Met Golfer Profile: Mike Davis
From the February/March 2012 issue of The Met Golfer
by Greg Midland
The alarm clock rings at an ungodly hour, when sunrise is just a distant rumor. The man makes his way through the darkness to the national championship venue, where he meets with colleagues, course maintenance staff, and volunteers for a briefing. Information, instructions, and opinions flow as freely as the industrial-strength coffee. At the end, the group disperses, knowing exactly what they need to do to prepare the course for the day. The man leads them outside with a confident smile, clipboard and walkie-talkie in hand. It’s clear that he relishes this early-morning, on-the-ground work.
The man is Mike Davis, who became the USGA’s executive director last March following David Fay’s December 2010 retirement. To the surprise of virtually no one, Davis has brought his much-admired leadership qualities and innovative thinking from the championship operations into the executive suite.
Even better, he didn’t have to give up his previous job—or, he didn’t have to give up all of it. On March 2, 2011, a press conference was held to introduce the 47-year-old Davis as the association’s seventh executive director. Davis, who had worked at the USGA for 21 years, didn’t need much of an introduction.
In 2005, Davis became the USGA Director of Rules and Competitions and was responsible for course setup, most visibly for the U.S. Open but also for the U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Amateur. It was at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club that Davis introduced a few of his now-signature concepts: graduated rough, day-to-day changes in hole lengths, and slightly wider fairways. These initiatives were in full public view, with the media-savvy Davis explaining the thought processes behind them. The players, always a tough lot to please, responded with mostly rave reviews, and successive U.S. Opens at Oakmont, Torrey Pines, Bethpage, Pebble Beach, and Congressional saw still more innovation. The U.S. Open was and still is golf ’s toughest test, but under Davis it became a much more interesting test as well.
“We would be idiots if we extracted Mike from U.S. Open activities,” was the candid and well-received remark by USGA President Jim Hyler at Davis’s press conference. “He’s the best in the world at that.”
The USGA realized it could have its cake and eat it too. While Davis relinquished supervision of the other championships, he would remain in charge of course setup for the U.S. Open. In effect, the USGA promoted one of its most talented and popular employees while allowing him to retain the primary duty that made him so valuable.
But could one assume the considerable responsibilities of executive director and still devote the energy necessary to oversee the venue for the USGA’s most important championship? It was uncharted territory.
“I knew coming in that it would be a very, very demanding job, particularly in the first year,” said Davis in his office in the newly refurbished executive suite in Far Hills, N.J. When it became clear he was in the running for the position, Davis immediately thought of how he could continue to have some role in championship course setup.
“I thought, okay, how much time did I actually spend setting up the U.S. Open,” he recalled. “I figured that it was somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of my job. So given my incredible level of interest—I’ve said before it’s the one part of the job that I’d do for no pay—I concluded that there were probably 5 to 10 percent of things that the executive director does that I could [delegate] to others.”
Such effusive praise of one’s job duties does not sound disingenuous coming from Davis.
“I would have been content for the rest of my career doing exactly what I had been doing,” he says sincerely. “So when this opportunity arose, I thought long and hard about whether I should apply for it.”
One of the reasons he did go for it was Fay himself, who, as Davis tells it, had given him subtle encouragement over the years.
“David made little comments to me here and there, without being really direct about it, almost insinuating that ‘someday, you may be dealing with these decisions,’” said Davis. “My office was right beside David’s, so I knew a good part of what he did.”
With a wry smile he adds, “I’m learning even more about it now!”
Indeed, stepping into the position occupied since 1989 by Fay, who started his career at the MGA, gave Davis pause.
“In some ways you want to come into a position where something is broken, so that you can make immediate improvements,” says Davis. “But in this case, I’m walking in and following somebody who had such a great reputation that you think, ‘How am I going to fit into his big shoes?’ That’s why I hesitated about this position.”
Luckily, Davis didn’t have much time to hesitate. Fay retired just as many people expected him to—quickly, and with little fanfare. With no formal succession plan in place, the USGA leadership had to make a decision on whom to turn to. Hyler, who chaired the USGA Championship Committee and worked closely with Davis, recalls the discussions among the members of the search committee.
“We made a decision that we wanted what we call a ‘golf person’ to be the executive director,” says Hyler. “We knew Mike would be a strong candidate, and in the interview process he quickly rose to the top.
“Over the years I saw Mike not willing to accept the status quo, willing to take risks, to change things for the better,” explains Hyler. “I was struck by what I’d say was his calculated risk-taking, and also the way he organized his work and listened to others. Almost a year later, all of the skills that we saw in Mike have shown themselves incredibly well since he’s been in the job.”
The position requires a global outlook. Davis sits on the board of the International Golf Federation and is helping to pick an architect to design the course in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 2016 Olympics. At press time, the list was narrowed to eight candidates.
Davis clearly has the right temperament to have input on such high-level decisions. He is a listener and a consensus-builder. Fay, who Davis says is one of his most trusted professional mentors, has nothing but praise for his successor’s executive qualities.
“He’s a contemporary traditionalist,” remarks Fay. “He is extremely well-grounded in the history of the game and the playing of the game, and also has a good sense of the core programs of the USGA. He understands the hugely important role of state and regional golf associations [like the MGA]. He gets it.”
Mike Davis was born on November 29, 1964, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He was introduced to golf at age 8 by his father, Bill, and in 1982 Davis won the Pennsylvania State Junior title. He was a scratch player who left the comforts of home to enroll at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga., where he played on the golf team.
He realized during his college years that he wouldn’t be making a living playing golf. So he turned his attention to finding a career in the game, and in 1990, at age 25, he became the USGA’s Manager of Championship Relations. The person who hired him was Mike Butz, who today is part of Davis’s executive team.
Davis rose quickly through the USGA ranks, and ascended to the role of U.S. Open Championship Director in 1997. He took note of how challenging it was to set up an Open course, and how slight miscalculations or weather changes could negatively impact a championship and prove embarassing to the Association. Situations like the 18th green hole location during the second round of the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic and the playability of the seventh green at Shinnecock Hills in the final round of the 2004 U.S. Open made an impact on Davis.
In fact, that Sunday at Shinnecock still sticks in Davis’s craw, and is one of the reasons he “led the parade” to bring another U.S. Open to the club, which will happen in 2018. He said he “absolutely” feels the USGA has some unfinished business there.
“Shinnecock is such a special place,” said Davis. “It has bothered me since 2004 that you mention the name Shinnecock to some people, and they bring up that final Sunday. Especially when you look back at the two previous Opens there in 1986 and 1995, which were great Opens and showcased what an outstanding golf course Shinnecock is. Thankfully, the club wanted us back.”
It is clear that Davis is passionate about golf in a way that few other people are. This is not just a job to him, it’s a calling. He feels the responsibility of leading the game’s most visible and important governing body, which he says “is doing things that no one else is doing.”
David Fay recalls this passion fondly.
“One of the things I enjoyed so frequently was going into Mike’s office and talking about anything—design, course-setup philosophy, equipment. He has a sharp sense of humor and a great wit.”
To Davis, the USGA’s core functions are paramount. For instance, the USGA spends upward of $5 million annually on research and testing of golf equipment, and it is a largely thankless job.
Thankless, but far from worthless.
“If all of a sudden we said, ‘We’re done, we’re tired of spending that money and getting a lot of grief,’ the game would absolutely lose its traditions and lose the mystique of what makes it so wonderful,” says an animated Davis. “Because, believe me, as much as the equipment manufacturers say that making the game easier will grow the game, they’re wrong on that.”
Another core function that Davis believes strongly in is turf research. The USGA, through its Green Section, has spent nearly $40 million on developing new hybrid grasses that are more heat-resistant, pest-tolerant, and require less water and fewer pesticides than their predecessors. Davis, a fervent believer in better environmental practices, believes this is one way that the USGA, working in concert with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, can help foster the game’s global growth over the next century.
“We [the USGA and the R&A] are convinced that sustainability is the biggest issue that golf is going to face,” says Davis. “That includes how much it costs to play the game, because there are people who are leaving the game because it’s too expensive to them. Or, it takes too long to play. But beyond that, there are many issues related to just being able to continue the way we’ve gone from an environmental standpoint. We have to be the leader, along with the R&A, in getting the messaging out.”
Like any good leader, he knows the value of having talented people around him. The job of assembling his senior staff is a big reason why his first year has been so busy. “But a good busy,” adds Davis.
Davis’s inner circle consists of USGA veterans like Butz and Rand Jerris, who is senior managing director of public affairs, along with new hires John Bodenhamer (senior managing director, rules and competitions), and Sarah Hirshland (senior managing director, business affairs). It’s a team designed to play to each person’s strengths and act as a cohesive unit.
“If I had one instinct that I think was correct, it’s that in order for me to succeed in this job I’d have to surround myself with people who are good in areas that I don’t have as much background in,” says Davis. “I was raised up through the organization on the golf side of things, and I view that as a real strength, because ultimately everything that happens in this building is for the game of golf.
“I think we’ve accomplished a lot this first year,” he says. “I’m very pleased.”
Davis, who resides in Pittstown, N.J., with his wife, Cece, and 15-year-old son, Grant, is a member of Somerset Hills Country Club in Bernardsville, N.J., and Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., both MGA member clubs. He knows firsthand the important role that associations like the MGA play in serving golfers through the Handicap System, Course Rating, and the administration of championships and USGA qualifying rounds.
“When I look at probably two handfuls of things that I want the USGA to focus on, I can tell you that our relationships with the state and regionals is in the first handful,” he says. “There’s not a week that goes by that we’re not having a meeting that’s somehow attached to that goal of how we can work together to help the game.”
Mike Davis’s favorite place on the USGA grounds is, in his words, “a tie” between the Museum and the Research & Test Center. It’s a perfect answer, actually, because it sums up his personality in a nutshell— someone with an appreciation of golf ’s past and a willingness to embrace and plan for its future. In other words, the right man to lead the USGA.