USGA's Davis in Open spotlight

By Ryan LavnerJune 17, 2015, 9:06 pm

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.


First-round tee times: 115th U.S. Open


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.

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After Further Review: Nelson lost in the shuffle?

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 21, 2018, 3:40 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the Nelson's future ...

If the goal was “different” by bringing the AT&T Byron Nelson to Trinity Forest, consider it achieved. But bringing a world-class field south of Dallas could still be tricky.

Yes, the tournament can always rely on local resident and AT&T spokesman Jordan Spieth to throw his hat in the ring. But even with Spieth strolling the fairways this week, the field strength was among the worst all season for a full-point event.

The debut of the sprawling, links-like layout likely did little to sway the undecideds, with only the third round offering the challenging conditions that course co-designer Ben Crenshaw had envisioned. And the schedule won’t do them any favors next year, as a revamped itinerary likely puts the Nelson right before the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.

The course will inevitably get better with age, and Spieth expects positive word of mouth to spread. But it might be a while before the stars truly align for an event that, for the moment, feels lost in the shuffle of a hectic schedule. – Will Gray


On Jordan Spieth's putting ...

Jordan Spieth’s putting is plainly bad right now, but it isn’t going to stay this bad forever.

He is the second ranked player on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, just like he was last year. This putting slump has lingered, but it’s unfathomable to think this guy just forgot how to putt.

Sooner rather than later he’s going to remember he’s Jordan Spieth and the 40-footers are going to start pouring in. He’ll be telling Greller to go get the ball because he’s too far away and the tee is in the other direction.

Bottom line, the ball striking is for real and the putting slump will pass. He’ll win soon – maybe even as soon as this week. – Nick Menta


On golf and gambling ...

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court over tuned a federal ban on sports betting in most states, a move the PGA Tour and many professional sports leagues embraced as a tool to both build fan interest and grow revenue.

Experts estimate sports betting could become a $150-$200 billion annual industry, and even a small piece of that could be significant for golf, but there will be risks.

Unlike any other sport, golf is played on multiple fields simultaneously, which inherently creates risks when gambling is introduced to the equation. Although the Tour has gone to great pains to head off any potential problems, like all bets gambling comes with great rewards, and great risks. – Rex Hoggard

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Wise continues whirlwind ascent with first win

By Will GrayMay 21, 2018, 3:13 am

DALLAS – Still shy of his 22nd birthday, Aaron Wise continues to prove himself to be a quick learner.

Wise went from unheralded prospect to NCAA individual champ seemingly in the blink of an eye while at the University of Oregon. After eschewing his final two years of eligibility in Eugene, he won in Canada on the Mackenzie Tour in his third start as a professional.

He continued a quick learning curve with a win last year on the Web.com Tour to propel him to the big leagues, and he didn’t flinch while going toe-to-toe with Jason Day two weeks ago, even though the result didn’t go his way.

Faced with another opportunity to take down a top-ranked Aussie, Wise made sure he got the job done Sunday at the AT&T Byron Nelson – even though it took until dark.

With mid-day rains turning a firm and fast layout into a birdie barrage, Wise seamlessly switched gears and put his first PGA Tour title on ice in impressive fashion with a bogey-free 65. Deadlocked with Marc Leishman to start the day, Wise made six birdies in his first 10 holes and coasted to a three-shot win as the leaders barely beat the setting sun to avoid an anticlimactic Monday finish at Trinity Forest Golf Club.


Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos


As it turned out, the hardest part of the day was enduring the four-hour weather delay alongside his mother, Karla, as his afternoon tee time turned into a twilight affair.

“She was talking to me in the hotel about what a win could mean, what a second could mean, kind of taking me through all that,” Wise said. “I was like, I’ve got to calm down. I can’t just sit here. I said, ‘You’ve got to go.’ I kind of made her leave the room.”

Wise displayed some jitters right out of the gates, with a nervy three-putt par on the opening hole. But with several players going on birdie runs to turn what seemed like a two-man race into a much more wide-open affair, Wise went on a tear of his own with four birdies in a row on Nos. 7-10.

That gave him a window over Leishman and the rest of the chase pack, and he never looked back.

“I talked to myself and kind of made myself trust my putting,” Wise said. “These greens out here are really tricky, and for me to roll those putts in on 8 and 9 really kind of separated things.”

Leishman had held at least a share of the lead after each round, and the 34-year-old veteran was looking for his third win in the last 14 months. But a bogey on No. 10 coincided with a Wise birdie to boost the rookie’s advantage from two shots to four, and Leishman never got closer than three shots the rest of the way.

“He holed putts he needed to hole, and I didn’t,” Leishman said. “Hit a couple loose shots where I could have probably put a bit of pressure on him, and didn’t. And that’s probably the difference in the end.”

Instead of sitting next to a trophy in Dallas, Wise could have been closing out his senior season next week with an NCAA appearance at Karsten Creek. But the roots of his quick climb trace back to the Master of the Amateurs in Australia in December 2015, a tournament he won and one that gave him confidence that he could hold his own against the best in the world. He returned to Eugene and promptly told his coach, Casey Martin, that he planned to turn pro in the spring.

The same dogged confidence that drove that decision has been the guiding force behind a whirlwind ascent through every rung of the professional ladder.

“I just have a lot of belief in myself. I didn’t come from a lot. A lot of people don’t know that. I didn’t get to travel a bunch when I played junior golf,” Wise said. “Kind of all along it’s been very, very few moments to shine and I have had to take advantage of them.”

Despite that belief, even Wise admits that he’s “shocked” to turn only his second real chance to contend at this level into a maiden victory. But fueled by the memories of a close call two weeks ago, he put the lessons learned at Quail Hollow to quick use while taking the next step in an increasingly promising career arc.

“It was awesome, everything I dreamed of,” Wise said. “To walk up 18, knowing I kind of had it locked up, was pretty cool.”

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Grace celebrates birthday with final-round 62

By Will GrayMay 21, 2018, 1:51 am

DALLAS – Branden Grace celebrated his 30th birthday in style, making the biggest charge of the final round at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

Grace closed out a 9-under 62 as the sun began to set at Trinity Forest Golf Club, moving from outside the top 10 into a share of third place, four shots behind Aaron Wise. It equaled Grace’s career low on the PGA Tour, which he originally set last summer at The Open, and it was one shot off Marc Leishman’s course-record 61 from the opening round.

“Good birthday present. It was fun,” Grace said. “Little bit of imagination, little bit of luck here and there. You get more luck on the links golf course than maybe on a normal golf course.”


Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos


Weeks after Grace’s wife gave birth to the couple’s first child, he now has his best result on the PGA Tour since winning the RBC Heritage more than two years ago. As a world traveler and former Presidents Cup participant, the South African embraced an opportunity this week to go off the beaten path on an unconventional layout.

“It feels like a breath of fresh air coming to something different. Really is nice. I really enjoyed the golf course,” he said. “Obviously I think we got really lucky with the weather, and that’s why the scores are so low. It can bite you if it settles in a little bit in the next couple years.”

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Scott barely misses qualifying for U.S. Open

By Will GrayMay 21, 2018, 1:33 am

DALLAS – A birdie on the 72nd hole gave Adam Scott a glimmer of hope, but in the end even a closing 65 at the AT&T Byron Nelson wasn’t enough to earn an exemption into next month’s U.S. Open.

Scott entered the week ranked No. 65 in the world, and the top 60 in next week’s rankings automatically qualify for Shinnecock Hills. The cutoff was a big reason why the 2008 tournament champ returned for Trinity Forest’s debut, and midway through the final round it seemed like the Aussie had a shot at snagging a bid at the 11th hour.

Scott needed at least a solo ninth-place finish to pass an idle Chesson Hadley at No. 60, and while his 5-footer on the 18th green gave him a share of sixth place when he completed play, he ultimately ended up in a three-way tie for ninth at 15 under – barely short of a spot in the top 60.


Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos


“I tried to make the most of really favorable conditions today, and I did a pretty good job of it. Just never really got a hot run going,” Scott said. “I feel like I struggled on the weekend reading the greens well enough to really get it going, but I think everyone but the leaders did that, too. They’re not the easiest greens to read.”

Scott has played each of the last three weeks in an effort to earn a U.S. Open exemption, and he’ll make it four in a row next week when he returns to the Fort Worth Invitational on a course where he won in 2013. Scott still has another chance to avoid sectional qualifying by earning a top-60 spot at the second and final cutoff on June 11 following the FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Scott has played 67 majors in a row, a streak that dates back to 2001 and is second only to Sergio Garcia among active players. While he’s prepared to play each of the next three weeks in a last-ditch effort to make the field, he’s taking his schedule one event at a time with the hope that one more good result might take care of business.

“I’ll play next week and hopefully play really well, and give myself a bit of cushion so I can take a week or so off and try to prepare the best I can for the U.S. Open,” Scott said.