Modern golf ball is subject for debate on Golf Channel

Score one for technology, even if it was a hollow victory.

The Golf Channel heavily promoted it’s Oct. 17 segment of “Viewer’s Forum” as an examination of the alleged threat posed by the modern golf ball to the integrity of the game. Defending the ball in the debate were Wally Uihlein, CEO and president of Acushnet Co., maker of Titleist products; and Tom Kennedy, vice president of golf ball research and development for Spalding. Representing traditionalists were Dick Rugge, U.S. Golf Association technical director, and architect Bobby Weed, author of a “white paper” released by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, which endorses “a modification to the ball that results in a percentage decrease on its flight/distance.”

It wasn’t much of a debate. Uihlein and Kennedy argued that ball technology is only one factor in the distance equation, along with modern agronomic practices; the larger size and increased athleticism of today’s elite golfers; the sophistication of swing analysis and instruction; and the custom fitting of clubheads and shafts to maximize each player’s effort. Ball manufacturers have played by the rules, they argued, developing products that conform in every way to USGA specifications.

Weed and Rugge failed to articulate any threat. Rather than explain why balls fly so far, and how ball makers have managed to produce better performing products that still conform to USGA specifications, Rugge kept repeating the USGA’s intention to be fair in its efforts to enforce the rules. Weed sounded downright conciliatory. “These are exciting times for architects,” he said. “We accept the challenge.”

The biggest failure was The Golf Channel, which never gave its guests the opportunity to properly frame the issue. The 90-minute show was eviscerated by promotional spots, misleading hype and inane commentary from viewers.

Moreover, the show’s premise was something of a moot point. The issue is being addressed by the USGA. Sometime next year it will implement a new formula for determining ball performance, called optimization. In effect, a new line in the sand will be drawn.

The USGA testing procedure will utilize an indoor range that employs high-tech devices to measure ball flight characteristics under a variety of conditions. Balls that have been ruled conforming under current parameters (called the Overall Distance Standard, first implemented in 1976) will be grandfathered under the optimization rule. Manufacturers have been aware of the USGA’s intentions for nearly two years.

Meanwhile, Weed and his architect colleagues still must contend with forces beyond their control, or the USGA’s. As long as prize money remains appealing, world-class athletes will continue to be drawn to golf. Elite players will continue to seek an edge through training techniques and the fine-tuning of equipment to match their swing characteristics. Architects will be compelled to become more adept at designing nuance into fairway contours and run-off areas around greens, thus putting a premium on accuracy and shot-making as opposed to power.

As for the ball, the average golfer should be thankful for technological advances. The cheapest ball today performs better than anything on the market 25 years ago. Metal woods, perimeter-weighted irons, lush fairways and smoother greens, computerized club fitting and swing analysis – all have helped make the game more fun for more golfers than ever before. And all thanks to technology.

Ball performance is an issue. It needs to be addressed, if only because the USGA was asleep at the wheel while ball makers were exploiting the latest technologies. Equipment should be allowed to evolve, and so should The Rules of Golf. As long, of course, as they’re applied fairly to all. m

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