decision was a painful one for Davis, regardless of what led to it and not for the reasons you might think. The former Pennsylvania Junior champion is very good with people. He’s very smart, and he was the perfect choice to lead the USGA when David Fay retired at the end of 2010. But the 55-year-old’s real passion is golf course architecture. He loves nothing more than figuring out how to create a golf course that can produce a memorable championship—for the right reasons.

I’ve seen Davis’ eyes light up when he talks about ongoing changes to a future Open venue. He will happily go on for hours about hole locations, the width of fairways, the height of the rough and moving tee boxes forward and backwards.

What most people don’t understand is that only a tiny fraction of course set-up decisions are made during the week of a championship. In his role overseeing the set-up, Davis was certainly out on the golf course every morning at dawn during an Open week, making final decisions on hole locations, tee boxes and how much water to put on the golf course. But 90 percent—or more—of setup decisions are made starting at least five years out from an Open.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Sometimes, the USGA will insist on a redesign, to update bunkers or to put in a new watering system. In the case of the Open at Bethpage Black, the USGA put $5 million (which served as the rental fee) into a complete renovation of the golf course.

“The bones were there,” said Fay, who made the decision to take the Open to a truly public golf course for the first time. “But the place was in awful shape. You could barely put a tee into the ground.”

Most often, that’s not the case, but Davis and his staff would make numerous trips to an Open site to become intimately familiar with a layout and understand the ins and outs of fairway widths, green speeds, bunkering and trees.

Davis had been the anointed successor to Tom Meeks as the set-up chief long before Meeks retired after the 2005 Open at Pinehurst. Meeks was very good at his job, but is most-remembered for two black eyes: the second round 18th-hole location at Olympic in 1998 and the Sunday disaster at Shinnecock in 2004.

When Davis took control in 2006, he already had ideas about changing the overall setup of Open courses. He went to graduated rough, so that players who missed a fairway by a foot wouldn’t be forced to pitch out of ankle-high grass. He incorporated a driveable par 4 at most courses and moved tees around, often deciding how long or short to play a hole based on the weather forecast. Davis also cut back on making short par 5s into long par 4s, meaning that scores to par were more honest than in the past.

All these changes were almost universally applauded.

It wasn’t as if scoring changed radically the first few years Davis was in charge. Except, that is, for when Rory McIlroy shot 16 under par en route to winning at Congressional in 2011, when a perfect storm (literally) of heavy spring rains and greens that never got fast enough made the golf course play relatively easy. Even that though, was deceiving. In 1997, when Ernie Els won at Congressional with a score of 276, that was four under par because the sixth hole was played as a par 4. In 2011, the sixth was played as a par 5. While McIlroy blew away the field with a week almost as brilliant as Tiger Woods’ 15 under par at Pebble Beach in 2000, Jason Day finished second. His score was 276.

The praise heaped on Davis began to slow at Pinehurst in 2014 when many people were stunned with how brown the golf course had gotten following the Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw redesign. Davis, who has often said that finding enough water to keep golf courses green will be a huge issue going forward, approved of those changes.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Then came Chambers Bay in 2015—the last golf course Fay selected as an Open venue—and the screaming from players about the quality of the greens.

In 2016, there were no serious complaints about Oakmont, but the handling of Dustin Johnson’s one-shot penalty on Sunday afternoon, made Davis a target for critics again. It was followed by Brooks Koepka’s 16-under-par winning score in 2017 at Erin Hills—which was NOT deceiving. The golf course was just too easy, based on U.S. Open standards.

The chance to stop the bleeding came last June at Shinnecock, when the USGA returned to the site of its worst set-up disaster. Davis had been blunt in the months leading up to the Open about what had happened in 2004: “We gave a great golf course a black eye it didn’t deserve,” he said. “It’s important we get it absolutely right this time.”

Even though scores were high the first two rounds, most players described the course as difficult, but fair. That’s what a U.S. Open is supposed to be and players, generally speaking, understand that.

Then came Saturday. Davis misjudged the afternoon weather, and the wind wreaked havoc on the back nine, especially on the hole locations at the 13th and 15th, which Davis admitted were close to impossible given the weather. To make matters worse, Phil Mickelson, en route to an 81, slapped at a still-moving ball on the 13th hole after missing a putt and then watching the ball continue to roll as if it was going to go off the green.

Mickelson’s mental meltdown, which cost him two shots but didn’t get him disqualified, put the setup gaffe into an even harsher glare, with many players saying they understood Mickelson’s frustration.

Andrew Redington

RELATED: The USGA still got it wrong when it didn’t DQ Phil Mickelson

It’s unfortunate that Davis’ last U.S. Open will be remembered for controversy, and that it will overshadow much of the good work he was involved in. I know how much he loved roaming a golf course at dawn. He was famous for being the first to arrive every morning to the point where Meeks nicknamed him, “AJ,” (as in Foyt) because he was often seen zooming down a highway to beat everyone to morning coffee in the clubhouse. I can still see he and Meeks laughing and joking on those early mornings before settling down to the very serious work of trying to get the golf course exactly right.

Davis often quoted P.J. Boatwright, who set up Open golf courses from 1984 until his death in 1991. “He said to me, ‘Mike, no one is going to pat you on the back for getting 71 hole locations right at the U.S. Open,’ ” Davis said early one morning at Bethpage. “Tom [Meeks] knows that better than anyone.”

Now, Davis knows it better than anyone. I know he made the decision to step down because he believes it is the right thing to do. I also know he is giving up the part of his job that he loves most.

Introducing Golf Digest All Access, a new way to improve


WATCH: GOLF DIGEST VIDEOS