Friday, March 25, 2011

USGA 'taskmaster' earns new job title

It was hard to deny that Chambers Bay Golf Course looked a little brown on TV – and in person – when the U.S. Amateur came to University Place, Wash., last summer. But it was appropriate for “pure links golf,” as the golf course would have it, and was exactly what the United States Golf Association wanted for its No. 1 amateur championship and – we can expect – for the U.S. Open, scheduled for Chambers Bay in 2015.

The name everybody in the Pacific Northwest golf community got to know last summer, and in the years leading up to the Amateur, was Mike Davis, then the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions. Embodied in that title is all of the qualities we think we know about the USGA: demanding overseer of national championships, strict and prickly, diabolical in setting up the roughs (tall) and putting greens (fast).

A glance at his photo would give lie to the idea of Davis as the stern face of the USGA. With a golf hat on (as pictured above, at Pebble Beach for the 2010 U.S, Open), he looks a little like a young Tom Watson. With it off, he looks like the guy who maybe played second base on your high-school team and went on to be an accountant or run a furniture store in Minnesota.

Davis now has a little bigger endeavor to run: the whole damn USGA. He was named early this month as the seventh USGA executive director, succeeding David Fay, who retired in December.

The guy charged with upholding the strict standards of the USGA is, in my experience, not a tough guy at all, but a thorough professional, enthusiastic and courteous.

I talked to Davis in 2009, and asked him to address rumors that Chambers was not up to the task of hosting the U.S. Open and could never be ready in time.

Wrong, and wrong.

I can absolutely, positively, categorically say that we’re going to have the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay,” Davis said.

The work to get ready for the Open, Davis said, is “making sure from an agronomic standpoint that we can get Chambers Bay right so it can play in championship conditions.”

The Amateur at Chambers Bay was a great test case: how would elite golfers  perform on a golf course like nothing they’d ever seen?

The unique qualities of Chambers Bay allowed the USGA and course superintendent David Wienecke to experiment: with the hardness of the greens and approaches, and with the length of holes, some of which were made dramatically shorter then longer then back again day-to-day through the Amateur.

Davis was calling the shots, and now he’s calling all the shots for the organization that governs U.S. golf.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A year ago at the Masters: There were better stories than Tiger

Just when it looked like the Masters in 2010 was going to be all Tiger Woods all the time, there came a week where the best stories had nothing to do with Tiger. And that was the best story line of all.

Last year at this time, we wondered, How will Tiger play? When will Elin resurface?  Can their marriage survive? These questions were answered in due course.

And the Masters went on. Tiger was a part of the story, but far from the whole story.

There was Freddy.

Fred Couples, barely 50 years old at the Masters last year, led after an opening-day 66, and finished sixth. He’s now got the Champions Tour, the senior tour, to fall back on, but he will always play the Masters. He loves Augusta National – he’s a past champion there – and Augusta loves him back.

If his back stays loose, he strikes the ball as well as anybody, and he looks good doing it. And how ‘bout those groovy spikeless golf shoes? Ecco could have no better walking advertisement.

There was Tom Watson.

He was 60 last year at the Masters, and he was tied for second after one round. We all remember him faltering at the end of the 2009 British Open, but it hardly tarnished an amazing tournament. It’s not a bad golf afterlife for a Hall of Famer and multiple major winner: the tough old pro who’ll compete like hell for four rounds and still be the elder statesman afterward.

And then, there was Phil Mickelson. It’s easy to forget he won the Masters last year, the first major of the year. He’s got three green jackets now … Augusta suits his game.

The young guns are coming – no, they’re not coming, they’re here. Martin Kaymer missed the cut at last year’s Masters, but won the 2010 PGA Championship, and early this season rose to No. 1 in the world. He will be named among the favorites at August this year. 

So, really, it was not all about Tiger. He played well, finishing fourth in a tournament he’s won four times. What can we expect this year? Well, we can expect him to be testy in his interviews with the media. He still won’t like questions from lesser humans.

He’ll be in the conversation, whenever professional golf is the subject. But for now, like last year, there are better stories, and golf is better for it.