Mike Davis, who came to prominence setting up U.S. Open courses and rose to become the USGA’s first CEO, announced Tuesday he will leaving the organization at the end of 2021 to pursue his lifelong passion for golf course design.
Davis, 55, joined the USGA in 1990. In 2011, he succeeded David Fay to become the seventh executive director in the organization's history. In 2016, he was named CEO, which under revised bylaws made that position, and no longer the USGA president, the most powerful in the organization.
The announcement comes in the aftermath of a well-received U.S. Open at Winged Foot, which due to COVID-19 was played in September for the first time since 1913, and without spectators.
“It’s just the right time for me,” said Davis. “I’m in a really good place. Part of me will indeed be sad because I’ve grown up in this organization, but I’m excited about the future. The USGA’s in a great place. And I think the game is moving in the right direction.”
Davis said that when he took the executive director job he promised his wife, Cece, it would be for 10 years. He informed the executive committee in 2018 the timetable of his planned departure.
“I could tell, five or six years into it, that this is not a job where I would be doing myself or the USGA a favor by staying too long,” said Davis, whose job required him to spend about 200 days a year away from home. “I got into the position where I knew I could only keep this pace up and keep the enthusiasm for so long. I’ve had a lot of CEOs tell me this type of job kind of wears you out, and it turned out to be very true.”
Davis’ replacement will be chosen by a succession committee made up of several members of the executive committee, which has also hired a search firm to assist. Internal and external candidates will be considered. The goal is for a successor to be in place next May, before the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
“I’ll be part of process, but I’m not going to be choosing my successor,” said Davis. “I’m sure I’ll offer something about what the job entails and what I think is needed. When the time comes, I’ll make sure people know that this is the new person. I’ll be helpful, but also ready to say, 'Here you go. Take my office.' I think it’s a more comfortable thing.”
In his remaining 15 months on the job, Davis said his priorities will be to lead the organization through the challenges of COVID-19, advance the establishment of the recently announced Golf House Pinehurst, oversee the resumption of the ongoing Distance Insights Project, and ensure a smooth transition.
In his next venture, he will team with golf course designer Tom Fazio II to form Fazio & Davis Golf Design. The two have been friends for years. Fazio, whose father, Jim Fazio, and uncle, Tom Fazio, are both prominent course architects, recently helped Davis with creating a new master plan for the course he grew up on, Chambersburg (PA) CC. “We just clicked,” said Davis.
To those who know Davis best, his new direction is not a surprise. The former college golfer at Georgia Southern was doodling golf holes in high school even before he won the 1982 Pennsylvania State Junior. He acknowledges that his favorite task at the USGA was working on preparing courses for all the USGA championships and the U.S. Open, in particular.
After several years of assisting former setup man Tom Meeks with that championship, Davis was named director of rules and competitions in 2005. His first U.S. Open setup at Winged Foot in 2006 was lauded. For the next 12 championships, including eight where he performed double duty after being named executive director, he willingly took on the challenge. But in 2019, he chose to hand the duties off to John Bodenhamer, who was appointed senior director of championships. “I was frankly stretched too thin U.S. Open week,” Davis said. “John has done a tremendous job.”
In large part because of the growth of social media (which also gave players a louder voice), Davis increasingly became a lightning rod for complaints about the U.S. Open. Setups at Merion in 2013 and Shinnecock Hills 2018 were criticized, as was the choice to take the U.S. Open to two new courses in close succession at Chambers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills in 2017. It prompted some, including Jack Nicklaus, to question whether the championship was losing its identity, leading the USGA to conduct an extensive survey with findings that supported the U.S. Open returning more often to its most classic venues. With Pinehurst becoming the championship’s anchor by being slated to play host five times between 2024 and 2047, more frequent visits to Oakmont, Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot is establishing a de facto rota under Davis’ leadership.
It’s been a job full of endless challenges, but it’s also what made his next chapter possible.
“When I was running rules and competitions, it was just heart and soul for me,” Davis said. “It would have been easy to have finished out my career in that job in my mid-60s. But if I had done that and not taken executive director, I never would have gotten into golf course design and construction. Because these last couple of years I’ve told myself, ‘If I don’t do this, I’m always going to regret it.’ I look back and say I just lucked out.”
The Davis Decade will be marked by a variety of accomplishments, including the establishment of a world handicapping system, rules modernization, three new championships in the Women’s Senior Open and men’s and women’s amateur four balls, and a powerful fundraising arm with the USGA Foundation. Behind the scenes, but perhaps most significant, Davis played an important role in changing USGA’s governing structure, with the staff gaining fuller control of the day-to-day operation while the executive committee took on a more advisory role.
Davis is most proud of committing to solving controversial issues.
“I look at the things we knew would be hard and unpopular with some, like anchoring and distance,” he said. “I remember when the board talked to me about applying for the position, and one of the things I said to them was, ‘We have to be willing to take on tough issues if they need to be taken on.’ And I used distance as an example. Because I love golf courses. It’s just destroyed me to see what’s happened in some ways because of distance. I said, ‘I’m not interested in this [job] if you are not willing to take that on.’
“There were times, the USGA and R&A would admit this, where we thought, ‘Ok, everything that’s out there now, that’s good, let’s stop it right there.’ Instead of saying, ‘Wait a second. We’ve already gone too far. What’s best for the game?’ And I’ve always kind of thought that way. And every time I’m in an equipment meeting, I remind everyone, ‘Before we say, this is where we are, and we can stop it here,’ ask yourselves, is that the right thing for the game?’ If you are governing body, that’s your responsibility in the long term. Don’t take the easy way out.
"Governance is not a popularity contest.”
Davis said he isn’t worried that his departure will slow momentum on the Distance Insights Project, which because of the pandemic has been postponed until early next year.
“Our board is very aligned with the R&A leadership that this is something we have to solve,” he said. “We don’t yet know how we’re going to solve it, in terms of what we should do, how we do it, when we should do it. But that will work itself out. We committed millions of dollars to this, and when you look at the data, so crystal clear. You just can’t argue it. It’s something that’s going to happen long after I’m gone, but that we know is going to happen.”
Stu Francis, the current president of the USGA, admires Davis’ ability to connect across the community of golf through what is unmistakably a genuine bond with the game.
“Mike obviously has tremendous golf skills – a passion and understanding of it,” Francis said. “And he’s had a great ability to think about what’s right for golf. To a degree, that takes a very unselfish person. He’s always been that way. It’s well known in the game and it’s a big part of why he has been effective.”
As for his venture into golf architecture, Davis says with an adamant smile that he will not be reprising of U.S. Open setups.
“I love Winged Foot, I love Oakmont. The architecture, the greens, the bunkers,” he said. “But the narrowness of them, I don’t like that kind of golf for me, and I don’t think it’s necessarily good for the recreational player. I don’t want someplace where you are constantly looking for golf balls. I don’t want a bunch of forced carries. I want to be able to bounce balls into greens. I like playable for the beginner, strategic for the better player. I think our courses will gravitate toward width, like a lot of great courses I know and like.”
“I know a lot about design, but I have a deficiency in the actual construction of course, in the build. So I’m going to learn a lot from Tom, but also go to Bill Coore and Gil Hanse and just get on one of their crews. Pete Dye would say, 'You can’t do effective design work until you understand construction.' I’m really looking forward to getting my hands dirty.”
For a lover of the game who personifies the sub-category of “purist,” overriding sentiment in what is generally considered a complicated career moment is one of gratitude.
“My whole career with the USGA, I’ve been so fortunate so often,” he said. “Seeing virtually all the world’s great golf courses, being part of a quiet dinner with just Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, being the only person alive to have seen all of Tiger’s nine USGA victories. Just so many things, and it’s been an honor. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, 'I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.' What can you say? Right place and right time.”
And it seems he believes the theme will continue.