Early in 2000, just after Trey Holland had been elected to his first term as U.S. Golf Association president, I sat down with him for breakfast and conversation at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Holland, normally a quiet and introspective man, was overflowing with conversation. He had not been seated more than 45 seconds before announcing, “We have hired Dick Rugge as senior technical director.”
Rugge, 64, announced his resignation Nov. 5 after nearly 13 years on the job. He will step down Feb. 2, ending a regime that took a giant step toward clarifying current and future golf equipment rules.
What captured my attention 12 years ago was the confidence with which Holland was speaking. “We are very, very pleased with this decision,” he said with conviction.
My reaction: Gulp!
Rugge was one of my closest friends in golf, but I had no idea this was about to happen. I called him, and Rugge explained he had been contacted by a firm whose job was to create a short list of candidates for the USGA.
The search for a leader of the USGA Research and Test Center was widespread, but few observers expected the final choice to come from a major golf club company. This proved to be a brilliant move by the USGA. Before Rugge, the relationship between the USGA and golf manufacturers was rocky, if not frigid. After Rugge, the two sides not only made peace but forged a working relationship that is firmly intact today.
When the Joint Statement of Principles was announced in 2002 by the USGA and R&A, Rugge’s fingerprints were all over the document. The statement outlined the philosophies and procedures that would guide the future regulation of golf equipment.
Rugge, an engineer with a calm and thoughtful demeanor, had been head of golf club production for TaylorMade. He was an influential figure in the design of TaylorMade golf equipment.
It was Rugge’s personality, Holland conceded, that made him the ideal choice. Rugge’s expertise was a crucial part of the job, of course, but Holland believed a golf industry insider could mend fences more quickly than a newcomer.
“And that’s exactly what happened,” said Sean Toulon, TaylorMade’s executive vice president. “I may be biased, because Dick and I worked for the same company, but he did a great job of establishing communication between the USGA and all the manufacturers. There was – and still is – a lot of optimism throughout the golf industry.”
A letter from USGA executive director Mike Davis, sent to USGA employees, praised Rugge for his guidance during a period of nonstop technological development in golf.
“His vigilance has assured that skill remains the most important factor in hitting a good shot,” Davis wrote. “Dick will leave behind a Research and Test Center team that is extremely well positioned to handle its mission moving forward. His contributions to the USGA have been invaluable, and I would like to sincerely thank him for his significant role in helping us govern the game.”
Some of Rugge’s other accomplishments in 13 years:
• If you press him, he will say that adjustability of golf clubs is his biggest contribution. He encouraged manufacturers to incorporate adjustability into their club designs, and the results continue to unfold. Most manufacturers now offer interchangeable clubheads and shafts, along with weighting schemes that can be personalized by golfers.
• Golf club regulations from the Rugge era helped stabilize driving distance on the PGA Tour and throughout golf. Although average driving distance on Tour has increased more than 10 yards since Rugge became senior technical director, the increase was stabilized and limited to slightly more than 3 yards since the Joint Statement of Principles was introduced.
• After years of extensive testing, new groove regulations were formulated. These new grooves, intended to reduce golf ball spin from the rough, already are mandatory on the PGA Tour and are scheduled to go into effect for all golfers around the world in 2024.
• Rugge and his team developed a simple, quick and portable method (called the CT test) for measuring spring-like effect in metalwoods.
• He helped modernize the overall distance standard for golf balls, and he began a long-term program for evaluating alternative golf balls.
The search for a new senior technical director has begun. Despite the harnessing of driving distances in recent years, some believe the greatest challenge for the new director will be dealing with bigger, stronger golfers and the distances they are projected to achieve in competition. Heading into this week’s Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, 21 players on the PGA Tour were averaging more than 300 yards off the tee.
Jack Nicklaus has been the primary spokesman for shortening the golf ball, and suggestions “to take the air out of the ball” are expected to remain on the table.
Always the soldier, Rugge mused in 2011 that, “Golf companies have brilliant engineers and designers. The innovations are everywhere. It is our job to keep up with them.”
And that’s pretty much what he did.