Originally created 04/07/01

Needed: Golf ball standards

In separate press conferences Wednesday six-time Masters champ Jack Nicklaus and Augusta National Chairman Hootie Johnson touched on what is becoming a growing problem for the game they love: how technology, by "shortening" the world's greatest golf courses, could someday make them obsolete.

Johnson addressed the issue with his announcement that "extensive changes" are in the works for the Augusta National next year "to strengthen some of our par 4s ... from the standpoint of length."

The high-tech equipment, he added, is making a huge difference in the game, and the famed Bobby Jones-inspired golf course must keep current with the times. When golfers hit sand wedges to 425-yard par 4s, something has to be done, not only at the National but at all the great golf courses.

Nicklaus made the same point more emphatically, pointing out that the balls travel so much further that there'll soon be no room left to back up the tees, "and we'll be teeing off downtown somewhere."

Long balls virtually ruined St. Andrews' British Open last year. "That golf course," Nicklaus said, "withstood the test of time for hundreds of years and all of a sudden there wasn't a bunker in play..." Every hole's a par 3 whether it's supposed to be or not.

The primary issue is, what's going to rule the game - technology or skill? Obviously it should be skill, but even allowing for the much improved athletes who become pro golfers today, more and more it's technology.

Even so, Nicklaus does not favor tampering with high-tech golf clubs. Today's top players have been raised on such clubs and it would be unfair to make them play with more primitive equipment now.

But that's not true with the ball. Nicklaus says the ball he played with last year was by far the longest golf ball by USGA standards just two years ago - a real revolution. Yet today it doesn't even make the cut for distance.

That shows just how fast manufacturers are evolving the long balls. And it will get worse because the competition between manufacturers is just as fierce as it is between golfers. But isn't it a shame to let a silly thing like a super-charged golf ball drive into obsolescence the many wonderful golf courses in the U.S. and around the world?

Clearly, what's needed is a uniform standard for the ball, especially for the pro game - not unlike regulation baseballs the Major Leagues require.

The standardized ball should have enough length on it to make a Tiger Woods-type drive still a wonder to behold, but not so lively that good players won't need to develop a short game. To maintain its excitement, golf has to be challenging off the tee, on the fairway, in the rough or bunker and, of course, on the greens.

For that to happen the game's primary powers - the USGA on this side of the Atlantic and Great Britain's R&A on the other - must get together, agree on a regulation pro ball and enforce its usage at the world's great tournaments. Though the Augusta National is independent of the USGA, the Masters is played by USGA rules.

Standardizing the ball may provoke a lawsuit from manufacturers, but those golfing organizations have the financial resources to wage a long court battle if need be. The money couldn't be spent on a better cause. What's at stake is the integrity of the game.


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