Open Mike

By Rex HoggardJune 17, 2009, 4:00 pm
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2009 U.S. OpenMore than a year before the 2008 U.S. Open and that bout between the guy with the limp and the guy with the lip brought the world to golf and the World Wide Web to its knees, Mike Davis and James Hyler Jr. were talking golf course set up.
 
Oakmont, site of that years Open, was the subject and the subtext was drivable par 4s, when Davis mind not so much wandered, but raced ahead to Torrey Pines and the 2008 venue: How about on (No.) 14 moving the tee up?
 
The risk/reward beauty of such a move was almost immediately evident, so was Hylers appreciation for how Davis was able to see what others had missed.
 
Mike Davis
Mike Davis has been setting up U.S. Open venues since 2006 at Winged Foot. (Getty Images)
Wow, he saw that, said Hyler, the chair of the U.S. Golf Association committee that oversees set up at each of the organizations championships.
 
Even players, normally a tough lot to impress when it comes to setup semantics, have taken a shine to Davis handiwork: To take a 430-yard par 4 and make it a 270-yard par 4, thats different. The fans liked it. It was the talk of the U.S. Open, other than Tigers knee, said Stewart Cink.
 
The 109th U.S. Open will be Davis fourth national championship in the setup hot seat, a chair hes held and heightened in a short period thanks to innovated techniques like graduated rough heights and varied teeing grounds to match conditions.
 
In 2006 the winning score at Winged Foot was 5 over par. The next year at Oakmont ' arguably the most demanding layout in the Open rota ' Angel Cabrera cashed with another 5-over card and Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate played to a draw through 72 holes at 1 over last year in Southern California. These finishes were notable, however, only because there was hardly a breath of dissent from the rank and file.
 
Players complain, its what they do. Yet in three takes as the USGAs director of rules and competition Davis has avoided the U word ' unfair ' like most Open participants hope to avoid rough and any score that starts with the word double. Its very different now, Cink said. Its more playable in the interest of exciting golf. I dont know if they are trying to please the players, but they know how hard these courses are now and with the length of them and how narrow they can be.
 
To his peers, Davis is the perfect combination of passion and pragmatism. A single-digit handicap player, Hyler figures Davis plays to a 1 or 2 handicap, and an amateur architect, Davis stepped in for former set-up man Tom Meeks just as the USGA was recovering from questionable setups at Shinnecock Hills in 2004 and Bethpage in 02. From the outset, Davis made it clear if he was going to err it would be on the side of the player, and to a lesser extent the fan.
 
We are trying our hardest to make the Open a tough test, Davis said. Before, we wanted the golf course to get progressively harder, but weve changed that philosophy a little bit. Lets back off a little on Sunday and see how much drama we can have.
 
The drivable par-4 ' like No. 17 at Oakmont and the 14th last year ' has become a Davis staple, although he concedes Bethpage did not offer any options to continue the trend, but the quintessential moment of his tenure came last year when he convinced the USGA to play Torrey Pines 18th hole as it was designed, as a risk/reward par 5.
 
Everybody assumed it would be a par 4, Hyler said of the Souths finisher. But Mike really thought it was a much better par 5. I know when he says something like that hes looking at it from a players perspective and our perspective.
 
History will note that perhaps the best Open of the modern era occurred, in large part, thanks to the fireworks the Souths 18th produced last June including an eagle by Woods on Saturday to get into the hunt and a birdie 24 hours later to force the playoff.
 
While Davis has gotten most of the credit for the USGAs new user-friendly setups, the change has been much more dramatic than simply the insight of a single man. The elements are now part of the U.S. Open lexicon, like theyve been around since the days of 36-hole Saturdays and the world is just noticing. Graduated rough heights, varied teeing grounds and a general philosophy that the players, not the golf course nor the setup, be at center stage.
 
Fundamentally the USGA has changed the way it wants an Open venue to play, not just the guy setting tees and pins. The mandate for Davis and his staff is for the golf course to play the same on Sunday as it did on Thursday, and if that means watering greens and tinkering with tees along the way, so be it.
 
Mike wants more options, said Rees Jones, the man who nip/tucked Bethpages Black course prior to the 02 championship and again for this years Open encore. In the old days they had a tee marker they lived by and thats how they got in trouble.
 
Perhaps Davis greatest challenge of his young tenure will be this weeks championship at Bethpage Black. Dubbed a big ballpark by Woods, Jones added over 200 yards for this years championship, which would stretch the New York gem to nearly 7,500 yards.
 
But whats on the scorecard, muck like par, is simply a number to Davis.
 
Whether it plays a yard longer than it did in 02 I doubt it, Davis said. I think the card at Torrey Pines was 7,600 (yards), but it never got that far.
 
Perhaps the hardest part of Davis job has been to avoid comparisons to Meeks, whom he worked with almost from the day he joined the USGA in 1990 and studied under before taking over set-up duties.
 
The likeable Midwesterner set up dozens of U.S. Open golf courses without incident, but it is his high-profile gaffes at Shinnecock (2004), Bethpage (2002) and the Olympic Club (1998) that remain his legacy.
 
People remember the bad ones, Davis Love III said. But we have guys on our staff with the same attitude as (Meeks), lets just push (tees) as far back as we can. If it hits in the bunker, it ought to bury. That kind of thing. Tom didnt want to be the guy who was too easy. Tom wanted to be the guy who was too hard.
 
It would be inaccurate to call Davis setups easy, particularly after over-par efforts at his first three U.S. Opens. Besides, Davis would probably opt for another qualifier ' exciting.
 
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