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Showdown Looms Between USGA, Manufacturers

Golf: Governing body takes a long look at space-age technology and materials that are overwhelming courses.

June 14, 1998|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — For the second time in barely over a decade the U.S. Open is at The Olympic Club, and for the second time the U.S. Golf Association could come away from California with an equipment controversy.

It was at Olympic in 1987 that the USGA announced it was considering a new measuring system that made "square grooves" illegal.

"If the proposed method is approved, some of the clubs -- specifically the Ping Eye-2 -- will not conform to the Rules of Golf," a USGA spokesman said at the time.

The square or box-shape grooves made it easier to spin the ball -- particularly from the rough -- than the traditional "v" shape grooves, critics said, and thus devalued the importance of shotmaking skills.

The integrity of the game was at stake, people like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson said. The USGA listened and acted.

This time the USGA is concerned that younger, stronger players combined with space-age technology and materials will overwhelm golf courses.

This time the industry is concerned that the USGA will try to outlaw oversized drivers, long shafts, long putters or materials that make the ball jump off the club face faster. It's also worried that that the group might scale back how far the ball can go.

The potential impact on the business of the game is much greater than it was during the square-groove debate 11 years ago.

Even allowing current clubs to remain legal while imposing limits on future technology threatens the industry since part of the steady growth in the multibillion-dollar business is convincing the avid golfer every two years that an even better club had been developed.

Nothing has been done by the USGA -- yet -- and little has been said other than some vague hints that something will happen. All that is known is that the issue is certain to come up when USGA officials meet the media on June 17 at The Olympic Club on the day before the Open starts.

But the USGA has taken a low profile since inflammatory quotes from president "Buzz" Taylor and executive director David Faye appeared in Golf World last month.

One possible scenario is that the USGA will take no specific action but will create some sort of task force to look into the equipment issue and make a recommendation. The USGA will most likely want to try to convince the recreational golfer that they will not lose clubs now in their bag.

And one way to ease the negative public reaction it has received would be for the USGA to invite outside organizations -- including the industry -- to be part of the task force.

Just the thought of revised equipment standards triggered pre-emptive strikes by many in the industry.

Callaway and Ping took out full page ads in national publications opposing any changes of the rules. Titleist chief executive officer Wally Uihlein wrote a piece that appeared in Golf World defending the golf ball.

"It's very scary times for us," said John Solheim, Karsten Manufacturing chief executive officer. "It was at Olympic in '87 that square grooves came up. It's strange to go back there with something like this hanging again."

The equipment industry appears to have an ally it did not have in the square-groove case. The PGA Tour, which adopted the USGA's ban on the grooves in 1989, seems to see no problem with the current equipment.

"We will play by the rules of golf," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. "But we reserve the right to amend them as we have from time to time."

Perhaps the most common amendment to the rules of golf by the PGA Tour is when it allows players to lift their ball, clean it and then place it back down in muddy conditions.

"If they are changed," Finchem said about equipment standards, "we'd have a decision to make. Do we play by their rules or do we adopt a local rule?"

Finchem said he does not have "overwhelming concerns" that equipment is undermining the integrity of the game, but he did say it could become a problem "10 or 20 years from today."

"Should there be some sort of cap keeping it where it is today?" he asked. "Maybe."

Finchem's overriding concern right now is not for the professional game but the game in general.

"Why would we want to roll back how far a 10 handicapper can hit the ball?" he asked. "We don't want to restrain the growth of the enjoyment of the game."

Clubmakers did $1.7 billion in wholesale business in 1997, up 74 percent from 1993, according to the National Golf Foundation, an industry-supported research group.

Ballmakers did $677 million in wholesale business last year, up 23 percent from 1993. And the ballmakers fear their product will be the easy target of the USGA.

"The question is, why is the ball being singled out?" Uihlein said. "There are seven to 10 factors that characterize the game today vs. 10 or 20 years ago," he said.

Among the factors Uihlein listed were more athletic players, swing doctors, better conditioned courses, earlier exposure to the game, and a higher level of competition that breeds progress.

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