2005: Time for cease-fire on distance debate
Santa Barbara, Calif.
News flash from the annual meeting of the U.S. Golf Association: The USGA inspection team has been unable to discover any weapons of mass destruction embedded in the modern golf ball.
There are no nuclear devices underneath those urethane covers, no impending golf ball attack on Washington, D.C., or Far Hills, N.J.
We are safe for at least another year.
It was clear the USGA came here to Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort with a dual mission: Reassure golf ball manufacturers the USGA has no immediate plans to throttle back the distance of the ball and, at the same time, reassure golfers the ruling body will not allow technology to threaten or harm the game.
Thrust into this delicate balancing act was USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge. With his patient and sincere demeanor, Rugge is the right man to walk this tightrope.
The USGA, to its credit, put the distance issue squarely on the front burner, scheduling Rugge to lead a 21/2-hour open forum on golf technology. Even when he was peppered with questions, some of them antagonistic, Rugge kept his cool.
He told the audience of 200 the USGA would continue its intensive analysis of the modern ball and, if necessary down the road, take action.
Then he said: “Do not connect the dots – (do not assume) because we have done this (studied the golf ball), we are going to take action immediately (by reducing ball flight). That is not in the plan. Do I expect it to happen? No. Those are the facts.”
Rugge even constructed an analogy between building an atom bomb and building a defense system against super-long golf balls. He pointed out that both the bomb and the ball-defense system are designed to be kept on the shelf, for emergency use only.
“It’s a terrible analogy,” he acknowledged, “and I apologize for that, but it creates an image.”
The USGA laid its cards on the table: It will study the golf ball situation for an extended period of time before reaching any conclusions. Be patient. Golf has survived quite nicely for hundreds of years, and no substantial change in the rules is to be taken lightly or made quickly.
Rugge was amazingly frank. “(Some people say) we are afraid of being sued by the manufacturers. That’s the normal comment. That conspiracy theory belongs with Elvis working at a Burger King in Minneapolis.
“We are afraid of the manufacturers,” he mused incredulously. “Read my lips: We are not.
“I’ll tell you what we are afraid of – screwing up the game, turning people off by changing the rules in an inappropriate way. It’s tough to put the genie back in the bottle.”
It has been five years since Rugge was hired away from TaylorMade to take over the USGA’s technical department. He has been in golf for 16 years.
Once, in a column, I labeled Rugge the nicest guy in golf. I still believe this. He is well-liked. He has the ability, and the desire, to listen closely to all sides in any dispute.
The USGA will need his skills as it continues to evaluate golf balls. The last thing the USGA needs is a protracted lawsuit with a ball manufacturer.
Here are other highlights and insights from the USGA annual meeting:
4The USGA is not buying the contention that better golf equipment, or easier courses, will increase the number of golfers.
“I think it’s a false argument based on faulty reasoning and wishful thinking,” Rugge said. “In many cases, golfers want to play harder courses. I reject the notion, out of hand, that people play the game because the equipment has made it easier.”
As he has done before, Rugge cited examples from bowling and tennis, two sports that lost participants as modern equipment and technology made them easier to play.
4Two sets of rules absolutely are out of the question. “Pro and amateur, we are all linked by the rules,” Rugge said. “If we had two sets of rules, one group might spell it g-o-l-f and the other group might spell it g-o-l-p-h. We don’t want to turn golf into something like that because we did something that was expedient. We can screw it up.”
Once again, the message was one of patience.
4As the USGA continues to monitor the increase in average driving distance on the PGA Tour
(up 1 yard in 2004, to 287.3 from 286.3 the previous year), the ruling body is somewhat perplexed by the precipitous drop in driving accuracy among professional golf’s top money winners. Driving accuracy on the PGA Tour has become almost meaningless.
In 2004, only one of the top 10 money winners (Stephen Ames) ranked in the top 100 in driving accuracy. Vijay Singh was 149th, Tiger Woods 182nd and Ernie Els 185th. Compare this with 1980, when only one of the top 10 money winners ranked outside the top 100.
Four-inch rough, anyone?
4Rugge answered one question for the first time. How much farther could a golf ball go if there were no rules and regulations?
“I used to say, ‘Ask the golf ball manufacturers,’ but today I can give you an answer. It’s 50 yards farther, if we didn’t have rules,” Rugge speculated. “Most of that 50 yards would come from balls, but some would come from clubs.”
4Rugge believes any change in golf ball regulation, if it happened at all, would come from
a coalition of the USGA, Royal and Ancient Golf Club, PGA Tour, other professional tours, and golf ball manufacturers. These constituents, in Rugge’s view, would reach a common agreement for solving a future problem.
“I really don’t expect a battle,” he said. “I have reason to believe that – not just plain optimism. They (all) can prosper. There is no reason why they can’t. If the game prospers, all boats float higher.”
If this conclusion doesn’t float your boat, perhaps you’ve been sunk by a nuclear golf ball.