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USGA explores changing golf balls, companies worry about rule changes

April 19, 2005


Wally Uihlein was dismayed when he opened his mail last week and found a letter from the United States Golf Association

Like the rest of his ball manufacturing peers, Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Acushnet, received an invitation to make prototype golf balls -- ones that travel 15 and 25 yards less under test conditions, a 5% to 8% decrease in distance.

"You cannot roll back incremental distance of the past 20 years by focusing on the ball alone or the club alone," said Uihlein, whose company makes Titleist and Pinnacle brands and has a 76% share of the ball market, by far the largest.

"If you're earnest about this, let's do both."

Uihlein and Acushnet have the most to lose in such a scenario, but most other manufacturers are suspicious about the motives behind the USGA's prototypes.

Dick Rugge, USGA senior technical director and author of last week's letter, stressed the request for 10 dozen prototype balls was simply part of an ongoing research project first addressed in 2002 and not intended as the first step in rolling back distance.

"We weren't trying to stir any pots, only to collect data," Rugge said. "All we're trying to do is learn more about golf ball distance. We want to be prepared if sometime in the future, if we were to change any rules, we'll have the appropriate knowledge to do it."

Titleist plans to send the USGA balls for testing, Uihlein said, and views the letter as an invitation to include club samples, too.

"It was the first time they quantified it with a number," Uihlein said. "In our opinion, the letter clearly states what their endgame will be. That's not pure research. They've concluded where they want to go."

Benoit Vincent, chief technical officer for TaylorMade, likens a reduction in distance to putting manual clutches back in all automobiles.

"Say you're an 18 handicap golfer, and now you'd have to hit your tee shot 20 yards shorter," Vincent said. "The game would become less enjoyable and fun when your handicap goes to 23."

As the game's governing body, any USGA rule change also would likely affect amateur golf at the national, collegiate and junior levels, unless a different ball was developed for professionals. That is an issue that concerns manufacturers.

"Playing by one set of rules, playing the same game, playing the same course and playing the same equipment are what make golf different. It is the essence of the game," Uihlein said. "Ruling bodies have always been fair and practical, and we expect them to be no different this time around."

Vincent said the USGA should also look at course agronomy and design, such as different grasses and deeper rough, if they want to rein in power golf.

"(The USGA) is trying to be reassuring," Vincent said, "but they keep trying to solve a problem that really isn't that big of an issue. Maybe only 10 players in the world are creating this issue at a couple of tournaments. We just think the USGA is working on the wrong problem with the wrong solutions."

Rugge said four companies have called to say they will comply with the request for test balls. The letter also said the USGA and Royal and Ancient will reimburse manufacturers for the production cost. "We need to be responsible rule makers," Rugge said. "We didn't try to make it any more than it is, a request to conduct more research."

Article reprinted with permission from Tom Spousta, USA Today.

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