Mike Davis is leaving the USGA. Though not immediately, or even this year. The USGA announced on Tuesday that Davis will step down as CEO at the end of 2021 to pursue a new venture with Tom Fazio II in golf course design and construction. The transition has been in the works for some time.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do,” said Davis of a passion that started with doodling golf holes. “It’s the right time I think for the USGA too … there’s been a lot of change the last decade.”
Davis, 55, joined the USGA in the spring of 1990. When he was promoted to executive director in March 2011, Davis told his wife Cece that he would devote 10 years to the position and then move on. Three and a half years ago, Davis shared that timeline with the executive committee. About a year ago, he said, a search committee was formed. A search firm has since been retained and the organization hopes to have a successor on board by May of next year, June at the latest.
In the months following his departure from the USGA, Davis said he plans to spend time with Gil Hanse and Bill Coore on some of their current projects. His new firm will be called Fazio and Davis Golf Design, LLC.
“I’m closer to 60 than I am to 50 and still have years left,” he said, “and I just felt like if I didn’t do it, I’d regret it.”
There’s plenty of work left to be done over the next 15 months. On the heels of bomber Bryson DeChambeau dismantling Winged Foot over the weekend, focus returns to the Distance Insights project, a subject of great passion for Davis that has been underway for roughly three years.
“What’s happening with distance over the last 100 years and what’s happening with golf courses that have followed,” he said, “that’s moving golf in a wrong direction in terms of its long-term health, which is one of the reasons we took it on ourselves, along with the R&A, to say we need to make some changes for the future.”
As Davis continues to navigate the organization through the impacts of COVID-19, he’ll work to bring the new Golf House Pinehurst to life and help create a smooth transition for his successor.
Thirty years ago Davis was working in commercial real estate in Atlanta when the USGA called out of the blue. He was first hired as assistant manager of championship relations in 1990 and took over as U.S. Open Championship director in 1997, becoming senior director of rules and competitions in 2005.
After becoming the USGA’s seventh executive director in 2011, the affable Davis was named the organization’s first CEO in 2016.
“I think he’s really been a transformational leader in somewhat of a quiet way,” said USGA president Stu Francis.
Davis’ mark as a set-up man for the U.S. Open, a role he relished but relinquished in 2019, includes the implementation of graduated rough, a greater risk/reward component in the drivable par 4 and the mentality of firm and fast.
He took a lot of heat in recent years for the greens at Chambers Bay, the Dustin Johnson ruling at Oakmont, the generous fairways at Erin Hills and two years ago at Shinnecock, when strait-laced Zach Johnson said the USGA had “lost the golf course.” Davis admitted in 2018 that they’d misjudged the wind and created conditions that penalized well-executed shots.
Social media has fueled criticism in recent years, though Davis long ago learned how to chalk that up as part of it.
“Sometimes you can’t win,” he said, “because if you set it up too hard, the players don’t like it. If you set it up too easy, the fans don’t like it.
“I think you do need a little Teflon for the job.”
Noteworthy undertakings in his near decade at the top include spearheading the rules modernization, the new World Handicap System, the creation of the USGA Foundation, four new championships (U.S. Senior Women’s Open, men’s and women’s U.S. Amateur Four-Balls and a championship for disabled golfers, still in the works), the anchoring ban and the ongoing distance report.
Davis began his conversation with Golfweek with a tidbit on Francis Ouimet and later pointed to sustainability as one of the game’s biggest challenges going forward.
“We’re all going to be long gone,” he said, “but 100 years from now, what’s golf going to look like? Are we really going to be able to take 250 acres and continue to maintain them and use water the way we are?”
Francis says Davis acts the same in broader settings as he does in intimate ones. A thoughtful, strategic thinker who listens and works to build consensus rather than dominate.
Working for the USGA, Davis says, has been a dream job. Running the U.S. Open, which he attended with his father as a teenager, almost seemed too good to believe.
His best days on the job include witnessing firsthand all nine of Tiger Woods’ USGA championship victories, spending an hour on the phone with Mickey Wright and dinner for three with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
That last pinch-me-moment came in 2013 when Nicklaus met Davis at Merion for a quiet hole-by-hole trip around an empty course on a Monday. For years Nicklaus had questioned Davis on whether Merion was long enough to host the U.S. Open.
They later flew to Latrobe, where Palmer picked them up at the airport. Over dinner at Latrobe Country Club, two of Davis’ childhood heroes offered their perspectives on the game and shared stories about his predecessors at the USGA. The next day they flew by helicopter, with Palmer as co-pilot, to Oakmont Country Club to shoot a documentary for the USGA, landing on the tennis courts.
“I will never forget that,” said Davis, who is building a home in Jupiter, Florida, where he and Cece plan to live full time.