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Are the Winds of a Golf War Blowing?

By John M. Ross,
Ball in Hole
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Could a lovely thing like the golf ball drive a wedge between the USGA and R&A? (Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)

It has been 26 years since our cousins across the big pond decided the golf world would be a better and a saner place, indeed, if everyone played the same size ball. For decades, the Royal & Ancient Club of St. Andrews had stubbornly held out for a smaller ball (1.62 inches in diameter) than the one (1.68 inches in diameter) endorsed by the U.S. Golf Association. When it finally agreed that the larger ball was a better choice, harmony reigned, and the two have been in perfect tune ever since.

Until now.

About a fortnight ago, the R&A shocked many by announcing that it was in disagreement with the USGA, and would not join its American counterpart in banning the so-called thin-faced driver that has become such a controversial club. The decision rocked the sturdy foundation of the Association to its depths, and it is likely the vibrations will be felt throughout the game for some time to come.

Almost immediately, there was wide speculation that the USGA might be faced with the legal test of its life in a showdown with the golf equipment manufacturers. The latter, of course, looked at the split between the two rulesmakers cheerfully and with dollar signs in their eyes.

Rampant technological development in ball and club design in recent years has been a constant challenge to the game's governing fathers. This is totally understandable, since the overseers are attempting to preserve the game, keeping it the way it was intended to be played. The equipment makers, with an eye on the bottom line, have unrelentingly looked for new club and ball designs that would tempt the golf masses into "buying" a lower score, a better game. And n this leap-forward era of new technology, they have found them again and again.

Callaway Golf attracted the attention of golfers with their new products, including the much-ballyhooed Big Bertha, and companies with "hot" clubs were springing up everywhere. In most cases, the new products conformed to the Rules of Golf and did help the golfer play better, especially the weekend golfer. But, when Callaway Golf came along with its ERC driver and let it be known that it would give the average golfer 20 yards more than any other driver on the market, things began to happen.

This was the thin-faced driver that had a spring-like, or trampoline-like, effect that, the USGA would eventually declare, exceeded its limitation for ball velocity off a driver face. Branded by the USGA, Callaway did not put the ERC in the U.S. market, but decided to cash in on its celebrity status and quickly get them into international outlets.

In the meantime, Callaway's competitors were jumping into the exotic driver market with great delight, some of them coming remarkably close to the Callaway design. Indeed, at this year's Masters an extraordinary number of foreign-made drivers were in action, including the Mizuno Pro 300S, used by the ultimate Green Jacket winner, Vijah Singh. Like the Callaway construction, the Mizuno model featured four sections of forged titanium welded together.

An interesting aspect of the scenario is the fact that it was not the USGA which initially revealed that the ERC driver had failed the velocity test, but Callaway's own distributors and retailers. Some considered it a well-thought-out marketing ploy, since it certainly did stir up much of the golf world.

To be sure, there are golfers who will grasp at any club, ball or theory they think will help them play better and add up a lower number on their scorecards. Happily for the game, most of them are guided by the Rules of Golf. But the "let's try it" mode does exist. Concerning the promises so widely proclaimed for the ERC, there already are red flags of caution waving. Some weekenders who have tried the ERC claim it will give you extra distance off the tee, but only when you hit it on the "sweet spot." And, even with a good hit, the bonus is about 10 yards.

Admittedly, 10 yards is nothing to take lightly, but how often does the average golfer hit the ball with the very heart of the club? The efficiency rate is what separates the low-handicapper and the pro from the rest of the hackers. Further, many of those who have played a few rounds with the ERC felt they were better off using the "more forgiving" clubs that keep them out of trouble than opting for the promise of a few extra yards off the tee with a perfect hit.

Apparently, the R&A also leans in that direction. After months and months of foot-dragging, supposedly searching for a suitable test for the thin-faced driver and the spring-like effect, it finally decided not to test them. They did not pose a threat to the game, it said. That left the USGA at the very end of a long limb, terribly alone.

Our fellows never saw this one coming. In the past, when both sides were expected to act on an issue involving conformity to the rules, there were amicable exchanges of ideas and opinions, and then a prompt decision. But, again, this time the R&A moved like molasses, and there is much speculation over the reason. Some say the Brits acted like the Royal and Fearful.

Shortly after the USGA ruled Callaway's ERC as non-conforming, the Royal Canadian Golf Association announced it would follow the American decision. Almost immediately, Callaway slapped a restraint of trade suit against the Canadians, and some observers feel that this terrified the R&A. If it supported the U.S. position, it reasoned, the R&A too could become part of a messy, protracted and expensive court action if and when Callaway or others eventually moved against the USGA.

There is a feeling, too, that the USGA has taken on the image of the more dominant partner in recent years, even though the R&A rules the entire golf world, with the exception of the U.S. and Mexico. Apparently the feeling is strong enough to risk a possible rupture of the long-time joint relationship that has functioned so efficiently for the game.

Of course, the British could be right. There has been reason to believe that the golf equipment people have been simply waiting for the most opportune time to test the USGA's legal right to keep them from selling these high-ticket clubs to golfers in the U.S. And, with a split in the once-solid international alliance, with the R&A saying the "hot" drivers violate nothing, this could be it.

Such warfare is not good for golf. Overseers like the USGA and the R&A have helped keep golf on a level unmatched by other sports: a unique degree of integrity, the highest level of sportsmanship. Let's hope it stays that way.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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