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The Year in Golf

Trying to Drive Debate Home

Former top executives of the USGA call for rolling back distance, possibly adding a distance-restricted ball for tournament players.

November 20, 2003|Geoff Shackelford | Special to The Times

Former United States Golf Assn. president Bill Campbell calls the recent technology-fueled driving-distance gains "indefensible."

Retired USGA executive director Frank Hannigan says the distance issue is so far out of control that the problem is "insoluble, given the USGA as it is."

Frank "Sandy" Tatum Jr., who has been trying to bring the distance issue to the forefront since he was USGA president in 1978-79, said, "The governors of the game have a responsibility to govern the game, and the governors have not been doing so."

Esteemed former leaders of American golf's governing body hope the tough talk may finally lead the USGA and its counterpart, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, to take control of the sport's increasingly obvious distance predicament.

Although a new and improved USGA ball test is set to take effect in June, a more dramatic and unprecedented rules modification is under discussion behind closed doors, one that would allow for a distance-regulated ball to be introduced under the rules of golf.

For some, it's time the discussion gets serious.

"The recent, ongoing increases in driving yardage seem to be exponential and are indefensible and not in the game's best interests," said Campbell, the only person to serve as president of the USGA, in 1982-83, and captain of the R&A.

"It is apparent that most par-five holes are now easily reachable in two shots by most tour pros and top amateurs, and even by some college and high school team players, and that longish par fours have become drive-and-pitch opportunities for many, and lesser par fours are drivable by some. Unless and until something is done about it, this trend will continue. How can this be good for the game? Must top-rated courses extend to 8,000 or more yards? And then, what next?"

In a year when distance gains were supposed to be negligible, the PGA Tour had an extraordinary seven-yard increase in average driving distance.

By suggesting that the ball is traveling far past an acceptable limit for accomplished players and classic courses, Campbell implied that USGA testing policies have failed. The problem, he said, "is more easily corrected by just shortening the ball, putting a governor on it."

"Though politically challenging, this cure isn't rocket science or U.N. diplomacy. The issue cries out for concerted attention, resolve and action -- all with a sense of urgency."

In May 2002, a newly updated "statement of principles" designed to guide the USGA and R&A in formulating future equipment rules stated, "any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable."

The USGA statement of principles says that "any additional distance gains will not be due to design or construction changes in the ball itself."

According to Tatum, "It was an achievement to have a joint statement of principles," but that statement "had an out with the use of the word significant." He said, "There has not been any development since that says the statement will have any practical effect. Holding the ball where it is does not solve the problem. The game in its present form is clearly out of control."

The governing bodies in July announced a revised golf ball test with a "prospective implementation" date of June 2004. The announcement signaled the unlikely return of the once-retired "Iron Byron" testing device instead of the more complete "optimization" indoor test developed by the USGA in the late 1990s. That comprehensive test has never been implemented, in part, some contend, because it would have put a cap on the distance balls could travel and resulted in making some balls now on the market illegal.

"The revised ball-testing techniques are impressive on the surface -- greater clubhead speed in the robotic device, use of an up-to-date metal driver," said Hannigan, who was executive director from 1983 to 1989. "But buried deep in the USGA spin job is the news that, no matter what, no ball currently approved by the USGA and R&A will be struck from the list. Nothing will happen."

In a July op-ed article for the Scotsman, Hannigan wrote that "the tenor of the announcement was that it will constitute the ultimate drawing of a line in the sand, but the mind turns to 'Comical Ali,' the former director of information for Iraq, when he announced that American troops were nowhere close to the Saddam Hussein International Airport."

Hannigan favors an overall distance rollback because he fears a tournament-only restricted-flight ball might create as many problems as it solves.

"A rollback in distance is not a difficult technical problem: It can be done with club or ball, or both. But a rollback is a legal and political problem."

Marty Parkes, the senior director of communications for the USGA, said of the idea that a separate tournament ball be used: "That idea has been kicked around."

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