SAN DIEGO – Mike Davis was enjoying a rite of golden-year passage when he and his wife came across a box containing 14 blue blazers.
Fourteen blue blazers!
“What am I going to do with 14 jackets?” Davis said with a laugh on Wednesday at Torrey Pines.
As the front man for the USGA for nearly two decades, Davis and those signature blue blazers went together like thick rough and slick greens. But the 121st U.S. Open will be Davis’ last as executive director of the organization, ending a tenure that stretches back nearly 30 years and a career, that when viewed through the complex lens of time, was all at once charmed and clamorous.
No one gets to write their own story, at least not entirely, and when it comes to the question of Davis’ legacy with the USGA the opinions span the range of his constituency.
“His legacy will be kind of an outside-the-box thinker. That we've always seen U.S. Open setups be very similar each year where he, to my knowledge, was the first to start thinking about graduated rough or different U.S. Open venues than the typical venue, and I think he's done a lot of good for this championship in that way,” said Webb Simpson, whose connection to Davis covers a lot of ground, from a former U.S. Open champion (2012) to an outspoken opponent of the USGA and R&A’s ban on anchored putting.
How Davis is viewed is always filtered through the prism of perspective and for PGA Tour players that perspective begins and ends at the U.S. Open.
Davis’ first U.S. Open as the USGA’s lead set-up man was in 2006 at Winged Foot and early in his tenure he was dubbed a forward-thinker in a sport that often finds itself mired in tradition.
“Drivable par 4s,” laughed Rory McIlroy when asked what Davis’ legacy would be. “He likes a drivable par 4.”
But Davis’ penchant for short par 4s doesn’t even scratch the surface of how he re-imagined how U.S. Open courses should be set up.
“Mike will be remembered for someone that wasn't afraid to change it up. He also wasn't afraid to mess around with the courses a little bit, making what wouldn't be traditionally a drivable par 4, for example, into a drivable par 4,” McIlroy said.
Sometimes that desire to evolve worked. Sometimes it didn’t, like when he shortened the par-4 14th hole at the ’08 U.S. Open. The hole will play to a proper 434 yards at this week’s return engagement.
When Simpson won his maiden major, Davis again played the role of disrupter when he shortened the par-4 16th hole by more than 100 yards for the final round.
“At Olympic when we played it in '12, moving that tee up 100-whatever yards on No. 16 on Sunday, which probably cost a couple of people the U.S. Open title,” McIlroy said. “Just keeping players on their toes, I guess that's the big one.”
Perhaps Davis’ most lasting legacy for U.S. Open setups was the concept of graduated rough, which attempted to penalize marginally wayward shots less than those that flew wildly offline.
“He tried new ideas, some worked, some didn’t,” said renowned golf course architect Rees Jones, who has worked with Davis throughout his career tinkering and redesigning U.S. Open venues, including this week’s South Course. “The graduated rough idea has been throttled back. Here [on the South Course], it’s on seven holes and it’s not as wide as it used to be. I think it’s appropriately done this week and that’s his idea.”
For Jones, the legacy that Davis leaves behind when he retires next month goes well beyond the U.S. Open. Although it’s the most high-profile asset the USGA handles, there was always more to Davis’ priorities.
“He led the USGA into a new era. The game changed dramatically under his guidance. Equipment changed, the requirements of play changed, the technology became greater,” Jones said. “He led us into a new world of technology in golf.”
During his tenure as executive director, the USGA, as well as the R&A, literally rewrote the rulebook in an attempt to simplify the Rules of Golf. He also tried to address ever increasing driving distances, although that’s clearly going to be an issue that his successor, former LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, will continue to wrestle with.
When asked to define what he would consider his own legacy, Davis demurred. “When I think about that, I think about what the USGA accomplished, not what I did,” he said.
Being the executive director of the USGA is a polarizing job and Davis’ legacy will come with plenty of footnotes.
“All of this I’ve said to Mike, [but] they got away from what the U.S. Open was for a few years - when they went to Chambers Bay and Erin Hills." said Billy Horschel. "The tradition has always been tough, long rough, fast greens. It just challenged every aspect of your game. When you went to Chambers Bay and Erin Hills you sort of lost the need for accuracy off tees. You didn’t need it that much because we were playing big, wide fairways.”
But even that kind of criticism comes with a degree of devil’s advocacy. “He wasn’t afraid of making some controversial decisions,” added Horschel, who hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind when it comes to the USGA or Davis.
Throughout all the opinions on Davis’ legacy, there is a single theme that stands above the criticism and the congratulations. Whether you agreed with his setup philosophies or his ideas on anchored putting or square grooves, there was always an aspect of his leadership style that was undeniable.
“Every decision we've made over the last 10 years, he asks the question of all of us, what is best for the game of golf, and that is how we've made our decisions,” said John Bodenhamer, who took over as the USGA’s top setup man. “I think that's the most important legacy my friend has left.”
History is relentless and you don’t get to write your own story, but for Davis he can at least appreciate the story others are telling.