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High On Technology

High On Technology
February, 2002

By Dean Knuth

Preserving the great challenge of the game of golf has been the watch-word of the USGA and the Royal and Ancient (R&A)--the two governing bodies of golf, for more than a century. How to meet that goal at the top professional levels, while maintaining a uniform set of rules for every golfer has been in dispute at the recreational golfer level. The USGA has taken the further heavy-handed step of taking away its Handicap System from amateur golfers that have tried to achieve extra distance by buying the latest high bounce drivers--most notably, the Callaway ERC II. With the enormous popularity of the ERC II, the USGA seems to be losing the battle of golfer public opinion.

The Rules of Golf are critical to the game and the USGA and the R&A are the right organizations to write, interpret and maintain them. But the USGA's insistence that there be one set of rules for everyone, in conjunction with their attitude that the top professionals hit the ball too far, is stifling technological advances that are needed to make this very difficult game more appealing for the masses.

The case in point is the USGA's position on what they call the spring-like effect. Their bounce test is based on the swing speed of professional golfers and is unfortunately being applied against the other 99.9% plus of us that find the game to be exceedingly difficult I checked with several European Golf Associations and the answer in every case is: "no problem with the effect on the game, or on their handicaps".

National Golf Foundation statistics show that participation in the game of golf is relatively flat. NGF President & CEO Joseph Beditz says that on average over the past decade, two to three million new people try golf every year. " However, retention efforts have not been as successful as desired. As a result, the number of dropouts remains unacceptably high." Complaints from those exiting the game are focused around the time that it takes to play, slow play on the course, access issues, cost, and, a common complaint--the difficulty of becoming even good enough to be called a hacker. As anyone who has ever learned the game knows, golf is a hard game to break scores of 100 and half the golfers never do so. Hardly anyone ever masters it. And yet, over the years, I frequently have heard the concerns from big name players who have complained to the USGA that the ball goes to far and something has to be done about it. Jack Nicklaus frequently has complained to the USGA that the golf ball is going to far, which is ruining the game. There is a major disconnect between the golf at the professional level and recreational golf--which represents the 27 million or so amateurs that play the game for fun.

I used to attend seminars where I heard the USGA's Technical Director, Frank Thomas, defend the USGA's core concept of "preserving the challenge" of the game. He frequently used the illustration that mountain climbing would be ruined if a ladder was put up the side of Mt. Everest. In effect, technology could ruin our great game. I also wondered how that could ever equate to my game, or to the golfers that I played with. I also thought his example was seriously flawed because all the Everest climbers now use ladders to cross ice crevasses and ice flows. The climbers now us the newest technology in back packs, stoves, oxygen bottles, boots and fabrics.

So, it was with much interest that I attended an equipment lecture conducted at the USGA Annual meeting by Frank's replacement, Dick Rugge. As a former head of R&D for Taylor Made, surely here was a man with a new view that technology wasn't so bad for golf after all. I was wrong to assume that. Dick told the audience right up front that the USGA's charter was to --no surprise--" preserve the challenge" of the game. He used new illustrations, though. He said that that technology in bowling balls and lanes had dramatically increased the number of perfect games and bowling had experienced a dramatic loss in participation. Tennis had suffered a similar fate since the introduction of oversized rackets, which had made tennis a power game, instead of a finesse game. I was puzzled by these analogies (more on that later), but I was waiting for his explanation of the problem with the spring-like effect. This he explained as a problem because the USGA needed to protect the great old courses such as Merion Golf Club (Read this to mean that Merion GC is too short to host a U.S. Open).

Now, I admit to being a fan and user of high technology. I love the advent of cell phones, fast computers, the Internet, Wireless LAN technology and Palm Pilots. I also have watched the statistics showing about 500 new courses being built a year and I also know that in 20 years of tracking--the average USGA Handicap has been unchanged (17 home course handicap for men and 31 for women). So, I confess to being unmoved by the complaints from the pros or the USGA's concern that technology is threatening the game. For the people that I play golf with, the game of golf remains very hard and it is not threatened by technology. In fact, technology is welcomed and expected.

It interested me greatly when the R&A ruled in favor of allowing the spring-like effect. The R&A decision stated:

" It has been determined that modern driving clubs have greater clubhead flexibility or higher COR values than wooden and first generation metal drivers. However, based on the data currently available to the R&A, any consequential increase in driving distance that may be achieved and which is solely attributable to these factors, is not considered to be detrimental to the game. The R&A is also satisfied that any further increases in clubhead flexibility and COR values, which may be evident in the next generation of driving clubs will not, by themselves, significantly increase driving distance. It is also felt that the equipment being used is only one of the factors which enables modern golfers to hit the ball further than their predecessors."

In response to that, I repeatedly heard at the USGA's Annual meeting that the USGA is doing everything that it can to reach a resolution with the R&A on their opinion. I read a letter from the Rules chairmen stating: "…I hope that the R&A will come to its senses." In the meantime, I agree with the R&A's take on this issue. Over the last century, there have been lots of innovations in golf and they seem to have been good for the game: Greatly improved golf balls, better golf course maintenance equipment, steel shafts to replace wooden shafts (quickly adopted by Bobby Jones, and the Western Golf Association, before being approved by the USGA), graphite shafts--thanks to Frank Thomas when he was at Shakespeare, metal woods followed by titanium heads, perimeter weighted irons, and the like.

I then decided to look into the USGA's claims about bowling and tennis since the implication is that these are sports that have been ruined by technology. After all, Rugge's conclusion was severe: I think it's our (USGA) responsibility not to allow unchecked technology experiments, like they had in bowling and tennis, to come into golf…when other sports have shown that an easier game results from equipment advances is not the road to more participants. " However, what I found in my research was that technology has helped both of these sports. Bowling has the second highest participation of any sport (fishing is first) with at least 53 million Americans participating. I contacted both the American Bowling Congress and Bowling Inc., which track participation closely. They agreed that bowling participation has been flat over the past decade, but that technology has helped, not hurt the game. Better bowling balls have made the game more fun. The only correlation between ball technology and the participation numbers is at the youth level. Glow in the dark balls (Cosmic) bowling is attracting kids and the number of bowlers aged 6 to 11 has increased 68% since 1987 and those aged 12 to 17 has risen 28%. The largest drop in bowling has been in league play, because with America's changing lifestyles, fewer people will commit to 33-week league play. More women are working than ever before, causing the daytime women's leagues to drop dramatically from twenty years ago. Access is a problem too, as thousands of bowling centers have closed in the last 25 years and people aren't eager to drive long distances to a large center.

Roger Dalkin, the Executive Director of the American Bowling Congress (and a Georgia Tech Mechanical Engineering graduate) stated:

"The overall trend of participation in bowling has been increasing, according to the National Sporting Goods Association survey. However the participation in organized league play is decreasing. I believe the primary reason is related to the traditional league schedule that is 30-35 weeks in length, which no longer meets the needs of today's consumer. The changes in technology in the last few decades have helped the average player improve their game, while continuing the effort to minimize technology as a major factor in the sport. I am not aware of any research that would support the decline in organized play being related to advancements in technology."

Bill Wasserberger, Director of R&D for Brunswick Bowling added:

"Bowling ball technology makes bowling a fairer sport. The wide range of ball reactions that modern ball technology offers allows a greater percentage of bowlers to match-up to a given lane condition and have a chance to compete. Just as having a full set of 14 clubs allows golfers of different physical ability to hit a 150-yard shot by making a comfortable full swing with the appropriate club."

" Almost all of the increase in 300 games from 1969 to 1999 have been made with male bowlers, yet female sanctioning is down by 63%. The decrease in participation is mostly social/economic related. How could you conclude that 2.6 million ladies quit bowling because the guys are throwing more strikes?"

The tennis statistics were even more revealing. Tennis Industry Association president, Kurt Kamperman stated:

"Connecting racket technology to any decline in tennis participation is totally bogus. The oversized tennis rackets have contributed greatly in getting new players into the game."

His organization's report: "Tennis Participation Today" tracks that issue closely. The number one reason for people leaving tennis (50%) is lack of time to devote to it, closely followed by the difficulty in finding a playing partner (The same reasons for leaving most sports). No one in their surveys quit the game because of racket technology. Tennis participation peaked in the seventies when there were only three major TV channels and tennis was on TV frequently. It is on the way back up in the past five years. Currently it is at 21 million players--a bit behind golf, depending on the counting criteria. The invention of the wide body rackets did not become popular until the late 80's, well after the game's peak and drop. The TIA says that better technology in tennis equipment has brought many new people into the game because it has made the game more playable for the masses. The tennis industry's competition is the explosion of individual sports that emerged in the early 80's that attracted the "move and breath" sports enthusiasts. Defectors went over to roller-blading, bicycling, camping, hiking, wind surfing and rock climbing. Such sports took many people out of tennis.

Jim Baugh, President of Wilson Sporting Goods and formerly the long-time head of Wilson's tennis equipment division responded very clearly:

"It's a joke to think that technology hurt the game of tennis. The decline in tennis started before any of the technologies really hit the market...the oversize racquet, the wide body racquet, the new lighter weight, high power tennis rackets...have kept people IN the game. Can you imagine how many players we would have today if they were still playing with wood rackets? You would be left with a bunch of high ranking players in an elite sport (sounds a little bit like golf). The fact is the new technology products that have come out in tennis have put smiles on faces. We've kept people in the game and enjoying the game at a higher level. I think both tennis and golf need to look at having different sets of rules for different levels of players. We tend to look too much at the tournament or professional level and make all our decisions based on this".

Mr. Baugh also has strong feelings on how two sets of Rules have improved other sports:

"I think we can learn something by other sports in that they are flexible with rules to accommodate the player of those sports. For instance, baseball has different bat rules for college and pro. The Little League field is smaller than the major league field. In basketball, the three- point line in professional basketball is different than in college. In football, we have different rules for sideline play and many other areas. We could go on and on. But these sports have designed rules that have taken into consideration players of different abilities."

Soccer; the world's number one team participation sport has attracted away young people from tennis. Rules have been changed to accommodate them. Soccer has adopted five minute quarters for kids to compensate for their youth. Baseball has endorsed metal bats with higher COR's to promote the game from college on down to Tee-ball to help grow the game. On the issue of dual Rules, Mr. Kamperman added:

"If a sport REALLY wants to increase participation does it make sense to have only one set of rules that are designed for the top one % of players and ignore the other 99%? If growing participation is the real priority rather than "maintaining control", shouldn't governing bodies focus on what allows the most people to have the most fun playing the sport?"

The USGA's president, Trey Holland, has published a focused response to the debate:
"Historically, one of the biggest equipment concerns is how far the ball is being hit," he said. "While we certainly feel that technology should be allowed to evolve, we also need to control what we can to maintain the integrity of the game." "One set of rules allows us to compare ourselves against the best players in the world. Golf remains about the only major sport where a player can play on the same field with the same equipment as the best in the world. Would most golfers really want to play with equipment that isn't allowed and used by the world's best players? Would they really want to play a different game? Finally, think of the anarchy that two sets of rules would create. If equipment rules were not the same for all players, then should other rules be different as well? How would two sets of rules be implemented? Would elite junior players utilize them, or would they come into play at the college level? Or would the pro tours be the only place these standards would be put into practice? What would happen at a club's member-guest tournament, to say nothing of all the amateur tournaments conducted by the state and regional associations? " In a final footnote on Frank Thomas--Since he left the USGA staff, he wrote the following in March: " My contention, however, is that most of our great old courses -- the likes of St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, Oakmont -- are probably not in danger of being made obsolete. If all the distance restrictions were removed from clubs and balls, the increase in average driving distance on the PGA Tour would only go up about 15 yards -- certainly not enough to panic about."

My conclusion is that two sets of rules would be best for the game -- IF, the USGA refuses to embrace technology. With the USGA's tee-length phobia for professionals, under one set of rules, there won't be a healthy growth in the golf industry. Their decisions to limit technology are aimed at the top one-tenth of one percent players and the spring-like effect decision is damaging to the amateur golfers who need better technology and should be able to post their scores for handicapping. Although Merion GC is a great golf course, why are technology decisions being made against the masses who continue to find the game confoundingly difficult, when most of us don't play Merion, nor does spring-like effect threaten the challenge of the game for anyone that I know, or play golf with?

All of this makes me believe that Arnold Palmer had it exactly right in his assessment:

"The reality is that the percentage of people playing competitive golf is minuscule. Of the 25+ million golfers in the United States, more than 24 million of us just want to have fun and see how far we can hit a ball off the tee. So, when our governing bodies have the power to limit how far we hit the ball, we've got to take a serious look at the issue. I'm not convinced that regulating equipment for distance control is important to the future of recreational golf. The fundamental problem with recreational golfers is that they don't have the time or the resources to become a good player. They don't practice and they don't improve, so if buying a club helps you enjoy the game, then buy it."

The R&A has it right to not regulate spring-like effect.

The USGA needs to re-consider its position on technology. The game has done just fine with larger technological changes over the past one hundred years than presented now with the spring-like effect on one club out of 14 in the golf bag. There is no threat posed to the game of golf. In fact, I love to try new equipment and frankly, I think that recreational golfers expect Callaway Golf, Ping, and Spalding to come out with new equipment that might help our puny games. Maybe the USGA should consider just limiting its equipment ruling on drivers at Merion Golf Club and quit acting like the manufacturers are their enemy. I have yet to see an innovation in any sport that has been bad for that game and the USGA's latest arguments just don't stand up to close scrutiny.

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