2003: The sunny side of the USGA

Coronado Island, Calif.

You can’t really blame officials of the U.S. Golf Association. They were so busy having a sunny good time at the USGA annual meeting, they forgot to tell you the news.

Stop the presses: The distance of the golf ball absolutely, positively will not be rolled back.

Banner headline: The USGA likely will implement a conforming club list, similar to the conforming ball list that already exists.

News flash: Within a few months, the USGA will announce its decision on maximum club length and clubhead size.

And, oh yes: I’m sick of hearing how Ernie Els gained 25 yards with a new Titleist ball and Titleist driver (it kept coming up at this meeting). If you want to know the truth, Els formerly played a 44-inch driver with a steel shaft. Now, he’s swinging a graphite-shafted driver that is 45.5 inches long. Of course, he’s going to gain significant yardage. The ball, the Titleist Pro V1x, is a rocket. It also is a firmer ball than any of the other members of the Pro V family, which means the litmus test of this ball will come on the slick roller-coaster greens of Augusta National. Stay tuned.

Here in paradise, I had to ask myself: These are the leaders of the USGA? Slap me with a two-stroke penalty and call me Bozo. I didn’t recognize them.

Gone were the stony battle faces of recent years. They smiled, they joked, they were as loose as a goose in a nature preserve. They were, in essence, very un-USGA-like.

They gathered at the Hotel Del Coronado, a rambling Victorian structure built in 1887 on this island off San Diego. What they accomplished during a week of shirt-sleeve weather was, well, nothing crucial.

And that’s good news.

For the first time since 1998, the USGA held its annual meeting under conditions of armistice and not war. The protracted debate over spring-like effect in drivers was resolved last summer. The USGA is singing a song of unity with its brethren at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The inclusion of golf equipment manufacturers in the rulemaking process has become a top priority.

Peace at last, peace at last.

So intent is the USGA on maintaining this cease-fire, it came right out and said what nobody expected: The modern golf ball is not a problem, and its distance will not be rolled back (the applause you hear in the distance is coming from golf ball makers).

“We are saying that the current rules on golf balls are OK,” announced USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge. “Some very important people are saying we should roll the ball back, make it shorter. We have listened to them; we have listened to everybody. We do not intend to change the rules as they pertain to golf balls.”

“Unfortunate,” was the word from Jack Nicklaus, eight times a USGA champion. “The ball goes too far. The game is easier than it used to be. Part of the challenge is gone.”

Throwing out a bit of a bone, Rugge laid down the conditions under which golf ball regulations could change in the future: “The USGA believes that any further significant increases in the hitting distances of balls are undesirable, and that doesn’t say increases that come from the golf ball. That says increases that are increases, period.”

In other words, any major increase could trigger a reaction from the USGA. Rugge said longer driving distances are due, in equal proportions, to better balls, better drivers and better human fitness.

The average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased about 20 yards in the last 10 years. There was a gigantic 6-yard spike in 2001, the year the solid-core Titleist Pro V1 was introduced and wound balls virtually disappeared. In 2002, the increase was little more than a foot.

“Any more significant increases,” Rugge warned, “and we will seek ways of protecting the game.”

Grrrr! Well, sometimes you have to bare your teeth and talk like that. It demonstrates that you mean business. On the other hand, all seems lovey-dovey between the USGA and R&A.

“We realize how important it is for us to be together as one,” Rugge said, “to make sure people understand there is going to be a clear set of rules that is consistently applied.”

Amid rumors the R&A wants to ban any long- or belly-putting stroke in which the club is anchored against the body, Rugge said he did not expect the R&A to make a decision independent of the USGA.

Due for an update: The wooden-headed driver and 109 mph swing speed used in official golf ball testing since 1976.

With a titanium-headed driver and higher swing speed, the overall distance standard will be raised from a maximum of 296.8 yards to some figure substantially above 300 yards.

“It is clearly our expectation,” Rugge said, “that no balls currently on the conforming ball list will fail the new test. We’re not trying to take anybody off the list.”

To erase any confusion over which clubs are conforming and which aren’t, a conforming club list will be established if the PGA Tour approves such a list. The Tour is crucial in this equation because several of its members use golf clubs manufactured in other countries.

Maximum clubhead size will be fixed at 470 cubic centimeters, while maximum club length still is being argued.

Excuse me, I would tell you more, but I have important work to do. I have to join the USGA officials and work on my suntan.

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