2005: A whole new ballgame

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but golf balls are doing a number on my brain.

I keep listening to people talk about golf balls, and a whole lot of them are not telling the truth. At least, they are not telling the whole truth.

For example, there is a story going around that a new golf ball will produce shorter drives for Tiger Woods but will not limit the distance of ordinary golfers. It just isn’t true. Although such a ball might reflect Hootie Johnson’s sweetest dream, current materials and technology will not allow it to happen.

The truth about distance: A shortened golf ball will not come without consequences. Harness John Daly and we also harness John Q. Public. Reduce Joe Oglivie’s driving distance by 8 percent, and we likely slice 8 percent off the tee ball of Joe Average.

“It’s not so simple as to go into my lab and whip up a ball that affects one group of golfers in a certain way and another group in a different way,” said Dean Snell, senior director of research and development for TaylorMade. “If a pro loses distance, an amateur is going to lose distance, too.”

The U.S. Golf Association has “invited” (its word, not mine) golf ball manufacturers to submit balls that go shorter. This ranks right up there with the state of California inviting Scott Peterson to the Hotel San Quentin.

The truth of the matter is that the USGA isn’t sure about the best way to shorten the golf ball. So it is asking ball makers to contribute ideas for their own lynching, so to speak.

OK, lynching might be too strong, but current golf ball manufacturing procedures will be fractured when regulations are changed to deaden the golf ball. In the spirit of the game, the USGA should fully pay golf ball companies for the expense of the changeover.

The truth: I say “when” and not “if” because it seems perfectly clear the USGA, along with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, will take action in the near future.

How do I know this? After all, the USGA has denied there is an immediate need for change.

Hey, the world of golf is insulated, to be sure, but not so insulated that golfers, fans and officials missed a few Woodsian feats already this year – at Doral, carrying a drive 320 yards and landing it on a par-4 green; at the Masters, beginning the fourth round with an uphill, 349-yard tee shot into a slight breeze.

These well-publicized incidents affect not only the way golf is perceived but also the way it is governed. In 2004, Woods averaged 301.9 yards in driving distance yet ranked ninth on Tour. More monster mashers are on the way, and the results will be impossible for rulemakers to overlook.

The truth: The USGA was outfoxed by manufacturers and is playing a game of catch-up. The game is rigged. You can count the number of in-house USGA scientists on one hand. For large ball and club manufacturers, you would need at least three hands and three feet to count them.

Now the USGA is desperately trying to circle the wagons. Yet it steadfastly has opposed one obvious solution – the creation of a tournament ball. This shorter ball, championed by Callaway Golf, could be used in virtually all meaningful competition – pro and amateur.

The truth: This, the era of the long ball in golf, could have been prevented if the USGA had seen it coming. Because the horse is out of the proverbial barn, as they say, it is now too late to invoke the real solution. This would be to outlaw metalwoods and go back to persimmon woods.

Titanium drivers became the carriers of this long-bomb malaria, making it possible for ball manufacturers to produce high-flying, low-spinning balls.

The truth: Some ball manufacturers would love to see ball parameters changed, because they believe it might derail the dominance of Titleist. Everybody knows Titleist is the 800-pound gorilla of the ball business, with powerful CEO Wally Uihlein pulling the gorilla strings.

The truth: The Joint Statement of Principles, issued in 2002, allows the USGA and R&A to rein in distance at any time, regardless of the cause. Because this may seem like a kick in the pants to manufacturers, the USGA is being careful to include ball makers in the early stages of the process.

The truth: The influence of a few celebrated private golf clubs, such as Augusta National, has emerged as an important factor. Fred Ridley, president of the USGA, is an Augusta National member. So is Walter Driver Jr., next in line to be USGA president.

Johnson, chairman of Augusta National and a proponent of a shorter golf ball, would prefer to be the Great Oz and wield his authority in private.

The truth: To be effective, the USGA must make a change in its hierarchy. There is neither enough continuity nor golf expertise. USGA presidents should serve longer than two one-year terms. Members of the Executive Committee, the USGA’s decision-making body, should have guaranteed terms. Now they are retained or replaced, without explanation, on a yearly basis.

The truth: The public is capable of staging a revolt. When the so-called “balloon ball” (1.55 ounces instead of 1.62 ounces) was mandated in 1931, the outcry was so loud the USGA quickly changed its mind.

Balloon is the operative word here. The ball was more difficult to control on full shots and around the greens. It was one year and gone for this experiment. Since 1932, the weight of the ball has been 1.62 ounces.

How would the current ball be shortened? By changing launch characteristics, spin or ball velocity. By manipulating all of the above. This would be done through choice of materials and construction.

Dare I say there’s a parallel here between life and golf? Life’s a ball, as long as we don’t go too far.

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