UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – The central figure heading into this U.S. Open isn’t Rory or Jordan or Phil. He won’t mash drives like DJ, or carve irons like Bubba, or roll in putts like Rickie.
The players will provide the drama at Chambers Bay, and by Sunday evening they’ll be front and center, but make no mistake: Right now, this is Mike Davis’ show.
It is Davis, after all, who took a recon trip to the Pacific Northwest a decade ago and advocated for Chambers Bay to secure a future U.S. Open.
It is Davis who alienated players earlier this spring with his bold claim that only those who arrive early and practice often have a chance to win here.
And now it is Davis, the executive director of the USGA and the face of the setup crew, who controls the fate of this U.S. Open.
In his news conference Tuesday, Tiger Woods mentioned Davis’ name nine times.
His message was clear: If this thing goes off the rails, it’s on you.
“The pressure comes from making sure the golf course plays properly,” Davis said. “Here we’ve got more unknowns, just because we haven’t been here.”
Never has the USGA ventured to such an aesthetically and architecturally different venue.
Never has there been wall-to-wall fine fescue grass, or such dramatic elevation changes.
Never has Davis and Co. had such flexibility, such elasticity with the setup.
And naturally, that newness has created an increased level of anxiety and tension for pros.
Everyone is wondering: Come Sunday, will Chambers Bay prove to be a major force or a farce?
Wailing about course setup is as old as the game itself, but the uneasiness ratcheted up a notch when Davis, at U.S. Open media day in late April, said that there was “no way” a player could arrive the week of the tournament, play a few practice rounds and expect to win. “That person’s done,” he said.
Add in the disastrous round of stroke play at Chambers in the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the early reviews from the world’s best – Ryan Palmer: “Put a quarter in the machine and go for a ride” – and the handwringing reached epic proportions.
Many players scoffed at the USGA’s perceived arrogance – hey, drop everything and spend one of your precious off-weeks in a remote part of the country for one event! – but they still seemed to heed Davis’ advice. From Rory to Tiger to Phil, nearly all of the big names spent extra time at the mysterious links-style course pressed hard against the Puget Sound.
Chambers is already so concrete-firm, so fast, so tan, so unpredictable, that some have suggested that we’re spiraling toward chaos. Yes, there could be carnage in some places – No. 7 is a brute for the short- to average-length hitter, and as par 4s the first and 18th holes will be rough. And sure, there could be a few more bad bounces or unfortunate breaks with the baked-out, linksy layout, but this Open also has the potential for more creative shot-making and daring recoveries.
It all depends on Davis’ setup.
“I think to be honest there is some anxiousness, but there’s excitement too,” he said. “There’s that element you never quite know everything.”
Those fretting about a potential train wreck should consider that Davis hasn’t botched a setup yet. He has a strong track record of presiding over fair but tough tests.
Remember, there was more intrigue than genuine concern at Merion. The USGA wanted its premier championship held at one of the country’s classic courses, but it came with a risk. Today’s players – bigger, longer, stronger – could overpower the sub-7,000-yard track, prove that equipment had gotten out of hand, that now all of the nation’s treasures are vulnerable.
Was Merion tricked up? Sure, all of these Open courses are to some extent. The USGA will deny, deny, deny, say that the winning score doesn’t matter, that it isn’t trying to protect par, but the numbers tell a truer story: Since Davis took over the primary setup duties in ’05, only four times has the winning score been under par. Throw out the rain-softened Open in 2011, when McIlroy won with a record-breaking 16-under 268, and a total of only 10 players have finished 72 holes under par.
That said, Davis has brought a more even-handed approach to his setups, after previous USGA gaffes such as the goofy hole location at Olympic in ’98 or the unreachable fairways at Bethpage in ’02 or the dying seventh green that required mid-round watering at Shinnecock in ’04.
Said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 Open champion: “I think Mike is extremely intelligent and articulate and understands the modern game more than most and has done a good job setting contentious venues up very well.”
Old-school U.S. Open setups were so predictable – tees way back, narrow fairways, hack-out rough, and small, firm greens.
Chambers Bay, though, presents perhaps the most unique challenge in the tournament’s 115-year history:
• For the first time, the par on the first and 18th hole will alternate between four and five, depending on wind direction. It’ll still add up to a par-70 each round.
• There is little delineation between where the fairway ends and the green begins. Some putting surfaces are ringed with sprinkler heads, and the USGA has spray-painted white dots on the edge of the green for identification. In many cases, the fairway is running faster than the green.
• And, most intriguing, there is an incredible amount of flexibility. With some of the ribbon tees, the yardage on a particular hole can change as much as 100 yards on a given day. The course is expected to play somewhere between 7,300 and 7,700 yards each day.
“Basically, Mike has an opportunity to play 36 holes and 36 different options,” Woods said.
Course management is a major point of emphasis this week, which is why practice rounds have taken so long. Players are hitting shots from two or three different areas, trying to predict and simulate what they will face come tournament time.
“That’s part of the test,” Davis said. “We want to see how they think on their feet, how their caddie thinks on his feet.”
The biggest concern for Davis’ team is managing the firmness of the golf course. Chirping generally starts when good shots aren’t rewarded, when luck becomes too big of a factor.
With perfect weather in the forecast – high of 75, plentiful sun, light winds – there is no excuse for losing this golf course.
“We will absolutely, positively make some mistakes this week with setup,” Davis said, “but hopefully those are somewhat minor mistakes.”
If not, he’s sure to hear about it. Right now, this is his show.