PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Wednesday might have marked a historic first in the considerable annals of the United States Golf Association, which has been riding herd over the domestic game for portions of three different centuries.
To wit, how many times in the organization's often controversial history has it made a decision that seemingly everybody applauded?
Short answer: Zero.
That changed when Mike Davis, a guy whose ego is as unobtrusive as his everyman name, was elevated from the rules and competition committee to the executive director's chair, replacing David Fay, who retired two months ago.
If the name sounds familiar, Davis for the past few years has been charged with the course setup at the organization's showcase, the U.S. Open. No sooner did Davis start handling the primary setup duties than did all bitching cease. In fact, in a modern miracle compared to the scorched earth the organization had created among players, fans and critics over the past decade, opinion at the Open fast morphed into outright praise.
Without question, Davis is the most popular figure in recent USGA history as it relates to players, who, let's face it, do more to shape public opinion of the influential organization than any other entity. The timbre surrounding the U.S. Open changed from one of global derision -- remember the debacle at Shinnecock in 2004, where play was halted because greens were unplayable? -- into near-universal applause regarding playability and fairness.
A quick sampling of PGA Tour players at the Honda Classic produced nothing but salutations and smiles. Plenty of folks were hoping Davis would get the job. It was just a matter of whether he wanted it and if the USGA would agree to his terms. A few weeks ago, Davis dismissed any interest in the job because he didn’t want to spend his day dealing with contract negotiations, sponsors and paperwork. But the executive committee agreed to let him continue to run the U.S. Open setup and site selection. He will surrender the on-site reins on the organization's other events.
"He does a great job at the U.S. Open," Lee Westwood said. "He's a straight man. What he says is what he does. Glad to hear it."
In his tenure calling the setup shots, Davis moved tees around to offset changes in weather, which hadn't been done in decades. He helped usher in three-tiered rough, where punishment was commensurate to the wildness of shots. He used driveable par-4 holes to create more excitement. In 2008, he insisted that the 18th hole at Torrey Pines be played as a par-5, bringing winning birdies and eagles into the equation, and not as a par-4, which is what architect Rees Jones wanted.
What happened? Tiger Woods birdied the hole at the end of regulation to force an 18-hole playoff, then birdied it again in the Monday playoff with Rocco Mediate to force an extra hole, resulting in one of the most memorable Opens ever.
After Davis was named director of rules and competition in 2005, complaints ceased almost overnight. Yet the winning scores at the Open still hovered around even par, same as it ever was. Davis had done the impossible -- transformed cruel and unusual punishment into a fair and balanced setup that gave players a chance to make birdies and bogeys.
Davis, a genial guy who makes friends easily, has become one of the most accessible figures in the game. Hopefully, that will remain the case as he gets bumped up the food chain. His promotion gives the USGA, often characterized as a bunch of East Coast, blue-blood busybodies in blue blazers, a far-less-stodgy image. For example, here's what the USGA's top official said about Davis in a press release that reeks of organizational corporate-speak, starch and stiffness.
"Mike Davis is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced administrators in the golf industry today and will be an ideal steward of the game as the USGA’s new executive director," said USGA President Jim Hyler. "In two decades of organizing and managing all our national championships, Mike has demonstrated creativity and impartiality that will serve him and the organization well in his new position."
Even in congratulating and lauding the guy, the USGA sounds more rigid than rebar. Maybe under Davis, that will change. Fay was a decent guy with a good sense of humor, too, but he wore a trademark bow tie that contributed to the USGA's stuffy image. Players didn't feel like they knew him. Mention the USGA to most players and, outside of Davis, they don’t often offer positive feedback. When Davis talked to players, Kenny Perry said, he actually listened.
"I think Mike understands the player perspective," Perry said. "He is a guy that everybody likes and I think he will be very fair in that new job.
"He has always been very approachable. I think it's awesome, and it's a win-win for everybody."
Especially regarding the Open.
"We would be absolute idiots if we extracted Mike from his U.S. Open activities," Hyler said.
Hmmm. That's a descriptive term that's been used once or twice in recent years relating to USGA policies, hirings, firings and protocols. But not this time.
"I love the golf-course setup part about what I've done, putting together the pieces to the puzzle," Davis said Wednesday. "I have said this before -- I would pay the USGA to allow me to do that."
No need. He still gets to orchestrate the Open particulars and got a nice raise in the process.
If Davis was able turn his in-house popularity into leverage to carve a hybrid job description, allowing him serve as both Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, then he might just possess the consensus-building skills he'll need to succeed in the Far Hills, N.J., hallways, too, which is doubly good news.
"Sounds like he held all the cards, huh?" Westwood said.
Here's what Phil Mickelson, never a guy to withhold a strong opinion about course conditions, said at the U.S. Open last summer at Pebble Beach, another Davis production: "I thought the golf course was set up perfectly. I thought Mike Davis did a great job. It was very playable. There were some scoring opportunities out there if you played well. I thought it was just really well done. The pin placements were great. The rough was very fair. They put some water on the greens so that shots weren't able to hold, some greens we weren't able to hold, we could. I just thought it was really well done."
Fair, with scoring opportunities? At an Open? Those sentiments were all but unthinkable five years earlier.
For those of us who have been USGA members over the years and remember the painful parade of embarrassing gaffes over the past decade on both the golf course and under dictatorial former leadership, Davis can't possibly make things worse.
Even if he's nowhere near as good around the office water cooler as he is with a garden hose on the greens.