At Chambers Bay, golfers challenged by course and USGA’s ‘czar’ setup

USGA executive director Mike Davis takes part in the opening ceremonies Sunday for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay golf course in University Place.
USGA executive director Mike Davis takes part in the opening ceremonies Sunday for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay golf course in University Place. Staff photographer

Mike Davis resembles a character from the familiar comedy-movie scene finding the harmless dweeb harassed by tough guys much stronger and bigger than he is. His threat to throw a punch can be funny, and when the actual punch lands, it’s funnier still.

But looks can deceive. As anticipation for the U.S. Open builds at Chambers Bay, Mike Davis might be the golf world’s most interesting man. He’s certainly its most powerful.

Davis, the 50-year-old executive director of the USGA, has more control over his sport’s championship than the commissioner of any major pro league.

During the Super Bowl, Roger Goodell can’t adjust the width between the goalpost uprights at halftime. After Game 1 of the World Series, Rob Manfred isn’t able to increase the height of the pitcher’s mound for Game 2.

Robert Trent Jones Jr. might be the architect who designed Chambers Bay, but Davis is the 8-year-old course’s baby-sitter through the weekend. He’ll oversee daily adjustments on pin placements and tee locations and determine at which par the first and 18th holes will play.

That an unprepossessing USGA bureaucrat occupies such a substantial role in how the championship will be played rankles one prominent favorite. A few months ago after Davis warned that it will take more than the typical amount of research to compete at Chambers Bay, Rory McIlroy asked: “What’s Mike Davis’ handicap?”

When Davis was growing up in the south-central Pennsylvania town of Chambersberg — it’s a few miles north of the Maryland border — he played well enough to earn a scholarship to Georgia Southern as a scratch golfer. But from an early age, Davis was as fascinated with golf course design as he was with golf itself.

“I can remember early on, probably fifth grade, drawing out holes, and in the backyard making up holes,” Davis said Monday. “I remember one time one of the holes played over the house, and I had a thin shot that went through the living room window. My mother wasn’t overly happy about that.

“I’ve always been intrigued with golf course architecture.”

Davis was hired by the USGA in 1987. Since then he’s climbed the ladder of the New Jersey-based organization, holding jobs with similar-sounding names — assistant manager, director, senior director, championships director — until his 2011 appointment as executive director.

Translation: He’s czar of the U.S. Open.

At the press conference announcing Davis’ promotion to executive director, former USGA president Jim Hyler said: “We would be idiots if we extracted Mike from U.S. Open activities. He’s the best in the world at that.”

Davis has become a champion of cutting-edge innovation, a virtue not always synonymous with the USGA. He led the push for public courses to hold U.S. Open championships — Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines preceded Chambers Bay in the Open rotation — and by 2006, Davis’ fingerprints were all over changes made at Winged Foot.

The graduated rough? Day-to-day adjustments in hole length? Ever-wider fairways? Each was spearheaded by Davis.

He’s also interested in the scientific aspect of maintaining a course. Around 1990, a two-decade trend began in which groundskeepers cultivated the roughs by mowing and fertilizing them. Davis considered that foolish.

“Why do you want to be cutting your roughs every day?” he wondered a few years ago. “Why are you putting nitrogen on them? Let them be natural. I would argue, from a golfing standpoint, there’s more charm to golf that way.”

Chambers Bay, of course, represents the ultimate in natural, well, charm might be one way of putting it. But if Davis sets up overly severe placements on icy-firm fescue greens with two and sometimes three tiers, other words will be used to describe both the course and the guy who’ll oversee its dimensions.

Ryan Moore was asked Monday if it’s an overstatement to suggest the 156-players in the U.S. Open field are at Mike Davis’ mercy.

“Yeah, I guess, I don’t know, I’m not really sure,” said Moore. “The golf course, it’s getting really firm and fast. You could put holes in locations where it would be hard to make pars on some holes, even after hitting pretty good golf shots.

“But I think he sets up golf courses in a way that he likes to reward good golf shots. I don’t think he wants to see guys get punished for hitting good shots. I feel like he gets the course to the condition, to the place where he wants it, and then you just kind of let it go from there.”

Davis insists that’s precisely what he wants to do.

“What we want to do at this point,” he said, “is really hand it off to the players. It’s their championship starting Thursday. Let them create the drama. Hopefully we can stay in the background so we’re not having to walk into this media room saying something else.”

However the course plays, Davis will be spared the task of apologizing for the worst golf hole he ever designed.

The one with his house in the middle of it.