2002: Perspective - Technological Armageddon is upon us

The apocalypse is now. For all golfers who fervently urged the U.S. Golf Association to take control of technological developments in golf equipment, their hopes and predictions have come to pass.

We should not underestimate the magnitude of what is happening with the USGA and its rulemaking cousin, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland.

This is Armageddon. We are headed toward a head-on collision, and there is no turning back. Either the rulemakers or the manufacturers will prevail. In the next year or two, we will learn the extent of the rulemaking power of the USGA and R&A. If it takes a court decision to determine this rulemaking capacity, the outcome will be even more precisely defined.

Wally Uihlein, Acushnet Co. president and CEO, has admonished journalists: “In spite of what some jubilant competitors would like to have you believe – and they have done an excellent snow job on all of the media – we are still in the window of the ‘notice and comment’ period.”

Uihlein was referring to a proposal from the USGA and R&A that, during a five-year period starting Jan. 1, so-called “hot” drivers with a coefficient of restitution (spring-like effect) of .860 be allowed for all amateurs wishing to post scores and obtain a handicap.

While Uihlein always is persuasive in his arguments, this time he likely will lose. The proposal probably will be adopted after the notice and comment period ends July 15.

“So far we have received relatively few comments, much fewer than we got on (proposals for) head size and club length,” said USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge. “There also has been a significantly higher level of support for this proposal.”

As battle lines are drawn, golf equipment manufacturers find themselves in two camps. Callaway and TaylorMade are unlikely bedfellows because both had championed their hot drivers before the proposal was announced; they want the proposal to be approved. Titleist, Nike and Ping are among the companies on the other side. They want the proposal to be abandoned or greatly amended.

Even Callaway and TaylorMade, though, could end up unhappy. Why? Because the USGA is expected to endorse a “condition of competition” that allows tournament committees to require “highly skilled” fields to use the old .830 drivers rather than the new .860 drivers.

If all 13 USGA championships invoke this condition of competition, then virtually all top-level amateur competitions around the United States will follow the USGA’s example. This includes college golf and junior organizations such as the American Junior Golf Association.

“Our position is we are going to follow what the USGA does for their championships,” said Peter Ripa, the AJGA’s chief operations officer. “What the kids are going to use playing the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Junior, boys and girls – we feel that if the governing body has that as their position, we would be consistent in following that.”

In this environment, the stigma surely would remain on a club such as Callaway’s .860 driver, the ERC II. In effect, no serious tournament player could use it in the United States.

Callaway chairman and CEO Ron Drapeau originally called the proposal “a banner day for golf” and even promised that Callaway would not produce another nonconforming club (the ERC II has been nonconforming in countries following USGA rules, which require .830 drivers). Now Drapeau is remaining quiet as Callaway lobbies the USGA to reject the condition of competition for championships other than the U.S. Open.

The USGA, under president Reed Mackenzie, seems determined to get a handle on golf equipment. Mackenzie was instrumental in convincing the R&A to adopt the USGA’s .830 driver standard, a union that will occur after the five-year grace period expires on Jan. 1, 2008.

Sure, this five-year period is clumsy. Two different standards – one for highly skilled players, another for everyone else – will be difficult to manage. But this was the only compromise that could be struck.

“We wanted to seize the opportunity of getting back together with the R&A,” said Rugge, addressing the incongruity of two standards.

Next is the golf ball, and the USGA appears ready to go to war to stop any more distance increases.

Observed former USGA president Grant Spaeth: “The USGA has been perceived as anemic, afraid to take on the golf industry. Once the USGA has reasoned through what the game needs, and has done it openly, it’s time for action. We’re looking at a crash landing, because we’re up against Wall Street and the investors in these golf companies, and they’re going to go after us. But if we’re right, and if it’s legally permissible, we have to do it. If it involves some litigation, so what?”

In short, Armageddon.

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