2006: Unlock golf’s stifling shackles, fyg

Orlando, Fla.

I am a golf equipment junkie, so I never thought I would say this: Call me Rip Van Winkle, and call the PGA Merchandise Show a four-day golf club snooze.

How do we create more excitement over golf equipment? Liberalize the Rules of Golf as they relate to golf equipment. The rules are too confusing and too confining.

Golf needs to be easier, not harder.

Golf needs less restriction, not more.

Golf needs two sets of equipment rules – one for amateurs and another for touring pros – or it simply needs to accept lower scores in pro events.

Right now, equipment rules are devised and constructed largely in reaction to touring pros. Rules are made to contain the performance of the best players in the world. As a result, amateurs are hammered by rules that inhibit rather than encourage them.

For a game in which leading figures talk incessantly about growth, this makes no sense. Golf should be buzzing about dynamic new products that help ordinary people play better and have more fun.

John Hoeflich, chief designer for Nickent Golf, was only half-joking when he said, “When golfers everywhere start disregarding the rules and playing with the equipment that performs best, I’ll be ready.”

Although a grass-roots revolt against the rules remains unlikely, there is no question that manufacturers are very worried about the long-term effect of new equipment proposals and rules formulated by the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club.

There was a golf equipment stupor at the PGA Merchandise Show. There was more talk about regulation than innovation.

The driver already is restricted for clubhead size, shaft length and velocity (spring-like effect) off the face. Now the USGA has proposed a limitation on clubhead stability (moment of inertia).

Golf club designers feel handcuffed. They feel throttled by rules and imperatives.

Drivers, with their large and forgiving clubheads, never have been easier to hit. However, the spirit of innovation is leaking away from the game. Manufacturers are finding it difficult to distinguish themselves from their competitors. This is a punch in the eye to a sport that for hundreds of years has prided itself on the spirit of invention.

If the USGA and R&A add new ball restrictions to the ongoing campaign to control the driver, golf’s atmosphere of suppression will deepen.

If the rules continue to be heavily influenced by touring pros, the game will grow even more difficult for average golfers. This is folly. Amateur golfers need to be handed some fancy dancing shoes, not a straitjacket.

The gulf between touring pros and the rest of us has widened considerably in recent years. Touring pros are able to exploit equipment regulations because of their high swing speeds. They can do things with today’s golf equipment that the rest of us cannot.

Many tests have demonstrated that golfers with driver swing speeds in excess of 115 miles an hour can hit the ball much higher and longer. At this plateau, they can take advantage of aerodynamic characteristics of the modern golf ball.

The modern touring pro is different from his predecessors. He is bigger, strong and richer. He can afford to be surrounded by a team of experts.

“It’s like having a pit crew,” said Dr. Greg Rose of the Titleist Performance Institute, where many touring pros go to fine-tune their bodies and their swings.

Callaway Golf long has advocated two sets of equipment rules, one for the best players in the world and the second for everybody else.

Meanwhile, Wally Uihlein, chairman of the Acushnet Co. (Titleist, Cobra and FootJoy) has argued forcefully for the acceptance of lower scores in professional events.

In either case, the result would be beneficial for amateur golfers: They would not be constrained by complex new rules aimed at touring pros.

If golf continues to be governed by one set of rules, it will either make the game more difficult for one group (amateur golfers) or make it easier for the other group (touring pros).

Do we really want the game to grow? Or do we want to preserve the integrity of par in an era of more gifted, more dedicated athletes?

With one set of equipment rules, we can’t have it both ways.

Tom Stites, Nike Golf’s lead club designer, said simply, “They are slowly chipping away at what we can do. Our best stuff these days – we have to choke it back (so it doesn’t exceed the limitations).”

Harry Taylor, Mizuno Golf’s top U.S. designer, said he worried about all the modern club measurements.

“With all these rules, it can be incredibly complex just to calibrate your machines and measure accurately,” Taylor said.

That makes me wonder if the PGA Tour eventually will become like big-time auto racing: You win a race, your car is torn down and inspected to verify its legality. You win a golf tournament, your clubs are scoped and measured to make sure they meet all the regulations.

I say we should free the golf manufacturers. Remove the shackles. Turn them loose. Allow them to be energized. Encourage them to be creative.

Too many rules have become golf’s version of Roundup, except we are talking about the game we love, not a weed in somebody’s garden.

Golf needs some bold new thinking. It needs equipment regulations that make sense in the real world.

Please wake me when this happens.


















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