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Long Story Short

The USGA is looking into golf balls that don't travel as far. While many in the sport say it's about time, some believe there's no need for a change.

By Thomas Bonk
LA Times Staff Writer

May 15, 2005

Last month at the Masters, Hootie Johnson, the Augusta National club chairman, slipped into his green jacket, sat behind a table and put on his best banker's face. Johnson got the ball rolling on a subject getting dangerously close to changing his demeanor, from coolly genteel to wholly agitated.

Johnson said he hoped somebody would do something about golf balls, mainly because they're simply going too far. And because Augusta National has already had its extreme makeover/Masters edition, there's not much room to push the tees back even more to add distance without buying up some land in, say, South Carolina.

Then on April 11, the day after the Masters ended, the U.S. Golf Assn. sent a letter to 35 golf ball manufacturers, asking them to design two prototype balls, one that flies 15 yards shorter and one 25 yards shorter when hit under current testing procedures. Basically, the USGA is talking about a 5% to 8% rollback in distance.

The USGA sets the rules of golf in the United States, and along with the Royal & Ancient, establishes the standards of the game for everyone.

It wasn't hard to connect Johnson's point of view to the action by the USGA. Fred Ridley, president of the USGA, is a member at Augusta National. Walter Driver, the next president of the USGA, is also a member at Augusta National.

Hootie speaks, the USGA jumps, at least that's the implication, although in this hot-button, big-stakes issue, it's much more complicated than that.

Johnson, who accepted questions by e-mail for an interview recently, said the Masters isn't the only tournament troubled about the technology of the ball.

"We are concerned, as are others, about the golf ball," he said. "I know the USGA and R&A are working hard on this issue. We are willing to wait only a finite time to see what can be done."

Johnson downplayed Augusta National's influence in the process.

"I imagine the USGA will look at many facts and opinions before making any decisions," he said.

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It looks innocent enough, round and white and covered with dimples, about 450 of them, give or take a few.

But now, the question is, how did something so small and simple as the golf ball roll the entire sport into a situation where the rules could be shaken to their foundation, where billions of dollars are at stake, where the future of PGA Tour pros everywhere could be in play, not to mention amateurs at every level and the very golf courses on which they play?

As balls continue to go farther, courses continue to get longer. Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, site of last year's PGA Championship, was 7,514 yards long. That's nearly 1,000 yards longer than the site of the 1971 U.S. Open, Merion Country Club in Pennsylvania. That course, considered a classic by many, is now far too short for a tour event.

Everyday courses are stretching out too. The Fighting Joe Golf Course on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a collection of courses throughout Alabama, is a full 8,072 yards from the back tees.

The golf equipment industry is a $3.2-billion business on the worldwide market, and the golf ball's share of that is $1.1 billion. The newer balls, which started appearing in 2000, feature a thinner, softer cover and lively cores, the combination delivering a ball that the pros can spin better and steer straighter and higher toward targets. Aerodynamically, they're much improved and stay in the air longer.

Three years ago this month, the USGA and R&A came up with a Joint Statement of Principles that addressed the issue of golf ball distance and said there was no need to rein in the ball. However, that prospect is now real, based on a new stance by the USGA and revealed in the letter sent to the manufacturers last month by Dick Rugge, senior technical director of the USGA.

The USGA and R&A asked manufacturers to make prototype golf balls that didn't travel as far and submit them to the USGA for testing.

Rugge said the R&A sent out the same letter, which was intended to be private, and had drawn very little media interest anywhere except the U.S. So far, Rugge said he has heard from eight manufacturers who said they would take up the invitation and from no one who said they would refuse.

"I'm optimistic everyone will participate," he said.

Titleist, Callaway Golf and Nike Golf, three of the most high-profile ball manufacturers, either have reservations about the USGA request or aren't saying anything.

"There are a lot of noises affecting them to make decisions there's no need to make," said Wally Uihlein, chairman and chief executive of Acushnet Co., which makes Titleist balls, the industry leader with 40% of the worldwide market.

"They're talking about a distance rollback without any evidence the game is on the edge of ruination. We've already jumped to the conclusion that something has to be done before we know anything is wrong."

Callaway Golf's senior vice president of global public relations, Larry Dorman, said there have been conversations with the USGA about the specifics of their study but also said the company is "not prepared to speculate" where the discussions might lead. Chris Mike, director of marketing at Nike Golf, said the company had no official comment about the USGA request.

But the numbers give a clear indication why some felt action should be taken. Driving statistics kept by the PGA Tour show that players are hitting the ball farther than ever before. Last year, 15 players averaged more than 300 yards off the tee. In 2000, there was just one, John Daly.

However, there are indications that the golf ball technology — and probably the same advancements associated with large-headed, thin-faced drivers — have actually peaked. Only four players are averaging more than 300 yards in driving distance this year — Scott Hend, Brett Wetterich, Tiger Woods and Hank Kuehne, though it is conceivable with warmer, drier weather and firmer fairways as summer approaches, that number will grow.

Although the long-hitting PGA Tour pro is the reason the USGA is studying rolling back the golf ball, there seems to be no clear consensus on the impact of such a move among this select group. For instance, while Woods has come out in favor of doing something about the ball, following the lead of Jack Nicklaus, a plugger like Kirk Triplett (176th in driving distance last year) doesn't think any limits in distance would make much difference to him.

However, Woods is concerned that if the USGA takes no action, then Augusta National could come up with its own standard ball to be used during the Masters. He said players have levels of expectation in such areas as trajectory, spin and launch. "I don't think that a standard ball for everyone would be the right way to go," he said. "It's too personal."

The USGA has already limited the spring-like effects of drivers but has never asked manufacturers to produce balls for testing that travel shorter distances.

If the USGA ultimately reels in the golf balls, the rules would affect amateur golfers along with the pros, even though the impetus behind the entire process was the distance the pros were hitting the ball and despite the fact that the pros represent only a small, elite fraction of those who play golf.

To some amateurs, a rollback doesn't sound like such a great idea.

Said Dennis Hakeman, 64, a four-handicap player from Placentia who plays four or five times a week: "That really hurts a guy like me…. Most of us need everything we get."

Doug Burro, 49, an 11-handicap player and a member at Western Hills Country Club in Chino Hills, wasn't thrilled about the prospect of legislating a new ball for all levels of players that would travel substantially less than the current ball.

"It's going to hurt the high handicapper more," he said. "Eventually the handicaps will equal out, because players will be scoring higher and their handicaps will adjust, but it'll make the game less fun for the amateur because everyone wants to hit the ball a long way."

The USGA does not intend to make two sets of rules, one for amateurs and one for the pros.

"We believe it's good golf is played under one set of rules," Ridley said. "That's our position."

Rugge has said that it's the duty of the USGA to maintain the challenge of the game "because if it gets too easy, people stop playing." The USGA also points to a general trend in lower handicaps as an indication that technology has made the game easier for amateurs.

However, both assertions appear flawed. According to a report from the National Golf Foundation on male golfers over 40, one of the most frequently repeated reasons for quitting golf was its difficulty.

Dean Knuth, a former senior director of the USGA handicap department and developer of the USGA's course rating and slope rating system, said that according to his research, handicaps have not gone down.

Ridley, who was at St. Andrews two weeks ago for an administrative meeting of the International Golf Federation and the World Scientific Conference of Golf, said the ball topic came up as expected. He said that nothing is imminent on establishing rules to limit the distance of golf balls.

"We haven't gotten to that point," said Ridley, former chairman of the USGA's equipment standards committee. "It's really part of a research project. We thought it made sense to bring in manufacturers to bring in prototype balls. We're not in a rule-making mode right now."

Uihlein contends that the USGA seems to have already made up its mind on the rollback because of the 15-yard and 25-yard prerequisites.

"They've really asked, 'Give us product examples to get to the end numbers we've already landed on.'

"Clearly, everybody has a self-interest here. Somebody saying they've got some altruistic concern for the game, that's just hard to buy."

The USGA represents all golfers and a wide variety of institutions, Ridley said.

"The important thing to say is at the USGA, we're trying to listen to all the shareholders in the game … players, course designers, manufacturers. We listen to everybody. I can't really say one more than the other. We certainly listen to what Augusta National says, among others."

And the USGA also has turned its ear to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, whose interests are part of any discussion. Finchem's primary mandate is to keep his players happy, but he also wants an exciting product in which knocking the ball a long way is part of the equation. At the same time, he has a vested interest in portraying the PGA Tour pros as well-tuned athletes in top shape, a position that would serve as a reason why the ball goes farther than ever before.

Finchem, in an address at the Tour Championship last fall, also said it's a challenge for the PGA Tour to keep up with all the changes in technology and their effect on courses they don't control.

"We recognize that [at] a number of those golf courses, probably putting Augusta National at the top of the list and right on down, there is simply no more room," he said.

Meanwhile, golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. said there's something missing in all this talk.

"The object of the game is to beat the field, not to beat par," he said. "This is all about the tyranny of red [under-par] numbers. The clubs worry about it, not the players. The longer you make the courses, the more it favors the long hitters. You rein in the ball, it favors long hitters. You don't get a horse race.

"It's the tyranny of TV and TV's red numbers are changing this. We change the game just for them?

"I can't imagine people buying a shorter ball."

Even Rugge, the USGA's tester, knows there are shortcomings to shortcomings.

"If John Daly plays it out there 280 yards, it wouldn't be very interesting."

But besides the entertainment value, there is also business to consider. Titleist, the top manufacturer of golf balls, figures to maintain its position even if a new, shorter ball is mandated. The reasoning is that 40% of the market is still 40% of the market, no matter what kind of ball is out there on the shelves.

Uihlein prefers to talk about the need for a link between the "hot" ball and the "hot" driver in any discussion of why the ball travels farther, and the USGA agrees, but others say such a position has nothing to do with 200-yard seven-irons.

At the USGA testing facility in Far Hills, N.J., Rugge goes about his business, testing balls, recording findings, hoping for the best. He says if all goes well, he's guessing the tests on the prototype shorter-traveling balls will be completed in six months.

"We are listening to people who say it needs to be changed. We are also listening to people who say it doesn't need to be changed," he said. "Our position is we don't have to change it. And we see nothing on the horizon to change that. The driving statistics on the PGA Tour are down.

"All we're saying is that if it ever becomes important to make a change, we want to do it with knowledge."

With all the listening they're doing, including to people in green jackets, someone is going to have a headache. Oh, wait. They have one already, a big one.

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