Coronado Island, Calif.
Quietly and without any formal announcement, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, has begun to play a more significant role in the evaluation of new golf clubs from manufacturers around the world. This was the biggest behind-the-scenes revelation to come out of the U.S. Golf Association’s recently concluded annual meeting on this island off San Diego.
In the past, most manufacturers submitted new clubs to the USGA for approval while disregarding the R&A. No longer. “I tell companies to prepare two boxes and two shipping labels,” said USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge. “Then I tell them to send one to us and one to the R&A. There is no question that the R&A is just as important in this process as we are.”
While the R&A’s growing clout impacts all equipment categories, it has been most vividly demonstrated in its handling of two putters.
The Titleist Futura putter was declared nonconforming by the R&A in 2002 after the USGA already had approved it. The R&A ruled the modern-looking Futura to be in violation of the “plain in shape” provision that prohibits, among other things, “appendages to the main body of the head such as knobs, plates, rods or fins.”
“This was really, I think, our fault,” admitted Joe Nauman, senior vice president and general counsel for the Acushnet Co., Titleist’s parent. “Our timing for submittal was a little bit disconnected. We did not do a good job.”
What happened was this: Although the Futura was approved by the USGA and appeared on the PGA Tour, the R&A was never consulted during the process. Furthermore, the delivery of the finished product from designer Scotty Cameron to the R&A was delayed.
After the putter was declared nonconforming, Titleist appealed to the R&A. That appeal is pending. Meanwhile, North American consumers will be able to buy the putter in March.
Rugge noted that when he headed up research and development at TaylorMade in the 1990s, “we never sent products over to the R&A.”
Now, he added, “They are becoming much more important in the evaluation of golf equipment.”
The R&A’s new role is not surprising, noted Chris Zimmerman, general manager of Nike Golf. “As a matter of routine, we submit (clubs) to both ruling bodies,” he said. “After all, the R&A makes the rules for most of the world.”
USGA jurisdiction includes the U.S. and Mexico, although Canada invariably follows the USGA because of its geographic proximity. Every other country is under R&A jurisdiction, although the R&A relinquishes worldwide driver testing for spring-like effect to the USGA.
Why did the R&A approve the Odyssey 2-Ball putter and not the Titleist Futura, two putters that appear to be similar in concept?
The answer is simple. Callaway Golf, owner of Odyssey, was painstaking in its efforts to gain approval for the White Hot 2-Ball putter, which was unveiled in 2002.
This approval took many months. Every time the USGA or R&A suggested that Callaway change an element of the design, it was changed. In retrospect, Callaway’s attempts to get the 2-Ball approved by both the USGA and R&A went something like this: rejected, rejected, rejected, rejected, rejected, approved.
“With 2-Ball, there are probably 18 fathers. One is John Spitzer of the USGA,” said Callaway senior executive vice president Richard Helmstetter.
Spitzer is the assistant technical director who offered constructive suggestions to Callaway in response to submissions of several different versions of the 2-Ball, all declared nonconforming. Finally both the USGA and R&A were satisfied and issued their stamps of approval.
It was Dave Pelz, the noted short-game instructor, who invented and patented the 3-Ball putter in the mid-1980s. The most popular version of the putter, used by several PGA Tour pros, was declared nonconforming by the USGA. (Putters with unusual designs now are sent to the USGA before appearing on Tour, but this was not the case previously.)
Initial models of the 2-Ball included parallel upper and lower sections that were not connected anywhere except at the face. Until Callaway joined them at the rear of the putter with a substantial section of steel, the USGA told Callaway the upper part, with the two golf ball-sized white circles, was a flange used for alignment and not an integral part of the putter. Some of the 2-Ball knockoffs, lacking this rear hunk of metal, are nonconforming.
Adding all this metal changed the sound and feel of the 2-Ball. The ring or dink of the original gave way to a lower pitch. According to Helmstetter, the putter also performed better because the center of gravity was lowered and moved farther away from the face.
In the end, all the attention from the ruling bodies helped Callaway produce a better putter.
When Callaway first contacted Pelz about licensing his patent, the company wanted to call the putter the Dave Pelz 2-Ball.
Pelz rejected that idea and instead received a lump sum payment for his patent. Today he says he is happy, perhaps because the 2-Ball is a vindication of his design theory. “I didn’t think they could get it approved by the USGA,” Pelz reflected. “Obviously they were smarter than I was.”