Just as an "American Idol" judge may not be able to outperform the competitors, the man responsible for setting up U.S. Open venues likely wouldn't put much of a scare into the world's best golfers.
Asked about his own game, Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, simply laughs before discussing his handicap. "It's going up. I think it's 3-point-something right now. I don't play [nearly] as much as I used to."
And yet, Davis has received a heavy dose of praise for his work on U.S. Open setups ever since taking over the role from now-retired Tom Meeks in 2005. Working on his 20th career Open in some capacity with the USGA, Davis recently sat down on the ESPN.com Hot Seat to discuss changes to this year's venue, Bethpage Black; which players have a strong sense for course architecture; and the real designer of this year's host site.
Q: Tell me about the thought process behind the USGA's 14-point course setup philosophy.
A: It essentially tried to outline all the different important points that we wanted to touch on with respect to golf-course management and truly what we were trying to measure in determining a national champion.
Q: You've incorporated more risk-reward holes in the last few years, which force the players to employ more strategy on the course. Is that part of this philosophy?
A: I think it is. We want to keep our national championship, the U.S. Open, a stern and rigorous test, but we think that by introducing more risk-reward -- in other words, giving the players more choices -- that is actually testing an additional aspect, which is really the mental aspect of the game. So we've introduced more course management, but we don't think it's necessarily any easier.
Q: I think some fans -- and maybe even some players -- are going to think there's a typo on this year's scorecard when they see a par-4 [the 525-yard 7th hole] that actually plays longer than a par-5 [the 517-yard 4th hole.] What's the theory behind this?
A: [Laughs] Well, you're right. I mean, I think that some people, including some players, may think that we've lost it mentally. But that said, we really go back to set up each hole for what it is, and in the case of the fourth hole, which is a par-5, that hole really will play as a par-5. Now, will the players go for it? Yes. But then on the seventh hole, it was set up to be a very long par-4.
You get back to what is par -- how many shots it takes an expert player to get to the green, plus two putts -- and we just happen to think that on the seventh hole, we'll see most of the players either on the green or up around the green. And on the fourth hole, the par-5, we hope that some go for it in two, but we just aren't expecting that many are there in two.
Q: Is it safe to say that some of the Opens have featured, really, par-3½ or par-4½ holes recently?
A: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right, and I think every golf course should have some half-shot pars. I think everybody loves a real short par-3, everybody loves a real short par-4 and everybody loves a real short par-5. That's not suggesting they all need to be that way, but I think when you do that, you are inherently giving the players more options. Because when they're half-shot holes, if they decide to play it aggressively, they can do so, but they can also decide to play it conservatively.
David Cannon/Getty Images
Bethpage Black is hosting the U.S. Open for the second time. Tiger Woods won at the Black back in 2002 as he was the only player to finish under par over 72 holes.
Q: Without going into hole-by-hole detail, how else will Bethpage play differently from when it last hosted the Open in 2002?
A: Well, I think one, you have graduated rough. We didn't have that last time at all, and as I recall from '02, it was some of the most penal U.S. Open rough we'd had in probably the last couple of decades. So that's one way.
I think another way is some of the fairway contours have been changed into slightly wider fairways, and I think also there's fairway in some areas to really encourage some risk-taking, where there might be fairway over a bunker that you have to fly a certain distance. Another thing, there's been a couple of changes in putting greens, in that the eighth green has been restored to what it used to be back in the 1930s, so you've got more risk-reward where we're bringing the pond into play.
The 14th hole, the par-3, the green was reworked really for agronomic reasons, but a byproduct is that we've certainly gotten more hole locations that are more dynamic. And I think that the other thing that's going to be a big difference is that you will see Bethpage play different from a daily standpoint in terms of which teeing grounds we use; we'll mix and match those teeing grounds for a certain hole location.
But on the other side of things, you'll see Bethpage probably play a bit more consistent than it did in 2002, with respect to our intent of not making it harder every single day, which I think was the case back in '02. The rough got higher every day, the greens got a little faster, maybe firmer, so that shouldn't happen this go-round.
Q: Well, if it's not the USGA's belief that the course should be set up more difficult for each progressing round, is it possible that we could see Bethpage actually play easier Sunday than it does Thursday and Friday?
A: I think it could. To a large extent, it's going to depend on what Mother Nature gives us; if it's windy, then obviously it will play tougher. But yes, that is a definite possibility. I think if you look back at Torrey Pines last year, you'd find that Sunday was actually the easiest of all four days and that didn't just happen out of coincidence. There was a mindset that on certain holes we really wanted to give the players some opportunities to score, give them a little bit more risk-reward, and I think that certainly bears out in how they played.
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Q: Going back to the rough, you mentioned how gnarly it was in '02. Are you pleased with the way that setting up separate cuts has worked in the last few Opens?
A: I would say in theory, yes. I think from a practical standpoint, we would be the first to admit that the rough at Winged Foot and Oakmont in '06 and '07 was still a bit more penal than we wanted. We were quite happy with how the rough played last year at Torrey Pines, and hopefully that will happen again this year at Bethpage.
Q: Speaking of penalizing players, you've also made it a point to note that bunkers are hazards. How do you counteract players' wanting to aim directly at a sand trap?
A: Well, great point. And yes, that is one area that, candidly, if we get some complaints from players about bunkers not being as good as they are, we'll probably take that as a compliment, because that is something we were trying to do. We still believe bunkers are hazards, and we still believe they're a place that should be avoided. So yes, we purposely set the golf course up where the bunkers are softer on the bottom, so they can't spin the ball as much. Our hope is that the bunkers are at least as tough as when they miss the green and are in the greenside rough.
Q: How much input will you receive from competitors both before and after each year's Open, and how much do their opinions mean to you?
A: Well, we certainly listen. There's no doubt about it. I would say as much as anything what we actually see would probably mean more. In other words, we can get so many different opinions from players that the course is too hard, the course is too easy, the greens are too fast, the greens are too slow. So I think we have a tendency more to watch how shots are being played and watch the various outcomes of those shots, and then we make up our own opinions.
But having said that, I've certainly gotten some very good player comments over the years in terms of, "Hey, Mike, there's a problem with this particular area over here. You might want to take a look at it." I can remember specifically Vijay Singh bringing to my attention the back left of the eighth green in a patch of rough that was really unfair, and he was absolutely right on that one. He talked to me about that during practice rounds and we got it taken care of, so absolutely, we listen to the players. But if you listen and you try to react to every player comment, you'd be going in circles, because some of the comments truly are different from one another.
Q: Without naming names, are there certain players who you will listen to? Maybe guys who have been around for a while and have an understanding about course setup and what the USGA is trying to do?
A: Oh, I think so. There are certain players who are very, very astute when it comes to architecture, when it comes to the golf course setup, and absolutely those are guys that we would have some keen interest in knowing how they feel. Geoff Ogilvy comes to mind. I think Geoff has a wonderful mind when it comes to architecture and setup, so he might be somebody that if I see him out there, I might say, "How are things playing? How's the rough?"
I'll maybe watch him hit some shots. Then there are other players who essentially come there and say, "Listen, whatever you give me is what I'm going to play." So they really won't comment much. But there are certainly some players out there who have a great sense of it and you just know, if they were the ones setting up the course, they'd do a marvelous job at it.
Q: Well, since we're naming names anyway, give me a couple of other guys who are on that list of those whose opinions you really respect.
A: Again, I wouldn't say I'm out seeking opinions [from] a bunch of players. Boy, this would be hard to pinpoint, because there are a fair number of players out there. I think Tiger [Woods] has a wonderful, wonderful eye for both architecture and golf-course setup. Tiger is also the kind of guy who is basically going to play whatever you give him. He won't complain. But if you ask him and you start to pick his brain, he is somebody who has a wonderful sense of that. You can see why he's taken an interest in architecture, because he's certainly got an eye for it. But I could probably rattle off 25, 30 names that I think have a good sense.
Q: You've spoken about bringing the course back to the way A.W. Tillinghast originally designed it. How much of a factor is historical perspective in the final setup?
A: Good question. I think it certainly comes into effect when we're setting the course up years ahead of time and saying, "What should be the drive zone on a given hole?" And that might be a case where, say, a Tillinghast has put in some bunkering or he really wanted that particular area to be the drive zone.
So if that no longer is the drive zone because the players are hitting the ball a lot further than they used to, well, that would make a pretty strong case for putting in a new teeing ground. I think another area that we should look at is, was Tillinghast or Ross or whomever the architect may have been, what type of shot was he asking you to hit into the green? Did he want you to be able to bounce the ball in? Was it an aerial type of shot? How big is the green? How undulating is it? And that, I think, at least when I've looked at courses in the past, I try to look at it starting with the green and working backwards. So you look at, how demanding is the green? What types of shots are being played? Will it receive a 3-iron or is it made for 8s, 9s and wedges?
And then you kind of work your way back to, OK, where is the drive zone? And then you work your way back more, saying, is this a driver hole? If it is a driver hole, is the teeing ground in the right place? I think what's wonderful is you go back to the so-called golden age of architecture, these guys built some fabulous courses and they really have stood the test of time. And I think that anytime that you can try to set a golf course up that utilizes those architectural features, I think it's a great thing.
Q: I know there's been some debate about this, but is the USGA sticking with the idea that Tillinghast was the original and sole designer of Bethpage Black?
A: Yeah, on the materials that we have put out, Tillinghast has been the architect of record. I think we have also said we don't really want to get in the middle of that debate, but having said that, we have certainly seen drawings that Tillinghast did of Bethpage Black. We know that [Joe] Burbeck had a big part in the construction, but I think that we're going to try to stay out of that argument. If asked, we certainly would want to give Tillinghast some credit. Certainly, Burbeck during the construction should get some credit, and I think Rees Jones during the renovation should get some credit.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.