“My cell phone doesn’t work in my office,” Mike Davis laughed late Tuesday, sounding every bit like a 9-to-5er “nametag” chained to his cubicle somewhere in the New Jersey badlands.
Turns out the joke was on whatever wireless network failed to live up to expectations. Less than 24 hours later Davis was introduced as the seventh executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, a nametag that now elevates him to one of the four or five most influential people in our game.
Seems the entire golf world can hear him now, and that’s a triumph by any measure.
Not that Davis went quietly into the big office. “He was strongly advised to consider it,” said one USGA insider, which is corporate speak for professional arm twisting.
When asked recently about succeeding David Fay, who held the top spot for 21 years before his surprise retirement in December, Davis all but dismissed the thought. He’d been an “operations” guy his entire career, more comfortable setting tees and scoping hole locations down in the weeds than decreeing policy from 30,000 feet.
The arm-twisting must have changed his mind. Undoubtedly he was sold on the notion that right now, perhaps more than ever, the USGA needs a strong voice at the helm, a known commodity to replace Fay’s guidance. Maybe someone convinced him that he could do more good from the Ivory tower than from a golf cart adjacent Bethpage Black’s 18th green.
We called Davis on Tuesday to arrange an interview for later this year and ask about a possible change to the Rules of Golf that would soften the punishment for called-in violations – call it the Camilo Villegas-Padraig Harrington Accord.
“No,” he laughed before gushing, “but I’ve got to tell you it’s really been an interesting process getting everyone together and coming up with proposals and ideas. It’s been very enlightening.”
Now Davis takes that passion to a corner office with a view of Far Hills and golf is better for it. The 46-year-old husband and father is a single-digit handicap, a player blessed with the heart of a fan and the head of a pragmatist.
No? Consider the 2008 U.S. Open, as successful a national championship as has been played in some time. For months Davis went head-to-head with his bosses over Torrey Pines’ 18th hole. The establishment wanted to convert the par 5 to a par 4, but Davis held the line to keep it a classic risk/reward par 5 and prevailed. The result was one of the most exciting weeks in golf, with Tiger Woods using the stage for his greatest triumph.
“That’s what Mike Davis had in mind. That’s what he wanted,” yelled Rees Jones, the architect who worked with Davis to turn the South Course into a major championship venue, on Saturday when Woods rolled in his now-famous eagle putt at the 18th.
After 21 years combing the USGA’s fairways, Davis now brings that energy and institutional memory to Far Hill’s hallways, and make no mistake he bleeds USGA blue blazer.
There were moments of concern on Wednesday as news crept out that Davis had gotten the bump. Who would replace him on the U.S. Open frontlines? “I don’t know that the pipeline has that many great prospects,” said the USGA insider who asked not to be identified.
For his part Davis had made the players appreciate his even handiness, the ultimate compliment for a U.S. Open setup man.
“Good man and great setup philosophy,” Steve Flesch said. “Hope he continues in that role.”
Flesch and his Tour fraternity brothers will get their wish. Before the ink was dry on the new promotion USGA president Jim Hyler made it clear the association had no interest in reinventing the wheel.
“We would be idiots if we kept Mike from the U.S. Open activities. He will continue to be involved,” Hyler said.
The result of that common sense approach will be a hybrid executive director’s role for Davis, who will retain about 30 percent of his previous duties by one estimate.
He will still be involved in the selection and setup of all U.S. Open venues – in fact he’s scheduled to do a “walkthrough” at Congressional in early May, site of this year’s championship – but will leave the “conduct” of the USGA’s various other championships to others, most notably Jeff Hall who has served as Davis’ No. 2 at the last six U.S. Opens.
“There will be a few differences in my job to what David (Fay) did. I love the golf course setup part. I’ve said this before, but I’d pay the USGA to allow me to do this,” Davis said. “Rules and competitions are always going to be near and dear to my heart. That’s the way I grew up.”
Whether the powers that be made these concessions to sway Davis or simply conceded the truth that the association was better off with him on the ground, as well as in the big office, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they got the right man for the job – a pragmatist with passion.
“Throughout this process one person stood out for being the right person for the job, and that person is Mike Davis,” Hyler said.
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