Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Must Play Courses - il­lustration ja­son seiler BY JAIME DIAZ

Whether playing the game or work­ing it, ful­fill­ment has never been a prob­lem for Mike Davis. He joined the USGA in 1990, and in 2006 he took over the course setup for the US Open, a job he still over­sees. In 2011, Davis suc­ceeded David Fay as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor,and in 2016,the ti­tle of CEO was added. But Davis’ ten­ure has come at a time when the game is be­ing buf­feted by mul­ti­ple forces in a shift­ing cul­ture.

Adding to the chal­lenge have been two re­cent US Opens in which the USGA was crit­i­cised for course con­di­tion­ing (the greens at Cham­bers Bay) and ad­min­is­ter­ing the rules (Oak­mont). It has all thrust the 52-year-old Davis into a more proac­tive public mode. He shared his can­did thoughts on the state of his or­gan­i­sa­tion and the game, riff­ing on sub­jects rang­ing from dis­tance to pace of play to an­chor­ing.

The USGA has changed. I’m go­ing on my 28th year, and in-house there was al­ways the prin­ci­ple that, whether there are five mil­lion golfers, 25 mil­lion golfers or 5 000 golfers, what we do is for the game. Just this ab­stract thing that we are all about the game. Well, about six years ago, we changed the mis­sion.

What we’re fo­cused on now is that it’s still the game, but it’s also about those who en­joy playing the game. So it’s about golfers. So when peo­ple say, ‘Is the USGA try­ing to grow the game?’ then yes, we’re now at that point where we’re en­gaged in those things. We want to col­lab­o­rate and use some of our monies to be a part of the fo­cus on par­tic­i­pa­tion.

But on the other hand, what’s dread­fully miss­ing is the other part, which has be­come our cen­tral fo­cus. Be­cause if you’re try­ing to bring all these other groups into the game – ju­niors, women, pick your group – but it’s not en­joy­able, and the golf cour­ses can’t sus­tain them­selves, it’s never go­ing to work.You’re go­ing to bring these peo­ple in, they’re go­ing to try it, they’re not go­ing to en­joy them­selves, and they’re go­ing to leave. I’ve asked my coun­ter­parts in the in­dus­try, ‘When you bring all these peo­ple in, and they’re not stay­ing, why is that?’

It starts with the golf course.What’s en­joy­able? There’s no one an­swer. How I en­joy a golf ex­pe­ri­ence, or how a be­gin­ner might, or some­one who is an elite golfer, it’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent. But there are cer­tain things. Peo­ple, by and large, want to play well. Some peo­ple want to be chal­lenged more than oth­ers. No­body likes look­ing for golf balls. So golf cour­ses can present a setup where peo­ple are playing from the proper tees, there aren’t a lot of forced car­ries, the rough is not so high that we’re al­ways look­ing for some­body’s ball.

Speak­ing of balls, the rules say you can’t have any­thing elec­tronic to help you find your ball.Well, why not? Just think about Top­golf, and the chips in those golf balls.

PACE OF PLAY When it comes to pace of play, ev­ery­body wants to say that golfers are the prob­lem.They’re part of the prob­lem, but we find that the big­ger prob­lem is the golf course and how it’s man­aged.You’d be sur­prised at how many golf cour­ses in the United States have their tee times for four golfers set up at in­ter­vals of eight, seven, even six min­utes. It doesn’t work math­e­mat­i­cally. So we’ve gone out with a pro­gramme that is re­ally try­ing to ed­u­cate own­ers and op­er­a­tors, telling them you can get as many golfers around in a day by ex­pand­ing the in­ter­vals.And by the way, ev­ery­body is go­ing to have a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, and more re­peat cus­tomers.

When I talk to ar­chi­tects, for about 40 years, hard equalled good. Now you’re def­i­nitely see­ing that go in the other di­rec­tion, where fun equals good.These prac­tices of nar­rower fair­ways,higher rough,not en­cour­ag­ing play from the proper tees, it’s no good. And how cour­ses are main­tained has pos­i­tively changed. For decades, many golf cour­ses wa­tered only their greens and tees. But in the past quar­ter-cen­tury, we’ve gone to wa­ter­ing ba­si­cally the whole course.You could ar­gue it has taken some of the charm out of the game.

A lot of in­no­va­tions have made the game bet­ter, but there are some where you would say,‘I’m not sure that’s re­ally good for the game.’ Like the speed of greens.To­day, peo­ple equate fast greens with good greens. But fast greens cost more to main­tain. Fast greens are more sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­ease. Fast greens com­pro­mise some of the ar­chi­tec­tural in­tegrity of great cour­ses. Fast greens have ab­so­lutely caused more cases of the yips.And they’ve hurt pace of play. So there’s an in­no­va­tion where we say,‘Okay, we’ve in­no­vated with new grasses and new mow­ers, but has that re­ally been in­no­va­tion?’It’s like over-seed­ing.It’s very ex­pen­sive, and agro­nom­i­cally not good, and dor­mant Ber­muda is a very good playing sur­face. I hope in the fu­ture we see a sce­nario where there is no over-seed­ing. Pe­riod.The no­tion that ev­ery­thing has to be per­fectly main­tained, it’s bad for the game, and bad for en­joy­ment.

LONGER AND DRIER FAIR­WAYS When I came on­board at the US Open, fair­ways were cut at half an inch (12.7mm).Then it got to a quar­ter of an inch. Let me tell you, it’s night and day.When the ball is right against the ground, the aver­age golfer can’t trap the ball the way a re­ally good player can.The fair­ways at Me­rion were cut to a quar­ter-inch at the 2005 US Am­a­teur, and the ball would barely stay on the fair­way be­cause of the slopes. So, for the 2013 US Open there, we went back to half-inch fair­ways, which I thought was pretty rad­i­cal.The fair­ways ac­tu­ally started to look a lit­tle shaggy, and I was afraid the pros were go­ing to com­plain about fly­ers. But we didn’t get one com­plaint from one pro.And the mem­bers and their guests were like,‘This is won­der­ful – now I can get un­der the ball.’

Grow­ing up, we didn’t hear about peo­ple skulling chip shots. Now you hear about the chip yips. So we’ve been try­ing to mes­sage,‘Keep your fair­ways drier, but longer.’ It’s good, be­cause for the aver­age player, their ball hits and gets a lit­tle bit more dis­tance. For the good player, it ac­tu­ally be­comes more strate­gic,be­cause you have to worry about what your ball is go­ing to do af­ter it lands, where is it go­ing to bounce and roll to if it’s drier.The aver­age player can bounce balls into greens.

There are other is­sues in mak­ing golf more en­joy­able. How com­fort­able is a golfer on the golf course? It’s so com­mon for a be­gin­ning golfer to feel like he or she doesn’t un­der­stand eti­quette, how to mark a ball, or This hap­pened, and I don’t un­der­stand the rules. It’s why we’re try­ing to mod­ernise the rules. If even most elite golfers can’t un­der­stand these things, we have a prob­lem. I re­mem­ber sit­ting down with Peter Daw­son (for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of the R&A) and say­ing,‘We have to be rad­i­cal about this.We have to ap­proach this thing from out­side the box. And if we’re not go­ing to be out­side the box on some think­ing, shame on us, be­cause we’ll never get there.’ Be­cause golfers who are not com­fort­able on the golf course are just not go­ing to play as much golf, so we’re get­ting more en­gaged with those is­sues.

DIS­TANCE DE­BATE When I look back at the USGA over the decades, my big­gest re­gret would be what has hap­pened with dis­tance. It’s been the thing, prob­a­bly more than any, that has been the most harm­ful to the game. Bil­lions of dol­lars have been spent to al­ter golf cour­ses – and for what? If I said in front of a thou­sand golfers,‘Who would like to hit the ball shorter?’ would any hands be raised? They’d think I had lost my mar­bles. No­body wants to hit the ball shorter. On the other hand, in­creased dis­tance has had a pro­foundly neg­a­tive ef­fect on golf cour­ses.They’ve had to ex­pand, they’ve had to use more re­sources to main­tain. It takes more time to play. It takes more land and con­struc­tion costs for new golf cour­ses. And in some cases, ar­chi­tec­tural in­tegrity has been com­pro­mised. Are any of these things good?

Golf is the only sport I can think of where the equip­ment changes have con­tin­u­ally af­fected the playing field and the size of it.That can’t be the right thing. Imag­ine equip­ment in­no­va­tion in foot­ball, bas­ket­ball, base­ball, hockey or tennis re­quir­ing sta­di­ums to ex­pand. Crazy, and that’s


ex­actly what has hap­pened to golf cour­ses in the past cen­tury. Dis­tance is all rel­a­tive. So is there a way to get equip­ment to fit a playing field, if all playing fields aren’t the same size? At a re­cent in­no­va­tion sym­po­sium in Van­cou­ver, I imag­ined a fu­ture that might have var­ied-dis­tance golf balls, a con­cept that could be used un­der the cur­rent Rules of Golf. It sounds rad­i­cal, but if you could have, for ex­am­ple, an 18-hole golf course sit­ting on, say, only 30 hectares, it would take you only a cou­ple of hours to play it. And by the way, it would be cheaper to main­tain be­cause of less labour, less fuel for the mow­ers, less ir­ri­ga­tion and fer­tiliser.You start to say, that makes sense. And in the­ory, those cost sav­ings could be passed along to the golfer. I some­times wish we could just snap our fin­gers and say,‘We’re go­ing to roll the en­tire golf world back on dis­tance.’ But the stark re­al­ity is that would be chaotic and would likely not be sup­ported by the masses.

Be­yond just dis­tance, there also has been the is­sue of golf equip­ment mak­ing the game eas­ier to play. In­no­va­tion has had so many won­der­ful ben­e­fits for the mil­lions who play the game.We all love get­ting that new driver that flies longer and straighter. It’s mag­i­cal. On the other hand, in­no­va­tion has de-skilled the game at the elite pro­fes­sional and am­a­teur level. This dis­par­ity be­tween the elite and recre­ational golfer has made govern­ing equip­ment more chal­leng­ing as the years have passed. This is an area that the R&A and USGA re­ally should ex­plore, and I hope we will. Both or­gan­i­sa­tions are stead­fast in our be­lief that one set of playing rules has and will con­tinue to serve the game very well, but at the same time we ought to be open to at least ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of giv­ing the game more choices when it comes to equip­ment and its ef­fects on the golf course, and the skill re­quired to play the game.

Up to to­day, we’ve re­ally not talked about it. But with the R&A and the USGA’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to look out to the fu­ture, there’s a gen­uine in­ter­est to say,‘Maybe we won’t get there, but shame on us if we don’t at least talk about it.’ ”

HAND­I­CAP IN­TEGRITY Peo­ple won­der why we’re no longer al­low­ing rounds by a player playing by him­self to count for hand­i­cap pur­poses. As we’re em­bark­ing on this world hand­i­cap­ping sys­tem, one of the things in­her­ent in The Rules of Golf is player in­tegrity. It’s all about that. But if you look at hand­i­cap­ping on a world­wide ba­sis, the United States and Canada were the only two places where a player could sub­mit scores playing only by him­self.As we went into this, we re­alised that the cred­i­bil­ity of some­body’s hand­i­cap was re­ally im­por­tant, and in fair­ness, there are places in the United States and prob­a­bly in Canada where we found that all of some­one’s rounds alone got ques­tioned, and we thought,Well, that’s not good. But this re­ally came down to the way golf is played in Aus­tralia,Asia, Europe, South Africa. By the way, a per­son can still play alone with a cad­die or a marker and have that round count. But this re­ally came down to uni­for­mity."

AN­CHOR­ING BAN We are ex­cep­tion­ally pleased with how it’s worked out, be­cause the change hasn’t been as hard as some peo­ple thought it would be.The whole goal was to en­sure that the game long term was played with the player hold­ing a club with a free-swing­ing mo­tion, which we feel is part of the essence of the game.We had seen some trou­bling signs, like young play­ers be­ing coached to an­chor, and even long wedges be­ing stuck un­der the armpit.As for the pro­jec­tions that hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple would leave the game, we haven’t seen any ev­i­dence of that.This was not about get­ting the long put­ter out of peo­ple’s hands. We even showed meth­ods in which the put­ter could be used with­out an­chor­ing, which is the method Bern­hard Langer now uses. I only wish the USGA and R&A had done this a quar­ter-cen­tury be­fore.I know it caused some hard feel­ings among peo­ple and hard feel­ings among some of the or­gan­i­sa­tions, but thank­fully we’ve got that be­hind us. It was no fun go­ing through it, but it was the right thing for the game.


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