2004: Distance debate remains unsettled

In 2002, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., in the dead of winter to address the Executive Committee of the U.S. Golf Association.

Finchem’s speech at the USGA annual meeting was closed to the public, but his message was no secret. He was worried about the distance that PGA Tour players drive their golf balls.

Said former USGA president Frank (Sandy) Tatum: “Basically he said to us, ‘Are you guys ready to deal with this?’ The example he used was basketball. His view was that basketball had become a bore (because of its domination by oversized players). He was concerned about the same thing happening to golf. Tim is a very, very intelligent fellow, and I think he was throwing out trial balloons.”

In the last 10 years, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased 25.9 yards (260.4 in 1993 vs. 286.3 in 2003). Billy Mayfair, who wouldn’t scare a church mouse with his physical presence, could be the distance poster boy. Mayfair averaged 253.0 in 1993and 284.0 in 2003, a whopping increase of 31 yards.

Nobody lays the blame entirely on the modern golf ball. Compared to the past, today’s golf courses are firmer and today’s golfers are bigger, stronger and better educated about the golf swing.

Regardless, some USGA watchdogs have a ready answer to what they perceive as a dilemma: Shorten the golf ball, or, in contemporary jargon, take the air out of the ball.

Wally Uihlein, Acushnet Co. president and chief executive officer, sees things differently.

“In professional golf, purses are up, TV ratings are up and the quality of play has never been better,” Uihlein said. “No one is disputing that professional golfers are hitting the ball farther. But we are forgetting that technology functions like an S-Curve (continued small progress with intermittent spikes) and we have just experienced a spike (the introduction of oversize titanium drivers and multilayer solid construction golf balls) not seen since the steel shaft obsoleted the hickory shaft.

“Now, as we did then, we are seeing over-

reaction from a limited number of constituencies, many of whom have their own commercial agenda. The fact is that for the 25 years prior to this last spike, distance gains due to technology were slow and modest. This is what I would expect we would see for the next 25 years.”

Tatum isn’t buying such an argument.

“In my judgment, it is the most critical time in the history of the game,” Tatum said. “If it continues to get out of control, the game will be seriously damaged, maybe irretrievably.”

Drawing a parallel to the remarks of Finchem, Tatum said professional golf has grown boring to him. “I don’t think it’s entertaining any more to watch a putting contest,” he said.

Although Tatum and his allies have been unable to shorten the ball, it remains a possibility. Tatum is one of the more active and influential members of the Advisory Committee of Past Presidents, which maintains considerable power within the USGA.

“We have to get the game back,” Tatum said. “I continue to believe it’s going to happen (new ball regulations). It seems inevitable to me. There have been some changes in the Executive Committee that I have high hopes for.”

He was alluding to the addition in 2003 of two fellow Californians, James Vernon and Cameron Jay Rains. Vernon also was on the Implements and Ball Committee last year; Rains joins that group this month. Vernon unexpectedly ascended to chairmanship of the I&B committee when Jack Vardaman refused that position and resigned from the Executive Committee. Rains is I&B vice chairman.

The USGA rule-changing process works like this: The Implements and Ball Committee, with advice from the USGA technical department, makes a recommendation to the Executive Committee. A vote of the Executive Committee then decides the matter.

The issue is complicated, though, by the relationship of the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland. Because the USGA and R&A have agreed unofficially to work together on all rule changes, the USGA would not act

unilaterally without the support of the R&A.

Leaders in the golf industry are concerned about future equipment rules. Ping CEO John Solheim has been through one lawsuit with the USGA

(over square grooves) and remains cautious in his assessment of the rulemakers.

“Many of the changes in golf have been good for the game,” Solheim said. “The USGA has to realize that the slow progression of technology keeps the game invigorated. I am pleased that in recent years the USGA has been addressing most of the needs of the manufacturers. Will that continue? I don’t know.”

Callaway Golf CEO Ron Drapeau is less optimistic.

“The USGA is unpredictable regarding rules changes,” he said. “They will have to earn credibility with manufacturers before we can depend on what they say.”

Then Drapeau renewed his call for two sets of rules, one for the best players in the game and another for everyone else. His suggestion: “The USGA should bring together a group of knowledgeable people with hard data for an open discussion on how to protect and grow the game.”

Barry Schneider, CEO of MacGregor Golf, throws his support behind the USGA.

“They have to make sure the game remains honorable,” Schneider said. “There are some highly charged issues in golf. All of us should remember that when there’s governance involved, there’s no way to have complete agreement. I think the game is in good hands.”

In such an unsettled environment, the future of golf regulation appears terribly uncertain.


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