Ping CEO makes bold pitch over golf balls

John Solheim, the CEO of Ping, looks on during the singles matches on Day 3 of the 2011 Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle Golf Club on September 25, 2011.

Ping chairman and CEO John Solheim has an idea to stimulate the growth of golf and make the game more enjoyable: Create three tiers of golf balls under a plan called Ball Distance Ratings, announced Monday morning by Solheim.

One tier would be identical to today’s balls. A second tier would be comprised of balls that carry somewhat farther than today’s balls. A third tier would include balls that carry somewhat shorter distances.

An individual tournament would choose which of the three tiers to use. In everyday play, golfers would make the same choice. A revised handicap system would be linked to all three tiers, so handicaps would be equitable regardless of which balls are used.

Those acquainted with Solheim over the years know his serious nature. He is serious about this proposal, which he has presented to the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A. Furthermore, at the recent Presidents Cup, he discussed the idea with many golf officials, including PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.

Solheim says he “doesn’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth,” so he will wait for golf organizations to make their own evaluations of his plan.

“We’re looking for comments, good and bad, so that the comments are passed on,” Solheim said. “We want to give the USGA and R&A the most information they can get. We might be missing something, and we’re aware of that.

“However, my deep feeling is that this could be an exciting development, because people are worrying all the time about increases in distance. It makes a lot of sense to me. It’s no different than people playing different tees.”

Solheim was referring to driving distance on the PGA Tour. Alarm bells have sounded over the Tour’s 2011 average distance of 290.9 yards, up substantially from 287.3 yards in 2010.

“Bridgestone applauds the fact that the Solheims and Ping are coming up with creative ideas,” said Dan Murphy, vice president of marketing for Bridgestone Golf, a major manufacturer of golf balls.

“We appreciate any dialogue between the USGA and R&A and manufacturers. We appreciate the opportunity to put our heads together and come up with ideas.

“Whether this is the right plan, it’s difficult to know until it is studied a little bit further. It is very interesting that this proposal is something like a hybrid - not only thinking about a shorter ball, but also a longer ball.”

When asked if ballmakers could produce a ball that goes 7 or 8 yards farther while adhering to current size and weight regulations, Murphy said, “Yes, I’m sure all the ball manufacturers could achieve that without much difficulty.”

Golf ball sales would increase under the three-tier plan, Solheim predicted.

He acknowledged that “it would add a lot of challenges for the golf ball manufacturers, although I think the benefits outweigh any difficulties in implementing the idea. To me, it would add a lot to the game.

“It would address the issue of courses having to get longer all the time. It might allow golfers with different handicaps to play from the same tees, if they want to.”

Ping once manufactured golf balls, but stopped doing so in 1997.

Wrote Solheim in explaining his idea: “All of us, including those in the manufacturing community, have a responsibility to offer new ideas and appropriately work with the rulemaking bodies to help improve the game. It can be done, as demonstrated by the positive results from the November, 2010, Vancouver (golf equipment) forum, and the solution Ping provided in resolving the Eye2 (groove) controversy on the PGA Tour in early 2010.

“I will continue to do what I can, and I believe others will as well. The game has seen many positive changes over its long history, changes that appropriately recognize the relationship between the challenge and the enjoyment of the game at all skill levels. I believe a BDR system would provide a way to continue do just that -- for a long time to come.”

The USGA and R&A have experimented with golf balls that travel shorter distances. A handful of tournaments have been played using prototype balls.

Under the Joint Statement of Principles, spearheaded by former USGA president Walter Driver and issued in 2002, the USGA and R&A reaffirmed their authority to change the rules, including distance standards, for any reason.

From the Joint Statement of Principles:

“The R&A and the USGA believe, however, that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable. Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game. The consequential lengthening or toughening of courses would be costly or impossible and would have a negative effect on increasingly important environmental and ecological issues. Pace of play would be slowed and playing costs would increase.

“The R&A and the USGA will consider all of these factors contributing to distance on a regular basis. Should such a situation of meaningful increases in distances arise, the R&A and the USGA would feel it immediately necessary to seek ways of protecting the game."

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