UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Tiger Woods speaks of him in reverential tones.
No one has received more attention in the months leading up to the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, mainly because of his reputation in this major over the last decade.
His name is Mike Davis, and he’s not even playing.
Davis is the executive director of the USGA, the man largely responsible for U.S. Open coming to a golf course unlike any other in its 120-year history.
He has been setting up courses at the U.S. Open since 2006 at Winged Foot, which was so tough that Geoff Ogilvy won without ever breaking par. Davis also was in charge of the U.S. Opens that produced the two lowest scores in championship history — Rory McIlroy at Congressional (268) and Martin Kaymer at Pinehurst No. 2 (271).
And now, Davis gets his hands on a course that allows for more options than ever.
“What we don’t know — none of the people in this room know and all the players — don’t know what Mike is going to do and when he’s going to do it,” Woods said. “What tees he’s going to move up, what tees he’s going to leave back. And to what pin locations? We have a general idea. But it’s unlike any other major championship I’ve ever had to prepare for, having to hit so many different tee shots.”
The golf course is always important, especially at majors that rotate around the country. What makes this U.S. Open so different is that Chambers Bay has been getting far more attention than the guys who will be playing it.
And that goes to Davis, a name being talked about as much as McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, Woods and Phil Mickelson this week at Chambers Bay.
That figures to change Thursday when the U.S. Open — the first held in the Pacific Northwest — gets started in what figures to be a dry week on the edge of Puget Sound. Davis is just as curious as the players to see how it unfolds.
And it was easy to detect a tinge of nervousness, too.
“I’m so ready to get this thing going and see what happens,” Davis said Wednesday. “There’s that element you never quite know everything. And listen, we don’t know how the players are going to perform, really. There could be a runaway like Tiger Woods winning by 15 strokes in 2000. Or it could be nip-and-tuck right to the end.
“That’s the players that determine that — not the USGA.”
Davis used words like “concerned” and “worried” on Wednesday before softening those descriptions. His concern is that fescue fairways get too dry, too fast and too out of control. His worry is that the greens get too firm to receive shots the right way, especially on the par 3s.
The U.S. Open has a history to getting so close to the edge that the golf course is over the top.
“I would say the pressure comes from making sure the golf course plays properly,” Davis said. “We felt it last year at Pinehurst. We’ll feel the same pressure next year at Oakmont. But it’s different from year to year. Here, we’ve got more unknowns, just because we haven’t been here.”
For the first time, pars will change each day on two holes — No. 1 and No. 18 will alternate between being a par 4 and a par 5. Davis has two tees for the par-5 ninth, one that features a 100-foot drop in elevation, another that plays uphill.
And for the first time, the USGA did not list a yardage for the course because it can change so much. From the very tips, it measures over 7,900 yards, though Davis said that was never the plan and that it would range between 7,300 yards and 7,700 yards.
“There are a lot of opportunities to bump tees forward and keep guys thinking and keep you on your toes,” Graeme McDowell said. “People are saying, ‘What is the winning score going to be?’ It really just depends. It’s not going to be 10 under, I know that. It’s going to be around level, and it could be 10 over if it was to blow.
“So it really just depends on what Mike decides to do.”
Davis already got into the heads of players when he stated last month that if a player only has two practice rounds and has his caddie walk the course, that player is “will not win” the U.S. Open. That prompted McIlroy to ask inquire about Davis’ handicap index. And even though he’s not playing, Graham DeLaet sent out a tweet Wednesday that said, “My theory is Mike Davis has never broke 85 in his life, and doesn’t want to see pros do it either.”
For Davis, his biggest concern is the notion that he alone can decide how the U.S. Open plays.
“That comment bothers me in the sense that it’s not all me,” Davis said. “It is not one person that does this. But there is a lot of flexibility to this course, so we can do a lot of things with the setup. And we — I underscore ‘we,’ not ‘I’ — will do that. But in hopefully a very reasonable way.”
It’s a big risk coming to such a new course that looks nothing like a U.S. Open ever has. And while Davis talks of his team, he has been around long enough to know that if the course gets out of hand, only one person will be blamed.