- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Even a gentleman who forever wears a bow tie describes the United States Open as something of a mixed martial arts event.
"The ultimate fistfight," David Fay called it.
He should know. As executive director of the United States Golf Association for 21 years, Fay was the third man in the ring, the arbiter separating man (the world's greatest players) and beast (the world's most forbidding courses) until his retirement on New Year's Eve.
"Once a year," Fay said, "the golfing public wants to see the field get bloodied and bruised."
All of which brings us to the new referee, Mike Davis, only the seventh executive director of the USGA in 116 years and the guy who will serve as the president, CEO and master of ceremonies for next week's U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Fay's replacement likens his burdens to those of following John Wooden and Bear Bryant.
Davis understands that neither Gene Bartow (Wooden's successor at UCLA) nor Ray Perkins (Bryant's at Alabama) lasted very long before bolting for jobs with saner expectations. But as a 40-something who grew up inside the USGA, starting there as a low-ranking functionary in 1990, Davis also understands what makes his own monstrous program tick.
"Mike knows that we have to get the Open right," Fay said, "and that if we don't get it right, we lose the specialness of the USGA."
No, Davis doesn't want to lose that any more than Tiger wants to lose his tee shot in the Woods. Davis has been running rules and competitions since 2005; he's the official responsible for introducing a multilayered penal code for wayward drives in 2006. Now that he's graduated from the concept of graduated rough, filling Fay's role as USGA overlord, Davis has declined to surrender his most cherished task from his pre-overlord days.
He will continue to map out all 18 holes of the Open, meaning the playing arena at Congressional -- fair or unfair, indelible or forgettable -- will be Mike Davis' golf course all the way.
His greatest hope for this stage? "Instead of just focusing on the golf course, that the people watching the Open can really focus on the drama," Davis said. "What you really want to do is give [the players] an arena where they can perform and are rewarded with good shots and penalized with bad shots ..."
His worst fear? "If we do something incorrectly with the golf course setup, that's what worries me," Davis said. "In other words, if we set a hole location that's on the edge and all of a sudden it doesn't work that day. Or we set a hole up where players are hitting good shots and executing the right type of shot and are penalized for it. That's the thing that keeps me up at night."
See Shinnecock, 2004.
"Exactly," Davis said.
The USGA lost a lot of sleep over that one. On the morning after Shinnecock's Sunday bloody Sunday, when each green should've featured its own windmill and clown's mouth, Fay told Davis and the rest of his battered team it had no choice but to learn and improve.
"If you blow it at a movable feast like the U.S. Open, your next chance at that course might not come until 17 years later," Fay said."But the Open has always had the reputation as the toughest championship in the game, and when you try to make a course difficult but fair, sometimes you can go over the edge."
Now Davis needs to dance on that jagged edge without falling face-first into the sand. He can't control the weather -- even if some players and fans believe that's part of his job description -- and remains all but helpless if the skies turn Congressional into a Brazilian rainforest the likes of Bethpage Black.
Two years ago, when the ungodly Bethpage weather made everyone forget the day of the week, never mind the round of the competition, Davis impressed his boss by keeping his head while everyone around him was losing theirs.
"Never lost his cool," Fay said. "When things are falling apart and bursting at the seams, that's when you can take the measure of a person."
Only a few months on the job as executive director, Davis is busy taking the measure of his course. Congressional is long, expected to be played at more than 7,500 yards without much bounce to the fairways. Davis reviews the history of the course and its PGA Tour winners and most recent Open champion (Ernie Els, 1997), and believes someone who hits the ball high and far will likely win the national title.
Congressional has 18 rebuilt greens, a par score of 71 (up from 70) and a new 523-yard, par-4 closing hole with a peninsula green that replaces the less perilous par-3 18th from Els' triumph in '97.
"I think it's one of the top-four closing holes in all of the U.S. Opens," said Davis, grouping it with Pebble Beach's, Oakmont's and Merion's in 2013.
"I'm like every other fan; I love it when it comes down to that 72nd hole, when somebody has to do something kind of magical to win. You hope that certain players are in the mix."
Davis isn't afraid to identify one of those players, and to concede that major championship golf isn't quite the same with that certain player in a diminished state.
Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, of course.
"If he comes to Congressional and he's either not healthy or he's so rusty that he's really not competitive, I do think that takes away something," Davis said. "Everybody wants to see the great ones rise to the top. It doesn't mean he has to win.
"We all know the U.S. Open is not all about Tiger Woods, so if he's not there, will it be a disaster? No. But I think we would hope he is there, and we hope he's competitive."
Tiger or no Tiger, Davis needs his course to hold up and honor the magnitude of the event. His job promotion requires him to deal with every USGA department from human resources to legal to finances and with every USGA cause from equipment testing to handicap regulating to course rating.
But a successful stewardship of the U.S. Open remains his most pressing responsibility.
"This is when the spotlight falls on the USGA," Fay said. "But Mike is very comfortable in his own skin, and this isn't a crapshoot for him. He's ready for that spotlight."
Ready to step into the ring and officiate golf's ultimate fistfight between man and beast.
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