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Palmer Stirs Confusion in Ranks of His Army!

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Arnold Palmer
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Without warning to the USGA, Arnold Palmer gave his blessing to an illegal driver last week. (Courtesy PGA of America)

"I got a letter from him just a few weeks ago, dunning me for my dues in the USGA, and telling me how important it is to keep the game as it was intended to be played," one of the fellows in the locker room was telling, with considerable heat. "And now he's saying it's okay to play with a club that violates USGA rules! I don't get it."

"I've been getting the same letter for years, and, you know, I agree with him. But now, this!" another chipped in.

"It's gotta be money - but why? Everyone thinks he has as much as Fort Knox already!"

That same scene and sounds of confusion undoubtedly were duplicated in hundreds of places where golfers gather, and it came on the heels of Arnold Palmer's startling blessing on an illegal driver last week. Even more surprising is that Arnie gave no advance warning to the U.S. Golf Association that he was about to rock its foundation.

As the national chairman of the USGA Members Program, Palmer has raised millions of dollars over the years, and has been a rock-solid supporter of the Association's dedicated role in the sport. Indeed, a substantial portion of the dollars he has attracted have been earmarked for the expenses of equipment testing, and for building up a war chest to cover legal fees in the event of an attack on its authority by the golf equipment manufacturers.

Stunned reaction came from many sources. One prominent official, underscoring the radical change, exclaimed: "It's like the Pope suddenly giving his support to premarital sex."

Some observers linked Palmer's surprise to the shocker by the Royal & Ancient Club of St. Andrews in mid-September, when it elected not to go along with the USGA's decision on the spring-like effect in drivers. By ruling that Callaway's ERC driver - along with 21 other models - had failed the tests for increased distance, the Association banned the sale and use of it in the U. S. and Mexico. The R&A left its long-time solid partner on golf rules out on a limb and gave encouragement to the club-makers. And, apparently, to Palmer, too, some believe.

The R&A, after studying the issue for almost two years following the USGA's ban of the thin-faced drivers in November, 1998, announced that they had concluded the clubs did not "significantly increase driving distance." It acknowledged that present day golfers are hitting the ball farther than their predecessors, but it felt the so-called spring-like effect in the drivers in question posed no threat to the game.

Friends say that Palmer has always felt that golf is a hard game to play, and if the average golfer can get a little help from the club-makers - especially as a result of the new technology - then he should be allowed to enjoy it. It's been speculated that Arnie thought the time was ripe to test the waters on the possibility of two sets of rules for equipment - one for championship play and the other simply for recreational play.

For almost four decades, Palmer has been the idol of American golfers. To many, only Babe Ruth has ranked ahead of him in terms of total impact on the sports scene. But his public embracing of Callaway's ERC II driver has left the ranks of Arnie's Army considerably disorganized.

It was largely the setting - a press conference called by Callaway Golf to announce that it wold make its ERC II Forged Titanium Driver available to the American market. Ely Callaway, the company's shrewd founder, confirms that the club will likely be ruled as "nonconforming" - although it has yet to be tested by the USGA - and that it is being marketed for "recreational play."

Palmer was not only present at the Callaway coming out party, he stole the spotlight - and shook the golf world - with his endorsement of the ERC II. Imagine, the USGA's most important - and most faithful - supporter giving his blessing to a potentially illegal club! Even the commentators on The Golf Channel, the cable TV outlet of which Palmer is the co-founder and current chairman, found it hard to hide their dismay when the story broke.

Since Arnie had sold his Arnold Palmer Golf Co. to Callaway four months earlier, some felt his sudden turnabout gave off a bad odor. It was suggested in many places that the sellout to Callaway included not only Arnie's troubled company, but also his integrity.

Palmer was totally surprised by the reaction and it seemed to offend him. He answered back quickly that while his contract with Callaway did include the use of his name and image to promote Callaway products, it pertained only to golf balls - not clubs. The endorsement of the ERC II, he stressed, was something he did "on my own."

Ely Callaway was quick to rally to Arnie's side. "He can't be bought," he told the media. "He has more money than Callaway Golf. He just had a change of mind at age71."

The USGA, while conceding that it was puzzled by their celebrated spokesman, indicated it hoped he would continue his valued work for the Association. And Palmer promptly responded by pointing out that he's always been a "very pro-USGA person. And I always will be."

Of course, one wouldn't expect the Association to crack down on an old friend who has given them such dedicated support over the years. The more creative speculators, however, see the sequence of events as a forerunner to a possible easing of the standards in USGA club testing. They point to the recent resignation of Frank Thomas, the USGA technical director for 26 years, who, among other things, set up the testing structure for the spring-like effect in drivers, as part of the overall scenario.

It is quite possible, some suggest, that inasmuch as the R&A has proclaimed to the world that it doesn't consider the spring-like effect a threat to the game, the USGA will back up slightly from its original tough stance. With the Palmer embrace breaking the ice, it could open the door to the Association, when it tests the ERC II, to hand down a conditional approval - something like "for recreational play only."

For consistency, it would also have to carry the proviso that the club could not be used in club events, championship competition, pro tour events or scores reported for handicap purposes. Yes, it could be a quick solution for one problem, but it would be the end of one-rule-book-fits-all. And that would mean chaos for the grand old game of golf.

Golf and the golfer stood up very well in the hours following Palmer's blockbuster. An early poll indicated that more than 80 percent of golfers would not purchase an illegal club. And the PGA of America, which encompasses the bulk of the club pros in the nation, flatly stated that its members would not sell them.

High markets, indeed. But, more than likely, there are bigger tests ahead.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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