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Is the Club War Simmering Down?

By John M. Ross,
Arnold Palmer Teeing One Up
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The USGA found Arnold Palmer's blessing of a non-conforming club hard to take. (Courtesy PGA of America)

If one listened closely, the strains of "Can't We Be Friends" could be detected as a musical background as the U.S Golf Association hosted a series of critical meetings over the past fortnight. The first was with its long-time partner in rules making, the Royal and Ancient Club of St. Andrews, and the other with an assortment of leaders in golf equipment manufacturing. No one danced, but observers agreed, harmony reigned.

Ever since the USGA cracked down on clubmakers who were using new technology to produce drivers that gave the golfer greater distance, it has been under siege. Initially, by the equipment people, after the Association banned a number of new models because the "spring-like effect" in the club faces failed the test for maximum allowable performance.

The Association's position, traditionally, is to protect and preserve the game as it was intended to be played. The new technology was a threat to that; new distances with clubs could make thousands of club courses, unable to expand, outmoded. But the steaming equipment block saw it only as restraint of trade, and some began to make sounds about taking the issue to court.

It was at this time that the USGA's president, F. M. "Buzz" Taylor, seething over Callaway Golf's attack on the Association's position, fired a shot across its bow. "Our mission is to preserve and protect the game's ancient and honorable traditions...and there's not one lawyer in the world who is going to get in our way of doing that."That got the clubmakers' attention, but what happened next put the golf world in a spin. Last September, without warning, the R&A announced that it had decided not to test the thin-faced drivers for the spring-like effect since it felt this did not pose a threat to the game.

It was a stunning blow to the USGA, which had worked harmoniously with the R&A over the years to preserve one set of rules for the game. Suddenly, there would be a rule on clubs for the U.S. and Mexico, governed by the USGA, and another for the rest of the world under the R&A rule. Golfers everywhere were thoroughly confused but the equipment people were delighted. A golden glow was on the horizon heralding more sales and bigger profits.

Callaway Golf, moving in quickly, began to aggressively market its ERC driver overseas and other brands followed suit. Some smaller manufacturers also heard opportunity knocking and they began to flood the market with other non-conforming drivers. To be sure, many of them found their way to the U.S., where the ever-curious American golfer was a logical prospect.

Almost as quickly the questions arose: who would pay $800 or more for an illegal club? And since it promised little more than ten yards a shot squarely struck, how much does one shell out to salve curiosity? Who would play with a non-conforming club even in a five-dollar Nassau? And what about scores for handicap purposes? They would be unacceptable, of course.

While this chaos was upsetting for many, apparently Callaway found the climate suitable for marketing the non-conforming ERC II driver in the U.S. And, sitting alongside Ely Callaway at the club's introduction, Arnold Palmer announced he would play the ERC-II if he was playing just for enjoyment. The reaction sent the needle on the golf seismograph to an all-time high, and much of Arnie's devoted "army" went over the hill.

Still attempting to recover from the wounds suffered from the desertion of the R&A, the USGA found Palmer's blessing of a non-conforming club even harder to take. For 25 years or more, Arnie had been a spokesman for the Association, urging golfers in periodic fund-raising mailings to "help keep the game the way it was intended to be played." And now, without prior warning, he was delivering this stinging blow to the Association's heart.

While polls and other surveys indicated that most golfers were standing faithful to the Rules of Golf, there were dire predictions by some that the book was showing signs of old age. Soon the game would have TWO sets of rules, one for competition, another for weekend enjoyment, the forecasters said. Well, didn't our ex-leader, Mr. Clinton, say there's nothing wrong with a few "mulligans" along the way?

A visitor has reported that there is a framed etching of the old motto, "Time Heals All Wounds," hanging in the Association's New Jersey headquarters, and that there is evidence that it has been dusted and polished recently. Indeed, there are signs everywhere that there is some fresh air blowing through the halls of Golf House these days. The strident tones and combativeness of "Buzz" Taylor are gone, and the current president, Tray Holland, speaks of clarifying the perception of the Association's role. Further, the hiring of an engineer and club designer from the ranks of the equipment block as its new technical director has substantially reduced the them-versus-us tension between the two groups.

The signs of reconciliation at the recent meetings support the general feeling that the worst is over. The Association went out of its way to illustrate its club-testing methods and explain how the various ratings are reached. An elaborate chart illustration of COR (Coefficient of Restitution) averages of various clubs was on display, and the golf equipment people were quite impressed. Many couldn't remember when the USGA had last pulled back the veil of secrecy from its inner workings and testings.

The Association also talked about plans to implement a new, computer-driven golf ball test, and indicated they would be in touch with the manufacturers on this "every step of the way." There are other encouraging sounds, too, like "co-existence" and "compromise" that brightened faces. As far as its differences with the R&A, the most common off-the-cuff comment indicated there would likely be some kind of agreement on driver regulations between the two groups by the end of the year.

With the West Coast swing winding down, the PGA Tour will head for its five-stop Florida circuit before arriving at the Masters (April 5-8). The first stop in Florida is the Genuity Championship (March 1-4) at Doral in Miami. If you're a sentimentalist, this might bring on a pause. What happened to the Doral Open, you wonder. That was yesterday!

This will be the first time since 1962 that the titled Doral tournament is not in the lineup of the PGA Tour. I was at the very first one, and I remember it well. They had told owner Alfred Kaskel that a resort in the Florida swamp area would never go. But here we are, almost four decades later, and it's become a booming six-course resort and spa and one of the best events on the tour.

I can still hear the players' moans and groans when they looked at that beauty of a Dick Wilson course that first time. Some called it a monster and in due time it took on the name, "The Blue Monster." The real monster is the 18th, itself, with a long, skinny fairway that has the lake on the left and trees on the right. Most golfers head straight for the bar after that.

Oh, sure, it's still the tournament at Doral, but did they really have to change the name?

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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