THE USGA’S MIKE DAVIS TALKS ABOUT A MISSION TO MAKE GOLF MORE FUN TO PLAY, THE DISTANCE DEBATE, AND THE ANCHORING BAN
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
‘FOR ABOUT 40 YEARS, HARD EQUALLED GOOD. NOW YOU’RE DEFINITELY SEEING THAT GO IN THE OTHER DIRECTION, WHERE FUN EQUALS GOOD.’
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.
‘WHEN I LOOK BACK AT THE USGA OVER THE DECADES, MY BIGGEST REGRET WOULD BE WHAT HAS HAPPENED WITH DISTANCE."