2005: Editorial

At first blush, it appears the U.S. Golf Association deserves kudos for its efforts to engage manufacturers in the tradition vs. technology debate as it relates to golf balls. But we’re withholding praise, for two reasons.

We’re not convinced that a distance problem exists. Yes, Tiger Woods hit some colossal drives during his fourth Masters victory. He is an extraordinary talent who finally has taken advantage of equipment optimization. Meanwhile, only 16 golfers among 50 who made the cut managed to break par for 72 holes over Augusta National. Harbour Town certainly held its own the following week. And wasn’t that short-hitting Fred Funk who won The Players Championship last month?

What’s good for golfers in general – not just those who are members at Pine Valley, Seminole or Augusta National – is good for golf. And in this case, better performing golf balls have enhanced the enjoyment of the game for millions of golfers. But few of them, if any, are rendering golf courses obsolete. Nor is their quantum leap in distance any reason to compel course owners to add PGA Tour-like yardage to their facilities. Indeed, if their courses were a little shorter, more people might participate in the great – and still challenging – game of golf.

It remains to be seen if the USGA’s “invitation” for manufacturers to participate in its research project is legitimate, or if the decision to roll back golf ball distance already has been made behind closed doors. Among the most influential proponents of some sort of golf ball distance rollback is Augusta National Golf Club. It’s no coincidence that current USGA president Fred Ridley, his heir apparent Walter Driver, Executive Committee member Jim Reinhart and USGA past presidents Will Nicholson (head of the Masters’ competition committee) and Buzz Taylor all are members of Augusta National. And considering Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson’s statement at the Masters that he was satisfied with the progress the ruling bodies are making on the ball front, it’s obvious that he’s been privy to, and quite likely influential in, the formulation of the USGA’s game plan.

Meanwhile, golf ball manufacturers are wondering aloud why their product is being singled out when a variety of factors have contributed to the distance phenomenon. The ball, they say, has been the most regulated of all golf equipment, and their products always have conformed to the Rules of Golf. Ball manufacturers simply have found ways within the Rules to maximize performance. Their science has been better than the USGA’s science, simple as that.

We agree that if the ball is rolled back, it is only fair – and more effective long term – that the other controllable components to the distance equation be rolled back as well. Athleticism can’t be curtailed; instruction and optimization can’t be legislated. But the ruling bodies do have the ability to change limitations on metalwood clubhead size and/or spring-like effect. Fact is, the biggest gains in distance have been made because club design has enabled highly skilled players to swing with impunity.

If the USGA and Royal & Ancient Golf Club are going to act, they should round up all the horses that have escaped the barn, not just one. Because golf balls have a short shelf life, a ball rollback could be accomplished fairly soon, perhaps by the 2007 season. In fairness to consumers, who tend to hang onto big-ticket items longer, throttled-back metalwoods would have to be phased in over several years – much as the R&A did when it belatedly joined the USGA in dealing with hot drivers.

A distance rollback can be accomplished. But it must be equitable.

More importantly, a fundamental question has to be answered. Is a rollback really necessary?

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