by Chris Bertram
Mike Davis is entering his second decade as the man in charge of setting the stage for the second major of the season.
Davis joined the USGA in 1990 and worked in various roles at what is effectively America’s R&A until he succeeded David Fay as executive director, a role which morphed into CEO, in 2016.
But in a decision that is surely illustrative of where his real passion lies, despite his elevation to the top job at the USGA, he still personally oversees the set-up of the US Open course.
You get the distinct impression Davis is a reluctant suited boardroom guy, much happier hiking over land to assess its value as a US Open venue, or, further down the line, working out the most devilish tweaks to flummox the world’s finest players.
It is easy to forget now – with adventurous selections such as Merion, Chambers Bay and Erin Hills as past and imminent US Open stops – that the choice of US Open venue and their subsequent set-ups weren’t even a topic of conversation 11 years ago.
They simply went to traditional golf clubs, and their courses set up to be as penal as possible in an attempt to make par act as a magnet to the winning score. Davis and the USGA may not have got everything correct in that period but they’ve been trying to go in a different – and surely welcome – direction.
A sufficiently skilled player to have won the 1982 Pennsylvania State Junior title, Davis is now sweating over a second incredibly new venue in three years, with Erin Hills poised to stage the 2017 championship two years after the fun and games of Chambers Bay.
Ask Davis if the trend toward eclectic venues and how they played has been a success, and he deflects the praise to his predecessor, and accepts blame for any errors to himself.
“If you look at our next 10 US Open venues [after this year], they are historical, tried-and-trusted sites with wonderful name association,” he says. “But we relish the idea of introducing a new course because there is no country in the world that has as many great golf courses as the United States, and we should celebrate that.
“When we look at US Open sites, first and foremost, I can assure you we are looking at the course. Can it truly test the world’s best players? That’s the top thing. That’s the second thing. That’s the third thing.
“So if a course has the infrastructure and if it’s a good enough course architecturally and it can test, let’s start creating history. I think that’s how the entire USGA thought about Erin Hills and the others.
“Back in the mid ’90s our then executive director, David Fay, came up with what was perceived as this wacky idea: Let’s go to this municipal state-owned course called Bethpage.
“A few of us went and looked at it and kind of shook our heads thinking he’d lost his marbles. But he knew what he was doing. You introduce public access and you have a great US Open [on the Black course, in 2002].
“The US Open had been known as the ultimate test, a test of shot-making, nerve, course management but we wanted to look at how the course was set up and how the hole played. Could it be done differently and done differently on different days?
“At Erin Hills the scorecard yardage is 7,692 yards but it won’t play that yardage on any one of the four days. It may be slightly more, it may be slightly less, but we really don’t figure out exactly what we’re going to do until really the day before or even the day itself once we know what the wind conditions and the firmness is going to be.
“We go into every US Open saying Mother Nature is going to play actually a bigger role than we will play in terms of how stern a test it is.
“There’s a risk going to new venues because you just don’t know how they’re going to come out. You have to adapt. We kept the fairways longer at Merion because during the US Amateur there, the ball would barely stay on them because of the slopes. It looked a little shaggy but no-one complained.”
Chambers Bay was different.
People – namely those playing it – did complain. The site was difficult for spectators so that was unhelpful but the main problem was the greens. They looked awful and putted only marginally better.
Davis laments that the championship, which produced a memorable finish, is instead recalled for the putting surfaces.
“During the US Amateur there in 2010, the fescue putted beautifully. There was a rough winter before the US Open and some thick-bladed poa annua mixed with the fine fescue made them putt poorly and look worse. We maybe could have communicated the problems to the players a little better and it wouldn’t have become so confrontational.”
Davis acknowledges that ‘errors’ on the USGA’s part will always be an issue; like its trans-Atlantic cousin the R&A, rightly or wrongly it is a body people relish criticising. Last year, the organisation gave the watching world all the ammunition it could ever dream of with the Dustin Johnson rules fiasco.
There was not a golfer watching who did not realise the difficult position the rules officials put Johnson in coming down the stretch, trying to win his first major unaware of where he actually sat on the leaderboard.
Davis acknowledges error but also puts it in context.
“Mistakes at the US Open matter,” he says. “That is what people remember. It was a perfect storm of rules changes and incorrect information but the rule is now changed and we learned from it. We fast-forwarded the rule change with the R&A.”
The problem the USGA has in this respect may well be one of perception. It is a body that governs the amateur game and thus it is easy to be viewed as amateurish in its running of its biggest championship.
It faces a similarly long road to Valhalla in terms of ridding itself of the notion that par is sacrosanct. Pinched fairways combined with long and thick rough, as well as lightning green speeds, are not myths. But in the Davis era they are becoming largely memories, with Erin Hills in the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin the latest to be tabled for public assessment.
“Contrary to what so many think we’re not after a certain winning score,” says Davis.
“What we really are after is to see if we can set the course up in such a way that tests every aspect of the game.
As one of our fellow staffers said, we want to see all 14 clubs in a player’s bag get dirty, and if it’s windy, the test is just going to be a little more stern, and if it’s not, we’re still going to give away the trophy and the Jack Nicklaus gold medal for the low 72-hole score.
“When we look at that, we don’t come in saying we want the par to be a certain number. What we really have done is looked at the course and said, how will each golf hole play the best.
“This year is really a welcoming party [for Erin Hills] but I suspect that this will be the first of many.”
Eleven years ago it would have been easy for Davis to continue the US Open circuit of traditional clubs.
Erin Hills is his latest pet project, and if you enjoy the game’s biggest titles being played on a distinctive canvas, a success in Wisconsin will only encourage one of the biggest risk-takers in our conservative sport.