Time to End Years of Inertia.When are the manufacturers going to start fighting back? It's time for equipment companies to . . . launch a coordinated counteroffensive against the USGA. Surely, logic is on the manufacturers' side.
Far Hills, NJ., is located about an hour's drive west of New York City, in a leafy suburb off of 1-78. But it might as well be located on a small island in a distant sea. Far Hills, of course, is home to the U.S. Golf Association, which, through its declarations on equipment regulations, seems intent on isolating itself and perhaps ensuring its irrelevance.
Let's review. In 1998, the USGA limited drivers' coefficient of restitution, or spring-like effect, to .830. Then it capped the size of driver heads at 460 cubic centimeters. Earlier this year it made known its interest in setting new regulations that seem designed to ensure golf balls fly no farther than 1990 models.
Then, on Aug. 31, the USGA announced its intention to limit the moment of inertia - in effect, the stability at impact - in driver heads.
"The USGA is concerned. . . that any further increases in clubhead moment of inertia may reduce the challenge of the game," Dick Rugge, the USGA’s senior technical director wrote to manufacturers.
Rugge is a nice man, and I've never heard anyone question his integrity. He made his name at TaylorMade designing the type of advanced equipment that he now helps regulate, so I'm willing to accept that Rugge -like an oil executive who suddenly embraces the Kyoto Treaty - has found religion, USGA style. That doesn't mean that golf equipment manufacturers also have to sing from the USGA choir sheet.
The manufacturers largely have taken the USGA's dictates lying down. One of the last acts - albeit one of his rare miscalculations - of the great Ely Callaway was to launch the nonconforming ERC II driver domestically in late 2000. Both he and his company took a public relations bath, and the episode appears to have left manufacturers gun-shy. There's this underlying sentiment that it's impolitic and bad for business to criticize the USGA.
So the manufacturers have held their tongues and mouthed politically correct maxims emphasizing their desire to "work with" the USGA. Through it all, the USGA has been golf's most sacred cow, seemingly immune to criticism.
Given the recent history cited above, it's clear the USGA is engaged in an undeclared war against golf's equipment manufacturers. So here's what I'm wondering: When are the manufacturers going to start fighting back? It's time for equipment companies to marshal their advertising firms and launch a coordinated counteroffensive against the USGA. It's time that they stop holding their tongues and start making their case directly to the golfing public. Surely, logic is on the manufacturers' side.
There's a place for well-reasoned equipment regulations. Even the manufacturers would acknowledge that. But the USGA has done absolutely nothing to make the case that its crackdown on equipment has any merit. Really, who are these people to whom Rugge refers who think golf might become too easy? The USGA reported that the average American's handicap was 15.2 for men and 27.9 for women last year, improved only slightly from 15 years ago. By that measure, one could more easily make the case that manufacturers have done little to "reduce the challenge of the game."
In his letter to manufacturers, Rugge wrote, "Moment of inertia of driver heads has approximately tripled over the past 15 years."
What driver were you playing in 1990? Whichever brand it was, it probably had a persimmon head on it. Since that time, manufacturers have brought about an underuably positive sea change for the average golfer, moving to increasingly larger steel driver heads, then on to lighter and still larger titanium heads.
The proposal to rein in MOI is particularly onerous. It's one thing for the USGA to make the case, albeit a dubious one, that drivers and balls need to be deadened because Tour players are hitting the ball too far. If equipment rule changes hurt mid-handicappers, the USGA could further argue, they can move to a forward tee.
But restricting MOI won't affect Tour players, who hit the ball on the center of the clubface every swing. The new proposal is a direct attack on mid- and high-handicappers » the ones who find golf quite challenging already, thank you, and benefit from the advancements in weight distribution that help reduce clubhead twisting (MOI).
If USGA officials are miffed that today's Tour players, unlike their heroes of old, don't need to hit 2-irons into long par 4s, then they should stop being so dismissive of the idea of separate equipment regulations for the Tour and engage in a serious discussion about rules bifurcation. But given that the winner of the u.s. Open was fortunate to shoot even par, proving that even Tour players still find the game quite challenging, two sets of rules seem unnecessary.
This dysfunctional regulatory process would have more legitimacy if a broader swath of the golfing populace - professionals, avid public-access players, even manufacturers - had significant input. Instead, this whole MOl episode points out the vast gulf between the USGA and the majority of the county's 25 million golfers, less than 5 percent of whom are members of the association.
USGA officials often are caricatured as elitists because of their generally WASP lineages, their memberships in the finest clubs and their considerable personal wealth. It's a stereotype, to be sure, but like many stereotypes, there's much truth to it. The IS-member USGA Executive Committee, which claims ultimate authority. over equipment regulations, includes partners in prominent law firms, investment bankers, the founder of one of the world's largest advertising firms and senior executives from the financial, oil and other industries. In other words, you won't find any of them hitting off mats next to you at the local driving range.
None of this is to engage in the bash-the-rich demagoguery so popular in our culture. Quite the contrary, the Executive Committee members no doubt rose in stature professionally, and earned the accompanying wealth through hard work and ingenuity. Surely they wouldn't sit idly if an unaccountable ruling body in their chosen professions acted to impede the creativity and innovation of their companies.
But when it comes to golf, they display a gaping blind spot. In golf, it seems their well-honed capitalist sensibilities desert them, and they suddenly take a dim, even sinister view of innovation and technology. Apparently that sort of double standard is tolerated if you're not answerable to anyone.
The manufacturers, however are answerable to a number of constituencies - shareholders, employees, retailers and, most importantly, golfers who have demonstrated an unquenchable thirst for new and demonstrably better equipment.
It's time for equipment companies to put aside diplomacy and fight for those constituencies.
Reprinted with permission from Golfweek Magazine.
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