February 1, 2018

Going the Distance with Mike Davis

The USGA’s CEO addresses golf balls, course setup and whether players are hitting it too far


Mike Davis, the United States Golf Association’s CEO, holds a heavy responsibility in leading his organization and the game of golf through an era of increased distance. Davis is quick to warn that distance is all relative and there’s more to focus on than just the male elite game. Davis talked about this topic at the USGA’s Annual Meeting in Miami.

Dustin Johnson hit it 400+ yards and nearly aced a par 4 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which brought a lot of social media reaction.What’s your thought on that shot and the overall distance debate?

You’re right, there’s been a lot of discussion. But you know what’s interesting, if you go back and look historically, even back to the 1930s, big-hitters were always a topic of conversation.

Now, we didn’t have as much TV back then but you heard specials tories of when Hogan or Nicklaus played, they had that extra gear when they really needed it, and were able to hit it really long. So there’s always been discussion about the longest hitters.

They’re definitely hitting it farther today, there’s no doubt. Nicklaus was playing with balata’s and persimmon. The other thing is there’s so much data to be had today. As you know, there’s ShotLink out there. So when I was growing up you had no idea that someone just hit the ball 300-something yards even with persimmon and balata. They just didn’t have the data out there on every hole to say this person just hit the ball 338 yards.They could have done it 25 years ago, there just wasn’t ShotLink around to really know it.

So I think it’s become more of a topic of conversation because we have the information immediately. When you go to the U.S. Amateur, I don’t think that’s being talked about as much there because we don’t have ShotLink.

So my point is there’s more data out there and it makes people more aware because they can tell you instantaneously. Not only that they have 28 feet on their putt, but that Dustin just hit his drive 432 yards. That information is more readily available.

After Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka won the last two U.S. Opens, what’s your thought on people who suggest that it’s a championship that’s won mostly by distance?

When we play U.S. Opens, some are more geared toward players who can really hit it long and high, some are geared differently. I think back to Pebble Beach in 2010 when Graeme McDowell won. It was so windy and so firm that was one where you had an advantage if you could hit it long – by the way, Dustin Johnson almost won that Open –but Graeme McDowell, who is much shorter, came through.

Some of these courses lend themselves to distance, others don’t. Sometimes the weather is such that they don’t.

I think back to Congressional in 2011 when Rory was just killing it – hitting it high and hitting fairway after fairway after fairway. You know what? He played the best golf that week and won, but it didn’t have to be a bomber.

The other thing that I would say about distance is, we’ve had the philosophy in setting up a golf course that the ability to hit the ball a long way is a skill, and we shouldn’t take that skill away. So if someone is able to hit it 300 versus another player who can hit it 275 – and both can keep it in the fairway – yes the longer player will have the advantage of a shorter shot into the green. But we shouldn’t take that away. He or she has a skill, if they can hit it straight enough and hit it long they shouldn’t be penalized for that.

You’ve talked about the cost or toll on golf courses that the distance debate takes, can you expound?

This issue of distance is, frankly, very complex. It’s an issue that has been talked about, debated, researched, and not just in the last 25 years. This goes way back to even the minutes in our board meetings in the 1920s.

We’re viewing the issue very holistically. This isn’t just about the male elite game, that’s not how we’re viewing it. For us it is more understanding the past. Things have changed from persimmon and balata to titanium, graphite and urethane balls. But it’s gone way beyond that.

Look at the footprint of golf courses. The space it takes to maintain a golf course, the resources you use. For us, we’re thinking forward when we examine the severe pressures on the game right now.

One out of four golf courses in the United States are not making money. Think about that. Logically that can’t continue. So our view is you’ve really got to attack that from both sides. How do we get rounds up? How do we make the game more enjoyable, more accessible? How do we make sure that those who want a shorter time experience can do that?

Explain more of your concern about golf course footprints as it relates to distance?

We’re playing the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills this year. We’re going to play it at slightly over 7,400 yards. The last three U.S. Opens there were played at close to 6,900 yards. Care to guess what the second U.S. Open played 122 years ago at Shinnecock played at? 4,423 yards.

We’ve watched these footprints grow and we say, what good has it done? It’s more land if you’re building a new golf course, it’s more you have to irrigate. It takes longer to play it because every course needs to be 18 holes.

People want to just focus on the male elite game. This is affecting the recreational game. We all want to see the game grow, but frankly the biggest pressure in the game are the golf courses, not how many juniors are playing. We’ve got some great stories to tell about junior golfers. We’re basically at a high watermark now. We’re seeing more women play than ever. One out of three junior (golfers) are girls. It used to be just one out of six.

There are some great things about how we’re growing the game but we really need to focus on where you’re playing and how long it’s taking and all the resources. That’s where we are putting significant monies because, frankly, no one else is. We think that’s the pressure point moving forward and distance is just one part of that.

What are some long-term goals of your efforts?

By 2025, we want to see golf’s “enjoyability” go up by 20 percent. There are different ways to measure that. But we also want to see reduction of resources used to maintain golf courses drop by 20 percent. You might think 20 percent is a lot, but in the last 10 years we’ve dropped water usage due to the best practices we’ve sent out to superintendents in the U.S. by 22 percent. We’ve reduced usage of fertilizer and pesticides by 40 percent. So there’s a great story to tell.

From our standpoint, huge 18-hole golf courses that continue to have to expand in the name of distance is not a good thing for the game. It’s just simply not.

By the way, distance is all relative. You go back 100 years or so and you watch Bobby Jones being able to drive it a good 240, 250. I grew up watching Jack Nicklaus and when he nailed one it was maybe 280, so it’s all relative. That was the long ball back then and you know what? The long ball now is a lot longer, and we simply don’t think that when it’s all said and done that it’s a good thing for the long-term future.

It’s a very complex issue, but I think in our position it’s all about trying to do what’s right for all of the game long-term, not just part of it.

How much are you looking forward to bringing the U.S. Open back to Shinnecock Hills this June?

I think to say that we’re excited about that would be a giant understatement.

This will be the fifth U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. It’s one of our five founding clubs. It was one of the clubs that put the USGA on the map. It’s truly one of the world’s great golf courses, certainly one of America’s great golf courses. There was some great restoration work done by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.

We put in maybe nine new teeing grounds there. When the three of us went around the club, this wasn’t just adding distance to add distance, this was really strategic.

We were thinking what was William Flynn (architect) trying to do on each hole?

How do we get the bunkers in play? We ended up there and looking at it, it will be a little over 400 yards longer than in 2004 when it was 6,900 and change.

If you can get the golf course firm and fast – and we have a really good chance of doing that because it sits on sand, it’s exposed and it’s a windy site – it really is a shotmakers course. Think about who’s won there or been in the hunt. It doesn’t really favor long or short like some golf courses. You really have to think your way around it, particularly when it’s windy you’ve got to control your trajectory and spin.