2006: ‘Silver bullet’ might be fool’s gold

I looked up Ohio in my golf dictionary, and here’s what it said: “Home of Jack Nicklaus; home of golfers who thumb their noses at the U.S. Golf Association.”

After the Ohio Golf Association announced recently it would select a mandatory ball to be used by all competitors in one of its 2006 championships, the reaction from around the country was swift.

“I’m getting calls from everywhere,” said Alan Fadel, chairman of the OGA’s golf ball committee. “It’s unbelievable. There is a lot of support, and a lot of questions. I tell everybody we’re not trying to pick a fight with the USGA. We’re on the side of golf.”

The Ohio Champions Tournament, scheduled Aug. 22-23 at Windy Knoll Golf Club in Springfield, has become a lightning rod for impassioned commentary on the contemporary golf ball.

The OGA is the first major golf organization to schedule a same-ball tournament. There has been informal talk of a “Tour ball” for the PGA Tour and an “Augusta ball” for the Masters, but nothing has happened.

As noted by OGA executive director Jim Popa, “This is an experiment. Somebody has to take a step. Somebody has to get the ball rolling.”

Rolling, rolling, rolling. What kind of ball will this be? Fadel and Popa aren’t saying exactly, but there are plenty of hints.

Fadel called it a “soft” ball. He said distance off the tee “started escalating like crazy about three or four years ago, giving certain players an exponential advantage over other players.”

Popa said golf is “becoming a slugfest. There isn’t as much skill involved as there used to be. Many of our great old courses are becoming obsolete. We have identified a ball that we believe could equalize the field to some degree.”

Say hello to the “Ohio ball,” the distance eater.

My guess: The OGA will choose a ball with low compression (70-75) and a relatively soft cover. Spin will be a critical component: This ball will be manageable around the greens; it also will produce enough spin off the driver to handicap some of the longest-hitting players.

Is the idea of a mandatory ball a fair concept? Of course not.

One of the most intriguing elements of golf is that players can choose their own equipment, as long as it conforms to the rules. Some golfers, particularly those with lower swing speeds, need more spin. Other golfers, mostly the powerful ones, need less spin.

Just as golfers have different requirements, golf balls serve golfers in different ways. Having a choice is a time-honored part of golf.

What the Ohio tournament will do is open the door for further discussion of the modern ball. Perhaps the OGA experiment will light a fire under the indecisive USGA.

“We don’t want to make any waves,” Fadel said. “We just think the grass-roots part of golf should have a say.”

Popa concurred: “We want to extrapolate some information that is helpful to us or anybody else. A lot of associations around the country are in the same boat we are. What we are trying to do is make our old courses in Ohio playable again.”

The term “silver bullet” is commonly used to refer to a mythical ball that could remove distance from the longest hitters but not everyone else.

Is it possible? Probably not.

“I don’t have any data that supports anything like that,” said Mike Yagley, vice president of product management for golf balls at Callaway Golf. “The laws of physics say the harder you hit something, the more energy you get out of it.”

Dean Snell, senior director of research and development for TaylorMade Golf, agreed: “Optimization for speed is very difficult to do because two players don’t launch the ball in the same way. Launch angle and spin have a huge impact on distance compared to ball speed.

“Trying to design a ball that produces the same results from different players is pretty much an impossible task.”

I asked Rock Ishii, Nike Golf’s product development director for golf balls, how he might equalize distance between different golfers.

“One thing I would do is take a look at the size of the ball,” he said.

In other words, without wholesale changes in the rules, the notion of the “silver bullet” is little more than a shot in the dark. It is fantasy.

The OGA’s mandatory ball, as ill-fitting as it may be for some players, will provide a laboratory environment for the study of the manipulation of golf balls.

Here is the scenario I envision: Some of the competitors, undoubtedly the longest hitters, will hate this ball. Some will complain about their lack of control over the ball. Some will say it doesn’t feel right around the greens.

Others, of course, will like it. But banning a choice of golf balls never will meet wide approval.

The USGA is at a crossroads. If it decides to alter golf ball rules, it can take one of two paths. Both would allow golf ball manufacturers to design their own balls and maintain the individuality of their products.

Road No. 1: Shorten all golf balls in some way. This would maintain one set of rules for everybody. If Tiger Woods loses 10 percent of his distance, you and I probably would lose 10 percent of our distance as well.

Road No. 2: Declare a “condition of competition” that calls for the use of a shorter ball by tournaments that choose this option. This ball could be produced by any manufacturer, as long as it meets the new specifications.

All other golfers, including recreational players everywhere, could continue to use the same golf balls they now use.

If the PGA Tour elected to go with a shorter ball, it would invoke the short-ball rule in the same way that it now invokes the one-ball rule (a competitor must use the same brand of ball throughout a round).

The OGA has not declared a position on the road not taken. According to Popa, it simply wants to be a catalyst in the great golf ball debate.

Mission accomplished.

“I never imagined that so many people would get so excited over a little old golf ball,” Fadel said.

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