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USGA’s Davis turns focus from course setup to CEO duties

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Beginning with this year’s championship at Pebble Beach, USGA CEO Mike Davis is voluntarily stepping away from his longtime lead role in setting up the golf course at U.S. Opens.

Although none of his setup predecessors – Joe Dey, P.J. Boatwright, David Eger and Tom Meeks – ever publicly professed the love for the job that Davis has, as he leaned back in a chair in his office at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., a few days before the holiday break, he proclaimed himself “very happy about this.”

And in case you’re wondering, he’s also quite clear that his decision was not driven by what happened last June at Shinnecock Hills.

Davis’ handpicked setup successor is John Bodenhamer, who since being hired by Davis in 2011 has run the association’s amateur championships. The 57-year-old native of Washington state, who played on the BYU golf team that won the 1981 NCAA Championship and is a former two-time Alaska State Open champion, will now run all 14 of the organization’s national championships as well as its international and team events. But, as with every one of the USGA’s previous lead setup men, it will be at the U.S. Open where Bodenhamer will be most scrutinized.

Davis, a former Pennsylvania junior champion who retains a deep affinity for course architecture, began helping with the U.S. Open setup when he joined the USGA in 1990. He took over lead setup responsibilities after being named senior director of rules and competitions in 2005. Then, after rising to executive director in 2011, he was urged to continue in his course setup role by then president Jim Hyler, who at the news conference announcing Davis’ appointment said, “We would be idiots if we extracted Mike from U.S. Open activities … He’s the best in the world at that.” Not that Davis wasn’t more than willing to oblige. “I love the golf course setup,” he said. “I would almost pay the USGA money to allow me to do this … This is something I genuinely think I can continue to do.” 

Bodenhamer to head U.S. Open course setup

USGA executive John Bodenhamer will replace Mike Davis as the head of U.S. Open course setup beginning this summer at Pebble Beach.

For almost a decade, Davis’ setups at venerated courses like Winged Foot, Oakmont, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst were favorably received, averted crisis, and earned him plaudits for his ability to comprehensively but fairly test the world’s best. But passionate second-guessing of U.S. Open setups, more than the other three majors, has become a given in the golf community. Though Davis’ ideas, like graduated rough and shortening the odd par 4 to be drivable, only slightly annoyed U.S. Open traditionalists, and his actual number of setup gaffes was close to zero, eventually – by virtue of expanded television coverage and social media that facilitates attention-grabbing criticism from, among others, players – he became a bigger lightning rod than his predecessors. Beginning in 2015, difficulties at three straight U.S. Opens – bumpy greens at Chambers Bay, the Dustin Johnson ruling at Oakmont, and too-wide fairways at Erin Hills – were laid at his feet.

Then last June at Shinnecock Hills, on arguably America’s greatest course and ultimate stage for the U.S. Open, the championship was tarnished. In Saturday’s third round, heavy afternoon winds further desiccated an already mistakenly moisture-depleted back nine, causing balls to trickle and then roll far away from precariously perched hole locations on the 13th and 15th greens.

What made the mistake most damaging was that it so closely reprised the worst moment of the 2004 Open at Shinnecock, which happens to be one of the worst setup errors in modern major championship history. That year, when insufficient water was put on the course before the final round, high winds quickly made the green on the par-3 seventh hole unplayable. The television audience saw players in the first two groups of the day putt into bunkers on their way to triple bogeys. The calamity led Meeks, then in charge of the setup, to halt play so that officials could soak the green, making the sad spectacle of the maintenance crew spraying the surface the most lasting image of the championship.

The USGA, hoping hard for a win at Shinnecock, was hyper-aware that history couldn’t repeat in 2018. But when it did, in near flashback form, it was Davis who had to offer a contrite public explanation and essentially own the blunder. He expressed regret for underestimating wind that caused the back-nine greens to effectively shrink, and cutting hole locations – especially at Nos. 13 and 15 – that became too severe. When he went on to admit that “well executed shots were not only not rewarded, but were punished in some cases,” it was another way of saying that the USGA – which by virtue of its mission to make its championship the hardest test in golf, strays closer to the setup edge than the three other majors – had gone over the cliff at the most inopportune time. All in all, it was the rockiest week of Davis’ career.

Bodenhamer would go on to prepare a detailed behind-the-scenes post-mortem that has provided the USGA a more accurate assessment of what went wrong at Shinnecock, specifically an error in communication and execution along the chain of command. “It wasn’t that there was a judgment to make the course harder on Saturday by not applying water in the morning,” Davis said. “Water was applied on the front nine, where there were no complaints. It was a failure of carrying out the intention of applying enough water on the back nine. That was not the Shinnecock Hills club’s fault. We erred there. The USGA erred.”

Davis remembers Boatwright once telling him, “Mike, if you get 71 hole locations at the U.S. Open right, nobody is going to pat you on the back.” And he has learned the hard way that “if there are parts of the U.S. Open that do not go well, it reflects on the whole organization. When we don’t execute right, every other part of the organization gets questioned. Every part.” It’s a crucial time for the USGA as it rolls out its new rules, monitors an extensive survey on distance, and gets ready to launch a new world handicapping system. Meanwhile, more touring professionals seem to feel free to broadly criticize the USGA. It would be understandable if in such a context, Davis thought it best to surrender his setup role to a less polarizing figure. But, he says, that isn’t the case.

“This decision has been in the works for more than two U.S. Opens,” Davis told Golf Channel. “Whether people want to believe that or not, that’s for them to decide.” So if Shinnecock had gone perfectly, he still would have given up the main setup responsibilities? “Absolutely,” said Davis. “I told our president and our next president this was happening long before the Open at Shinnecock.”

The basis for the decision was a key change in the USGA’s bylaws in 2015, which led to the executive committee in 2016 elevating Davis from executive director to the organization’s first ever CEO. Under the new bylaws, the most powerful person in the organization would no longer be the USGA president, who only serves a two-year term, but rather a full-time staff member. In his new role, Davis can pick and structure his own executive team, and set the priorities for the USGA’s agenda.

From a personal standpoint, Davis said he began to seriously consider relinquishing setup responsibilities as his duties expanded as CEO. Travel on USGA business that took him away from New Jersey increased to about 200 days a year, limiting his site visits to U.S. Open courses. And in the week before and during the actual championship, the need to rise before daybreak for setup duty, after nightly functions and meetings for other USGA business, afforded Davis no more than four hours sleep a night.  

“It really hit me before Erin Hills,” said Davis, who says he has gradually delegated more of his U.S. Open tasks to Jeff Hall, a managing director of competitions. “I was frankly stretched too thin, and especially stretched too thin U.S. Open week for other things I needed to be doing in my position.”

Davis was also in the process of building his executive team, in which he foresaw Bodenhamer as taking over the setup duties. The right opportunity for a restructuring came with the recent and pending departure from the USGA of two senior managers: Sarah Hirshland, who oversaw merchandizing, marketing and communications, leaving to become CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee; and Mike Butz, who was running advanced planning for the championship, about to retire after 39 years with the organization. Along with Bodenhamer, the trio had essentially divided the U.S. Open managerial pie three ways, a system Davis had come to believe could be streamlined. The departures have allowed Davis to make Bodenhamer the overseer of all aspects of the U.S. Open, including setup (he also appointed former rules director Thomas Pagel to lead all governance functions including rules, equipment standards and handicapping), creating a more efficient organization that Davis believes will allow him to more fully focus on being CEO.

Mike Davis

“I feel like, finally, we’ve gotten this thing right in terms of the right structure,” Davis said. “In retrospect, if I had given up the setup role in 2011, which probably ideally I should have in my position, that would have been the right thing to happen. For a number of reasons, among them that when I came on board I was very comfortable in the golf arena but less so in the support functions, that didn’t happen. But now we are coming into a great time.”

Davis will continue to help with the U.S. Open course set up, but as more of an overseeing consultant for Bodenhamer.

“John is going to take the lead, I will continue to be part of it,” said Davis. “I will continue to watch the golf course closely, mostly on the broadcast. But we need somebody to be the face, and John will be outstanding at that. Jeff will continue to take an important role. Bottom line, it’s a team effort. It hasn’t been one person and it won’t be one person. But I’m not going to be out there in the morning doing setups anymore.”

Bodenhamer will be, though he gives little indication about his on-course approach, significantly different than his boss.

“I think it’s imperative for us to keep our DNA of being tough, stern and challenging,” said Bodenhamer. “We absolutely have to keep our promise to the players to make our championship something special. And to our fans that they can watch and attend something special. And to our own brand, because it’s who we are.” Asked about his plans this year for Pebble Beach, where in 2010 Graeme McDowell won with a score of even-par 284, he said, “I’m sure Mike’s setup from last time will be the starting point, and I don’t expect too much variation.”

But Bodenhamer does want to make significant changes to the USGA’s outreach and engagement with touring pros. He believes it’s the best way to avert the kind of negative groupthink among the competitors that can plague the USGA at the U.S. Open.

“It’s important that we engage and explain why we do what we do,” said Bodenhamer. “We haven’t done that with the players, and they just don’t know us. Last year we went to seven PGA Tour events, and we will go to more this year. Our intentions are good, and the players are going to know our intentions more. We aren’t going to make all of them happy, but they should understand that we aren’t trying to trick up the course or make it ridiculously hard. We are trying to do the opposite, which is why we put so much work into it. As set-up people, the last thing we want to be is the story. The last thing. We want it to be about the players and the golf course.”

Davis agrees with the premise that it’s the players who can be the USGA’s most valuable messengers, or their most destructive. As a still avid 5-handicap golfer at age 55, he genuinely enjoys talking shop with the world’s best.

“I’ve never considered the players people who just complain,” he said. “At both Winged Foot in 2006 and Oakmont in 2007, 5 over par was the winning score, and no complaints. But as a governing body, because we aren’t with them on a weekly basis, the players don’t have someone at the USGA to come to, and it makes a difference. Out on the tour they do. So if they think something’s wrong they don’t necessarily walk into the media tent and unload. They will go to an official and address the problem and probably get it solved. My own ability to spend time with the players has been very limited. But that’s going to change.”

A lot of things will for Davis in 2019 and beyond. As much as he has been fulfilled by the challenge of preparing classic golf holes to equitably reward skill in the world’s most demanding golf tournament, the bet here is that he will benefit in effectiveness and contentment by leaving intensive course setup work – and its attendant public scrutiny and time demands – behind. Davis is at his unaffected best when he can lead by following his sure instinct for what is good for the game. And a Mike Davis more comfortable in the increased institutional power of his position, and more immersed in golf’s most pressing issues, is good for the game.