In deciding to leave his job as chief executive officer of the United States Golf Association – a decision Mike Davis made for himself without being pushed by others – he has been guided by a simple principle.
Davis has chosen to follow his heart.
In 30-plus years at the USGA, working his way through the organization to become its first CEO, Davis has helped shape the game he loves while running a $200-million-a-year non-profit company. In a letter announcing his decision to staff members Tuesday, Davis said the time has come for him to follow through on his passion for course design.
Davis will leave his USGA position by the end of 2021 and will join forces with Tom Fazio II in a joint business venture called Fazio & Davis Golf Design.
“I’ve been fascinated with golf design ever since I was a junior golfer,” Davis said in a letter to associates. “It started with doodling golf holes, and then reading and observing all that I could about golf course architecture. It also led to a quest to study as many of the world’s best courses as possible.
“The last 30-plus years with the USGA have afforded me so many wonderful opportunities in that regard, including meeting and working with many of the renowned designers in the game. I have also learned a great deal about grasses, course maintenance and construction from our deeply knowledgeable Green Section agronomists.”
Following David Fay to become the USGA’s seventh executive director in 2011 (the CEO title was created in 2016), Davis has been instrumental in guiding the game through a sometimes turbulent period including the anchored putting ban, challenges created by equipment advances, the creation of Golf House Pinehurst and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mike has been a transformational leader in golf and his actions to move the USGA forward have been numerous and decisive,” said Stu Francis, president of the USGA. “These accomplishments include leading global rules modernization, the new World Handicap System, the ongoing Distance Insights project and the creation of the new USGA Foundation.
“In addition, Mike’s vision helped create three new USGA championships (the two U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championships and the U.S. Senior Women’s Open with a championship for disabled golfers planned), while at the same time ensuring a great lineup of golf courses for all of the USGA’s championships. He has also been a strong advocate for the selection of public golf courses as U.S. Open sites.”
The USGA already has begun the process of finding a successor to Davis and, based on conversations with organization insiders, it’s likely the new chief executive will come from outside in part because the scope of the job has expanded since Davis moved into the leadership position. The new leader is expected to be hired by next spring so that person can work alongside Davis for a time.
Whomever replaces Davis will be challenged to match the credibility he carries across the game. A tireless worker with a particular appreciation of design and course set-up and a knack for making those around him feel comfortable, Davis is among the most powerful people in golf.
Though Davis projects an understated demeanor, he is a man of strong convictions. He knows the game, its history and has a sense of its future. He has made the USGA and the game better.
“Beyond the opportunity to pursue my lifelong passion, it is the right time for me and my family.” – Mike Davis
He has dealt with the challenges of leading an organization that brings in a new president every two years while coping with the personal politics that come with strong-willed people sometimes pulling in different directions. At one point, a group of USGA leaders sought to demote Davis but he held firm and his role grew.
The job Davis took in 2011 is different from the job he now has. It’s a function of the USGA’s growth and his responsibilities as chief executive officer have spread as the organization has grown into more than a rules and tournament body. That’s why speculation centers on the USGA hiring an executive with a deep business and/or professional sports background.
Davis, a former Pennsylvania junior champion, joined the USGA in 1990 and eventually followed Joe Dey, P.J. Boatwright, David Eger and Tom Meeks as the person in charge of setting up U.S. Open courses. He assumed the role in 2006 and altered the way U.S. Open courses were set up without sacrificing its intention of being the most demanding and thorough test of the year.
It was Davis who introduced graduated rough and he liked finding a drivable par-4 to tempt and challenge players. He did the bulk of his setup work years in advance, tweaking layouts to provide a proper U.S. Open test.
While Davis has remained involved in U.S. Open course set-up, he turned that responsibility over to John Bodenhamer, whom he hired to run the USGA’s amateur competitions in 2011. Davis stepped away from supervising the setup after the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where Saturday’s round was tarnished by issues with two back-nine pin positions on a windy day when portions of the course became nearly unplayable.
Davis took responsibility for the problems, which included not putting enough water on the back-nine greens that Saturday. It was a particularly upsetting incident because a similar issue occurred in the previous U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. Insiders say that Davis cautioned against the controversial pin positions – he also voiced concern about the course conditions in 2004 to no avail – but the decision was made to use them despite his recommendation to soften them.
Though Davis had not chosen Chambers Bay to host the 2015 U.S. Open (Fay advocated for the new venue), he was in charge and had to answer for the agronomic problems that plagued the event.
A year later, the USGA mishandled a ruling that cost eventual champion Dustin Johnson a penalty stroke, and the following year the USGA was criticized for the fairways being too wide at Erin Hills where Brooks Koepka shot 16-under par.
Those events are part of Davis’ legacy and those close to him feel badly that he had to surrender the part of his job that many believe he does best.
Along the way, Davis was also instrumental in modernizing golf’s rules and banning the use of anchored putting methods. With the support of other leaders in the game, Davis became the front man for the change, understanding it was a controversial decision.
Critics point to the anchoring decision and say Davis should have led the USGA in a different direction, focusing directly on the distance debate which continues today. While the pandemic has slowed any potential action regarding distance, there continue to be discussions among the game’s leaders about harnessing or potentially rolling back equipment standards.
If that happens, it’s likely to happen after Davis has settled into his course design work and his home in Jupiter, Florida.
“Beyond the opportunity to pursue my lifelong passion, it is the right time for me and my family,” Davis wrote.
Top: Mike Davis at the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, New Jersey. Photo: Matt Rainey, Copyright USGA
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