Originally created 06/04/98

Showdown looms between USGA, equipment makers



The battle lines are being drawn.

At stake are long-shafted putters, drivers with long shafts, high-flying golf balls and titanium drivers that are so popular world-wide and with Augusta golfers.

In a poll of four Augusta golf equipment stores -- Pro Golf, Bonaventure Golf, Golf Augusta and Nevada Bob's -- all said at least 65 percent of their current sales of drivers have titanium heads.

However, the United States Golf Association might zap the Greatest Big Bertha's, a Callaway Golf product that is the most popular of the titanium drivers among Augustans.

But it won't happen without a fight, the biggest fight ever in golf.

The USGA, golf's governing body, could be on the verge of ruling that clubs such as titanium drivers no longer conform to the rules of golf. The USGA is taking its hardest look yet at the impact technology has had in changing the game at its highest levels, and is considering yanking current popular clubs -- clubs it previously has approved -- out of play.

The USGA's 15-member executive committee will discuss equipment just before the June 18-21 U.S. Open in San Francisco. Sentiment to clamp down on technology is said to never have been stronger with in the USGA. Top officials fear the latest equipment is allowing the top pros to overpower the game's greatest courses, changing the way golf is supposed to be played.

Just how serious is the USGA? When contacted last week, USGA Executive Director David Fay said, "In view of the danger of litigation, I have been advised by counsel not to comment."

"I doubt very seriously they'll outlaw the titanium head," said Jim Brisson, a salesperson at Pro Golf. "The titanium doesn't really add the length, it's the shaft that does."

The shaft lengths on most of the titanium drivers are between 44 and 45 inches. The USGA is considering outlawing shafts of 48 inches and longer.

Brisson said the "Beta" titanium-headed drivers by the Lynx and Nicklaus golf equipment company are the only ones where the golf ball comes off the face faster than steel.

The USGA, which previously approved the titanium clubs, is using more extensive tests to determine whether those clubs have a "trampoline effect," in which the ball springs off the clubface. If they do, the USGA could take action.

When asked if the USGA really would rule titanium clubs illegal, Taylor said, "If the performance enhancement of a club was beyond where we felt it should be, we have to deal with it."

"If they target titanium it will be interesting because Nicklaus has always been a traditionalist, but right now his clubs are probably the highest tech clubs on the market," Brisson said.

As for Nicklaus, he believes the problem is the golf ball goes too far. He recommends that the USGA goes to a uniform golf ball instead of outlawing other equipment.

"The easiest thing to do is give all the pros a uniform ball to play with," Brisson said. "I doubt they'd do that because the golf market is generated by what the pros play."

The equipment companies definitely will sue if the USGA makes drastic changes, which is why Nicklaus believes the USGA won't make such moves.

"They're not going to limit what is already legal," Nicklaus said. "They can't. They'll have lawsuit after lawsuit, arguing how can you say what's legal for 1998 isn't legal for 1999? They can't do that."

Others, though, aren't so sure.

"The USGA does what it wants," said Gar Jackson of ParValu, a trade publication that charts the golf industry. "Just like the IRS."

The equipment companies are preparing for war. The industry leader, Callaway Golf, already has fired a pre-emptive strike, taking out full-page ads last week in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Under the heading "The USGA, Big Bertha and You," Callaway warns of the USGA's possible threat. It is a call to arms, advising golfers who flocked to the latest technology to voice their opinions to the USGA.

"They are going to have a hard time convincing people to give up their Big Berthas," said company founder Ely Callaway in an interview.

Mike Armstrong, a salesperson at Nevada Bob's, said "they're still going to play with what they've got. Unless it's a club championship or a USGA event, they're going to use them."

"It would be hard to tell somebody who spent $350 on a Greatest Big Bertha driver that they have to put it on the closet if you're playing a friendly match," said David Usry, the PGA member head pro/director of golf. "I know I wouldn't."

The new technology was sparked a boom in the game because it has made what is a difficult game a little less challenging.

"Why would anyone try to make the game harder? Less pleasant? Less rewarding?" said the 78-year-old Callaway. "The game is at its peak because (the new technology) has make it a little more pleasant. Anyone who wants to reverse that trend is going to harm the game.

"This whole thing is absurd," Callaway said. "The game of golf is for the masses. The rules shouldn't come from the minds of just a few people. The game is not obsolete for 35 million golfers."

"The new drivers have made it easier for the average player," said Lee Hammett, a salesperson at Bonaventure Golf. "If they want to change it, they should change it for the PGA Tour, but not the average golfer. People are enjoying golf more than ever. So many people tell us they never could hit a driver before. If they want to change it for the PGA Tour and USGA events, fine, but don't do it for the public."

If titanium heads are outlawed, "that would hurt everybody in our business," Hammett said. "People would have to replace them."

"It would change the market," Usry said. "Titanium is the hottest thing out there right now. It would be interesting to see what the manufacturers would come out with. It seems like they have something new every two years."

Leading the charge for the crackdown is the USGA is its new president, F. Morgan "Buzz" Taylor.

"Last year, we had the first person (John Daly) ever to average more than 300 yards a drive," said Taylor in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "What's it going to be 20 years from now? Are we going to have a completely different game? We have to look at the equipment to see what we can do to ensure that the game's ancient and honorable traditions are upheld."

Taylor believes those traditions are being blown away by the new equipment. He reacted in abject horror when he heard that changes were being made to venerable St. Andrews in Scotland because the pros were threatening to make some holes obsolete.

Taylor's fear is that the new technology, combined with betterconditioned athletes, will turn golf into a driver-wedge game -- if it isn't already. Since 1993, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased 9 yards to 269 yards. It is a significant jump, with no end in sight.

"It's either make the courses longer or cut back on the ball by 10 to 20 percent," said Nicklaus, who has been vocal in putting the brakes on technology, particularly limiting the golf ball. "Otherwise, courses will become obsolete."

The long-putter, used by twotime Masters champion Bernhard Langer, allows for a smoother, firmer pendulum motion; some think the club goes against the basic tenets of golf.

The golf companies regularly submit all their equipment to the USGA, which conducts tests to see if it conforms to the association's specifications.

One apparent compromise would be for the USGA to make a separate set of rules, limiting technology for the pros. The USGA's move seems to be in reaction to the one-tenth of 1 percent who play at the top level.

Taylor and Callaway do not endorse separate rules. However, that seems to be all they agree on these days. If the USGA makes a move to limit technology, one thing is certain: Many lawyers will get rich.

"What we do might not be popular," Taylor said. "But we don't have a choice. We're charged with preserving the integrity of the game. It would be an abdication of our responsibilities if we didn't take this on. People who really understand the game know something needs to be done."