Mike Davis, USGA Trying to Make the U.S. Open Great Again

ERIN, Wis. – Remember when the U.S. Open used to be the greatest major championship in golf?

OK, maybe you never believed that, but those of you who did had a pretty strong argument for your golf brethren who thought the Masters or The Open were the best majors.

If you love the U.S. Open, you hate the suggestion that it’s now the third or maybe even the fourth best major.

You hate how the PGA Championship is praised for having the best setup man in golf (Kerry Haigh) and how the USGA is criticized for having the most controversial (Mike Davis).

If you love the U.S. Open, you hate what has happened to the event’s aura, how it has gone from a blue-chip golf property to a black-and-blue one.

You used to love how the USGA didn’t seem to give a crap what players thought about its setups. You loved Sandy Tatum at the “Massacre at Winged Foot” in ’74 saying that his organization wasn’t trying to embarrass the best players in the game, but merely identify them. You loved how that attitude resonated through so many of the tough setups that followed.

You used to love it when players whined about the setup.

Now you find yourself sympathizing with them.

Now you cringe when you hear how the USGA is courting player opinions, trying to repair relationships among pros who have openly complained that the governing body is “run by a bunch of amateurs” and who have openly wondered if the PGA Tour ought to break off to set up its own set of rules.

You hated seeing respect for the USGA deteriorating with the event played on a dead moonscape at Chambers Bay two years ago and then again with the controversy that erupted over the Dustin Johnson ruling at Oakmont last year.

Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler boldly took to Twitter to call out the USGA over its handling of the Johnson ruling.

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Golf Digest wrote Wednesday that PGA Tour pros were so indignant about the way the USGA handled Johnson’s rule issue that “there was talk if Dustin Johnson had lost because of the penalty that some players might have skipped this year’s tournament.”

That’s hard to believe, but, ouch!

If you love the U.S. Open, you had mixed feelings hearing Davis offer up a mea culpa Wednesday at Erin Hills on the eve of the 117th rendition of the championship.

“You would think something like what happened the last couple of years would affect just the championship department, maybe the rules department, but it affects the whole organization,” said Davis, the USGA’s executive director. “By that, I mean that anytime your competency comes into question that affects the people doing our equipment testing, the agronomic people on the greens section, our people in dealing with the history of the game and helping to grow the game. So, of course, we want to avoid those things.”

Competency? Yes, he used that word, because there’s no getting around how all the complaints about the USGA have added up to that harsh indictment.

Give Davis credit for the ruthless self-examination.

If you love the U.S. Open, there were mixed feelings listening to Davis, because there’s hope in more than what he’s acknowledging. There’s hope in what he’s doing, with the USGA on the offensive trying to correct the complex problems that have led to waning respect and credibility.

The USGA and R&A are breaking tradition trying to react more swiftly to problems now with quick solutions. We saw that in December, with the announcement of the new local rule that eliminates penalties when a ball is accidentally moved on a putting green.

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We saw that in March, with the outline of a sweeping initiative to modernize and simplify the Rules of Golf.

We saw that last month, with the release of a new rules decision limiting the use of video evidence.

And we will see it at this U.S. Open, with the USGA revamping its rules officiating system as a reaction to what happened to Johnson at Oakmont. Instead of walking officials, the USGA is stationing officials at each hole this year, with Thomas Pagel serving as chief rules official “empowered to make instantaneous decisions.” There will also be video stations on the course that will allow officials to more quickly review rules issues that may arise.

“We think this will allow us to really expedite our rule-making process and be decisive in our communications, which were two things that perhaps we fell a little bit short last year,” said John Bodenhamer, the senior managing director of championships. “We really have learned a great deal.”

If you love the U.S. Open, there was hope in the unspoken theme to Wednesday’s USGA news conference.

“Make the U.S. Open great again!”

That’s the opportunity Erin Hills presents starting Thursday.

Davis and Co. could use quick confirmation that their work is paying off.

“We want a nice, smooth U.S. Open,” Davis said.

Good luck with that.

There’s always been controversy in the U.S. Open. It’s in the championship’s DNA. It comes with trying to set up the toughest test in golf. It comes with pushing the envelope, taking shot-making challenges to the extreme.

Davis complicated all of that practically redefining the U.S. Open with his change in setup philosophy. He has remade the championship, redefining it as the “ultimate test of golf” instead of the “toughest test.”

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Instead of making every U.S. Open about narrow fairways, chop-out rough and speedy greens, Davis has made it about adapting the challenge to the unique design of the particular golf course.

At Erin Hills, that means 50- and 60-yard wide fairways, penal fescue and rugged penal bunkering that will test shot making in typically windswept conditions.

In fairness to Davis, the U.S. Open is always the toughest championship to set up in golf, because it requires pushing the limits of fairness.

You may not like Davis’ changes in the philosophy, but they are intelligently argued. It isn’t the philosophy that’s failed him. It has been the execution.

Trying to set up the ultimate test of golf has never been more difficult with advancements in equipment and ball technology making the game appear easier than it’s ever been.

Davis practically handpicked Erin Hills.

This course looks like it could be his masterpiece, as championship setups go. Erin Hills could embody why his philosophy better showcases not only the all-around ability of the game’s greatest players but the diverse nature of this country’s best courses.

Or Erin Hills could be the final piece of evidence that his philosophy won’t make the U.S. Open great again.