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FOCUS ON GOLF: British Open | INSIDE THE INDUSTRY

Metal Woods and Wouldn'ts

USGA's New Guidelines Probably Won't Turn Back Clock on Club Design, but They Might Stop It

July 16, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The material and construction of the face shall not have the effect at impact of a spring, or impart significantly more spin to the ball than a standard steel face, or have any other effect which would unduly influence the movement of the ball."

--Appendix II to Rule 4-1e of the Rules of Golf

*

The day before the first round of the U.S. Open, Trey Holland, Buzz Taylor and David Fay of the United States Golf Assn. sat on a stage in San Francisco and told journalists to pass the word that the USGA said the clubs already in golfers' bags were OK.

But be wary about what you buy, because the USGA was going to devise tests to try to measure how the ball comes off the face of clubs and might put some numbers with the words in Appendix II.

In Laguna Niguel, there was a sudden rush of air.

"When I was 11 years old, I was with a bunch of other boys and we held our breath as long as we could to see how many times we could swim across a pool under water," said John Hoeflich, president of LiquidMetal Golf. "That was the longest I had held my breath . . . until the day of the announcement."

In Hayward, Calif., Jesse Ortiz was wondering why Hoeflich was breathing so easily.

"Manufacturers are celebrating, but there's a hangover coming," said Ortiz, president of Orlimar, whose Trimetal woods have become so popular that his work force has increased from nine to 85 since December.

"The USGA . . . is going to erect a brick wall, set up a speed limit. From my understanding, they are going to take all of the clubs that have been approved . . . and [determine] which has the fastest face velocity and that's the speed limit."

The optimum words here are have been approved. Orlimar's Trimetal has no problem there.

LiquidMetal's putter has been approved, and its irons are close, but--perhaps more important--its woods are still in the prototype stage.

The prices--the putter sells for $400, eight irons for $2,700 and the driver for $600--show the stakes are high, but Hoeflich, whose background includes club design for Tommy Armour and Titleist, says he isn't worried.

"In the early 1970s, golf-ball technology changed from three-piece balata balls to two-piece Surlyn balls," he says. "So the USGA set a standard that was beyond the balls they produced and let the manufacturers catch up. I think that's what's going to happen here."

Fay, the USGA's executive director, might well agree.

"Golf constantly evolves," he said at the much-anticipated U.S. Open announcement. "With an eye to the future, we have a responsibility to all involved with the sport to set objective, clearly understood standards that anticipate emerging technology while maintaining the fundamental challenge of the game."

Whew! Hoeflich says.

"What I was afraid the USGA would do is to roll back the clock."

His mind's eye saw persimmon drivers with stainless steel shafts hitting balata balls 240 yards from a sweet spot the size of a pinhead.

Wait a minute, Ortiz says. The USGA is stopping the clock.

"They have frozen or quick-chilled the industry as it stands," he says. "It's going to be extremely difficult for a company out of nowhere to come up and be, as Eli Callaway says, 'demonstrably different.'

"The problem with LiquidMetal is that if it outperforms what has been approved, it's going to be outlawed. If it doesn't outperform what has been approved, it's going to be ruled conforming, but everybody is going to know it's no different, and why spend 700 bucks for a driver and 2,000 bucks for irons? If they say it's legal, God bless them. If not, they are going to have a problem."

The USGA is staying mum, until Sept. 28 at 9 a.m., when everybody interested in and affected by the tests it is conducting is invited to a forum at Golf House.

And, yes, LiquidMetal will be "demonstrably different," says Dr. William Johnson, head of the materials science department at Caltech.

His job is discovering and working with metals, particularly with Vitralloy, which is what LiquidMetal was called until somebody figured Vitralloy might not help sell golf clubs.

Caltech usually has loftier aims for its discoveries, but with the United States running out of people to be angry at, the need for metals to build missiles has diminished. Caltech had discovered an amorphous metal, a metallic glass, really, that is so hard that paint won't stick to it.

"When you stack Vitralloy up against what's used in golf clubs, the most obvious advantage is the strength of the material," Johnson says. "It's double that of titanium, and more like triple that of the aluminum used in the very best aircraft parts."

Because of the nature of LiquidMetal, its discoverers say it transfers energy from the swing to the golf ball purely, without absorbing that energy in the clubhead. As an example, company executives produced a sheet of it at a meeting with Barrons executives and dropped a metal ball on it. The ball bounced for a minute, as opposed to a few seconds on steel or titanium plates.

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