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Double whammy for golf ball

It's smaller than an egg, but as hard as a rock. It has dimples all over its body. When it gets lost, which is frequently, it can't find its way back home. So, why would a golf ball become such a target in the argument over the effects of technology on the game of golf?

"Because it flies and it can't defend itself," says Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Acushnet Co., which makes Titleist golf balls. "As a result it takes on a Darth Vader persona."

Not everyone sees evil in the ball, but two of the game's biggest names — Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer — have been saying for years that the golf ball flies too far for the good of the game.

For sure, the ball flies farther today than at any time in the game's history. Currently, four players on the PGA Tour average more than 300 yards on their drives. Last year there were 15; in 2003 there were nine. From 1997 through '02 only one man, John Daly, averaged more than 300 yards. Average distance has increased 25 yards in the last 10 years, to 285.

There are multiple reasons for the increase, but essentially it's the outgrowth of improvements in technology and improvements in the conditioning of tournament golfers. Amateurs do hit the ball farther, but the U.S. Golf Association says the average handicap has improved from 16.5 in 1995 to 15.

"When the Cold War ended," says Dick Rugge of the USGA, "the hot war began in golf equipment."

Some engineers and scientists who did military research switched to golf equipment companies and began applying their knowledge of aerodynamics and materials to golf. They've developed golf balls that have solid cores and soft covers that curve less, fly farther and stop quicker; drivers made of titanium and now carbon composites that are bigger and more forgiving; shafts made of composite materials that are stronger and lighter than steel.

Rugge, the senior technical director for the USGA, isn't sure distance is a problem in golf, but as the ruling body for the game in the USA, he has an obligation to research the issue.

Two weeks ago it was revealed in a published report he had requested some equipment manufacturers make golf balls that fly 15 and 25 yards shorter than those now on the market. "The USGA doesn't believe the ball should be rolled back," he says. "My request was part of a research project that's been going on for 2½ years. We want to know how the game might be affected by a ball that flies shorter distances. The best way to study this is to bring the manufacturers into the issue."

Rugge, 57, is in his fourth year as the chief engineer for the USGA. He has a staff of six engineers researching equipment at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. Before coming to the USGA he was an engineer for TaylorMade, a leading equipment company.

"The question of the ball flying too far is philosophical," he says. "My job is the science of the issue. The tests on these golf balls will be an important piece of our data. I have no preconceived notions about what they will show."

Ball a big chuck of equipment market

Rugge knows the issues and ramifications for the USGA, PGA Tour and the equipment companies. The golf equipment industry is a $3.2 billion business worldwide, and $1 billion of that is the golf ball.

Obviously, the only place where power has become king is the PGA Tour, yet the Tour's commissioner, Tim Finchem, is not calling for a rollback of the ball, despite statements from Tour players.

His organization is providing statistical information to the USGA, but the Tour clearly wants the USGA, as the governing body, to decide the issue.

The Tour is enjoying its greatest period of popularity, but that popularity has been built on power players, doing things the average golfer cannot do. There are multiple reasons for this high level of competition: better athletes, equipment and courses.
In addition, the Tour has become the biggest marketing tool of the game, and one of the products being marketed by its players is equipment. They have lucrative contracts to play specific golf balls and use specific golf clubs.

"Everybody in golf has a self-interest," says Uihlein, whose company dominates golf ball sales with 50% of the worldwide market.

Golf-course architects are concerned about having to make longer courses; manufacturers are concerned about losing sales; the USGA is concerned about the growth of the game. Older pros seem to want the game to revert to 1980 when Dan Pohl was the longest hitter at 274.3 yards. "Everybody wants to gore somebody else's ox," says Rugge. "I'm not sure anybody's ox needs to be gored."

Balls get too much blame

Uihlein remains optimistic that everyone will have meaningful input into the issue, but he's adamant that the golf ball is bearing too much blame for the current state of the game.

"It's no longer a disputed fact that there's more than the golf ball that has gotten distance to where it is today," says Uihlein, citing articles by USGA President Fred Ridley and USGA executive committee member Jim Vernon. "It has not been the cause of change in the game. It's unfair to look at the ball as the solution."

To be sure, distance is not always the key factor in winning. Only one player currently ranked among the top 10 in driving distance, Tiger Woods, has won this year. Woods, the world's No. 1 player and one of the four golfers averaging more than 300 yards off the tee this year, says power has become the nature of the game, and he believes it's up to the USGA to determine if that's acceptable.

"Guys are going to hit the ball longer," Woods says. "Pretty soon we're going to get real athletes playing the game. What if Bo Jackson had ever played (the Tour) or Michael Jordan. With his leverage, (Jordan) would be hitting it much farther than I even thought I could hit it."

Reprinted with permission from Jerry Potter, USA Today.



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