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Pebble Beach, Oz, and the man behind the machine: The benevolent reign of the USGA's Mike Davis

Zachary Michael JackBy Zachary Michael Jack,
Mike Davis, USGA
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Mike Davis helps direct the team that prepares courses for major USGA events, including the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. (Courtesy of USGA.org)

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Pebble Beach Golf Links is spectacle, whether it's Nicklaus' famous knock-it-stiff 1-iron on 17th during the 1972 U.S. Open or Tom Watson's gap-toothed, baby blue chip-in from the same hole a decade later.

Like any great theater, Pebble Beach depends on accomplished, behind-the-scenes labor to pull the strings and lift the curtain on what the USGA and the Pebble Beach Company hope will make for a memorable 2010 U.S. Open.

Mike Davis' official USGA title, senior director, rules and competitions, basically translates into Mr. U.S. Open -- not to mention the U.S. Women's Open, Senior Open, Walker Cup, U.S. Amateur, and a host of other amateur events run by the USGA each year from its base in Far Hills, N.J.

Davis gets high marks from even the most skeptical PGA Tour pros for the fair-minded rationality and reasonable risk-reward ratio he's introduced at golf's Big Dance events over the past decade.

Above all, Davis wants the USGA to present players with meaningful choices.

"If (the player) goes for a par 5 in two, and he hits the perfect shot, and the green's like concrete, and it bounces over the green into a bunker or thick hay, that's not what we want," Davis said. "But at the same time, we want to make sure the green's not so soft that when he thins the ball it lands on the green and stops."

Contrary to popular perception, Davis said, the USGA's motto is anything but "size matters."

"In 2010, we're going be at Pebble Beach that's barely over 7000 yards, par 71," he said. "And in 2013, we're going to be at Merion that's barely over 6900. Then we're going to be at places like Torrey Pines that's 7,600 yards and change, and we're going to be at Chambers Bay (in 2015) that's even longer than that."

Even with the most dramatic golf courses in the nation as ingredients, no fail-proof recipes exist when it comes to cooking up an unforgettable Open. Whatever the plan, it's always a work in progress for Davis, who teams with the USGA's chairman of the Championship Committee and the organization's section agronomist.

"Some years you really work incredibly hard, as do the superintendent and the grounds staff," Davis said, "and what you thought would happen in terms of how the course would or could play never really happens.

"The perfect example of that is last year's Open at Bethpage. There were so many neat opportunities that we had on how certain holes could play on certain days from certain teeing grounds ... and it never worked out, because we got all that rain. It just got to be an endurance contest, trying to get done."

As consummate hosts, Davis and Co. attempt to make everything go swimmingly without drawing undue attention to themselves as artisans.

"If the golf course can be set up in such a way that all of a sudden the story becomes the drama the players are creating," he said, "and all we've done is really give them a course where it is playing exactly the way it should -- and we've provided enough choices for the players out there, enough risk-reward -- that's when the gratitude really comes in."

Use Torrey Pines South in 2008 as an example, Davis said.

"A year leading into it, we were dealing with some agronomic issues. And I think it's fair to say Torrey Pines is not a Pebble Beach; it's not a Shinnecock Hills; it's not an Oakmont architecturally.

"We took a course that is very, very good, but by most people's accounts wouldn’t rank quite up there with a Pebble Beach, and it ended up being a historic Open. It wasn't our doing that Tiger Woods and Rocco had an exciting Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, but nonetheless, I think we allowed it to happen."

Allowing "it" to happen is what Mike Davis, the USGA's Oz-man and kindly Geppetto rolled into one, has raised to an art form.

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Pebble Beach Golf Links - hole 7

Former newspaper sports writer and editor Zachary Michael Jack is the editor of many essay collections on the environment and outdoor life. He specializes in writing about golf. Zachary is the author of "The Links of Evalon" and edited "Inside the Ropes: Sportswriters Get Their Game On."

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Yea for Mike!

    Lizabeth Thomas Simonson wrote on: Jun 20, 2010

    Mike was friends with my roommates in Atlanta back in the late '80s. We used to hang out with him right out of college. What a great guy and so happy that things have turned out so well for him!!!! YEA MIKE!