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USGA GOLF JOURNAL
Mike Davis: A Champion of the Game
June 29, 2021
By John Feinstein
After Gary Woodland won the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he spent a good deal of time with Mike Davis, the CEO of the United States Golf Association – the way Open champions do as part of their year-long victory tour.
“The funny thing is I already felt as if I knew him pretty well,” Woodland said. “It wasn’t as if he suddenly knew who I was when I won at Pebble Beach. The first two Opens I played in, at Bethpage (Black) in 2009 and at Pebble in 2010, he went out of his way to introduce himself and ask if there was anything he and the USGA could do to make the week better for me and, I’m guessing, for everyone in the field. I was a qualifier back then, pretty new to the tour and certainly new to the Open. But he acted as if I was just as important as anyone who was already an Open champion.
“That’s why it was so easy to work with him when I became an Open champion. He treated me exactly the same way as he’d treated me when I was a qualifier.”
In many ways, Woodland’s story sums up Davis’ 10-year tenure as the USGA’s executive director and then CEO and, more broadly, his 31 years working for the USGA. If there’s one thing everyone in golf who has dealt with Davis agrees on, it’s this: He is always willing to listen, especially when the subject is golf – the game he’s been passionate about since his dad first took him to Chambersburg (Pa.) Country Club when he was an 8-year-old.
“When the debate was going on about anchored putters, a lot of us disagreed with the USGA/R&A decision to ban them,” said Jim Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion. “Mike called me to talk about it. We were probably on the phone for an hour. He never interrupted me when I was talking. I made my points, he made his. As we hung up, he said to me, ‘Jim, I think we’re going to agree to disagree.’ I respected that, and the fact that he was willing to hear what I had to say.”
There are some who think that Davis must have started working for the USGA when he was 12 years old. Davis was actually 25 when he started at the USGA early in 1990. Like Mike Butz, the man who hired him, he grew up in Chambersburg – a town of about 20,000 in south-central Pennsylvania. Butz is eight years older than Davis and didn’t know him well, although his younger brother Joe did.
“I’d met him, I’m sure,” Butz said. “I knew he was a very good golfer (Pennsylvania junior amateur champion, in fact). He’d sent me a résumé at some point, and I kind of put it aside in case something ever came up that I thought might fit him. In 1989, I went to see P.J. Boatwright (then the USGA’s senior director of Rules and Competitions) to tell him I needed some help. I was basically in charge of eight events each year and I had two little ones at home. He told me to find someone. I interviewed several people, didn’t think any of them were right for the job.
“One night Leslie (Butz’s wife, who also grew up in Chambersburg) said to me, ‘Didn’t Mike Davis send you a résumé a while back?’ I’d completely forgotten. I got in touch with Mike and knew almost right away that he was the right guy. He had this passion for golf; for the history of golf and for great golf courses that all combined to make him perfect for what I was looking for.”
Even so, Davis’ new career didn’t get off to a rousing start. Soon after he started work, he and Butz flew to Chicago for a site visit at 1990 U.S. Open host site Medinah, and so Butz could show Davis what his new job involved.
“We got to town the same day the courtesy cars arrived,” Butz said. “Mike and I were driving to the club early in the morning in a Buick LeSabre that had been designated as the car the general chairman would drive during the week. We were on Medinah Avenue, within sight of the club, when a woman coming the other way suddenly made a left turn without signaling and plowed into us.
“Mike loves to imitate the gasp I let out when she slammed into us. It was pretty loud. No one was hurt, but the woman got out of the car screaming that she signaled, and Mike had sped up to cause the collision. A cop comes along whose name, I swear, was Fife (as in Barney). He took a report, but I don’t think he ticketed anyone. The car was still drivable but there we were pulling into Medinah representing the USGA in a car whose front was smashed, a headlight was out and the side was smashed, too. We looked very dignified.
“I said to Mike ‘Nice first day, huh?’”
Things got better for Davis after that. When Butz was promoted in 1995 to senior director of Rules and Competitions, Davis was also promoted – essentially given Butz’s old job – except with more inside-the-ropes responsibilities. That’s when he began to get involved in golf course setup – which, as everyone who has ever known him will tell you, was right up his alley.
“Golf course architecture was always my passion, dating to when I was a teenager playing the sport,” Davis said several years ago. “One reason I love doing setup was trying to imagine how the architect would want to see the course played. In a sense, that allowed me to put myself in the shoes of some of the great architects.”
Davis worked with Tom Meeks on golf course setup until Meeks’ retirement in 2005. It was then that David Fay, the USGA’s executive director at the time, put Davis in charge of course setup for all USGA championships but, most importantly, the U.S. Open.
“It was a natural to give it to him,” Fay said. “He’d had experience working with Tom, and he clearly had a passion for it.”
Davis dove in headfirst at Winged Foot in 2006. He made three important changes to the USGA’s setup philosophy. The first and more important was graduated rough. For years, the worst place to miss a drive at a U.S. Open was a yard off the fairway. It was called “pitch-out rough” and players moaned often about it.
“Basically, you went from fairway to jungle before Mike took over,” said David Feherty, who only played in one U.S. Open but has been an observer of the championship both as a TV commentator and a fan for close to 40 years. “It really wasn’t fair that if you hit a tee shot one yard offline, you were dead, but if you hit it 20 yards offline you had a shot. It had become a test of who was the best driver, not who was the best player. Mike changed that.”
Davis also moved away from the tradition of turing one par 5 into a long par 4, to get away from what often felt like a USGA obsession with keeping players from getting too far under par. And he began to occasionally set up one par 4 as reachable, an innovation that has become so popular that some tournaments now play with two reachable par 4s.
“He got rave reviews early on, and they were deserved,” Fay said. “But he did a lot of things that might have been just as important after he took over for me.”
Fay retired after 21 years at the helm at the end of 2010, and the initial feeling was that Butz, by then his No. 2, would be the natural successor. One person who didn’t feel that way was Butz. He and Leslie talked it over at length and prayed about it, too.
“I woke up in a hotel room in Orlando during the PGA Merchandise Show, and it looked to me as if God had written on the ceiling, ‘This is not the path for you,’” he said. “Soon after that I called Mike and suggested we have breakfast.”
During that breakfast, Butz explained to Davis that he didn’t want the job but thought it might be a good fit for Davis. It turned out he was right.
Five years after getting the job, he was named CEO, an important change because it gave him more authority inside – and beyond – the USGA’s offices.
Under Davis’ leadership, the USGA was the driving force behind the creation of LPGA-USGA Girls Golf; co-founded the Latin America Amateur Championship; expanded international qualifying for USGA championships; brought sustainability forums to Canada and Japan; partnered with The R&A to modernize the Rules and establish the World Handicap System; advocated for the urgent need for the game to be more environmentally sustainable through the continued evolution of the USGA Green Section; successfully brokered a deal with the state of North Carolina to establish Golf House Pinehurst; and oversaw the development of the USGA Foundation to increase its investment in the game.
“What he did was upgrade everything we do,” said Mary Lopuszynski, who has been in charge of USGA merchandising for 27 years. “He hired smart people, he created job that were needed so people weren’t overworked. I’d like to think we were doing pretty well before Mike took over. He made us better.
“He is also a good listener. I always felt I could walk into his office anytime with a problem or an idea and he would listen, make suggestions, sometimes add to what I was thinking about. He never acted like a boss, he was more of a colleague in his approach, but there was no doubt who was the boss.”
Mimi Griffin, who has sold corporate hospitality at USGA events dating to the 1992 U.S. Senior Open at Saucon Valley, echoed Lopuszynski.
“Mike has always been absolutely secure in what he knows,” said Griffin – introduced Davis to his wife, Cece, who was working for her at the time, at that 1992 even. “He never tried to tell me how to do my job, but was always there to offer advice if I asked. He was always supportive and never felt the need to prove to people that he knew more than what he knew. That’s why people love working for him.”
There were, of course, some difficult issues over the years.
The anchored putter debate was big, and became bigger when more players began using the method, including Webb Simpson in winning the U.S. Open in 2012. That was one of 11 events won in a two-year period by players using an anchored putter.
When the PGA Tour and the PGA of America objected to the ban and the Tour threatened to ignore the USGA/R&A ban on anchoring, Davis brokered the peace. The ban was announced in 2013 but didn’t go into effect until 2016, giving cooler heads the chance to talk the issue out. Five years later, most players have figured out how to putt without anchoring – or complaining.
There were course setup and agronomy miscues at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in 2015 and Shinnecock Hills in 2018. Like any good CEO, Davis shouldered the blame and helped navigate the organization through the complaints from players.
Then there was 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Davis continually advocated for golf’s place as a safe outdoor activity and an important part of economic recovery in many communities. He also took on the difficult decision to cancel 10 of the USGA’s 14 annual championships – the first cancellations since World War II – and play the U.S. Open at Winged Foot and the U.S. Women’s Open at Champions without fans.
Now, his successor as CEO, Mike Whan, will take on issues such as distance and pace of play. At 56, Davis is off to pursue his passion for golf course architecture, partnering with Tom Fazio II in a new design company.
“My guess is that he and Tommy will do some things in architecture that will be brand new and create golf courses others never thought about,” Fay said. “It will become another way he’s given back to the game.”
During the middle of his tenure, Davis decided it was important to get more player input into decisions made by the USGA’s Executive Committee. He asked Nick Price, a three-time major champion who played in 20 U.S. Opens, to join the 15-member board. Price is as respected as any player of the last 40 years, so bringing him on made sense.
“I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to do it when Mike first called,” Price said. “I wasn’t eager to add any extra travel, but he convinced me it wouldn’t be overwhelming and that a player voice was needed.
“I’m not so sure Mike’s gotten the credit he deserves in a lot of areas, but one of them is venue selection. It isn’t that hard to convince a club to host the U.S. Open. The bigger challenges are some of the less glamorous events. Mike’s great at convincing members to give up their golf course so we can bring our events there. It’s a pretty simple formula: he treats everyone as equally important, and he’s just a good guy.”
As simple as that sounds, that sentence might sum up Davis best: A good guy, someone people like, who will treat first-time U.S. Open qualifier Gary Woodland as U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland. Throw in a lifelong passion for golf, for the game’s history and architecture, and that’s Mike Davis. His legacy as CEO is a simple one: He made golf course setups better. He made the USGA better. He made golf better.
Mike Whan has big shoes to fill. And everyone in golf knows it.
John Feinstein is an award-winning author of 42 books, including best-sellers “A Season on the Brink” and “A Good Walk Spoiled.” He also writes for The Washington Post and Golf Digest.