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FOCUS ON GOLF / U.S. OPEN

Technology Club Has a Booming Membership

June 18, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can't turn on a television after Nick at Nite without seeing . . .

* A driver with a head bigger than Mount Rushmore.

* A fairway wood guaranteed to get the ball in the air from grass high enough to hide a coyote, with so much spin it could parallel park.

* A wedge that would get you par out of six feet of quicksand.

You can't watch a golf tournament without hearing about a ball that guarantees the trajectory of a moon shot . . . with the accuracy of a computer.

You can't watch Fox Sports West, South, East or North without learning about golf-club metallurgy to rival anything Lockheed puts in its airplanes . . . about putters designed to hole anything inside your area code.

There are drivers made of old Soviet missile parts, and others that whistle when you are on the right swing path and, presumably, give out a Bronx cheer when you aren't.

There are utility clubs for every contingency, putters made of substances that don't show up on radar and every type of device imaginable to contort the wrist-arm-hands-legs in the shape of a golf swing.

You could spend thousands of dollars and end up . . . about where you started.

"You can't buy a game," says Roger Barber, a teaching pro and club-fitter at Griffith Park Golf Club. "Technology has helped guys on the tour hit it longer . . . but sometimes longer just means deeper in trouble."

Adds Mike Miller, the pro at Riviera Country Club: "If technology was the answer, Nick Faldo shouldn't be playing so badly right now. He has access to any kind of technology you can imagine.

"How about Chip Beck? Would he be playing the way he is if his game could be fixed with technology?"

Beck, who has tried everything from new clubs to an oil change for his psyche, has won four tournaments--including the Los Angeles Open--and $6 million, but has made only one cut in 15 months.

At the same time, Miller says, "I personally don't believe you can buy a game, but there's no question you can help yourself.

"The importance of the club is inversely proportionate to the skill of the player. Technology can help a less-skilled player more than it will a strong player."

That's the whole idea.

"The new clubs are more forgiving, but the scores really aren't dropping much," says David Mutschler, who runs a Roger Dunn golf shop in Canyon Country.

"It can become a prestige thing. I can put a beginner in a $100 set of clubs, or a set of Callaways, for about $1,700. But you still have to hit the shot. The club doesn't do it for you."

But it can help.

Clubheads with bigger sweet spots or, perhaps more important, less penalizing areas on the face can mitigate disaster.

"Off-center hits might not be so much off-line," Miller says. "It still gets you distance."

And if you're closer to the green, well that's the idea.

"Mostly what's going to bring your score down anyway is the short game," Miller says. "When pros win a tournament, putting is the reason. Putting statistics are incredible. They're averaging 24-25 putts a round, and that's not just because they're sticking every approach.

"They're getting it up and down, making five-footers, almost anything from 10 feet in."

That has nothing to do with infomercials and everything to do with practice.

"How many times do you hear it, 'I don't have time for practice,' " Barber says. "Like my father used to say, 'There are guys here who can outplay me, but nobody's going to outwork me.' Now everybody is too busy to practice."

Barber's father, the late Jerry Barber, won the 1961 PGA Championship.

"I have a guy who came to me 2 1/2 years ago and hadn't played the game," Barber says. "He practices a lot, and he uses forged irons. He's shooting between 75 and 85 now."

The old-fashioned way. He's earning it.

But the televised shortcuts continue.

"I see them," Barber says. "There's the [Adams] Tight Lies. And now there's the Orlimar. I think the Alien wedge got the whole thing started on television."

And on and on and on . . . for thousands of hours and millions of dollars, and nobody is immune.

"I have a back problem and can only play eight or 10 times a year," Barber says. "When I play now, it's about 75% technology and 25% me and I can have fun. With most players, it's about 50-50. You can't buy a game, but some of these things are turning more people toward golf, and that's good.

"They advertise that you can return them in 30 days if you're not satisfied, and you can bet there aren't many being returned. People are playing."

And they can keep playing with all that technology at their disposal, after the U.S. Golf Assn. decided this week not to make any restrictive changes in club design. But what about that little white thing?

"The ball," Miller said. "It's longer than it's ever been. The clubs get you distance you wouldn't get in the past, but most of that is the ball."

And in the end, all the technology in the world can't overcome the basics.

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