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FOCUS ON GOLF / THE YEAR IN REVIEW | Inside the Industry

Callaway, USGA at Odds

Equipment: Disagreement centers on new driver that does not meet ruling body's guidelines.

November 02, 2000|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Are you ready to rumble?

The battle lines have been drawn right there in the tee box, with Callaway Golf staring down the USGA, one waiting for the other to blink.

It's your classic golf story, in which good old American commerce collides head-on with good old American tradition with nothing more at stake than history, rules and millions of dollars.

It has been the year's most controversial story in the equipment business.

When Callaway Golf announced two weeks ago that it would be introducing to the U.S. market a technologically advanced, thin-faced titanium driver that does not meet the guidelines of the country's ruling body of golf, events were set in motion that may have far-reaching effects on anyone who plays.

Callaway and the USGA each says it is acting in the best interests of golf.

"We're not trying to get [the USGA] to change their attitudes and standards for our driver," said Ely Callaway, the company's founder. "We've stated very clearly, our main business is to make golf clubs that conform to the USGA specifications. However, we think modern technology brings some added rewards and the average recreational golfer should have a choice."

The USGA disagrees. There cannot be one set of rules for golfers who play competitively and another for so-called recreational players, the USGA says.

"Our job as the national governing body is to write rules and set standards," said Marty Parkes of the USGA. "One set of rules is in the best interests of the game.

"Multiple sets of rules create anarchy, confusion and chaos and they are not in the game's best interests."

Of course, it's just not that simple, for either side.

Callaway's task seems to be to create a groundswell of public opinion among consumers, convincing them that the USGA's rules about nonconforming drivers such as the ERC II are outdated and unnecessary.

The USGA has to contend with the acceptance of the ERC II by its European counterpart, the Royal and Ancient. The ERC II is perfectly acceptable at the British Open and any other event on the European PGA Tour.

Causing further confusion was Arnold Palmer's endorsement of the ERC II.

Palmer, a USGA spokesman, was widely criticized in the golf media and accused of "selling out," a charge that seems laughable, considering that Palmer needs money about as much as Tiger Woods does, and at 70 is much more concerned with preserving a lasting legacy to the game than picking up another endorsement.

"Everybody who is questioning his judgment and motivation are wrong," Callaway said of Palmer. "They don't know him."

The USGA has hinted that anyone who uses an ERC II may not be able to use it to record a handicap. But Callaway said the USGA might then be guilty of selective enforcement of its own rules of golf.

"How many people who write down their handicap also have first-tee mulligans?" he said. "Who will not hole every single putt? Who uses range finders? Who have more than 14 clubs in their bags? All of these are also standard USGA rules, what you must do for a USGA handicap."

Callaway Golf has been down this road before, when the USGA questioned the conformity of the Great Big Bertha and the Biggest Big Bertha, but eventually retreated in the face of contrary public opinion.

Callaway said golfers will buy the ERC II, regardless of what the USGA says, and that the USGA eventually will be swayed.

In the meantime, the USGA is quietly working behind the scenes on a large-scale public relations campaign to drum up support for its guidelines on equipment.

Callaway wants to believe that the USGA will eventually change its opinion and there will be no limits on modern-day golf clubs.

After all, he said, if the product is good and produces more distance for the recreational player, then it is a pleasurable experience and golf is fun.

The USGA isn't so sure about that, either.

Said Parkes: "There's no reason why you can't play under the existing rules of golf and still have a lot of fun."

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